Friday, 3 January 2020

It’s 2020 already and we were supposed to be teleporting to work by now. What’s taking so long?

The Beginning

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What 2020 could have been

Happy New Year, one and all. And welcome to 2020. One decade has ended, and another begun, and somehow we’re 20 years into the 21st century. People have been making predictions for years about what life would be like in the 2020s, but now we’ve actually got here, just how many of those predictions came true? And where might we be ten years from now?

What did people think 2020 would look like?

The pre-teen futurists of the early 20th century were (mostly) way off. Children writing into the Minneapolis Journal newspaper in 1904 to make their predictions about what 2019 would look like imagined it containing such a treasure trove of wonders as ubiquitous airships and cars that could go down into the sea, tasty pills that could substitute for a whole meal, regular trips to visit and trade with Mars, and fully-autonomous robots that cleaned the house. Extracts from their letters are published in this piece by Gizmodo.

There were some oddly prescient predictions: One child imagined sending “a wireless telegraph message” to get ice cream and cake, while another envisaged “moveable stairs” that would help people with large bundles.

But we’re no closer to having ape chauffeurs. Sorry. In 1994, a group of researchers at RAND Corp — evidently on a mission to shred the think tank’s credibility — proposed that by 2020 we would be driven around by monkeys and serviced by house robots. This article on Best Life contains more wild predictions by totally rational people such as US Postmaster General Arthur E. Summerfield, who saw the cruise missile as the ideal method of mail delivery, and Alex Lewyt, former president of Lewyt Vacuum Company, who believed that nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners would become the most effective way to clean the house.

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Your top 5

Your top 5 pieces of business and economic news in December:

Which predictions came close to being true?

Okay, so we didn’t quite fulfill our childhood dreams of living like the Jetsons, but it’s easy to overlook the significant tech advancements the human race has seen over just the past few decades. Many of the tools that are part and parcel of our daily lives were nothing but figments of people’s imagination back in the 1980s — and we’re not just talking about the three-camera iPhone 11. In 1982, Paula Taylor put together a book with children’s ideas and predictions about what life might look like in the “distant future” of the 2000s, and some of the ideas are eerily accurate, like the creation of Google and its different services. One prediction in Taylor’s book envisions computers with such mind-blowing powers that just typing in a few words would help you “find out almost anything you want to know.” We’re not saying these kids knew we would be asking our computers at 4am whether our dog would understand their birthday party, but they were definitely onto something.

Other wild ideas from the ‘80s about the future of tech that were on the money: The creation of on-demand television. Yes, once upon a time, it was nothing more than a fantasy to have Netflix / Hulu / Apple TV / HBO / whatever other streaming services we at Enterprise have yet to discover. Perhaps more outlandish for the time was the prediction of an entire home being controlled by a robot or computer. Now, we do indeed have Alexa and Google Home, among other personal “robot assistants” and they’re pretty much exactly how they were imagined: “He [the robot] has full control of the appliances, and can operate the dishwasher or the washing machine — or adjust the thermostat to make sure the house is at the right temperature.” Alexa, play Fortune Teller.

But even beyond personal tech, some writers made incredibly accurate predictions about the events of the 2000s, decades before they were even thought possible, according to Business Insider (and no, this is not a rundown of every time The Simpsons predicted something that ended up happening in real life.) For example, way back in 1865, novelist Jules Verne described in one of his books a scenario in which a group of Americans fly into space and land on the moon (this was more than a century before the actual moon landing). And in 1882, Verne saw a future where people could listen to the news, instead of having to read it from a newspaper. The first radio broadcast didn’t happen until some 40 years later. Novelist H.G. Wells kind of also predicted the creation of nuclear bombs: In his 1914 novel, “The World Set Free,” Wells “mentions a hand grenade of uranium that ‘would continue to explode indefinitely’” and says that this grenade could be dropped from an airplane. Lo and behold, the US dropped nuclear bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki three decades later.

What might the world actually look like in 2030?

…So, that whole climate change thing turned out to be real: 2030 will be here sooner than we think but we’ll probably be living in a different world. Fast forward 10 years, and no one will be able to turn a blind eye to climate change. Global warming is currently estimated to be 1.0°C above pre-industrial levels and its impact can already be felt. If warming exceeds a maximum of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels, there could be irreversible damage done to natural and human systems including extreme temperatures in most inhibited areas, drought, heavy precipitation and eventually the loss of some ecosystems and the extinction of some species, according to UN estimates. Even worse, the World Health Organization predicts that climate change could cause 250k deaths per year between 2030 and 2050 if we continue along our current path. The good news is that those extreme effects of climate change can be avoidable if the world manages to cut emissions of greenhouse gases by 45% over the next 10 years.

On the lighter side of things: Your iPad, mobile screen and even virtual reality headset may well be considered legacy tech by 2030, as a new generation of displays that project 4D images directly onto your retina become the norm. By then, the Internet of Things will have also taken over our lives, helping to wake us up in the morning, prepare our coffee and tailoring our breakfasts based on analyses of nutritional needs. We will then go to work in our driverless cars, free of traffic jams, road rage and car accidents. (cough, Skynet, cough).

Sounds far-fetched? Maybe. More plausible predictions come from MIT Sloan Management Review, which forecasts a continuation of urbanization to the point where two-thirds of us will live in cities, creating the need for more urban agriculture and smart buildings. Limited resources, including water and staple commodities, will also become major issues. As the world becomes more open, privacy will be a thing of the past, with the growth of so-called surveillance capitalism thriving as tools used to collect customer information become more advanced.

The art of prediction: Can we tell what the future holds? While it is probably unreasonable to expect the average person to develop a level of foresight of, say, a clairvoyant camel and an oracular octopus, the art of prediction is to some extent learnable. The most famous research on prediction was done by political scientist Philip Tetlock in his seminal 2006 book Expert Political Judgment, as this article in the Harvard Business Review details. Over six months, Tetlock and his team analyzed 150k forecasts by 743 participants competing to predict 199 world events.

Understanding the big picture: Those who made multiple and balanced explanations performed better than those who relied on a single big idea. If you were to pick at random, stats say you’ll be wrong half the time.

A few factors come into play for accurate predictions: Intelligence, experience, and practice, obviously, play a big role. But do not skip on teamwork, Quartz suggests, as evident by the 1983 American comedy film Trading Places.

One thing to worry about is bias: We tend to favor certain outcomes against others whether we like it or not, and training against this was seen massively improving predictions results.

It’s only important for managers to hone their predictive powers, right? Wrong. We, humans, are wired to make spontaneous and unconscious actions in a network of assumptions of continuity or change, according to Bechtle Magazine. Thinking of starting a family, taking a loan, or trying to decide where to eat? All of these everyday choices require an element of predictive skill. You may not be able to see the future of the universe, but you can observe and understand before coming to a reasonable conclusion.

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