“It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future”

By Peter Turchin December 10, 2014 14 Comments

In the process of doing ‘research’ (well, googling) for my blog about innovations, elites, and flying cars, I stumbled on this wonderful project jointly produced by Gregory Benford and Popular Mechanics: The Future That Never Was: Pictures from the Past. Gregory Benford is an author working within the genre of hard science fiction (I had a very interesting conversation with him last May in Irvine, in which we discussed many things, including Cliodynamics).

What Benford and the editors of Popular Mechanics did was go to the past issues of the magazine and look at how fared the predictions that were made on its pages between 1902 and 1969. The title of the project, The Future That Never Was, suggests that most, if not all, predictions failed, thus echoing one of the Yogiisms, which provides the title of this post. But actually only some of the predictions failed spectacularly. There were others that succeeded in an equally spectacular fashion. And a lot in between.

To start with a failed prediction, which also fits the theme of Flying Cars:

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Prediction 1951: Personal Helicopters. This simple, practical, foolproof personal helicopter coupe is big enough to carry two people and small enough to land on your lawn. It has no carburetor to ice up, no ignition system to fall apart or misfire: instead, quiet, efficient ramjets keep the rotors moving, burning any kind of fuel from dime-a-gallon stove oil or kerosene up to aviation gasoline.

Ha, this one was a complete flop. But it sounded quite reasonable back in the 1950s! Well, I am not so old as to know what people thought in the 50s, but when I grew up during the 1960s (I was an avid consumer of science fiction even then), I was convinced that we would have flying personal transportation real soon now. Little did I know that the reality would be quite different – scrunched in a too narrow seat on a commercial airplane, and hobbling on bad knees for days afterward.

The next one is a success story:

Prediction 1937: Microwave Cooking. Cooking a ham sandwich in high-frequency radio waves. This method may be common in the home of the future.

Now this one must have looked completely ridiculous back in 1937. Note how tentative the language is. Yet this prediction succeeded spectacularly. (I wonder, though, what happened to the hand of the scientist/engineer in the photo – how did he avoid getting it cooked together with the sandwich?)

This one is the one that I thought was the funniest one:

Prediction 1950: Housekeeping of the Future. When the housewife of 2000 cleans house she simply turns the hose on everything. Why not? Furniture (upholstery included), rugs, draperies, unscratchable floors—all are made of synthetic fabric or waterproof plastic. After the water has run down a drain in the middle of the floor (later concealed by a rug of synthetic fiber) she turns on a blast of hot air and dries everything. A detergent in the water dissolves any resistant dirt. Tablecloths and napkins are made of woven paper yarn so fine that the untutored eye mistakes it for linen. She throws soiled “linen” into the incinerator. Bed sheets are of more substantial stuff, but she has only to hang them up and wash them down with a hose when she puts the bedroom in order.

And finally:

Prediction 1950: Vacuum Tube Powered Trains. Imagine a tunnel with one end beneath New York City’s Times Square. You enter a car at this end, stow your suitcase in the rack overhead and settle down comfortably with a magazine. You have been reading scarcely an hour when the vehicle stops. An escalator carries you back to the street level and you greet the light of day once more—in San Francisco! Sounds like something out of pseudo-science fiction, doesn’t it? Yet it’s the idea of one of America’s most practical scientist-executives, General Electric’s noted physicist, Dr. Irving Langmuir. “There is no fundamental reason,” says Doctor Langmuir, “why we could not travel at a speed of 2000 to 5000 miles an hour in a vacuum tube. The Pacific coast might be only an hour away from the Atlantic.”

Well, perhaps traveling at thousands of miles per hour is still science fiction, but, as I wrote in the previous blog, other countries have superfast trains that travel, or will soon travel, at 300 miles per hour. We don’t. So this prediction is, perhaps, the saddest one. The country that 60 years ago was technologically well ahead of the rest of the world, today has fallen well behind the leaders.

Published On: December 10, 2014

Peter Turchin

Peter Turchin

Curriculum Vitae

Peter Turchin is an evolutionary anthropologist at the University of Connecticut who works in the field of historical social science that he and his colleagues call Cliodynamics. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and cultural evolution, historical macrosociology, economic history and cliometrics, mathematical modeling of long-term social processes, and the construction and analysis of historical databases. Currently he investigates a set of broad and interrelated questions. How do human societies evolve? In particular, what processes explain the evolution of ultrasociality—our capacity to cooperate in huge anonymous societies of millions? Why do we see such a staggering degree of inequality in economic performance and effectiveness of governance among nations? Turchin uses the theoretical framework of cultural multilevel selection to address these questions. Currently his main research effort is directed at coordinating the Seshat Databank project, which builds a massive historical database of cultural evolution that will enable us to empirically test theoretical predictions coming from various social evolution theories.

Turchin has published 200 articles in peer-reviewed journals, including a dozen in Nature, Science, and PNAS. His publications are frequently cited and in 2004 he was designated as “Highly cited researcher” by ISIHighlyCited.com. Turchin has authored seven books. His most recent book is Ultrasociety: How 10,000 Years of War Made Humans the Greatest Cooperators on Earth (Beresta Books, 2016).

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  • Dave Pinsen says:

    Interesting, though I don’t fault us for not having 300mph trains. There are only a few routes in the US where trains even that fast would be preferable to planes, and the obstacles there aren’t technological but legal and political.

    • bob sykes says:

      Actually, the only real obstacle is cost. Every high speed train in the world (actually every passenger train) loses lots of money and is heavily subsidized. TVG an its ilk are Ruling Class perks.

      • Peter Turchin says:

        Ruling class fly helicopters and personal jets. They don’t need fast trains. They never use public transportation.

