Anticipating the Future: It Can Be Difficult

I am a long-time science fiction buff as well as a long-time fan of Arthur Clarke’s writing, both fiction and non-fiction. In the non-fiction category I have long been enamoured of Clarke’s 1962 book
‘Profiles of the Future; an Inquiry into the Limits of the Possible.’
Trained in physics and mathematics, Clarke was a lifelong proponent of space travel and in 1945 he was the first to propose a satellite communication system. Ray Bradbury, also an eminent science fiction writer, once said of Clarke: “Arthur C. Clarke is one of the true geniuses of our time. I envy him his brain.”

Arthur Clarke
Arthur Clarke

In his 1962 book, updated in 1982, Clarke talks about the difficulty even the most distinguished people in a field have of accurately seeing what is coming down the road. He gives several examples. It is a lesson I have never forgotten.

His book is perhaps best remembered for the Three Laws he enunciated:
1. When a distinguished but elderly scientist says that something is possible, (s)he is almost certainly right. When (s)he says it is impossible, (s)he is very probably wrong.
2. The only way of finding the limits of the possible is by going beyond them into the impossible.
3. Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. (note: this is the most widely quoted of the three Laws).

Long fascinated by the themes in Clarke’s book I have collected examples over the years and once even taught a university-level course based on his ideas. My eighteen collected examples are listed below, with my favorite being #18. What is yours?

Failed Visions of the Future

1. “Computers in the future may weigh no more than 1.5 tons.”
(Popular Mechanics, forecasting the relentless march of science,

2. “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.”
(Thomas Watson, chairman of IBM, 1943)

3. “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.” (The editor in charge of business
books for Prentice Hall, 1957)

4. “But what is it good for?”
(Engineer at the Advanced Computing Systems Division of IBM, 1968,
commenting on the microchip)

5. “There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”
(Ken Olson, President, Chairman and founder of Digital Equipment
Corporation, 1977)

6. “This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously
considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of
no value. (Western Union internal memo, 1876)

7. “The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who
would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”
(David Sarnoff’s associates in response to his urgings for
Investment in the radio in the 1920s)

8. “The concept is interesting and well-formed, but in order to earn
better than a ‘C,’ the idea must be feasible.”
(A Yale University management professor in response to Fred Smith’s
paper proposing reliable overnight delivery service. Smith went on
to found Federal Express Corporation).

9. “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”
(H.M. Warner, Warner Brothers, 1927)

10. “I’m just glad it will be Clark Gable who is falling on his face
and not Gary Cooper.” (Gary Cooper on his decision not to take the
leading role in “Gone With The Wind”)

11. “A cookie store is a bad idea. Besides, the market research
reports say America likes crispy cookies, not soft and chewy
cookies like you make.” (Response to Debbi Fields’ idea of
starting Mrs. Fields’ Cookies)

12. “We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.”
(Decca Recording Company rejecting the Beatles, 1962)

13. You want to have consistent and uniform muscle development across
all of your muscles? It can’t be done. It’s just a fact of life.
You just have to accept inconsistent muscle development as an
unalterable condition of weight training. (Response to Arthur
Jones, who solved the “unsolvable” problem by inventing Nautilus)

14. “Stocks have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau.”
(Irving Fisher, Professor of Economics, Yale University, 1929)

15. “Airplanes are interesting toys but of no military value.”
(Marecha Ferdinand Foch, Professor of Strategy, Ecole Superieure
de Guerre)

16. “Louis Pasteur’s theory of germs is ridiculous fiction.”
(Pierre Pachet, Professor of Physiology at Toulouse, 1872)

17. “The abdomen, the chest, and the brain will forever be shut from
the intrusion of the wise and humane surgeon.”
(Sir John Eric Ericksen, British surgeon, Surgeon-Extraordinary to
Queen Victoria, 1873)

18. “640K ought to be enough memory for anybody.”
(Bill Gates, 1981)

The above should bring a bit of humility to those of us engaged in scientific and engineering work.