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2020 foresight: predictions for the next decade

Commercial space travel, breakthroughs in the fight against cancer, a new industrial revolution based on broadly distributed clean energy -even now, despite global warming and overpopulation, the future is still looking bright to some leading futurists. But before you book that trip to the moon, keep in mind that predictions are rarely spot on. When it comes to technology, making the right call is surprisingly rare -even among its inventors.

March 2011
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Commercial space travel, breakthroughs in the fight against cancer, a new industrial revolution based on broadly distributed clean energy -even now, despite global warming and overpopulation, the future is still looking bright to some leading futurists. But before you book that trip to the moon, keep in mind that predictions are rarely spot on. When it comes to technology, making the right call is surprisingly rare -even among its inventors.

What can we look forward to in 2020? Commercial space travel, predicts technology writer and investor Esther Dyson. Big advances against cancer, says Michael S. Tomczyk, managing director of Wharton’s Mack Center for Technological Innovation. A third industrial revolution, based on clean energy, says economist and futurist Jeremy Rifkin.

But don’t pack your bags for the moon right yet. Historically, predictions have often turned out to be either wildly over-optimistic, too conservative, or simply way off the mark. “Never make predictions,” advised American film producer Sam Goldwyn, “especially about the future.” Given the track record of even the best-informed forecasters, it’s not bad advice.

At the same time, however, the world does change and often more dramatically and more quickly than anyone ever dreamed. Politics is always confounding—almost no one predicted either the fall of the Soviet Union or the rise of the People’s Republic of China. Some reports suggest that the U.S. State Department didn’t even have a contingency plan regarding how to handle a revolution in Egypt.

Even the more ostensibly rational world of technology tends to yield multiple surprises. In the 1980’s, notes Andrew Odlyzko, a mathematician at the University of Minnesota and a technology historian, McKinsey & Company, the influential consulting firm, forecast that the total U.S. market for cell phones would reach 800,000 by 2000—nearly 100 million short of the mark.

Right or wrong, here’s what Dyson, Tomczyk, and Rifkin expect we may see by 2020—and why.

A Look Ahead
Asked for her wildest prediction for 2020, Dyson painted a picture of widespread commercial space travel and the exploitation of space for commercial use. “By 2020, there will be an active commercial market for travel to the moon, to asteroids, and to orbiting human-built objects,” she says. “Companies will be engaging in asteroid mining, ethical-drug production, solar-energy capture, and other lucrative activities, using synthetic biology as well as traditional constructed machinery to do so. And of course some people will be going up for fun—me among them, I hope!” says the New York-based Dyson.

Wharton’s Tomczyk also believes that space travel is closer than people realize. “Having pioneered some technology myself … I can attest that it doesn’t take much to jump-start a technological revolution,” says Tomczyk, who 30 years ago led the team that developed and marketed the first personal computer to sell a million units, the Commodore VIC-20.

Those civilian flights to space may lead to other things as well, he says: “No one knows what technological miracles will result along the way, or how the discoveries we make will change and improve our lives, but I’m certain they will be profound.”

By the next decade, much better treatments will have been developed for cancer, too, Tomczyk predicts. “I believe that many cancers will be much more treatable and survivable by 2020, due to novel therapies that are being developed that include customized cancer vaccines, the use of nanoparticles and nano-sized drugs to kill tumors, genetic diagnostic tests, and identification of carcinogens we need to avoid,” he says.

A Third Industrial Revolution

Rifkin, a lecturer at Wharton and an adviser to a number of European governments, sees two competing futures ahead—either a global catastrophe brought on by climate change and fossil fuel shortages or a third industrial revolution, this one based on renewable energy produced not in 19th century-style centralized plants but in a distributed fashion.

For Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends in Bethesda, Md., history is largely determined by the form of energy the society uses. “Energy is always critical,” he says. “That’s the basis on which we create an economy. It’s always about energy flows, always.”

Rifkin dates the history of our immediate future to 1979, when per capita oil reserves peaked. More oil has been found since, he notes, but more people have been born, reducing the importance of those gains.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2008, when skyrocketing oil prices sparked food riots in 22 countries. “Our entire civilization is run by oil,” Rifkin says. When the price reached $147 a barrel, the limits of globalization became clear for the first time.

The oil price shock—that was the economic earthquake, he says. The financial crisis in the fall of 2008 was just the aftershock, he argues.

