Why are we engineers so bad at making predictions?
In countless panel discussions on the future of technology, I'm not sure I ever got anything right. As I look back on technological progress, I experience first retrospective surprise, then surprise that I'm surprised, because it all crept up on me when I wasn't looking. How can something like Google feel so inevitable and yet be impossible to predict?
I'm filled with wonder at all that we engineers have accomplished, and I take great communal pride in how we've changed the world in so many ways. Decades ago I never dreamed we would have satellite navigation, computers in our pockets, the Internet, cellphones, or robots that would explore Mars. How did all this happen, and what are we doing for our next trick?
The software pioneer Alan Kay has said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it, and that's what we've been busy doing. The public understands that we're creating the future, but they think that we know what we're doing and that there's a master plan in there somewhere. However, the world evolves haphazardly, bumbling along in unforeseen directions. Some seemingly great inventions just don't take hold, while overlooked innovations proliferate, and still others are used in unpredicted ways.
When I joined Bell Labs, so many years ago, there were two great development projects under way that together were to shape the future--the picturephone and the millimeter waveguide. The waveguide was an empty pipe, about 5 centimeters in diameter, that would carry across the country the 6''megahertz analog signals from those ubiquitous picturephones.
Needless to say, this was an alternative future that never happened. Our technological landscape is littered with such failed bets. For decades engineers would say that the future of communications was video telephony. Now that we can have it for free, not many people even want it.