Saturday, 22 April 2006

The futility of high tech forecasting

In my other blog, I took the authors of a famous business book to task for making bad projections about future technological change. But it's not fair to single them out -- the same sort of problem happens to experts making projections inside technology companies. I've seen a lot of those projections over the years. The usual pattern is that technology predictions with a two year horizon are pretty good, because a technology has to be almost in prototype stage now in order to appear in high-volume products two years from now. Five year predictions are moderately useful, but subject to embarrassing errors. Ten-year predictions are almost useless, and twenty-year predictions are best used as plot outlines for science fiction novels.

This came home to me the other day when I stumbled across an old document from Palm that I had put aside years ago. It was the company's projection, created in 1997, of what future handhelds might look like in five, ten, and twenty years.

Keep in mind that the folks at Palm were, at the time, the world's leading creators of handheld technology. It's humbling to see how many things they missed. Here's what the experts forecast, with some comments from me:

Five years in the future (in other words, predicted for 2002):

-320x320 display. Okay, that came along with the Tungsten T at the end of 2002. And it was in other companies' handhelds before that.

-56 kbps wireless data. Didn't happen in a Palm-branded product until the Tungsten C in 2003.

-Built in cell phone. Early smartphones were appearing by that time, although they were pretty clunky. I'll give this one only a partial correct score because I think the people making the prediction were looking at what would be built into a typical handheld, and smartphones weren't typical by then.

-Multi megabyte secondary storage (hard drive or flash). OK.

-MicroCD player. No, a clear miss. Rotating removable media turned out to be much more delicate, expensive, and power hungry than we'd all like it to be.

-Voice synthesis. Didn't happen with the level of quality that was needed for it to become commonplace.

-High speed serial for desktop connectivity. I think USB 2.0 qualifies here, although the authors thought it would be FireWire. But I don't think any handhelds were shipping with either USB 2.0 or FireWire in 2002 (please correct me if I missed one).

Ten years in the future (in other words, 2007):

-Size and thickness of a sheet of cardboard. If only. Part of the problem is that it's hard to make something that thin also rigid enough to resist breakage.

-Foldable screen; can be used in folded or unfolded mode. Not going to happen next year, alas. Maybe in another five years, although personally I'm even a little skeptical about that.

-24-bit color. Okay.

-Voice recognition and synthesis. Not with the reliability that would let you use it as your primary interface to the device.

-10 mbit/second wireless data. They didn't specify whether they meant local wireless or cellular. We won't have cellular that speed in most places, but some companies have announced 802.11g modules for handhelds, so maybe...

-Built in cell phone. Okay.

-Built in TV/FM receiver. This is possible but there doesn't seem to be huge demand for it, at least not in the US.

-Built in video camera. Okay, but it'll be a pretty low-res one.

-Built in GPS. Okay. But let me point out that no one I'm aware of is doing GPS + TV + FM + video camera + cellphone + 802.11g in a single device, which is what was predicted.

-Body heat powered. Uhhh, no.

Twenty years in the future (ie, 2017).

This prediction still has a long time to run, so maybe we can revisit it if I'm still alive and blogging in 11 years. In the meantime, here's how the prediction looks now:

-Device is surgically implanted into brain. I doubt it, more for cultural reasons than technical ones. Even if we can find a way to do this, I think the current generation will be uncomfortable with implanting anything into their brains. I think people will have to grow up with that idea in order to be comfortable with it. Kind of like nose rings.

-Displays images to optic nerve. There have been some interesting experiments in stimulating the optic nerve to produce synthetic sight for people with retinal damage. The research is still very early, though. I don't doubt that this will happen someday, but I think that in 11 years it won't be something that you'd use with anyone other than a medical patient.

-Talks into auditory nerve. Similar to the vision situation.

-Input through voice, muscle input, or thought. I am completely confident that we won't have handhelds that can read thoughts eleven years from now. Reading gestures is more interesting; there has been a lot of research on reading eye movements and such. The challenge seems to be more on the software side than in hardware – how would a gesture-driven interface work, and how would you train people to use it?

-Powered by blood movement. I guess it would have to be if you're going to put it in someone's brain. You wouldn't want to have to plug your head into the wall to recharge every night.

Twenty years seems to be the magic horizon at which we think anything is possible. Maybe that says something about how we all think. Or maybe it's just a sign of the pending Singularity.

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