      • Richard says:

        Yep, not for the ruling class, though it’s true that most high speed train lines lose money (not all though: http://reason.org/files/high_speed_rail_lessons.pdf: “From a financial standpoint, only two HSR lines in the world are profitable: Paris-Lyon in France
        and Tokyo-Osaka in Japan. A third line, Hakata-Osaka in Japan, breaks even.”)

        However, HSR lines have positive externalities (while carbon-burning transport have negative externalities). That’s something that has to be factored in. HSR has made China’s economy quite a bit more efficient.

        • lpetrich says:

          It must be pointed out that the analysis that Richard quotes is a rather high bar for high-speed trains by the standards of other transport infrastructure. At least in the US, flat roads and aviation infrastructure are heavily subsidized with general-fund money. I can hunt down numbers for anyone who’s interested.

          A common argument against US HSR is that the US’s population density is not very suited for high-speed trains. But that’s an argument from *average* density. High-speed trains do best between big cities that are something like 300 – 500 km apart, and some parts of the US fit that criterion very well, like the Northeast Corridor.

          Then there is the US’s size. A NYC-LA high-speed line would be folly, because there is a big stretch of it with very low population density along it. However, from NYC to Kansas City, there are several big cities along the way at reasonable separations for HSR. Likewise, LA and Las Vegas are reasonably separated for HSR. But in between, there’s only Denver and Salt Lake City, separations approaching 1000 km, and a *lot* of mountains.

          There are long high-speed lines elsewhere in the world, but they all have several big cities on them. In Europe, there is almost continuous high-speed trackage between Amsterdam and Malaga, Spain, extending about 2800 km. But it was built in segments starting from Paris and Madrid to nearby cities and then to farther cities.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      I leave in the Boston-Washington corridor. I’d much rather use a fast train to go to DC. Much less hastle and need for intrusive security.

    • lpetrich says:

      Actually, if one uses a route like Paris-Lyon as a benchmark, one will find that there are several potentially good high-speed routes in the US, though they are clustered in the more dense areas.

      As to politics, high-speed rail has become yet another partisan political battleground, with Democrats lining up for it and Republicans lining up against it. The Republicans have a halfway good reason: their constituents tend to live in areas less dense than where Democrats prefer to live. They also have some bad reasons. One of them is dislike of things that Democrats like, even if it is things that they had earlier liked, such as Heritagecare / Chafeecare / Romneycare / Obamacare, to use the names of various supporters of it. Another is support by the Koch brothers and the like. They want to make life difficult for anything that would undermine their fossil-fuel business, like renewable-energy development.

      Seems like a case of warring elites. Compare to half a century earlier, when both Democrats and Republicans agreed on the value of the Interstate highways, even though they were proposed by a Republican, Dwight Eisenhower. At least some of the US’s larger airports also got built to more or less their present form by then.

  • The housekeeping one sounds simultaneously insane and intriguing. I can just imagine power hosing all of my furniture and having the resultant flood drain down a hidden plug hole (into the apartment below), before whipping out my industrial strength furnace fan to instantly dry(/scorch) everything around me. Of course, everything would be destroyed and I’d possibly be severely burnt but still no more housework…

    • Peter Turchin says:

      Either that, or everything in your apartment needs to be made of heavy-duty plastic that could withstand such rigorous cleaning. I can imagine how comfortable it would be to sit on a plastic sofa, or sleep under paper sheets (not even talking about the casual disregard for environmental issues). And a personal incinerator in your home! What a boon for murderers…

  • Ross David H says:

    Research idea: evaluate each idea according to which existing industries it would threaten, then see if there are trends on which incumbent industries are best at squelching potential threats. I’m guessing that the automobile industry has more political clout than the oven industry, for example.

  • There was a personal helicopter, the RotorWway Scorpion. Problem was the cost and the FAA license requirements. I suppose that this is the same position that the automobile was in before the Model A.

    These predictions are useful. Not all of us have the imagination needed to where to go next.

  • lpetrich says:

    I think that a big spur to mass-market computer development since the late 1970’s has been video gaming. Many people like that form of entertainment, enough to create big markets for game consoles: computer hardware designed for video-game duty. Desktop and laptop computer hardware has also been pushed ahead by many people using their machines for video gaming. In the late 1970’s, video-game displays were crudely pixelated in only a few colors, but by the late 1990’s, video cards capable of rendering 3-dimensional scenes had become common.

    So we now have a bizarre economic paradox. One can get a top-of-the-line desktop computer for much less than one has to pay for a house or an education. That computer can easily outperform even the biggest supercomputers of half a century ago, and do so while running a much nicer user interface. Supercomputers that would easily have cost several million dollars of money back then.

    Also, some sorts of technology have turned out to be much more difficult than expected. Space travel and artificial intelligence, for instance.

    Instead of astronauts flying all over the Solar System, the farthest that most of the 500-odd space travelers have gone is low Earth orbit, and the 24 exceptions only flew as far as the Moon. Space stations are not those big spinning wheels of half a century ago but more like piles of tin cans and scrap metal. However, remote-controlled spacecraft have been sent to every other planet and to several smaller objects.

    Artificial intelligence has been a big let-down. It’s progressed *much* slower than the optimists of half a century ago had expected. Every chatbot I’ve ever tried miserably flunks the Turing Test, for instance.

    • Peter Turchin says:

      But note that the United States has lost interest in investing in space technology. The International Space Station is languishing, and the Russians are talking about going alone. There are lots of science out there that could be used to advance space exploration, but Americans are not interested in investing in it. Most likely, the next big breakthrough will be made by the Chinese.

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