Top 10 bad tech predictions

Bad tech predictions top 10 listFrom a record label once rejecting the Beatles because “guitar music is on its way out” to cult leaders raving about the apocalypse every few years, history is full of unfulfilled predictions. Technology, prone as it is to so many unforeseen developments and challenges, is certainly no exception. Try as they might, even the most informed speculators find it hard to predict what engineers will accomplish — even within a decade.

Fortunately, their best attempts often wind up to be pretty good fodder for a laugh in retrospect. While some of the most well-cited quotes have been chalked up as mere urban legends (like Bill Gates predicting that no one would ever need more than 640K of memory), we flipped back through the pages of history to dig up some of the most profoundly misguided tech predictions the world has ever known, from people who really should have known better.

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sir william preece“The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys.”

– Sir William Preece, 1878.

Drink in these words, and you can be forgiven for thinking the speaker was some stubborn, stuck-in-the-1700s throwback, fearful of emerging technology and pompous enough to believe Brit messenger boys were all that and a plate of chips (with vinegar).

But William Henry Preece wasn’t uppity, nor was he a troglodyte. In his 79 years, Preece was an electrical engineer, an inventor, an undersea telegraph cable repairman, a Morse code pioneer, the Chief Engineer of the British Post Office, and one of the earliest backers of a young Italian by the name of Guglielmo Marconi – he of the Nobel Prize and the “father of radio” designation. Preece was no ostrich – he sought to solve long-standing problems, often using new concepts and ideas to do just that.

Moreover, Preece was actually a strong believer in the telephone, even demonstrating one of Alexander Graham Bell’s creations to a hoity-toity group of British scientists in the late 1800s.

So why the quote? Despite his keen interest in technology and long-distance communications, Preece simply didn’t feel the need for a future phone of his own.

Whoops!

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thomas Edison and phonograph“The phonograph has no commercial value at all.”

– Thomas Edison, 1880s

When it comes to pitiful predictions, Thomas Edison, the same mega-genius responsible for inventing the light bulb, the movie camera, and yes, the phonograph, has no peer. Somehow, though Edison could so clearly see the future in his own creations, he was noticeably more foggy when speaking of that future. His predictions for the phonograph were just one of many gaffs:

Edison, 1895: “It is apparent to me that the possibilities of the aeroplane, which two or three years ago were thought to hold the solution to the (flying machine) problem, have been exhausted, and that we must turn elsewhere.”

Edison, 1922: “The radio craze will die out in time.”

Edison, 1889: “Fooling around with alternating current (AC) is just a waste of time. Nobody will use it, ever.”

Yet for all these groaners, Edison also spouted more than a few gems. “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work,” still cracks us up. And let us not forget his now ubiquitous nose-to-the-grindstone observation, “Genius is 1 percent inspiration and 99 percent perspiration.”

We’ll leave you with this very astute Edison-ism: “Non-violence leads to the highest ethics, which is the goal of all evolution. Until we stop harming all other living beings, we are still savages.”

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Darryl Zanuck bad tech predictions“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, 20th Century Fox, 1946.

Like “Home ownership is a safe, secure way to build long-term wealth” (National Association of Realtors, 2006) and “The Segway will be to the car what the car was to the horse and buggy” (Segway inventor Dean Kamen, 2001), Zanuck’s words are even more proof that you should never fully buy into the jargon of someone with a vested interest.

Zanuck, you see, was a movie magnate of the highest order. Think cigar-chomping, mustachioed, pile-of-starlet-photos-on-the-desk magnate. The guy was the real deal, with three Oscars, a star on the Walk of Fame, and a roster of killer flicks to his credit. So it’s not especially shocking that this Hollywood legend, a man who derived his living, his fortune, and his fame from the silver screen would disparage an up and coming technology like TV.

Zanuck was right about one thing of course. We don’t stare mindlessly at plywood boxes. We stare mindlessly at plastic boxes, thank you very much. Indeed, it’s a North American rite of passage to spend as much time as possible staring at them, brains slowly draining from our collective noggins. Clearly, then, Zanuck was incredibly wrong. Then again, he likely couldn’t imagine in 1946 the heights to which TV would aspire. Britney & Kevin, anyone? The World According to Paris?

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herbert simon bad tech predictions“Machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do”

– Herbert Simon, 1956.

