Failed predictions from history – and the reasons for them

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In 1964, the Rand Institute released an extraordinary report on the future, detailing the long-term forecasts of eighty-two experts. Universal vaccine against all diseases caused by viruses and bacteria

According to a forecast by the Rand Institute from the 1960s in the current decade we were supposed to meet with aliens. Illustration: shutterstock

In 1964, the Rand Institute released an extraordinary report on the future, detailing the long-term forecasts of eighty-two experts. The Rand Institute, it should be noted, is one of the most well-known and respected research institutes in the world, and continues to advise governments, companies and organizations. When the Rand Institute publishes a report on the future, everyone reads it and takes it very seriously.

The experts pointed out the date of implementation of certain technologies that seemed then – and some still are today – futuristic and even impossible. They were able to correctly predict some of the technological developments: birth control pills, for example, or the widespread and widespread use of personality-altering substances (what are now known as antidepressants). But they also had mistakes, and in abundance.

One can grin at the experts’ mistakes, and I will immediately detail some of their more bizarre predictions, but such ridicule misses the mark. They were real experts in their field, so it is worth asking what is the reason for their far-reaching mistakes.

I believe the reasons can be divided into several different types, and I will detail a number of predictions in each of them.

First type of mistakes: Relying on a social mindset

Rand’s experts believed that by 1980 humans would have landed on Mars. This has not happened yet – although a new race to Mars is starting today, but it is also based mainly on launching robots to the red planet. But – and this is important – the technologies to reach Mars probably already existed in 1980. Apparently the people we would have sent to Mars would have stayed there until the end of their days (a few days or weeks after landing), but they would at least land on the planet and thus fulfill their prediction Of Rand.

The main reason we have not yet sent humans to Mars is that it was not necessary. Huge space operations – such as landing on the moon – were carried out mainly because of the “space race”. This was the way the two superpowers of the period – the United States and the Soviet Union – demonstrated their power and competed with each other outside the Olympics. They have invested huge sums in the competition to land a man on the moon, all for the sake of reputation only, without being able to translate these grandiose operations into real profit. No wonder the space race eventually died out, especially when the United States’ supremacy was established in the field. Then there was no interest in anyone getting to Mars. The experts correctly predicted the progress of the technology, but they erred in understanding the strategic state and mindset that were supposed to lead to its use.

Other mistakes in this style included – other developments in space: the establishment of a manned base on the moon around 1980, and a manned landing on one of Jupiter’s moons by 2020 – the same year we were also supposed to send humans to Pluto, still considered a planet.

Direct public voting on political decisions: This development was supposed to materialize in 2000, and Internet technology was indeed supposed to enable it. But it turns out that politicians are unwilling to give up their power so quickly, so Internet voting is still limited to countries with a well-developed digital government like Estonia.
Which predictions from today also rely on a certain mood – and are therefore worthy of suspicion? These include, for example, forecasts that blockchain technologies will lead to the development of “autonomous distributed organizations” – that is, algorithms operating in the cloud without direct human oversight – including on the part of government. These may seem obvious to a culture based on individual freedom, but are likely to be assigned out of disgust in the eyes of totalitarian governments.

Second type of mistakes: Rolling mistakes result from relying on incorrect predictions

Diagram of a Moon Colony. Was supposed to be built in the 1980s
Diagram of a Moon Colony. Was supposed to be built in the 1980s. Illustration: NASA

Experts believed that as early as 1990 we would be able to produce propellants on the moon. The truth is that if we really had a base on the moon in the early 1980s, as they predicted, then that prediction would have made sense. But as we have already seen, the predictions about the occupation of space were wrong because they did not take into account the changes in public and political mood, and as a result the predictions based on those predictions did not materialize.

There is a lot to learn from this kind of mistakes, even today. Many futurists – myself included – believe that the pace of technological and scientific development will skyrocket in the coming decades as a result of the development of artificial intelligences that will be integrated into research. We could, in fact, benefit from millions of Einsteins in every field of science, who would develop new scientific theories for us and invent for us drugs with extraordinary abilities (e.g., those that could stop aging). But what if we run into a bump in the road – an obstacle that will not allow artificial intelligence to evolve as fast as we expect it to? In this case, many predictions will be delayed for many years.

Third type of error: focusing on the development of only one technology

Rand experts predicted that by 2005 we would already see newspapers and magazines being printed in private homes for readers. The impressive thing about the forecast is that it has come true in its spirit: the press has undergone a revolution and rolled into the internet, and today we all enjoy the ability to read articles in the comfort of our own homes. But we do not need to print them, due to the dizzying advances in digital technologies.

