How Much Are IT Predictions Worth?

To some extent, CIOs and information specialists are visionaries. They try to predict the course of technological development over the next few years so they can carry their companies to the crest of the next wave of innovation. They also have to predict which vulnerabilities might be exploitable in the future, out-thinking hacks and data thefts before they happen. To sharpen your ability to predict the future, it’s often useful to look to the past.

Professional futurists and long-range thinkers of decades ago often worked their ideas into science fiction stories, movies, and TV. Some visions of the future look charmingly out of date; we’re still far from having George Jetson’s flying cars or anti-gravity hoverboards even though “Back to the Future” promised them by 2015. Others were remarkably prescient, such as Ray Bradbury’s immense flat-screen TVs in “Fahrenheit 451.” Here are some views of the future that show how wide of the mark technology predictions can be – and some thoughts on what you can do to improve your accuracy as a visionary.

“I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”

When Thomas Watson, then IBM’s chairman, made this claim in 1943, he had a vastly different concept of what a computer was. The room-filling monoliths he thought of did indeed have limited applications, and maintenance was a constant ordeal. Even science fiction authors of the time didn’t truly conceive of the lightning-fast, powerful, and compact devices we use daily.

“Where a calculator on the ENIAC is equipped with 18,000 vacuum tubes and weighs 30 tons, computers in the future may have only 1,000 vacuum tubes and weigh only 1.5 tons.”

The editors of Popular Mechanics were off by a few thousand pounds in their 1949 prediction about the future of computing technology because they had only their present-day tech to model the future. The advent of integrated circuitry was still well in the future. The lesson here is to realize that today’s ideas are necessarily limited to what we can conceive; to keep up with future technology, we need to be adaptable enough to respond to sweeping changes.

“I have traveled the length and breadth of this country and talked with the best people, and I can assure you that data processing is a fad that won’t last out the year.”

When the business editor of Prentice Hall made this prediction in 1957, he made some fundamentally incorrect assumptions about who the best people to ask about data-driven technology were. While the specifics about who he asked are lost to time, he probably spoke to business leaders, not the people at the forefront of the nascent computing industry. Had he asked some of NASA’s best and brightest, he might have arrived at a very different conclusion. When gathering data for predictions, it’s important to take other viewpoints into account.

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

Founder and president of Digital Equipment Corporation Ken Olsen made this prediction in 1977, the same year “Star Wars” came out and made the world hungry for technology. Olsen was a brilliant entrepreneur and a visionary engineer, so why would he make such a claim? He owned a computer and saw its utility for work, but he was referring to the common science-fictional notion of having a computer to control home temperatures, open doors, make coffee, and manage everyday tasks. For years, he was right, but today, the technology he helped create does just that. The takeaway: It might take longer to happen than the most optimistic visionaries think, but what was once a marvel eventually becomes commonplace.

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