Why predicting the future is more about sociology than technology

Technologies arriving by 2025

This chart above is from a new World Economic Forum report, Deep Shift: Technology Tipping Points and Societal Impact, predicts 21 dates in the future when previously unimaginable innovations will enter our daily lives, transforming the way we live and the way communities and governments function. And after perusing the report, I couldn’t help but think that the results focused too deeply on technological capabilities rather than social and economic incentive. It seems that while predicting the future is always a difficult task, every time I read such predictions, human behaviour is not considered at a deep enough level.

I disagree with most of the predictions above, but mostly for two reasons:

  1. The flawed and simplistic definitions from the past. (This is how companies get disrupted by the way, but more on that later)
  2. The lack of consideration given to how incentives shape behaviour.

Simplistic Definitions:

Report Claim: 10% of people wearing clothes connected to the internet. Reality: We are already wearing technology. Our phone is a device we have been wearing as clothing for nearly 10 years. The definition given in the report doesn’t serve the function of why you’d wear technology – it’s too limited. It’s a yesterday definition.

Report Claim: Over 50% of internet traffic to homes to be for appliances & devices. Reality: The internet of things (IoT) in the home will be at least 10 times the size of humans connected, current estimates are for 50 billion items. So in pure connections it will be way bigger than their estimate. But as a portion of traffic and bandwidth it will still be small compared to human generated internet traffic. Most IoT devices will have simple sensors and awareness functions through connected nodes, which in real terms generate very little traffic as long as we maintain Net Neutrality. I’d also add that we are already generating more than 50% of web traffic through home connected devices – aren’t TV’s, smart phones and laptops in the home ‘devices’? Again the way things are defined mislead.

Report Claim: First city of over 50,000 people with no traffic lights. Reality: We already have hundreds of cities around the world of more than 50,000 people without a road rule in sight, let alone traffic lights. Seriously, have any of these people behind the report ever been outside of the confines of Davos or their Ivy League Learning Institute? China, India, Indonesia, Africa, Eastern Europe and South America all have cities that fit this definition today. Another example that the world view of the economically fortunate is often myopic and first world centric.

Report Claim: 1st 3D printed production car by 2025 Reality: At volume this will not make sense, but it also depends on what they mean by ‘Production’. If less than 10,000 units then this is a clear ‘No’ as the industrial production line has advantages 3D printing will never have, an undisputed fact among 3D printing experts. While many parts of cars will come from printers, the entire production process will not. In fact, they key benefit of 3D printing is the exact opposite of ‘production efficiency’, it’s about customisation. They’re missing the reason.

Ironically, the reason many companies get disrupted through technology is how they define their business. They define things in terms of what they sell, and not the problems they solve. Technology often unveils new ways to solve old problems, which renders yesterdays logistics and infrastructure outdated. 

Incentives & Social Considerations

Report Claim: First Robotic Pharmacist will arrive by 2025. Reality: We already don’t need pharmacists and it is largely the strength of their government lobby that keeps them putting little labels on little bottles. There is no economic incentive for the pharmacists to replace themselves, and so I doubt they’ll let it happen. If this incentive existed, they’d already be selling medicine in grocery stores. If however, the report is referring to 3D printed medicine, well the FDA approved that in August this year.

Report Claim: 5% of consumer products printed in 3D by 2025. Reality: While I think 3D printers will be in a majority of homes, it’s still like 1975 was for personal computers. An entire infrastructure of software, materials and socialisation around the industry needs to be created. The opportunity is really in platforms to support the potential of 3D printing – read here, selling shovels, not finding gold nuggets. But let’s add the social reality to the mix. We are more than 20 years into the World Wide Web and e-commerce is still only 7% of US retail sales. And this is more evolutionary and easier to adjust to socially than 3D printing items is. This tells us the truth more than any predictions will.

Report Claim: First AI machine on a corporate board of Directors by 2025. Reality: As per the pharmacists being a Board Member is not a question of need and decision making ability, it’s a question of power, influence & gettin’ paid. The incentive for board members to replace themselves, is really not there. If someone does it, and they will, it will be a mainly be about company PR.

Report Claim: Driverless cars will represent 10% of all cars on US roads. Reality: This number will be significantly higher, maybe even higher than 50%. This is true for a few reasons. Firstly, the cost of self driving cars will be a lot lower than people expect. Because cars are now rolling computers, the same pricing dynamics now apply. Costs decline while performance increases exponentially. I’ve already written about why every car on the road will be electric in 10 years, and when we add things like; the ability to watch movies or sleep while travelling; having an extra drink after work on a Friday night, putting your car to work to earn money while you’re not using it (if indeed you own one); and not having to pay insurance for a self driver, then the incentives for self drive put this in the smart phone category – we curve jump to it as soon as it’s available.

The problem with the report, was in my view, that it was done by asking opinions and averaging them out. A bit like designing something by committee. You end up with well, average results which probably don’t reflect the real views of any individual who was asked.

You should totally read my book – The Great Fragmentation.