Predictions that Work

If you're ever up for a laugh, dig up futurist predictions for the 1930s or 50s, and see what they thought the future would be like. Yet for every atomic rocket car, there are some predictions that were eerily spot on. What are the characteristic of these predictions, vis a vis the ones that don't pan out?

The best predictions of the 21st century were those relating to the computer revolution. Moore's Law, JCR Licklider's papers about the internet (or Intergalactic Computer Network as he referred to it,) and Douglas Englebart's theories about human-computer interfaces. Their ideas were first formulated in the early 1960s, but took until the mid 80s to reach a critical mass of popular use. 20 years out is pretty good for a prediction.

Now, compared to the atomic flying car, to pick one particularly egregious failed futurism, these technologies possessed clear benefits even at early stages of their development, fulfilled a unique need, and had capital costs low enough to be purchased by individuals. As the cost and complexity of a system rises, the number of stakeholder increases, and the odds of a single person derailing the entire endeavor rises. An incomplete nuclear power plant offers little to no benefit. An atomic flying car has to actually work before anyone will buy it. Meanwhile, computers are useful as bulk data processors, and phone lines for communication, long before they become truly interactive.

Of course, the biggest advantage that Licklider and Englebart had was that they made their future. First they envisioned it, then they built it. Scientists have historically been only slightly better at futurism than their lay peers, and no better at the social aspects, but they are the drivers of innovation.


  1. So what technology do you believe will be the next atomic flying car?

  2. depressingly : cybernetic immortality is the flying car

    more optimistically, I think makers are going to get better and better because there is real utility there : home fabrication recipes. the worse the economy does, the more this culture thrives. So, yeah, the microfab stuff might actually be happening.

    and genetics is a wildcard

  3. I have to agree with Everett. Brain uploading seems like a perfect example of one of those technologies that requires radical change, and offers little benefit in its early stages. I'm not quite sure that I share his enthusiasm for home fabrication. Consider the basic human needs: food, shelter/clothes, and consumer electronics. Until microfab can make those items more efficiently than conventional methods, the technology won't see widespread adoption.

    I think cognitive enhancement is a field that's only going up and up. There's a clear and documented increase in the use of amphetamines and anti-depressants, and with discoveries in neuroscience, we'll see better drugs. Expect the use of cognitive enhancers to be routine within 20 years.

    If I were to pick a wildcard field, expect a lot of new biological materials. Mushrooms are a next-gen building material. There's current an obsession with wall gardens, and it seems to me that there might be a way to combine these technologies to get semi-organic houses.

  4. But... making things, particularly 3D printing is just so damn /fun/. Right now, 3D printers cost about as much as (I imagine) laser writers in the 80s. Prices will come down, and companies can market to consumers by selling the 'bots cheaply then making money on the various polymer materials. If we can get to the resolution where we can print functional and durable lego-like pieces, that would be really cool, since you can just [[teleport]] these things between any two points connected on the network. Keegan and I already have a home board-fab set up for projects ( now if I only had more projects ). A board fab + 3D printer = turning any heap of consumer electronics garbage into a cool toy or robot or utility hack ( given enough micro-controllers ). I guess hardware hacking is a bit of a niche hobby for would be EEs, but printing out 3D objects is just... fun for the whole family. Saying that this won't catch on because its not as efficient as mass production is like saying, oh, I don't know, that Photoshop will never catch on because Andy Warhol is already mass printing all the art anyone could ever desire.

  5. hmm... I guess economic viability is another major constraint here.

  6. Imagine : commercial

    [bright colors and loud noises]
    Star-trek style replication / transporter scene of two future-kids, on different planets, one sends the other a copy of his favorite toy using the matter-duplicator
    [shiny lights]
    WOW !
    [shiny lights]
    But WAIT, you don't have to be a future-space-kid to duplicate toys through empty space !
    With the matter duplicator 9000 you can scan any object topologically equivalent to a sphere ( with a finite surface complexity ) and send _anywhere_ in the world ! You can also choose from thousands of pre-loaded information objects to MATERIALIZE right in your own home ! Or, print from our modular part collection and built HUNDREDS of toy models !

