Predicting how emerging technologies will impact industry is more difficult than it seems—and it seems plenty difficult.
The reason is that we envision the future based on the present. We assume current trends will continue unabated. We make predictions based on information we have while discounting the influence of unknowns. And we fail to see how disparate technologies can be combined to create something new or dramatically improve an existing paradigm.
All of these mental hiccups can mislead our soothsaying calculus to distort our understanding of the future of technology.
Flying cars in the year 2001
One needs to look no further than science fiction to see this principle at play. This genre is in the game of showcasing possible futures. Its writers paint vivid, enticing worlds brimming with technological wonders like space tourism, robotic maids, and flying cars. Yet, their pulp-paper prophecies rarely come to pass—even listicles featuring sci-fi tropes that came true require a fair amount of squinting.
While the futures of yesteryear seem quaint from our modern vantage point, they make sense given the emerging technologies of their eras. Consider the 1950s, a golden age of science fiction. Space flight became a reality late in the decade, opening a vast and unexplored frontier. Household appliances were entering U.S. homes in a big way. Cars not only saw technological leaps like power steering but became a defining feature of pop culture.
But none of these technologies lived up to their projections. Space travel remains prohibitively expensive. The first space tourist, Dennis Tito, spent a cool $20 million for his eight-day vacay aboard the International Space Station. Robots are much more difficult to program than microwaves. And flying cars never got off the ground because they are terrifying. Just imagine adding another dimension to rush hour traffic. Hard pass.
There is, however, a futuristic wonder conspicuously missing from classic science fiction stories: the internet. Sure, some authors came close—William Gibson’s classic Neuromancer springs to mind. But few foresaw how a data-sharing idea from CERN would alter how we do everything from shopping to socializing to cultivating entire markets dedicated to online services.
Dialing into emerging technologies
To be fair, the science fiction genre isn’t trying to predict the future. Not really. Yes, the occasional writer will don a prophet’s robe, but they are mostly concerned with telling engaging yarns that tackle the social and political questions of their times. (At its core, the original Star Trek is an exploration of universal humanism aimed at the divisiveness of the 1960s.)
However, the mental blind spots that prevent them from accurately predicting the future are the same that impede the visions of tech gurus, futurologists, and chief innovation officers.
For instance, when Alexander Graham Bell wanted to sell his telephone patent to Western Union, the company balked at his asking price of $100,000. An internal committee report called the invention “idiotic,” stating that this “ungainly and impractical device” couldn’t compare to the clarity of a telegram.
We laugh today, but of course, no outcome is more obvious than the one that happened. From Western Union’s perspective, the decision—if not that tone—made sense. Bell’s telephone was a cool experiment, but it produced a weak signal with steel-wool scratchy voices. Plus, it required direct lines to operate, limiting its feasibility for mass adoption.
What the internal committee couldn’t predict, however, were add-on inventions that improved the functionality and reliability of Bell’s initial prototype. These included the workable exchange, which allowed calls to be switched and negated the need for direct lines, as well as metallic circuits, which improved call quality across longer distances.
A game-changing technology takes flight?
The question then becomes: Is there an emerging technology out there that few people are paying attention to but has game-changing potential across many industries? Absolutely! Do we know what it is? Nope.
For a fun thought experiment, though, let’s consider perpetual flight. Here’s Fatema Hamdani, co-founder and president of Kraus Aerospace, to explain the technology:
Initially, perpetual flight sounds cool but limited. The ability to keep drones aloft through redundant, natural energy sources seems useful in disaster relief or search and rescue. The mesh network concept—where all the drones take up the slack if one goes down—has promise for national security. But in essence it’s a better, cheaper satellite.
Now, let’s get creative. Try to imagine a future in which you can use this emerging technology in your industry or pair it with another to create something radical.
Here’s what we came up with: Suppose these drones are equipped with wireless communication payloads. These payloads provide internet access as satellites do today but at a substantially lower cost. Lower costs make for more drones, which in turn expands network coverage.
Meanwhile, their perpetual flight capability untethers wireless internet from the patchwork of cell sites popular today. This would make connections more consistent across a broader area. And the mesh network ensures the system doesn’t go down if one drone gets out of sync or needs to be repaired.
Finally, perpetual flight could allow internet providers to amplify their services in developing countries more easily by sidestepping the huge investments necessary to build land-based infrastructure. This could dramatically increase the demand for online services globally while also connecting millions of people to new ideas and cultures.
That’s one potential use case and not even a particularly radical one. All this future assumes is that perpetual flight ultimately works, that the drones are cost-effective, and that they can be equipped with our ever-improving internet technology.
There’s no psychic hotline for the future
Our point isn’t to say that perpetual flight is the next world-shattering technology. Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. Instead, our point is that perpetual flight doesn’t get the attention other emerging technologies do, which could be a missed opportunity.
Industry leaders cannot afford to develop tunnel vision, assuming that either certain technologies will change the future in certain ways or that other technologies will remain dominant well into the future. Neither is necessarily true.
When it comes to predicting the future and preparing for upcoming technological shifts, CTOs, leaders, and enthusiasts need to exercise intellectual humility, search for unknowns, and liberally educate themselves on a wide variety of technologies—and not just the ones capturing headlines or trending on social media. We also need to stretch our imaginations to try to envision potential use cases that may materialize later as well as those that may sound great but create unnecessary risks or are infeasible.
We should also remember that when it comes to predicting the future, humanity’s track record is dismal—and that’s being charitable. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to innovate and do better tomorrow.
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