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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Friday, March 14, 2014

The Lesson From Arthur C. Clarke's Predictive Errors

The television show Prophets of Science Fiction liked to portray science fiction writers as latter-day visionaries with great predictive powers. One of the writers profiled on this show was the late Arthur C. Clarke. Clarke was both a science fiction writer and a nonfiction writer who wrote about space exploration and the future. I greatly enjoyed his work, particularly when I was a teenager. Clarke first proposed communication satellites, and made some very prescient predictions about that technology.

Clarke's predictions about the immediate effects of space travel varied in accuracy. Clarke predicted that an age of manned space exploration would produce a new Renaissance, and judging from this argument the 1970's (directly following the 1969 moon landing) should have been a decade of immortal art. Anyone who remembers the music and television shows of the 1970's may chuckle at that concept.

But what about Clarke's record in making predictions about our century -- how accurate was he?

If fiction can be taken as a form of prediction, Clarke's record in regard to predicting our century was not very good. His most famous fictional work (co-authored with director Stanley Kubrick) was the screenplay for 2001: A Space Odyssey. Although it was a great artistic success (and one of my favorite movies), that movie predicted that the year 2001 would see a manned mission to Jupiter, a giant-sized lunar colony housing more than 100 residents, computers that could have conversations with a human and understand our language, and a giant space station with artificial gravity and very roomy interiors. None of those things actually occurred by 2001. It is now 2014, and no one is living on the moon. We haven't even made it to Mars, and probably won't get there for many years. Although there are “chat bot” computer programs that might fool you (for a while) into thinking you're talking with some one, there is no computer that even has the intelligence of a 1-year-old. The only space station is a small station in which a few astronauts live in cramped conditions, without artificial gravity.

 The Roomy Space Station in 2001: A Space Odyssey

But what about Clarke's nonfiction predictions about our century – how well do they hold up? In 1999 Clarke wrote for the London Sunday Telegraph an article called “The Twenty-First Century: A (Very) Brief History.” Below are some of the predictions he made, along with comments about their accuracy.

Clarke predicted that the year 2002 would see “the first commercial device producing clean, safe power by low-temperature nuclear reactions,” causing the inventors of cold fusion to get a Nobel Prize in physics in that year. Serious misfire.

Clarke predicted that the year 2004 would see the first example of a human clone. Misfire.

Clarke predicted that the year 2005 would see the first return of a soil sample from Mars. Misfire.

Clarke predicted that in the year 2006 the last coal mine would be closed. Very serious misfire.

Clarke predicted that in the year 2009 (because of a nuclear accident) all nuclear weapons would be destroyed. Serious misfire.

Clarke predicted that in the year 2010 “quantum generators (tapping space energy)” would be deployed, and that electronic monitoring would all but eliminate professional criminals from society. Both predictions were complete misfires.

Clarke predicted that in the year 2011 a space probe to Jupiter's moon Europa would discover life on that moon. Misfire.

Clarke predicted that in the year 2014 construction of a Hilton Orbiter Hotel would begin. Misfire.

These misfires are not hand-picked from a list of predictions including quite a few successes. As far as I can tell from his 1999 forecast , pretty much nothing that Clarke predicted to happen between the year 2000 and 2014 actually happened (except for the arrival of a space probe to Saturn, which was already due to arrive in the year Clarke predicted).

These predictions were from one of the twentieth century's leading futurists, who had written a widely-read book entitled Profiles of the Future. My purpose here is not to belittle Clarke, who I regard highly. My purpose is merely to suggest the lesson that no matter how highly regarded a particular futurist may be, you should remember that his predictions are just educated guesses.

So the next time you see Ray Kurzweil predict that highly intelligent computers are just around the corner, take it with a grain of salt.

You should also pay very little attention to the prediction in today's news, from the SETI Institute's senior astronomer Seth Shostak. Shostak predicts that if intelligent life exists in space, we will find it within twenty years. Although there is every reason to suspect that there is very much intelligent life outside of our planet, there is fairly little reason to conclude that if it exists we will find it in twenty years.Whatever reasons have prevented us from finding such intelligent life for the past fifty years may well also prevent us from finding it in the next fifty years.