By Robert Hickson 10/10/2017

In Zeno’s philosophical paradox Achilles can never overtake the tortoise. Similarly, it sometimes seems that future technologies never arrive.

Grace Ballenger and Aaron Mak writing in Slate highlight the “Goldilocks” zone of technological predictions – the next big thing is neither too close to be here by Christmas, nor too far away to become purely fictional. The technology is nearly always just “five to ten years” away from becoming mainstream. Flying cars, jet packs, fusion power, household robotic servants.

Ballenger & Mak give 81 examples of predictions that use this phrase over the last 20 years. Most haven’t eventuated even after ten years (though some of their examples are predictions made within the last five years). Their point is not that predictions are snake oil, just that we usually under estimate how long it takes to get from discovery to mass production or widespread use.

Matt Novak, from whose writing I borrowed the title for this post, also noted last year that the future is always just over the horizon, although he focussed on predictions of innovations that were “just two years away”.

These aren’t new revelations. Roy Amara made that observation years ago, which became known as Amara’s law

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run


The messages here are that it is the trend not the timing, and the longer term broader uses not the immediate applications of technologies that we should be focussing on.

Rodney Brooks makes a similar point in his article on the seven deadly sins of predictions about AI. He notes, too, that fantastical predictions about some technologies (like existential threats posed by an artificial general intelligence) deflects us from paying attention to more near term and realistic outcomes or issues.

Tomorrow does arrive. Achilles, of course, can overtake the tortoise. New technologies always emerge. But at their own pace and not by a pundit’s, or philosopher’s, rhetoric.

The more interesting questions are not when Achilles will beat the tortoise, but what happens after he does, or doesn’t. Concentrating on the “when” means we  limit thinking about the ways that the technology may or may not develop and be used. Exploring the second-order consequences are what makes foresight both interesting and useful.


Featured image: Photo by Alessio Lin on Unsplash

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