Looking Back on the Future

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Jan 2015

I remember when I was young that my parents would tell me of the hardships of their own childhoods spent at the beginning of the last century in a world with no electricity, lights, cars, airplanes, radio or television.  Of course, in the way children are, this made little impression on me at the time.

Many, many years later I helped choose the list of engineering's greatest accomplishments of the century put together by the National Academy of Engineering, and the memories of my parents' stories came back to me with a degree of perspective.  In choosing and ordering the list of achievements we argued about how much each achievement had improved quality of life.  I was proud of how dramatically we engineers had changed the way ordinary people live.

Of course, in the way parents are, I told my children of the hardships of my own childhood.  But I had the sense that maybe it wasn't all that different than what they themselves were experiencing.  And now, in thinking about the future of technology, I sometimes wonder if technology will continue to make the same degree of improvement in quality of life that we did in the last century.  Could it be that there are diminishing returns with technological solutions to the often-intractable problems with the human condition on earth?

Perhaps at the end of this current century the National Academy will put together another list of achievements.  I would love to know what would be on it, but it is unlikely that any practicing engineer of today will be alive then.  Nonetheless, we are now 14 years into this century and there already may be indications  or trends that can be extrapolated into predictions.

We might ask, what would they have known in 1914 about the list of achievements that would come to be made in the year 2000?  Quite a bit, actually.  I think of the achievements in three categories: those that had already happened or were well underway, those that might have been anticipated or at least would have been unsurprising, and finally, those that would come to be complete surprises and could not possibly have been predicted.
A handful of achievements would belong in the first category.  Number one on the list -- electrification, was already well underway in 1914.  Power stations were being built throughout the world and alternating current had become the preferred choice.  Number two -- the automobile -- was well into its evolution with the production of the Model T Ford in 1908.  And number three -- the airplane -- had flown at Kittyhawk in 1903.  Radio (6) had already been invented right before the turn of the century and had risen into prominence with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912.  Finally on this list, the evolution of the telephone network (9) would become a century-long task, but was also well underway as of 1914.

In the second category of unsurprising achievements I would place highways (11), agricultural mechanization (7), household appliances (15), air conditioning (10), and water supply (4).  But the third category is the most interesting -- who could have predicted integrated circuits and lasers, and who would have believed that before the century was out, a man would walk on the moon?

Applying this reasoning to the current century I can suggest some possibilities.  I think that wireless technology is already underway and will be a theme of the century.  In the unsurprising category I would put machine intelligence and 3D printing.  But by definition, I cannot imagine the technological surprises.  I even wonder if the inventions of transformative devices like the integrated circuit and laser are rarities that may not be seen in every century.
Perhaps these things will be on the future list of achievements, but I'll never know.