The Elusive Future

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Sept 2008

How does the future come about, and why are we engineers so bad at making predictions?  Through the years I’ve participated in countless panels discussing the future of technology, and I’m not sure that I ever got anything right.  As I look back on technological progress, I experience a kind of retrospective surprise.  I’m surprised that I’m surprised, because it all slipped up on me when I wasn’t looking.  It’s only when I reflect on it that I feel stunned by all that has happened.

I’m filled with wonder at all we engineers have accomplished, and I take great communal pride in how we’ve changed the world in so many ways.  Decades ago I never dreamed that we would have robots that would explore Mars, computers in our pockets, satellite navigation, the Internet, cell phones, and so forth.  How did all this happen, and what are we doing for our next trick?

The software pioneer Alan Kay has said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it, and that’s what we’ve been busy doing.  The public understands that we’re creating the future, but they think that we know what we’re doing, and that there’s a master plan in there somewhere.  However, the world evolves haphazardly, bubbling along in unforeseen directions.  Some seemingly great inventions just don’t take hold, while overlooked innovations proliferate, and still others are used in unpredicted ways.

When I first joined Bell Labs, so many years ago, there were two great development projects underway that were to shape the future – the Picturephone and the millimeter waveguide.  The waveguide was an empty pipe, about 5 cm in diameter that would carry across the country the 6 MHz analog signals from all those ubiquitous Picturephones.

Needless to say, this was an alternative future that never happened.  Our technological landscape is littered with such bets.  For decades engineers would say that the future of communications was video telephony.  Now that we can have it for free, not many people even want it.

The millimeter waveguide never happened either.  Optical fiber came along out of the blue, and that was that.  Oh, and analog never lasted, even though the advantages of digital transmission were well understood at the time of the Picturephone development.  Moreover, Gordon Moore had made his observation about integrated circuit progress in the midst of this period.  But, of course, we had a hard time believing it.

The irony is that Bell Labs had some of the finest engineers in the world then, and those engineers had been responsible for many of the innovations that upset the very future they and their associates had been working on at the time.  This is the way the future often evolves – looking back in retrospect you can always say, “We should have known” or “We knew, but we didn’t believe.”

Similar upsets occurred through the years.  Analog switching overstayed its tenure because engineers didn’t quite believe the irresistible economics of Moore’s Law.  Most all the engineers used the Internet in the early years and knew that it was growing at an exponential rate.  But, no, it would never grow up to be a big, reliable, commercial network. 

While we sometimes ignored exponential trends that were seemingly obvious all around us, we hyped glamorous fashions such as artificial intelligence and neural networks as the future of technology.

That great American philosopher, Yogi Berra, has a famous quote about predictions.  “It’s tough to make predictions,” he said, “especially about the future.”  Although this is invariably taken as a joke, maybe there’s a deeper insight there.  I believe that the future lies all about us in the present, but we just don’t see it until later.  We aren’t even very good about making “predictions” about the present, let alone the future.

Journalists are sometimes better than engineers about seeing the latent future immersed in the present.  I often read articles telling me that there is a trend where a lot of people are doing this or that.  I raise my eyebrows in mild surprise.  I didn’t realize a lot of people were doing this or that.  Perhaps something is afoot, and an amorphous social network is unconsciously shaping the economics of technology or the way in which it will be used.

Well, we’ve made a lot of misguided predictions in the past.  But we’ve learned from those mistakes.  Now we know.  The future lies in quantum computers.  And electronics will be a thing of the past, since we’ll be using optical processing.  All this is right around the corner now.

Robert Lucky