Thursday, July 9, 2015

Predicting the scientific future

Man likes making predictions about the future. Scientists are human beings, therefore they make predictions about the progress to be expected in various fields of research during the coming years, decades and even centuries. These predictions are widely publicized by the media.
Are scientific predictions more likely to be satisfied than other predictions of the future? We might think so, since science is the most rational branch of human knowledge. What should we do to confirm or disconfirm this surmise? We should apply the scientific method to the predictions, i.e. wait until the scheduled time has come and check whether the predictions were fulfilled or not. Such studies are not usually done. Everyone is prepared to predict or to listen to predictions, but few bother to check if those anticipations actually came to happen.
There are a few egregious cases that many people remember. In 1956, the Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence, where the term Artificial Intelligence was coined, predicted that in less than ten years we would have computer programs capable of beating the world chess champion, or seamlessly translating between any two human languages. The total failure of this prediction is obvious: the first target came true 41 years later rather than 10, while the second has not been achieved after almost 60 years. As a result of this failure, research in artificial intelligence stopped for more than a decade and was not revived until expert systems reawakened interest in the discipline.
But as man is the only animal who stumbles twice on the same stone, history repeated itself. In 1980, the Japanese government announced plans for the fifth generation of computers. In 1992 (they predicted) we would have machines capable of translating perfectly between two human languages, which would communicate with us in our own language and respond intelligently. The prediction was not successful.
Let’s look at two additional examples, drawn from the field of popular science written by famous people. In 1945, in a technical article, the engineer and writer Arthur C. Clarke (author of the script of the famous SF film 2001, A Space Odyssey) made an important fulfilled prediction: the future use of communications satellites in geostationary orbit. In 1960, the French magazine Planéte published a table of additional predictions by Clarke, drawn from his popular science publications. The predictions were made for future decades, from 1970 to 2100. The first five have already taken place. Of the 18 predictions we can test, Clarke only succeeded with two: the landing on the Moon in 1970, and the mobile phone, which he called individual radio. Among his failed predictions are the colonization of Mars (scheduled for 2000), nuclear fusion (1980), the understanding of the language of cetaceans (1970) and the ever present machine translation (1970). In another case he fell dramatically short: he predicted for the year 2000 the discovery of the structure of elementary particles (protons and neutrons), which actually took place over 30 years before, with the theory of quarks.
Isaac Asimov
Isaac Asimov is another great writer of popular science, author of about four hundred books. In an article published in 1967 (The World in 1990) he predicts the state of the world 23 years later. These are some of his predictions:
          The world population will be 5 billion, the air almost impossible to breath. Smoking will be banned outdoors. Houses will be equipped with air filters.
          Water pollution will cause a worldwide shortage of drinking water. Desalination of sea water won’t be enough to solve the problem.
          Disposing of nuclear waste will have been solved. Nuclear fusion and solar energy will end energy shortages.
          Minerals will be extracted from the seabed.
          Cities will sink in the ground and eventually disappear from the surface, replaced by parks and farms. Underwater cities will also be built.
          Cars will be smaller and run without wheels on air mattresses. Roads will disappear. Helicopters will proliferate, with heliodromes in most tall buildings. The underground train will consist of a continuous succession of cars, filling the entire circuit of every line.
          Mail will be distributed by pneumatic tube, directly to each floor. Phones will transmit images in addition to voice.
          Books will be replaced by microfilms.
          Food will be based mainly on kelp, sea seeds and yeast.
          The colonization of Antarctica will have begun.
          There will be a colony on the moon and plans to land on Mars.
          People will work 30 hours a week.
Was the world in 1990 anything like this? Curiously enough, not one of the two great writers on popular science was able to foresee the three most important advances in the 80s and 90s: the personal computer, genetic engineering and the Internet.
Predicting the future is risky, a thankless  impossible task, which puts you in an embarrassing situation where you often get nothing but ridicule and contempt, as Isaac Asimov wrote in the above mentioned article. The examples make this very clear. Will we refrain of making further predictions? I doubt it: the temptation is very great.


Manuel Alfonseca

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