I’m currently reading Freedman Dyson’s excellent book, Infinite in All Directions. The title is apt, as that’s roughly the scope of the (science focused) subjects Dyson writes about. I wanted to share a very astute rule of technological thumb he introduces, and I find very compelling. I dub it the fragile five.
In short, you should be extremely wary of any technological prediction that will take more than five years from now to come to fruition.
This includes everything from the extravagant claims of tinfoil hat wearing loons to meticulously laid-out project plans that nevertheless depend on technology that doesn’t yet exist.
As an example, take Moore’s Law and Fusion Power. Moore’s law predicts that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit will double in about two years. Ex post facto, it’s been true for longer than five years, but the prediction has never been “the number of transistors will increase by a factor of eight in six years.” Contrast that to Fusion power – the technology that has perennially been about 25 years down the road since the 1970’s.
Basically, five years is long enough for unknown factors to compound, drastically changing the assumptions that predictions rest on. Humans have a tendency to assume that change will continue at the same rate and direction they see at present. If something is changing quickly, our instinct is to think it will keep changing in that way and at that speed, and similarly if something appears to be staying the same. In reality, the only (probably) safe long-term predictions are that human nature will be roughly the same and that technology will be roughly different.
I want to end on an optimistic note and point out that there’s a difference between predictions and possibilities. Someone who says, “this is what WILL be in 20 years” is making a prediction and are probably misleading themselves at best, or worse, many others. Someone who says, “this is what COULD happen,” or “this is what I HOPE will happen,” has an idea, a hope for what the future will bring. I like to think that’s a good thing.