LONGREAD: Getting it wrong: why prediction is (mostly) a mug’s game

The year 2016 was replete with confident assurances Donald Trump would never win the presidency, from names no less venerable than the New York Times and The Guardian.

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Similarly, The Independent explained how Brexit would never happen, joined in the US by The New Yorker. How did so many self-appointed experts get it so wrong? Voters simply didn't care what they said. So we start 2017 with a very uncertain future – and even less confidence in forecasts.

"Everything that can be invented has been invented."
Charles Duell, Wrong Person

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But 2016 wasn’t the first year 'experts' have so wildly missed the mark. Any time the subject of incorrect predictions comes up you'll probably hear the name Charles Duell (pictured, left) the US commissioner of patents whose 1899 missive “everything that can be invented has been invented” has given him a lasting reputation for all the wrong reasons.

There's actually no evidence Duell ever said or believed it but its status as an official meme is proof of how much we love to reflect on predictions that are revealed by hindsight to be delightfully and resoundingly wrong.

The internet is awash with clangers like the one attributed to Duell – others include the chairman of IBM saying in 1943 there'd be a market for five computers and British scientist Lord Kelvin saying heavier-than-air flying machines were impossible – just eight years before the Wright Brothers' 1903 flight.

Maybe the most accurate futurist is veteran screenwriter William Goldman, describing Hollywood's efforts to try and make hit movies by saying “nobody knows anything” but there's a deeper story to be told about why we get the future so wrong.


Technology seems to be advancing constantly (and faster all the time) and it can trick us into thinking progress just 'happens', like biological evolution or gravity.

But unlike stone flints and the capture of fire, the industrial revolution tied technological progress inextricably to political and economic factors.

Author and futurist Richard Watson agrees. He's written several successful books about the future of technology and our relationship with it and has even chronicled our history of failed predictions, so he knows more than most how fraught with peril the art of prediction is.

"[The] fact is some elements like demographics are largely predetermined while many others are created by what we do." he says. "Generally that means government and business acting allegedly on our behalf."

Indeed, little gets done nowadays without a profit motive behind it, so it was more a vested interest about his job than any market certainty when Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in 2007 “there's no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share”.

Thinking progress is as immutable as the laws of physics was easy in the postwar boom years when the birth of consumer culture and the growth of the military/industrial complex drove humanity to heights of never-before-seen convenience and comfort.

But consider in the mid-1950s commercial airliners flew at around 900 kilometers an hour. When Chuck Yaeger broke the sound barrier in 1947 the atomic-age excitement was palpable.

Surely just a few years hence we'd be flying from Australia to the US in mere hours on rocket propelled super-liners?

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The experimental plane test pilot Chuck Yaeger used to break the sound barrier in 1947. SOURCE: NASA Langley Research Center.

One of the dirty secrets about air travel is breaking the sound barrier isn't difficult in a commercial passenger jet – above a certain threshold of ticket prices versus fuel costs, airlines just don't make enough money to justify doing so.

So in 65 years of mass-market flight, all that's really changed is you can't smoke, there aren't as many stops and the entertainment system is digital.

Those over 40 might indeed say we've gone backwards – flying used to have a decidedly glamourous sheen, but nowadays it's no more comfortable or chic than riding a city bus.

The airline industry has its own embarrassing predictions, like the unnamed Boeing engineer who is said to have uttered about the 1930s-era 10-passenger 247; “There will never be a bigger plane built”.

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Boeing 247 © San Diego Air & Space Museum Archives


Back when we rode horses for transport, they probably thought they'd get faster through selective breeding, trails through the countryside would gradually improve and saddles would eventually come with cup holders.

Who would have dreamed of sleek metal machines burning liquid fuel that would drive at unimaginable speeds using only a wheel and a few foot pedals?

As history has repeatedly taught us, technologies and traditions advance for a time, but there's usually a sudden shock to the system nobody sees coming, an invention or change that upends entire industries and renders whole product classes obsolete, like ballistics and gunpowder did to swords and arrows and mechanised harvesters did to ox-drawn ploughs.

Watson agrees, saying the biggest mistake would-be experts make is to extend (often personal) recent experience forward in what he calls a 'rather simplistic' manner.

He also talks about phenomena that can give us a skewed or filtered view of the future from our present standpoint – everything from Gartner's hype cycle to the way we tend to talk ourselves into what we already believe (confirmation bias).

"We take little or no account of cycles the inertia of deep history, psychology, combinations of factors or unseen events," Watson says.

Who can say what the cinema industry would be today if there'd been no TV, or marching infantries if we'd never dreamed up the tank (as an aide to a British military commander wrote in 1916; “the idea ... cavalry will be replaced by these iron coaches is absurd”.)

The internet is the perfect example. It's imposed the biggest changes on economics and technology of anything in the last 50 years, underpinning so much of what we do today that old sci-fi stories written about the early 21st century are hopelessly incomplete without taking the information revolution into account.

