Saturday, December 31, 2016

The next ten years: how desperate can we become?

With the year's end, it is tradition to make predictions for the next year. In this case, I looked for something that would take a longer timespan as a target and I found something published in 2015. It can be used to learn how bad some predictions can be and how desperate we are becoming.

Do you remember the predictions of the 1950s? The time when scientists and science fiction authors alike engaged in describing to us how bright the future would be? There was no shortage of wonders that were presented to us at that time. Space travel, energy too cheap to meter, robotic home helpers, anti-gravity, a cure for cancer, increased human lifespan, and much more. It is disheartening to think of how little of all that fluff actually materialized. Overall, in terms of problem-solving, the performance of science during the past 50 years of so has been comparable to that of the Iraqi army in 2003 in terms of military effectiveness.

A taste of how desperate our situation has become can be gained by taking a look at an article published in 2015 by Peter Diamandis. A little more than a year after it appeared, it can be used to understand not only how bad a prediction can be, but also how desperate we have become.

The article by Diamandis falls flat from its very first line; when he says that "in accordance with Moore's Law, we'll see an acceleration in the rate of change." But, as we know, Moore's law was declared officially dead in 2016, and it was known to be terminally ill a few years earlier. So, Diamondis starts from an overoptimistic premise but, even so, it is surprising to see how unappealing are his predictions.

In the article, all the wonders predicted in the 1950s have disappeared and all what Diamandis can do is to line up a list of internet-related gadgetry whose usefulness can only be limited or debatable - or even defined as negative. Yes, in the future we'll probably have more people connected to the Internet at faster speeds, but then what? Can more Internet connections lead us to "perfect knowledge"? (prediction n. 3). Diamondis was writing before the "fake news" story became a widely recognized issue, but it was there and it is remarkable how he could miss so badly that quantity is not the same as quality! Then, there is the "trillion-sensor economy" (prediction n. 2) that probably means what we call the "Internet of Things". Not an impossible target but, as for many other things, are we really sure it is a good idea? What if the hyperconnected world goes to the blue screen of death? The other predictions are not much better, for instance about the overhyped "3D printing".

It looks like we are becoming increasingly desperate. We expected from science solutions for the climate and the resource crisis. We expected knowledge, wisdom, health, and abundance. All we got were 140 characters and it seems we'll have to be happy with that.


Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)