As early as 2010, journalists have been predicting that self-driving cars were about to “take over the world,” or some variation of that phrase. Google’s first self-driving car model, a Toyota Prius, had more than 150,000 successful miles logged in 2010. Since then, there’s been a rotating series of claims that “the year of the self-driving car” would be 2013. Then 2014. Then 2015. And so on.
And of course, self-driving cars aren’t the only example of a technology being heralded a bit too much and a bit too early. We’ve also heard about the limitless potential of drone delivery—for the last five years or so, despite little progress actually being made. We hear about how smart homes are about to replace traditional homes entirely. And every once in a while, we hear about a promising new breakthrough in a technology that has the power to connect our brains directly to the internet.
Let’s not hold our breath for that one.
So why is it that so many bold technology predictions turn out to be overly ambitious? Are we that bad at predicting the course of technological development? Or is there something else at play here?
Turns out, there are several factors intersecting to produce this effect.
“Me First” Marketing
First, we have to consider the power of marketing and the power of competition. In the tech world, it’s not enough to make a great new technology—it pays to be first. If you’re the first company to achieve success in a new area of tech, you’ll instantly achieve a permanent advantage over your competitors. If Google perfects a robot butler before Apple does, they’ll immediately and forever be associated with butler robots—which could eventually add up to billions of dollars in additional market share.
Because of this competitive pressure, companies are inclined to overstate their progress. A corporate representative might imply that their self-driving cars are almost ready to go, when in reality they may need a few more years of refinement; but getting to say “we’re close” gives you an edge over your competitors.
This isn’t to say that all tech companies are lying about their progress, of course. But they’re certainly all pressing to advance as quickly as possible, and they’re all eager to be seen as the frontrunner in their respective industry. Accordingly, they may be inclined to overstate or exaggerate things—even if it’s just a little bit.
The Sensationalism of Modern Journalism
Next, we need to think about the sensationalism of modern journalism. If tech company representatives overstate their progress slightly, journalists have the power to exaggerate the claim even further.
In the modern era, journalism is all about clicks. For most publications, it’s much more valuable to go viral on social media than it is to produce a reputable, fact-based story. Instead of relying on consistent paying subscribers, most news outlets make money through onsite ads—and those ads can only generate revenue if their stories get clicks.
Guess which kinds of stories get clicks? The sensational ones. The ones that evoke strong emotions. The ones that inspire heated debates. The controversial ones that make bold claims.
Because of this, media publications are highly likely to publish a story that claims some kind of futuristic technology is almost here—even if that’s far from the truth. There are no real repercussions to posting a story that “2013 is the year of the self-driving car,” because it will be forgotten quickly—and you can just write a story that “2014 is the year of the self-driving car” next year.
There’s also an illusion that occurs, distorting our sense of how sensationalist the media truly is, and it all depends on survivorship bias.
For example, let’s say five publishers produce stories on a new technology; three of them boldly claim that it’s nearly here, while the other two are more modest in their reporting. The three bold claimers get a ton of comments, likes, and shares, and their headlines are seen all over social media. The two modest claimers get buried. To the casual observer, it seems like every story you see is sensationalist and overblown—when in reality, 40 percent of stories are accurate, despite going unseen.
Slow Adaptation and Adoption
Tech accessibility depends on acceptance and adoption. Consumers must fully buy into a technology for it to begin circulating, and in many cases, government regulators and politicians have to be on board as well. Society can be slow to adapt; many technologies are risky, intimidating, or simply hard to understand. And some people don’t like change in general.
If politicians or consumers make it difficult, even a fully polished new technology can remain in tech purgatory for years.
Unforeseeable Developmental Issues
Of course, some technologies end up stagnating because of unforeseen developmental issues. There’s a critical hurdle that can’t be easily overcome, like a safety issue that hasn’t been resolved, or a lack of viable power. In some cases, major technologies are held up because of insufficient advancements in other areas—like new kinds of batteries or more durable materials.
The Death of Moore’s Law
For much of the modern technological era, we’ve been benefitting from Moore’s Law, an informal argument that we can practically double our computing power every 18 months or so. Tech innovation has been remarkably fast, exponentially taking us to new heights.
But now, Moore’s Law is… dead. Innovation has slowed. Our progress isn’t nearly as fast as it used to be, we fail more frequently and we’re coming up on some major physical barriers—limits to the paths of growth we’ve relied on for decades. It’s getting harder and harder to innovate, but at the same time, we expect lightning-fast innovation. It’s a recipe for bold claims and disappointing results.
We also need to acknowledge the role of consumer hype in this equation. Consumers tend to be crazy about new technology, overestimating its utility and overvaluing the companies creating those technologies. Companies like Tesla, on the forefront of tech innovation for their respective niches, are trading at price-to-earning (P/E) ratios that far exceed the rest of the market. And people are talking about them nonstop.
People are paying close attention to game-changing technologies, and they’re constantly hungry for optimistic news. So why not give it to them?
The Retrospective Effect
Finally, we should consider the retrospective bias that tends to affect technological development. Usually, when a new technology is introduced, it’s clunky, ineffective, and/or inaccessible to the broader public. Over time, it gradually evolves, inching its way into our daily lives. Only years later does it become fully integrated, at which point we falsely remember using that technology for years, saying something like, “oh, that’s always been there.”
Voice search, for example, has been around since 2011, but its early iterations were unreliable and hard to use. It wasn’t until 2016 or so that it truly became a powerful and universally used tool—but people still feel like voice search has been around for a decade.
Right now, game-changing technologies are being developed. Self-driving cars are being tested on the streets. Delivery drones are being manufactured. We’re just a few steps away from full integration. Maybe in a few years, we’ll look back and say “that’s been around since 2013!”
I bet you won’t have to look far to find an article that claims 2021 to be the year that self-driving cars or autonomous drone fleet deliveries finally take hold. And for all we know, they may be right. But looking back, it seems like most of our bold tech predictions end up embarrassingly wrong. And we should consider that whenever reading about some sexy new technology that has the power to save the world in just a few months.
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