The Los Angeles Times explores an interesting exercise in prognisticating about the future. In 2018 robotics entrepreneur Rodney Brooks made a list of predictions about hot tech topics like robots, space travel, and AI, “and promised to review them every year until Jan. 1, 2050, when, if he’s still alive, he will have just turned 95.”
His goal was to “inject some reality into what I saw as irrational exuberance.” Each prediction carried a time frame — something would either have occurred by a given date, or no earlier than a given date, or “not in my lifetime.” Brooks published his fifth annual scorecard on New Year’s Day. The majority of his predictions have been spot-on, though this time around he confessed to thinking that he, too, had allowed hype to make him too optimistic about some developments….
People have been “trained by Moore’s Law” to expect technologies to continue improving at ever-faster rates, Brooks told me…. That tempts people, even experts, to underestimate how difficult it may be to reach a chosen goal, whether self-aware robots or living on Mars. “They don’t understand how hard it might have been to get there,” he told me, “so they assume that it will keep getting better and better….”
This year, 14 of his original predictions are deemed accurate, whether because they happened within the time frame he projected or failed to happen before the deadline he set. Among them are driverless package delivery services in a major U.S. city, which he predicted wouldn’t happen before 2023; it hasn’t happened yet. On space travel and space tourism, he predicted a suborbital launch of humans by a private company would happen by 2018; Virgin Atlantic beat the deadline with such a flight on Dec. 13, 2018. He conjectured that space flights with a few handfuls of paying customers wouldn’t happen before 2020; regular flights at a rate of more than once a week not before 2022 (though perhaps by 2026); and the transport of two paying customers around the moon no earlier than 2020.
All those deadlines have passed, making the predictions accurate. Only three flights with paying customers happened in 2022, showing there’s “a long way to go to get to sub-weekly flights,” Brooks observes.
“My current belief is that things will go, overall, even slower than I thought five years ago,” Brooks writes. “That is not to say that there has not been great progress in all three fields, but it has not been as overwhelmingly inevitable as the tech zeitgeist thought on January 1st, 2018.” (For example, Brooks writes that self-driving taxis are “decades away from profitability”.)
And this year he’s also graced us with new predictions responding to current hype:
- “The metaverse ain’t going anywhere, despite the tens of billions of dollars poured in. If anything like the metaverse succeeds it will from a new small player, a small team, that is not yoked down by an existing behemoth.”
- ” Crypto, as in all the currencies out there now, are going to fade away and lose their remaining value. Crypto may rise again but it needs a new set of algorithms and capability for scaling. The most likely path is that existing national currencies will morph into crypto currency as contactless payment become common in more and more countries. It may lead to one of the existing national currencies becoming much more accessible world wide.
- “No car company is going to produce a humanoid robot that will change manufacturing at all. Dexterity is a long way off, and innovations in manufacturing will take very different functional and process forms, perhaps hardly seeming at all like a robot from popular imagination.”
- ” Large language models may find a niche, but they are not the foundation for generally intelligent systems. Their novelty will wear off as people try to build real scalable systems with them and find it very difficult to deliver on the hype.”
- “There will be human drivers on our roads for decades to come.”
And Brooks had this to say about ChatGPT. “People are making the same mistake that they have made again and again and again, completely misjudging some new AI demo as the sign that everything in the world has changed. It hasn’t.”