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The pace and scale of technological change is sweeping away previously held truths about the limitations of computers.  We need to ensure that these changes and the huge impacts they will have on our lives will lead to everyone becoming more fulfilled.

Thomas John Watson, CEO and Chairman of IBM for a good portion of the twentieth century, is attributed with the famously wrong prediction in 1943 that ‘there is a world market for maybe five computers’. You’ve got to feel sorry for the guy. Famous as he was in his day, this is how he is remembered in history - mainly by those using the benefit of hindsight to mock.

Yet I wonder how many of those who mock him would have disagreed with his statement if they were alive back in 1943. Computers were huge, slow, prone to breaking down and not very effective. What Watson got wrong was that he was hypothesising based on what he knew of the technology in his day, its abilities and limits. If he had known the silicon chip would be invented twenty odd years later he would have revised his prediction accordingly.

If you want to look for more accurate predictions of the future then you find them in people who forgot the technological limitations of their day and instead based their assumptions on relevant past experience. Gordon Moore predicted around 1970 that computing power would double every two years. This has become so close to the truth (although it’s more 18 months than two years) that it has become known as Moore’s law. He did not base this prediction on technology he knew about, only the faith that people would continue to innovate and become better at what they did at the same rate as they had previously.

The other point about Watson’s comment is that it was not only computing power that he underestimated, but also the uses to which computers could be put. As Roy Amara, President of the Institute of the Future put it, ‘We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.’

Two people who couldn’t be said to underestimate the effects of technology are Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee. In their book the Second Machine Age they outline the increasingly fast-paced nature of technological change.

Instant translation of all languages, and a robotic ‘dog’ which will trot beside you carrying your bags and heavy goods over all terrains while avoiding everything, alive or not, are just a couple of the things that will happen in the next few years (I give more examples of near technology in this blog). In ten or twenty years our computers will be so powerful that everything we hold sacred about humans is up for grabs, including creativity, leadership and judgement.

Sounds far-fetched? Only ten years ago it was assumed (such as in Levy and Murnane's 2004 book The New Division of Labor) that computers would never be able to manage the complexity of driving, now Google’s driverless cars have successfully driven thousands of miles. Similarly it was assumed that computers would never master the linguistic complexity and wordplay of the popular American panel show Jeopardy! In 2011 a computer took on and beat the top Jeopardy players of all time. What is remarkable about these achievements is not that they happened, but that they happened in such a short time from when such feats were confidently deemed impossible. Thinking like Gordon Moore rather than Thomas Watson Sr., computers over-taking humans in many more areas is a given.

Where Brynjolfsson and McAfee have less of an answer beyond some fairly well worn policy recommendations (such as better education and relooking at income tax) is what we should do about it. What are the social and economic implications of this technological revolution, and how can we best plan for them?

While being Director of Fellowship I’m also the executive lead at the RSA for our Economy, Enterprise and Manufacturing work. We’re developing our thinking on what the future economy will look like, what will impact upon it, and how we can ensure it’s shaped in a way so that it works for everyone. I’ll put up some more thinking on this shortly, but meanwhile if you have any thoughts please let us know.

Oliver Reichardt is the Director of Fellowship at the RSA

Follow him @OliverReichardt


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