I am always on the lookout for stories featuring past predictions of the future impacts of technology on society and how closely they mirrored reality. So I was quite happy to find a couple of recent articles, one in BusinessWeek and the other in the LA Times, discussing technology predictions made by the CIA in 1962 and by a group of futurologists in 1988.
The CIA predictions involved a speculative piece, recently released, concerning how computers might impact future U.S. intelligence gathering, data processing and analysis. The paper was written by CIA analyst Orrin Clotworthy and entitled, “Some Far-out Thoughts on Computers” which was originally published in the agency’s Studies in Intelligence in 1962. In his paper, Clotworthy wrote that there was “rising optimism” to think that behavioral scientists would someday be able to use computers “to foretell the behavior of large groups of people within reasonable limits, given accurate and timely measures of certain telltale factors.”
Clotworthy also speculates that computers could be programmed by the year 2000 to perform as a “stand-in brain” that could test out different scenarios and make predictions of the behaviors of foreign leaders. He goes on to note while storage of the information needed for such a “stand-in brain” might pose a difficult problem, getting all the data required could be “obtained with relative ease.”
Makes one think about how much access the CIA had to personal, corporate and governmental data domestic and foreign back then. As a side note, Reuters reported two weeks ago that the Obama Administration is drawing up plans to allow “all U.S. spy agencies full access to a massive database that contains financial data on American citizens and others who bank in the country.”
CIA analyst Clotworthy went on to discuss how computers would be used to support the development of multi-factor, multi-player, real-time gaming that could be used by “formulators of foreign policy” to test out policy alternatives and potential consequences. Doing the same for “intelligence games” which could be used for “training” as well as “testing operational proposals and developing doctrine” would likely quickly follow.
In addition, Clotworthy wrote about how computers could “index personnel knowledge and skills” and through analysis find out who knew who and their direct and indirect relationships. In the CIA’s case, knowing these relationships might be useful in finding out “what foreign citizens have ties of acquaintance, direct or indirect, to the staff of an intelligence organization.” Of course today, it is far easier to find that type of information out (like alleged Chinese hackers) by just checking Facebook or LinkedIn.
There are a couple of other predictions made by Clotworthy in his paper about the intelligence agencies’ future use of computers—or feeding “the monster” as he called them. If you have a chance, read it over, also keeping in mind the context of the time, i.e., that Cobol officially came out in 1960, Digital’s PDP-1 appeared in 1961 along with the IBM Selectric Typewriter, America Airlines installed the first computerized reservation system in the same year as the paper, and the IBM 360 was still three years away.
The second article in the LA Times reviews the predictions made by 30 futurologists about what life would be like in 2013. The predictions were incorporated into two essays written by Nicole Yorkin (now a television writer and producer) published in the LA Times’ April 3, 1988 magazine issue. The first essay involved the “day in the life” of a 2013 LA family, while the second looked at the barriers that might stop LA's future opportunity as a “technological utopia, an economic giant, a harmonious melding of cultures and race” from happening.
In the essay, the family had two robots (each costing about US $5000) to clean, cook and wash clothes, as well as a family robotic dog. Household appliances would be intelligent, such as a refrigerator that keep a running inventory of its contents. The father would drive to work following an electronic-map system in a car that was highly automated and could also drive itself by following “electro lanes” built into major highways. The latter capability would be an option offered for sale on family cars.
Generally speaking, the predictions outlined in the essays are optimistic but not that ridiculously far off, except maybe for the robots which were predicted to be as ubiquitous in 2013 as “a really good sound system” was in 1988. That may be truer in another 25 years. Again, if you have the time, both of Yorkin's essays are a good read, once more remembering that in 1987 Microsoft Windows 2.0 was released as well as the Sun SPARC processor, in 1988 that Microsoft MS DOS 4.0 was released as was the first major worm by Robert Morris, and that the Intel Pentium was still five years away.
Finally, for those interested in how technology is perceived to impact society, there is the Great British Innovation Vote going on in Britain aimed at identifying what is “the most important innovation of the last 100 years and the recent one most likely to shape our future.”
The voted, devised by the GREAT Britain campaign, the Science Museum Group, Royal Academy of Engineering, Royal Society, British Science Association, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, and Engineering UK, as a way to promote Britain as a home of significant scientific and technological achievement (and thereby a good place for international high-tech companies to set up shop), has a short-list of 100 British innovations to choose from. Voting closes on the 25 March. I’ll review the results in an update to this post when they are made available.
Photo: Getty Images
Robert N. Charette is a Contributing Editor to IEEE Spectrum and an acknowledged international authority on information technology and systems risk management. A self-described “risk ecologist,” he is interested in the intersections of business, political, technological, and societal risks. Charette is an award-winning author of multiple books and numerous articles on the subjects of risk management, project and program management, innovation, and entrepreneurship. A Life Senior Member of the IEEE, Charette was a recipient of the IEEE Computer Society’s Golden Core Award in 2008.