The experts were not blind to the field of automation. They predicted the existence of robotic servants in every home until the late 1980s, for example. But when they foresaw the printing of newspapers in homes, they ignored the trend of computer minimization that resulted in every home having a computer with a screen. And if there is a screen – why do you even need a printed newspaper?

Today, I believe that anyone who provides predictions without regard to the great acceleration in the rate of scientific and technological progress that artificial intelligence will provide us, is making the same mistake. But, of course, only on the assumption that I am not mistaken in myself in predicting the capabilities of artificial intelligence.

Type Four Mistakes: Not understanding the complexity of a particular achievement

A futuristic city. Illustration: shutterstock
A futuristic city. Illustration: shutterstock

Experts predicted that by the mid-1990s a general vaccine against bacteria and viruses would be developed. As the latest global epidemic (which has not yet ended) highlighted, the complexity of this achievement is far greater than experts expected. It is also possible to attach to this forecast the belief that by 2010 we will be able to regrow organs and limbs, or that by 2020 we will reach full symbiosis through a direct connection between the human brain and the computer. By about 2020 we were supposed to be able to extend human life expectancy by fifty years. And the highlight: by 2025 we should already be able to breed intelligent animals – apes, dolphins and others – for work purposes.

Today we better understand how complex the human body is, and how difficult it is to change basic processes in it without adversely affecting other processes. It will take many more years – though perhaps not as many as we think – before we can extend human life expectancy by decades. We also understand how bacteria and viruses evolve in complex ways that make it difficult for us to develop universal vaccines that will suit everyone. And last but not least, it turns out that it’s just not easy for a thousand chimpanzees to work for us. And although the United States military actually uses tamed dolphins to locate underwater mines, this is a very limited use.[1].

Fifth type of error: inability to predict a particular revolutionary technology, or its widespread adoption

The experts believed that a certain development – centralized eavesdropping on every telephone line – would never materialize. They were partially right. To date, governments have not been able to eavesdrop on telephone lines centrally (as far as we know), but the existence of the Internet has meant that there is no need to eavesdrop on telephone lines at all. Instead, governments are able to rake in information from Internet providers and large Internet companies (Google, Facebook, and the like) in order to track anyone.

The Internet in its most raw and primitive form was first invented only in 1969, when the first computers were connected to each other via a primitive network. It was a government project restricted to military use only, and only in 1981 was access to the Internet (called ARPANET at the time) expanded to the general public… who did not know what to do with it.

The idea of ​​the Internet itself was extraordinary: a network capable of automatically ‘recovering’ from targeted blocking of one of the communication centers by redirecting the information around it. Such a revolutionary idea – and the thought that would reach the public – certainly did not occupy a central place in the minds of experts.

What are the revolutionary technologies we have a hard time predicting today? If I could answer that question, I would go and invent them myself. But possible examples might include genetic engineering by the masses, understanding gravity and how it can be artificially influenced, or copying the human brain into a computer that will perfectly preserve the ‘mind’ – whatever that may be.

Type of errors Friday: Errors based on lack of information

A final type of error (at least for this post) is one that is based on a lack of information. Such, for example, is the prediction that already in the coming years (between 2020 and 2030) we will be able to communicate with aliens. Despite everything we learned from “Bags in the Dark”, we just haven’t been able to make such a connection yet. One of the reasons for this is that we simply do not know how many alien civilizations are there in space, and there is a real chance that their number is not large – so it will also be very difficult to contact them in the current century. The experts apparently relied here on an optimistic guess as to the number of alien civilizations and the media in their possession, but the lack of information in their possession was so great that it is no wonder that they were unable to correctly predict the future.

But, admittedly, the year 2030 has not yet arrived, and may still be pleasantly surprised.

Do not underestimate the successes

Despite all these mistakes, it is also impossible to underestimate the successes of the experts. They successfully predicted developments that seemed completely imaginary to most of their contemporaries: the use of satellites in orbit around the Earth, human landing on the moon, tracking of all planes in the world, automatic search for legal information, extensive use of computers for tax collection, reliable weather forecasting, engineering Genetic for the correction of licensed diseases, and more and more.

The experts in the report dared to dream and imagine a very different future than they knew in their time. They could not foresee well the sixty years after the study, but they provided many policymakers with food for thought and helped them think outside the box about the future. They may have been too ambitious. Too much in their predictions, but at least they tried and partially failed, instead of closing their eyes and ignoring what might happen – and thus would have completely failed in preparing for the future.

Dr. Roi Tzzena is the author of the books “The Guide to the Future” and “Those Who Control the Future”. For the blog – “The Guide to the Future”

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