How we forecast future technologies
In this cross-posting from The Conversation the University of Adelaide’s Matthew Sorrell looks at how to predict future technology trends.
Although I’m a futurist, I have absolutely no idea what information and communications technology will look like in 50 years time.
I do know that some of it will be familiar because once we find a usable form, we tend to stick with it – glowing rectangles will probably remain popular. But I also know that we will see technology and applications which have not yet been imagined.
This technology space is growing in complexity and capability at a much, much faster rate than any other, and the implications for society are profound.
One year is easy, but 15 years is necessary
Can I tell you what we’ll be doing on the internet a year from now? The answer, of course, is yes – but so can anyone who spends any time thinking about it, and we’ll all be pretty much on target.
Short-term projection is easy because the products are in the late stage of development now. In fact the same is true out to about five years, because the product development has already started.
In telecommunications and informatics research, we try to figure out what society will require about 15 years out.
Why 15 years? A first-rate research grant takes about a year from concept to successful award, for a program which takes about three years to complete. Successful research with a commercial focus can then lead to commercial development, usually another five years.
It then takes perhaps ten years to get a commercial return on the research and development investment. Getting a product to market faster than ten years can give you a first-mover advantage; or, as we have seen time and time again, you can be so far ahead of market demand that your product falters.
Aiming for the Goldilocks just-right zone of 15 years in total is about right.
How do you see the future?
So how do you make a prediction from a distance of 15 years?
- we look at technology developments, from academic research through to what we can gather about emerging consumer products from major manufacturers
- we draw on our experience in planning infrastructure, such as mobile phone networks, to consider commercial risks and return on investment
- we look at regulatory enablers and roadblocks, and at commercial relationships
- we look at the connections between technology, commerce, society, regulation and politics. These viewpoints need to align to create a coherent view of the future.
Our value as consultants comes from being able to highlight the gaps – the missing technologies, the missing commercial relationships, the anachronistic regulation and policy settings – which highlight where the opportunities lie.
A 15-year outlook can be a reasonably accurate view of the big picture. But the detail which drives the big picture – the specific applications, the specific devices and the specific dinner parties where two drunk and egotistical executive directors swear to bury each other – can only be a speculative part of the narrative.
Online video, then and now
In 2005, the Australian Office of Film and Literature Classification asked us to advise on the regulatory impact of new and emerging entertainment technologies. We were asked to paint a picture of future entertainment technologies, over ten years, to help them plan regulation.
It built on earlier work for the Australian Broadcasting Authority in 2002, in which we argued that, in the absence of significant technology (which turned out to be cloud services) and commercial impetus, streaming would fail to grow beyond 2008.
At the time, movie houses were pumping out all of their libraries on DVD before the internet made physical media obsolete (even though the technology solution was not clear). Video cassette recorders were still common, and most of us still had a bulky analogue television.
We could see handheld devices, particularly portable music players, developing video capabilities, even though screen and memory technology available at that time clearly wasn’t up to the task. These days, tablets and smart phones are ubiquitous and affordable, to the extent that some airlines hand out iPads to customers rather than integrate screens into seats.
We could see solid-state memory dropping in price and increasing in capacity at a time when a 1-gigabyte memory stick cost around A$100. These days, a 64-gigabyte memory costs under A$40, a 150-times improvement in eight years!
Where we went wrong
We did accurately predict the speed and power of commercial desktop computers, the rise of 100Mbit/s optical fibre to homes and the role of wireless broadband, the commercial dominance of graphic-intensive computer games and the pervasiveness of digital television.
But we underplayed the likes of Youtube and ABC’s iView – this year, more than a billion people visited YouTube every month.
At that stage, hard drive technology was ramping up and we could see a future for multi-terabyte devices. However storage of personal content in the internet cloud didn’t rank a mention. Dropbox, a cloud storage service which launched in 2008, now claims 200 million users worldwide.
We did not rate the dominance of social media such as Facebook, at that stage not available outside the university/college market.
The market for mobile phone applications was at that time a failure with the Symbian operating system, so there was little evidence other than effort to suggest someone like Google or Apple would succeed. Latest figures suggest Google and Apple have supplied more than 100 billion app downloads between them.
What we missed, though, illustrates the point that we were quite conservative in what was accepted by our client as a set of wildly over-enthusiastic predictions.
So where will we be in 2025? The answer depends on where we are with the National Broadband Network. Without high capacity symmetric broadband, the answer is, as far as this futurist is concerned, quite depressing.
The future is a strange place. To gain some perspective, take a look at the past.
This piece draws on reports funded by Federal Government authorities in 2000 and 2005.