Herbert Simon (1916 – 2001) is seen by many as one of the most influential social scientists of the last century. He was also a political scientist, economist, psychologist, and professor. Loved by his students and esteemed by his colleagues, the Noel Prize winner (1978, Economics) Simon loved to learn, loved to teach, and could seemingly handle just about anything he set out to do.

Simon’s work in the formative years of artificial intelligence have prompted some to call him the “father of AI.” He was one of the privileged few attendees at AI’s seminal event, the month-long Dartmouth Summer Research Project on Artificial Intelligence in 1956.

His quote after the conference – “Machines will be capable, within 20 years, of doing any work a man can do” probably wasn’t one of his finer moments. Even today, 36 years after Simon’s 1976 target, we can think of a kajillion things that machines can’t do that man can. Moreover, though AI has come a long way since the year Elvis first hit the charts, we’re still nowhere near the independently “thinking” computer to which Simon most probably alluded. For these reasons, we must honor one of the very few gaffes he ever made with a prominent place in our Top Ten.

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William Stewart bad tech predictions“The time has come to close the book on infectious diseases. We have basically wiped out infection in the United States.”

– William Stewart, 1967

Plenty of bystanders on the fringe of science and technology have uttered nonsense, but this quote is particularly notable because the man who delivered it, William Stewart, was the Surgeon General of the United States. Since he made his prediction in the late 60s, we’ve experienced HIV/AIDS, Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), and Influenza A virus subtype H1N1, just to name a few. And let’s not forget the dangers lurking offshore – wicked stuff like Ebola, which just this summer killed several people in Uganda – and the potentially more concerning threats of bioterrorism.

William Stewart did a ton of great work during his tenure as Surgeon General, and before and after. He was responsible for the first health warnings on cigarette packages. He pushed for equal health care for everyone – regardless of income levels. He fought against racial discrimination both within the field of health care and for the patients that benefit from it. But he got it wrong this time.

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

– Ken Olson, 1977

One of the all-time classic tech prediction flubs, this quote came from the lips of president, chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp., Ken Olson, way back in 1977. At that time, the first microprocessors had only recently come to market, personal computers of the era sported awkward names like “TRS-80,” Microsoft and Apple were startups, and Radio Shack was the place to go for a compu-fix.

In other words, the PC was still very much a fringe concept adopted only by ultra-nerds. Ask someone who lived through 1977 if they’d even recognized the existence of home computers, and chances are they were too busy zoning out to Fleetwood Mac’s Rumors to even notice.

But here’s the thing: Ken Olson was a nerd. King of the nerds, even; he was an engineer all his life and had been building computerized flight simulations for the Navy before JFK had even taken office. He’d been at the helm of the behemoth Digital Equipment Corp since its birth in 1957.

If there was anyone who could see what lay ahead, one would think Olson – or one of his ilk – would be that person. Speculation is that his quote referred primarily to mainframe computers, but we can’t let him off the hook that easily.

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robert metcalfe with george bush“I predict the Internet will soon go spectacularly supernova and in 1996 catastrophically collapse.”

– Robert Metcalfe, 1995

In 1995, Robert Metcalfe, the same brainiac who co-invented a little thing called Ethernet (yep, that Ethernet), opened a little company called 3Com. The same year, in a column for InfoWorld, he famously predicted the 1996 annihilation of the Internet.

Why would a guy so obviously together stroll out on such an incredibly thin limb? Because Metcalfe figured it was a money pit – not an entirely erroneous thought at the time. He trudged out a number of other reasons in the December ’95 issue of InfoWorld, including concerns over digital money, capacity, speed, and much more.

When viewed as a whole, Metcalfe’s rationale seems to make some sense. And to his credit, he ended the now infamous column by saying “I hope I’m not being too negative,” and asking readers to “Tell me if you think so.” Still, “spectacularly supernova” and “catastrophically collapse” are fightin’ words. And mighty wrong.

Years later, Metcalfe acknowledged his lack of insight by scrunching up a copy of his column, sticking it in a blender with a dollop of water, and consuming the concoction on stage, in full view of an appreciative audience.

How can you not admire the guy?

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clifford stoll bad tech predictions“The truth is no online database will replace your daily newspaper, no CD-ROM can take the place of a competent teacher and no computer network will change the way government works.”

– Clifford Stoll, 1995

In a 1995 Newsweek column entitled “The Internet? Bah,” astronomer, author, hacker and computer geek Clifford Stoll bravely dissed the newfangled gizmo formerly known as the WWW. He claimed it overflowed with a “cacophony” of voices and opinions – some intelligent and worthy of our attention, but many not. He spoke of a “wasteland of unfiltered data” and problematic information searches. He asked facetiously, “Who needs teachers when you’ve got computer-aided education?” And he lamented there was no trustworthy way to send virtual money.

