In the 1944 movie It Happened Tomorrow, a newspaperman, played by Dick Powell, gets a magical edition of the next day’s newspaper. He scoops the competition, amazes his editor, saves a damsel in distress, and becomes a hero, only to get an early look at the ultimate story: the report of his own death.
It’s the classic nightmare of seeing the future without being able to change it, and it goes all the way back to the Arabian merchant’s appointment in Samarra and to Oedipus’s fateful flight to the city of Thebes. But for an engineer, the horror is to see the future without understanding it.
We at IEEE Spectrum can’t change the future or even predict it in any privileged way, unless you count our rare privilege of receiving tips from our board of advisers and our astute readers. What we can do, though, is preview the coming year’s technology projects—those whose launches have been announced or rumored but not fleshed out.
Our job is to put meat on those bones. That way, you won’t suffer the agonizing embarrassment of being caught by surprise when somebody mentions the tech headline of the day. With this issue, we send you out to the cocktail parties of the world armed to the teeth with knowledge. Your job is to perfect a knowing smile.
“Cellulosic ethanol conversion?” you could say, your face brightening slowly. “Weren’t the Brazilians supposed to start that up this year? Of course, first they had to get some really good cellulolytic enzymes….”
“Gaia?” you might murmur, as if searching your memory. “Oh, yes, the Europeans were going to put it at the second Lagrange point—avoids ducking in and out of the Earth’s shadow and the resulting thermal expansion. Plays havoc with the instruments, you know.”
“Great, so Google’s new visor is coming out,” you could pronounce, dryly. “But when did you last say to yourself, ‘The real problem with Google is it’s too far from my face’?”
Or maybe someone mentions Intel’s secret Silvermont project. You set down your glass very firmly. “Well, it’s about time that company got serious about low-power chips,” you intone. “It’s not as if the mobile market is just a niche, good for nothing better than Intel’s stripped-down standard processors—power hogs, I tell you.”
Unlike the movie’s spooky newspaper or Oedipus’s far-seeing oracle, Spectrum can’t be considered right all the time. When we do err, though, we generally err on mere timing. For instance, we predict that commercial passenger flights into space will begin this year—just as we said it would last year [see “Private Spaceflight: Up, Up and Away,” January 2012]. No worries: You can simply say, “Yes, Virgin Galactic’s had a few bumps in the road, haven’t they? Spectrum originally said they’d start service in 2012….”
Go ahead: Take credit when we’re right and blame us when we’re wrong. We can take it. Criticism builds character.