The most foolish technology predictions and can we avoid them?
By Kim Furman, Synthesis Marketing Manager
If the quintessential experts get their predictions wrong, how can anyone else hope to get them right?
Covid-19 has taught us to shy away from predictions – the future is an uncertain landscape. Yet some areas allow for more accurate predictions. Examples of this are data-rich fields such as baseball and the career development of its players.
Technology, especially emerging technology which lacks past data, does not fit into the realm of easy predictions. Hence the examples below. However, for those with an eye and an understanding of the probability for an emerging technology to succeed, lies great opportunity.
Here are just six examples where the experts failed:
- “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” – Thomas J Watson, IBM Chairman (1943)
- “Television won’t be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night.” – Darryl Zanuck, Executive 20th Century Fox (1946)
- “The idea of a personal communicator in every pocket is nothing more than a pipe-dream fuelled by greed.” – Andy Grove, Intel CEO (1992)
- “The internet will fade away because most people have nothing to say to each other. By 2005 it will be clear that the internet’s impact on the global economy has been no greater than the fax machine.” – Paul Krugman, renowned Economist, (1998)
- “The subscription model of buying music is bankrupt. I think you could make available the Second Coming in a subscription model, and it might not be successful.” – Steve Jobs, Apple CEO (2003)
- “Two years from now, spam will be solved.” – Bill Gates, Microsoft Founder (2004)
I often wonder at the context of which many of these quotes were taken given how wrong they are. Nevertheless, looking at these quotes some interesting insights can be found.
The owners of these words drastically underestimated the technology. “I think what is peculiar about technology predictions is that we usually underestimate. While other predictions usually exaggerate, technology usually over performs and surprises. Because technology is fundamentally a novel thing, it creates new things that are hard, probably impossible to predict,” explains Tjaard du Plessis, Synthesis Head of Digital & Emerging Technology.
Lack of insight into human behaviour
Krugman felt the internet would fade away “because most people have nothing to say to each other.” The problem here is not merely lack of understanding about the product but about people. Social media has proved that humankind has plenty to say, sing, dance, meme and everything in between. Understanding behavioural science – why people do what they do – is essential. Connection and bonding are key drivers of human behaviour. As Aristotle put it – “Man is by nature a social animal.” Predications that don’t take into account the drivers of human behaviour and the desires of the market are more likely to fail.
Another lesson comes from Steve Jobs who doubted the demand for his own innovation. According to Nate Silver who wrote the book “The Signal and the Noise: Why So Many Predictions Fail–but Some Don’t”, overconfidence is a poor sign of successful predictions.
“Most predictions fail, often at great cost to society, because most of us have a poor understanding of probability and uncertainty. Both experts and laypeople mistake more confident predictions for more accurate ones. But overconfidence is often the reason for failure. If our appreciation of uncertainty improves, our predictions can get better too. This is the “prediction paradox”: The more humility we have about our ability to make predictions, the more successful we can be in planning for the future.”
Should we never predict, endeavour or invest for the fear of looking foolish?
Tom Wells, Synthesis Chief Disruption Officer shares this advice: “It’s okay to be a fool nine out of ten times if it means that one time you will be correct. Explore as many stupid ideas are possible – one of them is bound to be good – even if everyone else thinks they are pointless.”
There is no absolute formula for not looking foolish when predicting the future of technology. The future is uncertain but the more times you endeavour (the extent of which depends on risk appetite), the greater your likelihood for success.