Expect the unexpected

Kate Bellingham, National STEM Careers Coordinator, engineer and former 'Tomorrow's World' presenter stresses the difficulty of predicting future technology.

In a speech 20 years ago, I confidently attributed these words to Niels Bohr, the physicist. It came from a book. Now, after a quick internet search, I find there are several variations of, and attributions for, this quotation – just one of the consequences of our 'information' age.
However, I personally hope it was Niels Bohr who said it, because it gives those words a subtle subtext of quantum physics, rather than being a glib comment on, say, playing the lottery.

My interest in technology futurology started when I joined the presenting team for the BBC programme 'Tomorrow's World' in 1990. Despite the title, I didn't see it as predicting the future – a TV Tardis to travel in time and glimpse our destiny. What I tried to do was give a sense of technical and technological possibility. What happens after that depends on many factors, including the audience themselves. So looking back over those 20 years, is there anything we can learn from our expectations of 'Tomorrow's World'? Perhaps the strongest message is to expect the unexpected.

I remember a feature on domestic audio equipment. At the time, we had recordable cassette tapes and play-only CDs. What would be the 'next generation'? I demonstrated the DCC (Digital Compact Cassette) and the Minidisc, and talked about how DAT (Digital Audio Tape) was having such an impact in the professional audio market. We now know that what we were waiting for was not a 'thing' that you put into a 'player', but a completely new audio format and a new way of using it – the MP3 player.

I demonstrated the first commercially available domestic videophone. Now, how many of us have got one of those sitting on the telephone table in the hall? Instead we share pictures and videos via our mobile phones. Which brings us to another 'left field' development – the mobile being used for texting. Who would have thought that given the chance to talk, or to leave a voice message, people would choose to tap a tiny keyboard instead? According to US data published in October 2010, voice usage by teenagers is down by 14% in just one year, while other forms of mobile communication continue to increase.

While 'Tomorrow's World' became a national institution, and whether your memories are of Raymond Baxter, Judith Hann, Bob Symes or Philippa Forrester, there are other places to look for how well we predicted the technological landscape in which we find ourselves. Tempting as it is to revel in the success or failure of 'Star Trek' and 'Back to the Future' as predictors, I will instead guide you towards the commercial attempts in the early 1990s, which could be far more enlightening.

Ian Pearson has been working in the futurology business for nearly 20 years. This is a very different role from a crystal-ball-gazing fortune teller, and insight and inside knowledge give helpful pointers at least, and real commercial benefits at best. A look back at his 'future calendar' from 1995 shows how our mindset has changed. The calendar suggests that, by 2000, we would have widespread use of home health diagnostics and daily check-ups on line. And, by 2010, we would be using large, wall hung high definition displays and interacting with computers at home using natural language – like talking to a real person. Overall, many things on the calendar have come about, though perhaps not in the way they were described, while others have fallen by the wayside.

What we can learn from this calendar is that you cannot rely on what is likely to be technically possible, you need to include financial and social imperatives and barriers.

Also in 1995, the UK Technology Foresight programme published the results of its Delphi Survey – a wide consultation of the business and the science and technology communities on more than 1000 topics, looking at opportunities for wealth creation, improving quality of life and a realistic timescale. But it also sought views on anticipated barriers, such as lack of funding, regulation and standards, social and ethical acceptability and education or skill base.

It makes fascinating reading and the overriding feeling is that, however much you look to the future, the ground shifting under your feet can make the most difference. While there is mention of sustainability and environmental impact, this is not portrayed as an embedded, underlying feature as it is today. And while we certainly knew that communications technology was going to be different, we did not have a clear picture of the impact, particularly of mobile technology and the 'app' world we now live in.

It will not surprise you that I am wary of making any predictions at all, but I will tentatively suggest that we will move even further away from technology for technology's sake. It is not having the latest gizmo that counts – it is what it does that matters.

I'm also intrigued by the influence of the internet. I am involved in a crowdsourcing project looking at reusing existing technology for environmental benefit (www.openplanet ideas.com). Social networking, cloud computing and the myriad of new communication opportunities are redefining collaboration, not just in business, but in broader society.

And, finally, how will we ascribe value to products, processes or ideas? If something which was sold a decade ago is now freely available, where are the income streams of the future?

A positive note on which to end is that there seems to be an increasing opportunity to influence the direction of technology. The future isn't just something that will happen to us – we can play our part in making our future.

Having said that, here we are in 2010, spending our Saturday evenings watching ballroom dancing and talent shows. As I said, expect the unexpected.

Author
Kate Bellingham

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