Predicting The Future: How’s That Working Out?

With 2022 off to a good start, it is about time to let go of all those New Year’s resolutions that didn’t quite work out. The scale’s needle didn’t reverse, our nails are still bitten, and we are still binge-watching Breaking Bad instead of reading the classics. But, of course, there’s always the future where we just know we’re going to stick to our resolutions. Besides, the future will be replete with fat-eating nanobots, 3D printed nails every morning, and a pill you can take that will make you remember reading Ulysses.

Predicting the future is fraught with peril, which is why launching a new company or product is so risky. However, there have been a few prognosticators that have made some impressive forecasts. For example, in 1922 popular (if not critically acclaimed) author W. L. George wrote a piece for The New York Herald titled “What the World Will be Like In a Hundred Years.” Since May will see that piece’s 100th anniversary, let’s see how he did.

Catching Some Rays

George comments on the revolution of the X-ray and predicts that by 2022 there will be many new “rays.” This was a common trope in science fiction, from death rays to shrink rays, but we aren’t convinced there have been many new rays in the technical sense. However, we do have a lot of new imaging technology that a person of George’s time might see as rays — think MRI or PET scans, for example.

So while a prediction of rays is not quite spot on, some of the other predictions are pretty good. George writes, “commercial flying will have become entirely commonplace.” Well, perhaps less commonplace since the pandemic, but point goes to George on that one. He predicts that planes will go from London to New York in 12 hours. Turns out, it is closer to 8 hours, even on a conventional jet, and much less if you have a supersonic plane. George correctly predicted this would transform the business of horses, ocean liners, and railroads along with the rise of truck-based transportation. Pretty good.


His prediction that in 2022 there will be no wires in the sky because of wireless phones is almost true. We still see wires, but fewer of them and wireless phones are now the norm, not the exception. Perhaps he’d read some of Tesla’s work because he mentions the possibility that even power will go wireless, although he doesn’t sound convinced.

Speaking of energy, he notes that coal and oil won’t be exhausted but will be in short supply. He predicts that power will be shifting to tides, sun, and “radium” meaning atomic power.

Entertainment in 2022 would have moving images on a screen with natural color and sound. It wasn’t the death knell for live performances that George predicted, but it certainly made a difference in that area. There will be more leisure time, too, because of a reduction in coal and tobacco smoke. He also predicted the acceptance of birth control and women joining the workforce en masse and holding nearly any position they wanted, although he predicted there would still be some inequality as he didn’t expect something so deeply rooted in society to change in only 100 years despite his desire for equality.

Swing and Miss

Some of the predictions missed by a mile, though. Neighborhoods didn’t form cooperatives to hire domestic help. Our houses are not made of easy-to-replace paper mache. We don’t eat our meals in the form of pills — at least, not most of us. We also don’t live in enclosed cities.

Some predictions are closer but not quite. His prediction of 240 million people in the US is off by over 100 million. He also predicts that the complete settlement of the United States will result in a loss of opportunity and cause the population to become less “enterprising” settling on a 7-hour workday.  Not around here, although maybe in some places, the workweek is shrinking, grudgingly.

Of course, he missed a few things completely. Computers, for one. All the things that come from computers like social media, online universities, robots (even smoking ones like the one below), and teleconferences. Polymers and additive manufacturing. There is no mention of space travel. Or the push to create more food to feed a growing world population. Still not a bad record.

Our Turn

So what do we think will be in the year 2122? Quantum computers, surely. We suspect, though, they may not be as useful as we think they will be but they will probably be useful for things we don’t currently suspect. Maybe artificial intelligence will make some breakthroughs, but what we have today is little more than a cheap parlor trick compared to the intelligent computers we imagine in fiction. Anything serious won’t be an extrapolation of what we have today, but something completely different. Same for virtual reality. It needs a breakthrough if it doesn’t want to be just a fad or a niche technology.

We think some of George’s misses may yet come true. Enclosed cities will be a given once we leave Earth and may see some adoption on the planet, too, eventually. (We have some small-scale examples like the Eden project seen in the picture.) Work is getting shorter. We can’t tell if the pandemic effects will fade away as other pandemics have or if we are going to see society shift in ways to make another one harder. For example, maybe in 2122, you’ll always wear a mask in public just in case?

We presume energy will be a solved problem in 100 years, at least by our standards. There will be, of course, new problems like wind farms changing weather patterns or something like that. We imagine waste disposal will still be a concern and maybe even worse than it is today. And, like George, there’s probably a host of things we just can’t imagine. DNA surgery to change your hairline, hair color, or cure a disease? Replicators that can copy objects or create them from a design pattern? That could significantly impact transportation, economics, and a host of other things.

