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What's with the 20 year fascination?

Here's a 2005 video of a TED talk by Ray Kurzweil - noted futurist and now a director of engineering at Google. He talks about some of the life-transforming (literally!) innovations which will happen by 2020, due to the accelerating speed of technology change.

I had written in past about how the science fiction of the 1980s predicted several innovations (like Androids, Space Travel, Space cities, and teleportation) would come true by the year 2000, and how hardly any one of these seem to be coming true by 2050.

As we cross the year 2019, and we can predict with a more absolute sense about where we will be in the year 2020, and Kurzweil's vision that "we will succeed in reverse-engineering the human brain" and "we'll be able to manufacture almost anything we need in the 2020s, from information, in very inexpensive raw materials, using nano-technology", look pretty much unachievable.

Nevertheless, self-driving cars are here and smart digital assistants Alexa, Siri and Google are answering all those questions which Genie couldn't have answered for Aladin! My peeve is - what is this fascination futurists have with the 20 year horizon. Studies have proven that "we overestimate the short term and underestimate the long term" and futurists should know this better than anyone else. And yet, they insist on making predictions for a 15-20 year horizon (a short period by standards of a human society's evolution).

Compounding effects are something of a fascination for me right now; having listened to this podcast by Naval - I can see how compounding would act over 20 years to bring about significant change - but from the perspective of futurists, I doubt this is significant. Futurists need to look at a scale of 40-50 years horizon.

Most technologies take about 50 years to scale:

  • the steam engine experiments started as early as 1698, but the first steam engines came together in late 1760s; the steam turbine came about only in 1800s 
  • the internet started as ARPANET started in 1960s but the Internet boomed and then busted around 2000s, finally settling down the curve by 2010
  • the electric car has been around from earlier than the internal combustion engine, but serious research of the current wave started in 1990s - we are still seeing them only trickle into the market. 
We can count other examples, but looks like futurists would do well not predict what can happen in 20 years from now but in 50 years from now. Lets start dreaming of the year 2070 rather than 2050! 


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