  7. There was a series of toys back in the 90s similar to this, at least the kids making things aspect.

    Metal Molder

    A Vacuum former car maker (melts the plastic. molds the car using vacuum suction)

    And of course one of my first mad science inspirations, Dr. Dreadful's and his creations.
    I'm not sure if any of these were just fads.

    Also, do kids still buy chemistry sets or is that market supported mostly by clandestine chemists and your smarter than average meth cook?

  8. A good comparison with microfab would be home video editing and the Youtube revolution. Video speaks to a human need to record the present, whether it be family memories, or political crimes. With webcams internet distribution, anyone can become a Youtube celebrity.

    Unless CAD/CAM software drops in price, and becomes much easier to use, RepRap will be confined to technical experts and their followers, which unfortunately is not a diverse enough culture to support a social revolution. The killer app, the relationship to primal human needs for expression and entertainment just aren't there.

  9. I must disagree. Again, I liken your argument to

    "Unless printing presses drop in price and become much easier to use, Printmaking will be confined to skilled craftsmen, who are unfortunately not numerous enough to spark cultural revolution. People have been living without mass print for millennia, the need for expression and entertainment just does not exist"

    I see no reason why a 3D printer has to be any more complicated than a LaserWriter. Laser-Writers used to be freaking expensive such that only businesses and academic institutions could afford them. Similarly, only a fraction of the businesspeople would be completely trained on the word processing software. However, as costs went down and innovations in the software interface accumulated, these devices entered the home and became simple enough that even children could play with them. I know for a fact that my younger cousins (13,11) know how to use 3D CAD software, so I really think this _is_ within reach.

  10. Yes, but when laser printers were coming out the type writer was commonplace. The public was producing text on a daily basis. Ultimately laser printing made a common process more efficient. I think for the 3D printer to catch on, the DIY making attitude needs to first become the norm.

  11. oh shoot... well, I can't really argue against that. I'd still like to be able to print Legos, and people play with legos, but then its still a toy, which might make it a fad, as you said before. Anyway, as soon as I have money and a place to live, I'm buying a 3D printer.

  12. Even if it never catches on, I might buy one as well. Hell, I'm half considering making it my senior thesis.

    But now that I'm half way through my ramblings,I think if the military were to use rapid prototyping fabrication, say have someone with a fabricator on his pack, they could call up an engineer somewhere on the other side of the world, have them design whatever they might need at a moments notice, and then "teleport" it to them as you put earlier.

    Or maybe, have one on unmanned deep space mission to replace parts...

    Applications aside, I just don't think it will be accepted by the public if they choose not to build things themselves.

  13. Much of the value in a homemade object is that you built it, your labor has gone into the artifact. Microfab moves the locus of production, and reduces or eliminates the labor involved in crafting that artifact, so it's not particularly good, and in fact antithetical to handicrafts.

    And to respond to a few other things, cheap laser printers haven't made the print industry obsolete. The quality of laserprinted book is lower, and cost more in raw materials than a mass produced book. The only advantage is for the pirate, and We Alone does not condone media piracy, (see Charles Stross's blog for more on the publishing industry. Less than 10% of the cost of a book is related to the physical object.

    Now, a self-contained universal industrial complex would be something else, but that seems further away than fusion. Call me when they can replicate a car.

  14. "Much of the value in a homemade object is that you built it, your labor has gone into the artifact. Microfab moves the locus of production, and reduces or eliminates the labor involved in crafting that artifact, so it's not particularly good, and in fact antithetical to handicrafts."

    ... so I guess all your propaganda posters should have been hand-drawn pen and ink ? I guess ... I interpret your statement to mean "3D printed objects are not art" which is probably fair. A.V. insisted that fractals could not be art, she might be correct.

    yeah... university industrial complex : science island ahoy !

  15. Oh, but 3D printing can also scan and replicate objects, and taylor them to an individual. So, for instance, if I wanted a form-fitting base for my fun cybord head-up display, I could scan my face and print out something that fit perfectly. anyway.. loads of uses to hackers, maybe