Today, we go fifty years into the future. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.
I often mention the futility of trying to predict any future. Nothing makes that point better than old predictions do. A listener recently sent me a 1950 Popular Mechanics article by the New York Times science editor. It invents an Ohio town in the year 2000. We can learn a lot from what he sees going on in this imagined future.
The town center is an airport. Triple-decker highways radiate outward from it -- express traffic on top, local traffic in the center, and business vehicles below. The automobiles burn alcohol. The family helicopter pad is on top of the garage. To travel, you can fly by rocket or jet plane. Supersonic rocket trips are expensive, so most of us use jets. Ocean liners are still in use, but now they use atomic power. Transportation is a huge fixation.
The second great theme in the article is the home. Men shave with chemical cremes. To clean your living room you simply take a hose to it -- everything's waterproof. Dishes are disposable. Microwave ovens have replaced conventional ones, and you buy most food precooked. Many foods are made synthetically from sawdust. The new TV sets are now in everyone's home, and they double as video telephones. The author skips briefly over solar and atomic power. He sees them competing with one another.
But he's uncomfortable with energy issues, so he races on to the new use of antibiotics in medicine. While he fails to see how microorganisms will evolve to protect themselves from the miracle drugs, he does correctly guess that cancer will still be around.
Why was a well-informed author wrong so much more than he was right? Why do technological predictions always go wrong? Another prediction in this article hints at the answer. He sees only one use for the new computers. They'll give accurate predictions of the weather by solving the equations for the movement of air.
Ten years later, meteorologist Edward Lorenz tried to do just that. When he failed, he realized it was because he could never specify the initial weather accurately enough. All future predictions depend absolutely on miniscule differences in our descriptions of the present moment. If I so much as change my mind and eat pasta instead of stew at lunch, I literally alter human history.
Who, in 1950, knew that Jack Kilby would create a primitive integrated circuit eight years later, or that only three years later, the discovery of DNA would begin to alter both medicine and human self-perception? Xerox machines were just about to reach the marketplace in 1950. Who can yet diagnose their impact upon us?
Any prediction is an extrapolation that cannot take account of inventive intervention. Invention that does not send us off in new directions is no invention at all.
So stop and think what a terrible thing it would be if we could predict the future. The only way we could do so would be to live without the wonderful wildcard of human creativity.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.
Kaempffert, W., Miracles You'll See in the Next Fifty Years. Popular Mechanics, February 1950, pp. 113-118, 364, 266, 270, 272.
My thanks to Engines listener John Girard for sending me a copy of the fifty-year-old Popular Mechanics prediction.
A 19th-century image of the future of flight