The Future is Now: Predictions Are a Problem

We kick off our 2035 series on technology predictions with a look at the perils of forecasting the future.

Prognostication is a notoriously tricky business, especially in the fast-moving realm of technology. Even within relatively short periods of time --20 years, say -- change can be radical and, well, unpredictable.

Check out technology predictions from the early 1990s, when the World Wide Web was new and the most tricked-out personal computer boasted 16 MB of RAM, a double-speed CD-ROM drive and a 15-inch CRT monitor.

Back then, prognosticators wowed us with everything from the advent of an entire encyclopedia on one DVD-ROM (underwhelming) to quantum interstellar travel (seriously off-target).

Who can blame them? The future is a slippery place. But there are some seriously science-fiction things going on right under your nose and some legitimate methods that can be used to get at least a sense of likely future trajectories.

We have laser weapons and flying robots and 3-D printers that look suspiciously like "Star Trek" replicators. Busy with our day-to-day routines, we don't notice how futuristic the world already has already become.

"I call those 21st century moments," says futurist Brad Templeton, computer industry veteran and chair of Computing & Networks at Singularity University. "Those things that are part of your life, you don't really think about them, then it hits you -- back in the 20th century, people would have thought this was so freaking amazing."

Templeton has been in the computer industry for several decades -- he's a former director with the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) and founder of the world's first dot-com company -- and he's very familiar with the risks of making predictions. For him, historical accounts of past forecasts can be cringe-worthy.

"They're frightening to anyone who makes predictions," he says. "I have a line that I use: 'All of the predictions that I made that I remember came true.' I've conveniently forgotten the ones that I made that were stupid."

Prophecy is a tough racket, but it might get a little easier with something called "mind uploading."

Neuroscientist Randal Koene, science director with the 2045 Initiative, works in the field of Whole Brain Emulation (WBE), also known as mind-uploading. WBE involves copying the entirety of the brain and its functions onto a computational device. It's a relatively new and fast-moving field of research, but even so, certain kinds of forecasting are possible. "I have some fairly good guesses when it comes to work in my area," Koene says.

For instance, Koene says that by looking at lab results in the past five years or so and assessing the tools in use now, researchers can get a fairly accurate picture of where they'll be in another five years. If you take those assumptions, in turn, and project out computing power in five years, you can even make some good guesses out to about ten years. But after that, things get complicated.

"There's a span of time where I can look at the technology, and look at what the labs are interested in doing, and make some serious predictions," Koene said. "But beyond that, it becomes less of a scientific and technological question and more of a political and economic one."

Koene says that in the field of Whole Brain Emulation, a radical scale-up of resources will eventually be required to make the jump from mapping mouse brains, say, to mapping human brains. In the best-case-scenario, it becomes a competition, like the Space Race.

"With the Apollo project, it was -- how do we get to the moon as fast as possible? Everyone pours in resources, and it happens pretty fast. But maybe in ten years, (WBE research) is not a top priority, depending on what the circumstances are in 2025. So it's very hard to make predictions that far out, because it's not a matter of technological milestones, it's a matter of political and economic will."

Of course, there's at least one group of people on the planet who have always been game for a little considered conjecture -- science fiction writers.

Author Mur Lafferty is a lifelong sci-fi reader and co-editor of Escape Pod, an audio magazine of new science-fiction stories and one of the most respected contemporary outlets for new writers. So what's on the mind of today's emerging sci-fi authors?

"Common threads in fiction include our loss of privacy and A.I. algorithms -- like the ones that tell us who to friend on Facebook and what books we'll like on Amazon -- and how they could control our lives," Lafferty says. "That's big right now. Also people are touching on the problem of climate change."

In the coming months, we'll be taking a look at predictions for the next 20 years in several areas of emerging technology -- robotics, alternative energy, biotechnology and artificial intelligence and more. Stay tuned, and please hold all comments until May, 2035.

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