Technology Forecasting

Several years ago, I bought a book by Richard Feynman about science and the world. The following passage has stuck with me:

Now, another example of ¬†a test of truth, so to speak, that works in the sciences that would probably work in other fields to some extent is that if something is true, really so, if you continue observations and improve the effectiveness of the observations, the effects stand out more obviously. Not less obviously. That is, if there is something really there, and you can’t see good because the glass is foggy, and you polish the glass and look clearer, then it’s more obvious that it’s there, not less.

I love this idea. It’s not just that you test a theory over time and if it hasn’t been disproven then it’s probably true, but that over time a true theory becomes more obviously true.

In forecasting technology trends, this is not necessarily a helpful thing. The more obviously true something is, the less likely it is that other people credit you with having an insight, even if it dates from when it was unclear.

Still, the converse of the idea is definitely helpful. If a theory requires constant tweaking in the face of new evidence, just to maintain the possibility of being true, it most likely isn’t.

I have no trouble coming up with crazy ideas about how technology might develop, but faced with a number of equally crazy ideas, it is difficult to know which are the ones with some merit and which are false. Happily, the above approach gives me a process to help sort them: giving them time. The ideas that are reinforced by various later developments are worth hanging on to, while those that fail to gain any supporting evidence  over time may need to be jettisoned.

Ideas that I initially supported but have been forced by time to jettison include: Java ME on the mobile, RSS news readers, ubiquitous speech recognition, mobile video calling, and the Internet fridge.

One idea that I’m proud to have hung onto was that of mobile browsing. I saw the potential back in the late 1990s when I was involved in the WAP standards, enabling mobile browsing on devices such as the Nokia 7110, even if it was wracked with problems. Several colleagues, friends and family members dismissed the idea. However, over time, mobile browsing received more evidence that it was credible, with the successes in Japan, the appearance of the Opera browser, and then Safari on the iPhone. Now, I regard Safari on the iPad to be the best web browsing experience of all my devices – PCs included.

While Feynman was a great physicist, and his advice has helped me in forecasting technology trends, there’s no guaranteed way to get it right. The last word should belong to another physicist, Niels Bohr, who is reputed to have said: prediction is very difficult, especially about the future.