When I was young, my parents would tell me of the hardships of their own childhoods. These were spent at the beginning of the last century in a world with no electricity, lights, cars, airplanes, radio, or television. Of course, in the way of children, I wasn’t impressed at the time.
Then, many years later, I helped choose the U.S. National Academy of Engineering list of engineering’s greatest accomplishments of the 20th century. My parents’ stories came back to me with new meaning. In choosing and ordering the list of achievements, we weighed arguments about how much each achievement had improved the quality of life. But beyond the details of any single achievement, I was simply proud of how dramatically we engineers had bettered the way people live.
Of course, in the way of parents, I have told my offspring of the hardships of my own childhood. But I have the sense that maybe it wasn’t all that different from what they were experiencing themselves, give or take an Internet. And now, in thinking about the future, I sometimes wonder if technology will continue to make the same degree of improvement in quality of life that it did in the last century. Could it be that there are diminishing returns with technological solutions to the often-intractable problems of the human condition on Earth?
Perhaps at the end of the 21st century, the National Academy will put together another list of achievements. I would love to know what would be on it, but it’s unlikely that any practicing engineer of today will be alive then. Nonetheless, we are now 14 years into this century, and there may already be some trends that can be extrapolated into predictions.
Think of what we knew in 1915 of the achievements that would come to be listed in 2000. It’s actually quite a bit. We can group these achievements into three categories: those that had already happened or were well under way, those that were anticipated (or at least would have been unsurprising), and finally, those that could not possibly have been predicted by anyone in 1915.
A handful of achievements belong in the first category. No. 1—electrification—was already progressing rapidly in 1915. Power stations were being built throughout the world, and alternating current had become the preferred mode of transmission. No. 2—the automobile—was well into its development with the production of the Model T Ford in 1908. And No. 3—the airplane—was already being pressed into military service above Europe. Radio (listed with television at No. 6) was invented right before the turn of the century and had risen into prominence with the sinking of the Titanic in 1912. Finally on this list, the evolution of the telephone network, at No. 9, would become a century-long task, but it was also advancing swiftly as of 1915.
In the category of anticipated or unsurprising achievements, I would place highways (11), agricultural mechanization (7), household appliances (15), air conditioning and refrigeration (10), and water supply (4). But the third category, the surprises, is the most interesting: Who could have predicted integrated circuits and lasers, and who would have believed that before the century was out, a man would walk on the moon?
Applying this reasoning to the current day lets me suggest some possibilities for the year 2100 list of achievements. Wireless technology is already under way and will be an ongoing theme for the century. In the anticipated category I would put machine intelligence and 3-D printing. By definition, though, the technological surprises are beyond my imagination. I even wonder if the inventions of such fundamentally transformative devices as the integrated circuit and laser are rarities that might not be seen in every century. Or perhaps the engineers of the future will look back on these words wryly after a raft of transformative technologies push wireless or 3-D technologies below the cutoff point of significance. But I’ll never know!
This article originally appeared in print as “Looking Back on the Future.”