Technology Forecasts – Hyping the Future

This piece first appeared on December 20th in icrunchdata news

Another year is coming to a close and once again predictions about the future of technology are grabbing headlines. Scores of pundits, prognosticators and high-tech prophets are divining what will be hot – or not – in the days and months ahead. So in keeping with the spirit of the occasion I will offer my own projection. That is, most other predictions will be wrong. It is not that I’m more prescient than the next person. I just have history on my side. A significant majority of technology forecasts over the past century have missed their marks. Among the most notable were Albert Einstein’s skepticism that nuclear energy was obtainable; Bill Gates dismissing the likelihood of anyone ever building a 32-bit operating system; and countless dire warnings about Y2K.

Another year is coming to a close and once again predictions about the future of technology are grabbing headlines. Scores of pundits, prognosticators and high-tech prophets are divining what will be hot – or not – in the days and months ahead. So in keeping with the spirit of the occasion I will offer my own projection. That is, most other predictions will be wrong.

It is not that I’m more prescient than the next person. I just have history on my side. A significant majority of technology forecasts over the past century have missed their marks. Among the most notable were Albert Einstein’s skepticism that nuclear energy was obtainable; Bill Gates dismissing the likelihood of anyone ever building a 32-bit operating system; and countless dire warnings about Y2K.

Certainly, technology seers are not the only crystal ball gazers who under or over-shoot. In one of the most comprehensive tests of prognostic accuracy, University of Pennsylvania professor Philip Tetlock found the average political expert scored barely above a dart-throwing chimpanzee. And during a speech to last spring’s Princeton grads, Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke admitted that “Economics is a highly sophisticated field of thought that is superb at explaining to policymakers precisely why the choices they made in the past were wrong…about the future, not so much.”

2f20132f122fcrystal-ball-big-data-620x3541Yet forecasts about technology seem especially prone to miscalculation. There are any number of reasons, from self-interest to self-delusion; from wishful thinking to out-and-out fantasizing. Sometimes it is a matter of timing. New systems arrive too early, only to vanish and reappear years later in some other configuration. Plus a host of economic, social and political issues can skew results. Consequently, much of the speculation about emerging technologies is little more than a pastiche of promises, hopes and, increasingly, hyperbole.

Not surprisingly, hype has become a mainstay of technology forecasting. In an ever-expanding universe of information, attention eclipses accuracy, and exaggeration seems a surefire way to be seen and heard. What is bewildering though is why so many people – including those who should know better – buy into the hoopla, expending substantial time, effort and money in pursuit of the current Holy Grail.

To some degree, it may be a biological response. These are uncertain times and, according to Nobel prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman, people tend to be more impulsive and emotional in situations about which they have little knowledge or experience. In other words, they rely on their gut; or on the guts of others whom they perceive as authorities. Moreover, some neuroscientists claim that our brains are designed to actually take pleasure in positive predictions, secreting a suitable chemical whenever we encounter one.

But overreliance on bodily signals can lead some to take unwarranted risks, since our brains are also wired to minimize the mental effort required for deliberate decision-making. Which is why Kahneman believes that reasoning, or “thinking it through,” is a more effective approach to dealing with the future. Many companies, on the other hand, prefer confidence (and too often, overconfidence) to caution, and reward the kinds of aggressive behavior that may ignore uncertainty. Unfortunately, the credence most people put in their own intuition frequently belies its validity.

Despite the fallibility of hyped predictions, there is no shortage of consultants, gurus, PR hacks and industry publications at the ready to boost the “latest-thing.” A decade ago, the practice was dubbed “ management fashion ,” whereby initiators identified potential trends, developed the appropriate rhetoric and disseminated it to susceptible individuals and organizations. Little has changed since, except perhaps that today’s technology fashionistas are far more adept at appearing to reduce complexities to easily digestible memes.

That, above all else, may be the reason so many predictions go awry. The best hype, after all, is simple and exciting. But complex systems can’t be simplified, as they are comprised of myriad separate parts that interact in unplanned and unpredictable ways. The larger the system, say a global digital network, the more complex it becomes.

Albeit, many forecasters are experts in their particular fields, they don’t necessarily understand complex systems. Thus, they fail to recognize the influence external factors may have on outcomes. What is more, because the distance between cause and effect in such systems can be sizeable, it is tough to determine if and when a prophecy will come to pass. This is generally true of disruptive technologies, which are rarely revolutionary. Rather, they are subversive, slowly becoming apparent only when they are near-irreversible forces in society.

Accordingly, the cost of over-hyped predictions is hard to quantify, but it must surely be considerable; and while there are no standard guidelines for managing them, there are some advisable approaches:

Consider the source of any prediction, since the rosiest pictures are usually painted by those with the most vested interest.
• Distinguish between what a technology is capable of doing and what users actually need it to do.
• Actively seek other points of view.
• Don’t ignore the possible impact of economic, political or social uncertainties.
• Recognize the durability of existing technologies.
• Give innovations time to integrate themselves into society.

Someday, hyped technologies and techniques such as the cloud, Big Data and predictive analysis may make it possible to successfully foresee the future. But for now, as Microsoft researcher Duncan Watts contends, “The best we can hope for is to correctly predict the probability something will happen.”

Article written by Howard Gross for icrunchdata news New York, NY