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How we forecast future technologies

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…

Some technologies are easy to predict, but it’s easy to get the detail wrong. mcscrooge54/Flickr

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.

h.koppdelaney

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?

Our team embraces anekantavada, the Jainist doctrine of the necessity and validity of a multitude of viewpoints:

  • 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.

Emma Brabrook

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.

Join the conversation

9 Comments sorted by

  1. Suzy Gneist
    Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

    Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

    Thanks for that description. As a futures postgraduate myself, and someone who was involved in personal computers and internet technology integrated into professional use as a designer from the early 80s, i have seen many developments and been frustrated by many limitations along the way - storage, RAM, ISDN, ADSL..... The list goes on and the waiting times are actually getting longer because developments are happening faster now than changes in infrastructure or even decisions.
    To be effective…

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    1. Damien Westacott

      Programmer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      I think we need to change the way broadband is sold as a product in Australia.

      Looking at Telstra in particular, their broadband product offerings are no longer differentiated in terms of speed. They're differentiated in terms of download cap.

      Which is a problem for consumers, since it's speed that limits the utility of your internet connection.

      We won't see top-down pressure to improve delivery infrastructure until there is bottom-up pressure to differentiate the products (and hence the commercial return) based on speed.

      The good news: if we can manage to get this done then it'll have an effect on our future online tech growth analogous to that of a breakthrough in materials science on physical tech growth. IMHO, of course.

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    2. David Maddern

      logged in via Facebook

      In reply to Damien Westacott

      But there is a new way of delivering broadband, it's called LiFi (Science Show, last 2 weeks) and it has huge possibilities for broadcast, and cheap (LEDS make it) and because it can take over the Download bit of WiFi it makes that a lot more powerful. And there's millions of colours, not all visible

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    3. Matthew Sorell

      Senior Lecturer, School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at University of Adelaide

      In reply to David Maddern

      David, Li-Fi, like Wi-Fi, is a short-range tethering technology. While it deserves a mention as a means of connecting devices within your home, the difference between these short-range technologies and long-range infrastructure are discussed in https://theconversation.com/sooner-cheaper-faster-can-power-lines-speed-up-the-nbn-rollout-19960.

      If Li-Fi lives up to its promises, it puts even more pressure on NBN demand, because it addresses the intra-building bottleneck without requiring rewiring.

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    4. Ben Marshall
      Ben Marshall is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Writer

      In reply to Suzy Gneist

      Agree with all, Suzy. I write for television and live semi-rurally in a village that is dead half the time. They're promising us wireless broadband sometime in the future but as with phone reception, when that cuts out due to weather or whatever, my broadband will either be worse or just cut out.

      I need connection 24/7, and would love genuine high speed broadband via fibre to the premises. Hell, I'll even pay extra for it. And if this village had that option, real estate values would go…

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    5. Suzy Gneist
      Suzy Gneist is a Friend of The Conversation.

      Multi-tasker at Graphic Design & Montville Coffee

      In reply to Ben Marshall

      Agreed, if the infrastructure was there, many more people could work remotely - there really isn't much I need to be in town for, most of my clients are interstate and I hardly ever meet them, yet my capabilities compared to a city location are so disadvantaged, that it severely limits what I can offer from my location, especially time frames and turnarounds.
      Digital technology provision is pretty rock bottom quality in the regions, unless you live in a mining town maybe, and even my unlimited most expensive plan of 200Gb+ per month available, but limited to slow ADSL downloads of 6930 kb/s and up of 320 kb/s >> too slow to rely on and uncompetitive at national and international standards, can never reach its 200Gb limit at current down/upload speeds.
      Then again, since digital TV signals took over, I lost reception quality on most National networks over analogue, apart from all the new shopping channels of course - anything digital in the country is a joke and it's not even funny.

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  2. Stephen Pritchard

    Researcher, cognitive science

    "A 15-year outlook can be a reasonably accurate view of the big picture."

    I can't see any evidence for this claim.

    When I read the section of the above after "what went wrong", it doesn't do much to sell the idea of being a futurist. You get the easy things right - predicting increases in bandwidth, processing power, analog to digitial shift, but get the hard but important/gamechanging things wrong: youtube, cloud services, social media, mobile apps. These latter things are both culturally…

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    1. Matthew Sorell

      Senior Lecturer, School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at University of Adelaide

      In reply to Stephen Pritchard

      Thanks for your comments Stephen - I have been away on leave so just seeing them now.

      I think you are missing the point that we are working at the macroscopic scale, whereas your comments, and popular opinion, focus on the micro-detail of "what will we be doing?" Unfortunately this often pervades the mindset of policy makers too. In this context that would have meant naming entertainment devices, specific applications, and specific modes of delivery. They asked for a microscopic view to inform…

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  3. Leo Braun

    Conscientious Objector

    "We look at technology developments, from academic research through to what we can gather about emerging consumer products from major manufacturers". "Our value as consultants comes from being able to highlight the gaps -- the missing technologies"!

    • Matthew Sorell, it is quite regrettable to draw attention to fridges and washing machines in the 21st century -- equipped with myriad electronic gadgets -- yet the basics deteriorated. Perplexed folks being bombarded with the "wobble technology…

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