For example, take a closer look at air travel – it's actually quite different under the surface. Sure, we still hurtle through the air in pressurised metal tubes at three quarters of the speed of sound, but GPS and ILS make air travel safer than ever – modern planes can take off and land themselves if necessary. Components are made from better-performing materials like carbon fibre.

Even the consumer experience has been transformed. We used to hand over cash at a travel agent or airline counter for a paper ticket that caused a major disaster if we misplaced it. Today you can book a plane ticket without getting out of bed or touching a single piece of paper.

The machine world of cars, planes, factories and fridges might not have changed too drastically (not even when we need them to – can you really imagine Sydney's long-needed second airport happening any time soon?)

But we're retrofitting them with sensors en masse for the Internet of Things, which will overturn many industries as sweepingly as the internet itself has done.

Devices and tools the world over will soon communicate with each other and us and report on performance to save time, money, resources and the environment on a global scale.

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The A380 cockpit

The 20th century was the age where we engineered and installed the infrastructure of the modern world. Today's innovation is all about making it perform better by changing the underlying code that drives it, one sensor or device at a time.

In fact, spending on software is going through the roof while new hardware is stagnating or going backwards in many economies of the world. We're using code more than raw materials in many fields, and nature is making a comeback.

The internet has been the source of some of the most embarrassing predictive gaffes.

As Robert Metcalfe, inventor of the Ethernet interface the pre Wi-Fi world depended on, said in 1995, “the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse”.


It's also easy to forget the inventions that sweep the world so completely are often the outliers and maverick products that seemingly don't stand a chance. Only the benefit of hindsight makes technologies like the electricity or the mobile phone seem like manifest destiny.

In the 19th and early 20th centuries the need to travel faster than horseback probably seemed pointless – we already had the train, after all.

In 1903 the president of Michigan Savings Bank told Henry Ford's lawyer his client shouldn't bother with his newfangled horseless carriage, saying “the horse is here to stay but the automobile is only a novelty — a fad”.

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Model T Ford. Source: Wikipedia Commons

Consumers are also far less rational than economists claim and we don't even necessarily adopt the better option, markets hinging on very unquantifiable human factors.

Back in the 1970s the smart money was on the higher-performance Betamax video format, but market dynamics handed the title to VHS for all sorts of reasons.

According to one theory, it won out because Betamax tapes weren't long enough to record a 90-minute baseball game (or a full length pornographic movie, in the more salacious version of the urban myth), the sheer volume of the US home consumer market tipping the balance in favour of VHS worldwide.

Advancement can also be a consequence of political mood. Icons like the Saturn V rocket (banner, source: NASA), TV and even the electric clothes dryer were part of a pioneering spirit that made us believe we'd travel ever higher, ever faster and become more prosperous every year. How far off could holidays on moon bases be?

Today private operators like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic are a long way from the mass market, and after NASA shuttered the space shuttle fleet in 2011 those heady days seemed farther away than ever.

As Watson writes in his book Digital Vs Human, the “distant future had once been hopeful and at times rather fun.”

“It had been a preview of coming attractions. But by late 2007, people had given up hope of seeing flying cars or owning personal jetpacks,” he continued.  “All anyone wanted to know was whether everything would turn out alright. ... This dystopian discomfort was likely linked to a feeling that things had got out of control. Events were unfolding too fast for most people to comprehend.

“Gone were the days when you could start a broken-down car by yourself or understand how a camera worked... This was unsettling, especially to anyone brought up in an analog, Western-centric world.”

Because the utopian visions the Boomer generation bought with them into the present were legacies of the Cold War, and even before the Berlin Wall came down the political shocks of the 1970s (oil crises, recessions, Watergate, Vietnam, the ousting of Whitlam) made us all more cynical – flying to the moon seemed like it belonged in comic books.

Predictions also failed to take economic downturns and the descent of exploratory mood into account.

As recently as 1985, a space conference audience was told tourists would be flying into space within 15 years, into lunar orbit by 2015 and to the lunar surface by 2035.

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Moon Colony. Source: NASA/Dennis M. Davidson


In case the above didn't make it clear, incorrect predictions can come from very smart people you'd think should know better. One wonders what Bill Gates now thinks of his 2004 assertion email spam would be a thing of the past in two years.

He did better in 2002 when he said tablets would be the most popular kind of computer sold in America, but he was shilling for Microsoft products, not the iPad would eventually prove him right.

Gates isn't the only industry or political leader to be blinded by present circumstances. Even visionary sci-fi writer HG Wells said in 1901; “ imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocating its crew and floundering at sea”.

Wells successfully predicted laser weapons, automatic doors, biological warfare and genetic engineering in his groundbreaking tales, so when even he got it wrong at times, futurism might lie somewhere between blind luck and a fool's errand.

Drew Turney is a journalist specialising in science and technology

The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.

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