From now on, he says, every time the economy starts doing well and needs more energy, limited oil will check growth. “The same trajectory will happen,” he says. “The aggregate output will put too much pressure on supply.”

“The next time oil moves up, there’s going to be panic because they’re going to realize we’re in an endgame,” Rifkin contends, convinced that rising demand and declining supplies are on a collision course. “There is no way out of this that I can see. It is unbridgeable.”

Another key milestone was the collapse of the Copenhagen climate change talks in 2009. “This was probably the most important challenge we had to meet as a species in the 175,000 years we’ve been on this planet—and we went home,” says Rifkin.

But the human race does have one chance, in Rifkin’s view: distributed renewable energy.

In the past, renewable energy has been held back in part because of the difficulty in conceptualizing how to generate enough new energy to substitute for ordinary power stations. Instead, just as the Internet did for communication, in Rifkin’s distributed power future, the old centralized energy “factory” is replaced by a centerless energy network. Goodbye, radio; hello, iPod.

The key insight: Virtually every place on the planet receives some form of renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, he says. So why try to collect it in just a few places? The new idea is to use two-way smart meters that allow energy to be produced hyper-locally and distributed locally as well, even within the same building or neighborhood. Overall, vast quantities of power will be harvested, just as distributed computing has made it possible to harness the processing power of thousands of computers.

A Look Back
Will they be right about any of this?

Certainly these three have made some good calls in the past—Dyson understood the Internet’s potential way ahead of most people; Tomczyk, besides developing the first mass-market PC, was involved in the roll-out of the first ATMs; and Rifkin, among many thoughtful calls in a long forecasting career, anticipated the debate about genetic engineering back in the 70’s. But as the investment boilerplate often says, past performance is no guarantee of future results.

On the whole, the future turns out to be surprisingly difficult to predict, even for veteran futurists. Tomczyk notes that many things we imagined would be here by now, such as gene therapy, have taken much longer to realize than previously anticipated.

Odlyzko argues, however, that there are some fairly consistent patterns—mostly overshooting, but occasionally falling short. “We find that on balance there has been a tendency toward over-optimism, especially on the part of the investors or business promoters of technologies, but there have also been cases of undershoots,” he says, citing McKinsey’s shortfall on cellphone numbers for 2000. Even the cell phone companies weren’t especially optimistic on that one: Nokia forecast only a 30 percent mobile penetration rate by that year, Odlyzko says.

People also often misunderstand the significance of an invention, Odlyzko says. In 19th century Britain, for instance, railroad developers first imagined rail primarily as a way to move cargo, not people. The enthusiasm for passenger train travel surprised them. “Even people who have a strong financial incentive often don’t see the promise of what they are working with,” Odlyzko says.

Another case in point: Ken Olsen, founder of the Digital Equipment Corporation, one of the leading computer companies in the 1970’s and 80’s, completely missed the boat when it came to the personal computer. “He didn’t see why anybody would want to own a computer in the home,” Odlyzko says.

There are often unintended consequences as well. In our own time, people correctly saw the decline of “snail mail,” but missed the need for more package delivery that e-commerce would create.

In 19th century Britain, the railroads killed horse coach lines fairly quickly, prompting worries that the demand for horses would shrink and pose dangers to national security. In fact, as railroad lines grew, the demand for horses increased. More goods needed to be taken to and from the stations. The animals also turned out to be very useful for moving railroad cars around switchyards.

Sailing ships actually grew more popular, too, at the beginning of the steam age—and lasted another 50 years after the first train tracks were laid. Steam tugboats helped them avoid the difficult and dangerous business of getting in and out of port. “Steam ships couldn’t cross the Atlantic economically [yet] but they could tow sailing ships a dozen miles down the river against the wind,” says Odlyzko.

In fact, it may even be helpful to not really know what you’re talking about. Ironically, some of the best forecasters out there may be the least technically qualified. “I believe that science fiction is an overlooked predictor of radical/disruptive innovation,” says Tomczyk. Indeed, the Web site lists thousands of inventions first imagined by science fiction writers. Many of these inventions can now be built—from Minority Report-style personalized ads to cell phones that can kiss.

We’ll revisit this story in 2020—when tourists may or may not be sending kisses back home to the kids from their hotel rooms on the moon.