Funny – when you consider Stoll flapped his yap all the way back in the Internet breast-feeding days of 1995, much of what he said was on target. But then he made his mistake – predicting the future based on his current experiences. Aside from the excerpts above, Stoll went after e-tailing: “So how come my local mall does more business in an afternoon than the entire Internet handles in a month?” and got all sarcastic over the future of book-selling and printed media: “Nicholas Negroponte, director of the MIT Media Lab, predicts that we’ll soon buy books and newspapers straight over the Internet. Uh, sure.”

Stoll, obviously, was seriously mistaken. Yet he’s remained good-natured about it. After his column reappeared on Boing Boing in 2010, Stoll chimed in the comments, “Of my many mistakes, flubs, and howlers, few have been as public as my 1995 howler. Wrong? Yep.” Later, he added, “And, as I’ve laughed at others’ foibles, I think back to some of my own cringeworthy contributions. Now, whenever I think I know what’s happening, I temper my thoughts: Might be wrong, Cliff…”

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y2k bad tech predictionsY2K “is a crisis without precedent in human history.”

– Edmund DeJesus, 1998

Y2K is the prediction with a difference. For starters, there’s no single, triggering quote to look back on and no single person to which it can be attributed. Sure, BYTE magazine editor Edmund DeJesus delivered the alarmist words above in 1998, but he was just one of a sea of voices predicting turn of the millennium doom.

No, Y2K was instead a group effort. Alarmists in the media, government and academia warned that computers and digital equipment would go haywire once “99” became “00,” triggering a global calamity of monstrous proportions. They were ultimately way off base, but the far less bombastic notion behind that warning wasn’t.

The first such warning sounded in the dinosaur days of the 1970s, ’round about the time Led Zeppelin smacked the music world with Stairway to Heaven. Bob Bemer, a veteran tech-head and one of the fathers of the ASCII computing “language,” realized way back then that recording calendar years in a two-digit format was fine – until you went around to 00. His strenuous calls for action went unheeded for decades, until the mid-90s when the potential for disaster was seriously revisited.

By 1995, we had books published on the subject (Murray and Murray’s “Computers in Crisis,” released in best Orwellian fashion in 1984), the first generally acknowledged references to the now-infamous Y2K acronym (in 1995 emails and online discussion forums), and the beginnings of widespread dread. During the next five years, governments, corporations, and the public ramped up for what, to many, remained a bit of a mystery. Could a mere calendar rollover really cause essential services to grind to a halt, airplanes worldwide to drop from the skies like gassed mosquitoes, and missile silos to unintentionally launch their payloads?

As it turned out, no. Indeed, there were precious few critical mishaps. But did the Y2K threat peter out because it was incredibly overblown in the first place, or because so many measures were taken – some estimates put the global cost of Y2K “resolution” at a mountainous $300 billion-plus – to thwart it? ‘Tis likely a question that will remain unanswered.

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sir alan sugar bad tech predictions“Next Christmas the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput.”

– Sir Alan Sugar, 2005.

The name Alan Sugar may not trigger a ton of bells on this side of the Atlantic, but the guy is everywhere in Britain. Why? Because he’s one of those aggressive, fame-seeking types who knows how to keep himself in the spotlight. But rest assured – he’s no Kardashian. Apart from his stint as the head cheese at Tottenham Hotspur soccer club, he’s run the consumer electronics company Amstrad, starred in the BBC version of The Apprentice, been knighted for “service to business” (that’s why they call him “Sir”), and is currently worth north of a billion dollars.

But even all of that couldn’t stop Sir Alan from putting foot in mouth in 2005, proudly forecasting that “Next Christmas, the iPod will be dead, finished, gone, kaput.” As we all know, the iPod has since then pulled an Obi-Wan Kenobi, growing more powerful than most of us could ever have imagined.

As it turns out, the iPod prediction was just one of several notable flaws in the Sugar resume. Over time, he’s launched a gaming system that died an immediate, painful death, a Pen Pad system that died an immediate, painful death, and a phone/text message/email machine called “The Emailer” that also died an immediate, painful death. That the value of Amstrad had shrunk to a fraction of its former glory by the time Sugar pawned if off only adds fuel to the fire of failure.

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