Futurology

Old predictions, and how they’ve been standing up

The following was originally posted to a (long-since deleted) Livejournal account on 2012-06-05 02:55:27 BST. I have not edited this at all. Some of these predictions from 6 years ago have stood up pretty well, other predictions have been proven impossible.


Predicting the future is, in retrospect, hilarious. Nonetheless, I want to make a guess as to how the world will look in ten years, even if only to have a concrete record of how inaccurate I am. Unless otherwise specified, these predictions are for 2022:

Starting with the least surprising: By 2024, solar power will be the cheapest form of electricity for everyone closer to the equator than the north of France. Peak solar power output will equal current total power output from all sources, while annual average output will be 25%. Further progress relies on developments of large-scale energy storage systems, which may or may not happen depending on electric cars.

By 2022, CPU lithography will either reach 4nm, or everyone will decide it’s too expensive to keep on shrinking and stop sooner. There are signs that the manufacturers may not be able to mass produce 4nm chips due to their cost, even though that feature size is technically possible, so I’m going to say minimum feature size will be larger than you might expect from Moore’s law. One might assume that they can still get cheaper, even if not more powerful per unit area, but there isn’t much incentive to reduce production cost if you don’t also reduce power consumption; currently power consumption is improving slightly faster than Moore’s law, but not by much.

LEDs will be the most efficient light source; they will also be a tenth of their current price, making compact fluorescents totally obsolete. People will claim they take ages to get to full brightness, just because they are still energy-saving.

Bulk storage will probably be spinning magnetic platers, and flash drives will be as obsolete in 2022 as the floppy disk is in 2012. (Memristor based storage is an underdog on this front, at least on the scale of 10 years.)

Western economies won’t go anywhere fast in the next 4 years, but might go back to normal after that; China’s economy will more than double in size by 2022.

In the next couple of years, people will have realised that 3D printers take several hours to produce something the size of a cup and started to dismiss them as a fad. Meanwhile, people who already know the limitations of 3D printers have already, in 2011 used them for organ culture — in 10 to 20 years, “cost an arm and a leg” will fall out of common use in the same way and for the same reason that “you can no more XYZ than you can walk on the Moon” fell out of use in 1969 — if you lose either an arm or a leg, you will be able to print out a replacement. I doubt there will be full self-replication by 2022, but I wouldn’t bet against it.

No strong general A.I., but the problem is software rather than hardware, so if I’m wrong you won’t notice until it’s too late. (A CPU’s transistors change state a hundred million times faster than your neurons, and the minimum feature size of the best 2012 CPUs is 22nm, compared to the 200nm thickness of the smallest dendrite that Google told me about).

Robot cars will be available in many countries by 2020, rapidly displacing human drivers because they are much safer and therefore cheaper to insure; Taxi drivers disappear first, truckers fight harder but still fall. Human drivers may be forbidden from public roads by 2030.

Robot labour will be an even more significant part of the workforce. Foxconn, or their equivalent, will use more robots than there are people in Greater London.

SpaceX and similar companies lower launch costs by at least a factor of 10; these launch costs combine with standardised micro-satellites allow at least one university, 6th form, or school to launch a probe to the moon.

Graphene proves useful, but does not become a wonder material. Cookware coated in synthetic diamond is commonplace, and can be bought in Tesco. Carbon nanotube rope is available in significant lengths from specialist retailers, but still very expensive.

In-vitro meat will have been eaten, but probably still be considered experimental by 2020. There will be large protests and well-signed petitions against it, but these will be ignored.

Full-genome sequencing will cost about a hundred quid and take less than 10 hours.

3D television and films will fail and be revived at least once more.

E-book readers will be physically flexible, with similar resolution to print.

Hydrogen will not be developed significantly; biofuels will look promising, but will probably lose out to electric cars because they go so well with solar power (alternative: genetic engineering makes a crop that can be burned in existing power stations, making photovoltaic and solar-thermal plants redundant while also providing fuel for petrol and diesel car engines); fusion will continue to not be funded properly; too many people will remain too scared of fission for it to improve significantly; lots of people will still be arguing about wind turbines, and others will still be selling snake-oil “people-powered” devices.

Machine vision will be connected to every CCTV system that gets sold in 2020, and it will do a better job than any combination of human operators could possibly manage. The now-redundant human operators will argue loudly that “a computer could never look at someone and know how they are feeling, it could never know if someone is drunk and about to start a fight”; someone will put this to the test, and the machine will win.

High-temperature superconductivity currently seems to be developing at random, so I can’t say if we will have any progress or not. I’m going to err on the side of caution, and say no significant improvements by 2022.

Optical-wavelength cloaking fabric will be available by the mid 2020s, but very expensive and probably legally restricted to military and law enforcement.

Most of Kepler’s exoplanet candidates will be confirmed in the next few years; by 2022, we will have found and confirmed an Earth-like planet in the habitable zone of it’s star (right now, the most Earth-like candidate exoplanet, Gliese 581 g, in unconfirmed while the most Earth-like confirmed exoplanet, Gliese 581 d, is only slightly more habitable than Mars). We will find out if there is life on that world, but the answer will make no difference to most people’s lives.

OpenStreetMap will have replaced all other maps in almost every situation; Facebook will lose it’s crown as The social network; The comments section of most websites will still make people loose faith in humanity; English Wikipedia will be “complete” for some valid definition of the word.

Obama will win 2012, the Republicans will win 2016; The Conservatives will lose control of the UK regardless of when the next UK general election is held, but the Lib Dems might recover if Clegg departs.

Errors and omissions expected. It’s 3am!.

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