Why "experts" fail to see the next big thing?
Some technologies change our world in a matter of years, but these changes are impossible to predict because of the randomness of our world. Trying to predict the future is a fool's errand but then our history is littered with such attempts :D.
I often read articles and reports on the "demise of a particular technology", "future of the mankind", and other similar topics. As startup advisors, we meet scores of bold founders who believe they know where the technology is headed. Industry "experts" and "think tanks" love crystal–gazing, but they use complicated terminology to conceal it under the veil of science. This tendency of predicting the future has existed for centuries, if not more. Aldous Huxley, one of the pioneers of science fiction, predicted air taxis in his seminal book – A Brave New World. Characters in his novel use helicopters for commuting and landline phones for communicating. This shows the folly of predictions, and why it is outright foolish to predict the future except in the realms of science fiction. I wish I had kept a log of predictions that experts have made over the years. I could have used the data to show how wrong these experts have been. I plan to do it from now onwards. Even if I lack the talent of a crystal-grazer, becoming a chronicler is easy.
How long does it take for the technology to become outdated?
Our predictions are consistently off the mark because all predictions, outside the area of pure sciences such as Mathematics and Physics, involve uncertainties. Our world is stochastic (random), and how the events have turned out or will turn out is one of many possibilities. These possibilities depend on umpteen factors that are impossible to know beforehand, and that makes the game of prediction impetuous. "Butterfly Effect" in the Chaos Theory is one such example where a small change in an early stage of a nonlinear system can result in large differences in the later stages.
Unfortunately, all this overwhelming empirical evidence or prediction errors have not deterred experts from crystal-gazing under the guise of science.
Fascination with new things
Nassim Taleb has coined a term for this fascination with everything new. He calls it Neomania – Mania of all shiny and new things. He gives a rule of thumb for predicting the future of existing technologies. According to him, the age of existing technology is a good predictor of its future. If something has lasted for 50 years, we can safely assume it will last for another 50 years. He gives chairs, shoes, and cutlery as examples of technologies that were invented centuries ago and are still widely used.
His approach is refreshing but has its limitations. Pagers and landlines are 2 things that died a sudden death with the arrival of mobile phones. To be fair to Nassim Taleb, he agrees that his rule has some notable exceptions. And both pagers and landline telephones corroborate his rule to a certain extent. Pagers, a comparatively newer technology, were immediately replaced by mobile phones while landlines, an older technology, took longer.
I decided to check Taleb's claim about the technologies and their timeframes; I made a list of the major technologies of the past 5, 10, 15, and 20 years. Twenty years is a reasonable time-span because the internet, the game-changer that no one predicted, became widespread around 20 years ago. The internet (and the world wide web) transformed our world and caused the demise of several technologies that existed in the pre-internet era.
Here is a list of major technologies of the past 20 years.
2018: Broadband internet, smartphones, electricity, modes of transport (cars, buses, trains, planes, cycles, bikes, ships), buildings, agriculture, books (ebooks, audiobooks), 4K TV, radio
2013: Early-stage broadband internet, smartphones, electricity, modes of transport (cars, buses, trains, planes, cycles, bikes, ships), buildings, agriculture, books (fewer ebooks and audiobooks), HD TV, radio
2008: Even slow internet, first smartphones, electricity, modes of transport (cars, buses, trains, planes, cycles, bikes, ships), buildings, agriculture, books (no ebooks or audiobooks), LED TV, radio
2003: Ancient internet, advanced mobile phones, electricity, modes of transport (cars, buses, trains, planes, cycles, bikes, ships), buildings, agriculture, books (no ebooks or audiobooks), LCD TV, radio
1998: Dial-up internet, early mobile phones, electricity, modes of transport (cars, buses, trains, planes, cycles, bikes, ships), buildings, agriculture, books (no ebooks or audiobooks), CRT TV, radio
I may have missed a few important technologies, but the inference is clear. Since the advent of the internet 20-25 years ago, few new technologies have become mainstream. Most of the innovations of the past 20 years like smartphones, ebooks, mobile apps etc, are either improvements or applications of existing technologies.
Process improvements and efficiency gains
Whenever I hear someone talking about some groundbreaking technology revolutionising the future, I get sceptical. Flying cars are a prime example. They have captured the imagination of science fiction authors and readers for generations. Now thanks to the internet and 24/7 news channels, flying cars have entered the realms of the masses. Experts say they will transform how we commute. But all innovations in the automobile industry over the past century are efficiency gains. Nearly all automobiles use some variant of the internal combustion engine that was invented more than a century ago. There have been advancements in safety, automation to various degrees, and improvements in fuel efficiencies, but the modern cars still ply on roads, have 4 wheels, and are driven by humans. Path-breaking innovations like flying or driverless cars remain a futuristic concept. We don't know whether they will become mainstream soon or not. Although early signs are encouraging, the historical evidence against such extreme changes is strong. My guess (And I mean guess and not prediction) is it will take a much longer time than most people believe for the driverless or flying cars to move from the design and prototype stage to a commercial reality.
Another good example is renewable energy. Almost all technology used in renewable energy generation (solar panels and wind turbines) is decades old. It has become cost-effective and efficient over the years because of the gradual tinkering and incremental gains. Impact of this cumulative buildup in renewable energy technology has created an industry that might transform our planet. But if you think fossil fuels will disappear overnight, I am sorry but you are mistaken. Coal power plants or diesel cars are the mainstay of the world economy and will remain so for the next few decades. Green energy might replace fossil fuels in the future, but it will be a long and slow process.
Will newer technologies transform the world?
Does this mean that new technologies/innovations will never change the world? The answer is a resounding No. There are bound to be newer technologies that will disrupt the status quo. Some will cause tremendous upheaval and replace existing technologies in a relatively short time like the internet and mobile phones. They made existing technologies obsolete in a matter of years. But few experts predicted the dominance of the internet and mobile phones. Internet, in its rudimentary form, had existed for decades, but no one prophesied that it will rule the world in such a short time. Same applies to mobile phones.
Although experts make hundreds of forecasts every year, few, if any, predicted the omnipresence of the internet or mobile phones. This shows why we should take these "industry experts" (empty suits in Nassim Taleb's words) with a bunch of salt.