Crystal Balling

Predicting what may happen in the world is always an interesting and often fun thing. Every year predictions are presented at some time or another, be they in technology, politics, economics or whatever. Usually the start of a New Year is the perfect platform for many to make predictions. Normally, most predictions go awry, as often they are predicated on what the predictor ‘hopes will happen’, not on any factual or substantive evidence of how things are evolving or might evolve. Over the years, I’ve presented some of my own predictions to my learned colleagues and despite some oft-times vehement push-back, I have been proven to be right, even if it has taken many years to be vindicated.

Fortune Teller - (source: unknown)

Fortune Teller – (source: unknown)

One of my earliest predictions (that I can remember) was sometime at the beginning of the 1990s when computers were becoming more ubiquitous for the common man. I was having a discussion with an engineer about the progress of memory chips and I postulated that, as things progressed, we’d be able to put music and the like onto these chips instead of using tapes and disks. I felt that, as a song tends to have repetitive aspects, that compression etc could be feasible and memory chips were increasing in capacity all the time. The response that I received was that it would be impossible to produce a chip with enough storage to hold even one song, let alone an album, or to be able to compress them to ever be practical. Strangely enough, the opposite happened and we’ve never looked back. Mind you, it involved a bit more than what I was considering, but the concept was generally sound. And what we carry around now are even more capable and powerful.

First iPod - (source: Apple)

First iPod – (source: Apple)

And another communications discussion occurred around the late 1990s when I was talking with another engineer about the internet. At the time, when access to the internet became more or less available for all, the internet started off with a speed of around 14 Kbps (much slower earlier) and then went to 33.6 Kbps. I was suggesting that, again, technology would solve the issues of speed through copper wire and that we’d be able to get vastly faster internet through the telephone lines some time in the (not too distant) future. However, I was assured that 56 Kbps (which was just over the horizon) would be the absolute maximum that we’d ever achieve through telephone lines because copper wire couldn’t provide the bandwidth. I guess some weren’t told of these limitations.

US Robotics V.92 Dial-Up Modem - source: US Robotics)

US Robotics V.92 Dial-Up Modem – source: US Robotics)

A further interesting discussion revolved around Java, a programming language once touted to replace operating systems such as Windows, Apple OS etc on the basis of ‘Write Once, Run Anywhere’. I don’t know why, but I had this feeling that it promised too much and seemed too good to be true. I also looked at it from the point of view that it had to oust well established operating systems and those would not give up without a fight. Similar discussions arose with Linux, another operating system that was ‘free’ and there were people insisting that it would replace existing operating systems. Well, it didn’t work out for either of them, Java became a world wide pariah (though established in specific devices) and while Linux found a home in server environments (though derivatives are found on mobile phones and the like), not many took up Linux in the home PC environment.

Linux and Java - (source: Quant Programmer)

Linux and Java – (source: Quant Programmer)

On a different technology note, around the mid-1990s, I was doing some tutoring and, in one of the classes, we were discussing long-term military trends in weapons systems. I put to the class, during one of our future trends sessions, that the way technology was evolving and with the need to increase weapons system performance and capability, reduce costs, and minimise aircrew risks, I asked them to consider the future of aerial warfare using unmanned aircraft in combat activities. We had military pilots on this course and their response was that this would never happen. There was no way in their view that any military would deploy unmanned combat aircraft under any circumstances, or use civilians in related combat activities. That all turned out differently.

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator - (source: Wikipedia)

General Atomics MQ-1 Predator – (source: Wikipedia)

X-47B Drone 1st Autonomous Aerial Refuelling - (source: US Navy)

X-47B Drone 1st Autonomous Aerial Refuelling – (source: US Navy)

More recently, I came across some interesting developments in computer generated imagery which raised an interesting discussion about photography and even art. This technology is an area that’s most often focussed on by games developers, trying to make games look more realistic, but I’m suspecting that this will go much further in the future with regards to improving general photography or even removing the need for sophisticated cameras. My thought is that eventually people will be able to easily produce high quality photographs simply by using a suitable program and none would be the wiser that it wasn’t an actual photograph. All that would be required is a suitable database of images, a portrait of yourself for example, and the program would produce whatever you wished. At least one purported expert in this field of programming has suggested that this will ostensibly be impossible. I wonder?

Computer generated portrait - (source: jinoppa via cgtrader)

Computer generated portrait – (source: jinoppa via cgtrader)

Now an area that I’ve been discussing in a number of venues and fairly recently in my blog, is wireless broadband. I’m a firm believer that wireless is going to be delivering most, if not just about all, of our consumer broadband. The fact is that the simple flexibility and ubiquity that it offers will drive this across all facets of our life. Fibre optic will most certainly have a significant part to play in this, but primarily as a backbone to wireless points, repeaters and the like. However, some  engineers and technical people keep suggesting that this will be impossible because the wireless network will not be able to handle the bandwidth required (where have I heard that before?). I’m a firm believer that it will happen, because it has to happen; however, I may just have to wait another decade to find out if I’m right or wrong.

Mobile Broadband - (source: LinkedIn)

Mobile Broadband – (source: LinkedIn)

A sad thing is that the world seems to be full of ‘experts‘ that are quoted constantly about what will and will not happen and, in vital areas their opinions are often acted upon, but they are never held to account for their failures and the effects those failures have on others. What always happens when someone steadfastly insists that something is impossible or something dreadful will happen if we don’t do x, y or z (it’s always an impending catastrophe), is that sooner or later subsequent events unfold or a smart individual comes forth and they are proven very wrong. However, until then, often billions of dollars are wasted, which could have been put to much better use, had some thought and sense of proportion been applied.

Year 2000 (Y2K) Bug - (source: Huffington Post)

Year 2000 (Y2K) Bug – (source: Huffington Post)

Now in no way am I suggesting that I’m some kind of impeccable fortune teller and call me a Galah if you will, but I am always surprised/amused by the absolutes that so many people adhere to and then refuse to budge, regardless of a growing possibility or evidence to the contrary. There are quite a few more examples I could cite, but those are probably better left to pub discussions.

Galah - Mirboo North Victoria

Galah – Mirboo North Victoria

Update 1. It looks like my prediction about mobile broadband has hit the mark, with recent revelations that the NBN won’t be profitable and suggestions that mobile broadband should be penalised so as to protect the NBN. Wasn’t envisaged? Blind Freddy could see the writing on the wall:

Asked whether NBN could withstand competition from data delivered by new ultrafast 5G networks that didn’t need connections to houses, Mr Morrow said: “Forget about 5G for a moment, even the antenna technology using 4G is a viable alternative to NBN where the towers are already up.”

2 thoughts on “Crystal Balling

  1. Di Brown

    Food for thought Ray. Our predictions have not always been so great. On discussing mobile phones in the late 90’s we both decided “they’d never take off”.

    1. Ray Post author

      I was never quite certain where mobile phones would head, as the analogue technology was somewhat limiting, but I jumped onto them as quickly as I could. I still have my very first Ericsson AH238 analogue phone that would have come out around the mid-90s. I’m certain it wasn’t my first mobile phone, as I remember getting a Nokia some time in the early 90s (we lived one house down from a mobile phone salesman). In some ways I still miss those old analogue phones, as they had incredible range.

Comments are closed.