Even as late as 1970, it was hard to imagine what a computer would do in someone’s home. By 1980, common wisdom was that everyone would have a computer, but there was little agreement on what we would do with them. Today, it is clear that what drove the true universal adoption of computers was their ability to connect us to other people. You could make the same argument for the success of cell phones. So if we had to bet on new things, we’d bet on the things that connect people to one another in useful or interesting ways.

We’ve looked at other prognosticators like Edward Bellamy and Hugo Gernsback. Movies are also infamous for bad predictions. What are yours?

73 thoughts on “Predicting The Future: How’s That Working Out?

  1. For the future, among the things mentioned, AI and DNA editing appear to be things that can completely change society. While I also think real AI is a ways off, 100 years is a long time to progress, and this is the kind of field where once a breakthrough is made, you expect to see exponential progress from it.

    So, supposing we could create a real AI, what are some of the implications? “Friend in a box” or “therapist in a box” are some obvious possibilities. But if we consider that large companies like Google and Amazon will pioneer the development, we should consider where that leads: (1) home and office assistants everywhere, both replacing office workers as well as taking care of many personal bookkeeping tasks (2) instead of explicit ads, your home assistant will be subtly proposing offers and deals from contracted companies. Or perhaps they’ll play a longer term game, where they try to have their AI assistants “program” their users over the long term in ways that are beneficial to corporate needs.

    As for DNA editing, right now we see Crispr-Cas9 as a remarkable tool, but it is still relatively crude, with possible false-matches to the targeted DNA area, and relying upon DNA’s self-repair mechanism to glue the strand back together after splicing. There’s also the question of how to target either the cells in a given part of the body or the body as a whole.

    Let’s suppose we can edit DNA in both a very precise and general manner. Immediately, there are ethical issues. Of course, many countries can agree to avoid certain practices, but what if some countries do not? What if some countries do not abide and instead practice eugenics on a large scale to create “superior” humans (or even trans-humans)? What kind of “superior” would they even go for? Looking at “Brave New World”, they would probably want to create several classes of people, with only a few “elites” gifted with high intelligence, while lots of “workers” would be given physical strength but less initiative.

    Even supposing we avoid those issues, the ability to define and change ourselves leads to various concerns. For instance, if we can easily cure deafness, then deaf culture (such as sign language) would disappear. Right now, our need to overcome our handicaps drives lots of innovation, and all this goes away once the handicaps disappear. I suppose there will always be issues that we’ll need to innovate to overcome,

    But, hopefully, we won’t go crazy from utter boredom because everything is too easy for everyone.

    1. I think you’re thinking too small about AI. First of all it certainly not clear that it will be the product of the current, or possibly any giant company. Second as the marginal cost of production goes to zero will be the point of owning anything (check out the novel “the dispossessed”)? Third, when the robots do all the labor, why can’t they create “jobs“ for people who psychologically require them and make a pretend environment so that people think that their job is actually useful? Isn’t that the kindest thing for them to do for us?

      1. It’s definitely easy to think too small about AI, just as we did with computers. There are so many different directions it can go. We imagine that we will create helpers, but (as sci-fi likes to point out), we can create destroyers. We can also create a new class of beings with their own set of problems. (“What is my purpose?” “You pass butter!” “Oh my god!” “Welcome to the club, pal.”)

      2. I agree, ai is very close to replacing a large percentage of the workforce already.

        An AI trained on your digital finger print will likely understand you better than yourself in some ways. As the field continues to evolve the tool aspect of AI may allow some humans to create incredible new technology similar to the way computers allowed creatives to create art, film, music, tech, etc.

        After spending quite a lot of money messing with openAI’s playground I’m fairly convinced that in 10 years AI will be ubiquitous in every aspect of our lives. With relatively small amounts of money leading to an almost pay to win effect in life at least initially.

        Material sciences, gene editing, rapid prototyping, and the proliferation of mems devices will have effects as well.

        Probably expect the complete automation of all conflicts in the next 100 years as well.

        I would expect a bimodal distribution of intelligence to form by 2100 as well provided aptitude tests may be be taken with the aid of integrated ai systems.

        Or just read any future set Neil Stephenson novel for possible future timelines.

    2. What we need to guard against is AI generating two schools of thought, liberal and conservative that learn to separate further until the two branches can’t co-exist. Many members of both groups will encourage their AI assistants to do exactly that, not realizing that danger.

  2. Neighborhoods didn’t form cooperatives to hire domestic help….

    Maybe your neighbourhoods don’t. And some very poor people still live with dial up. As one great prophet commented, “the future is not evenly distributed.”

  3. We presume energy will be a solved problem in 100 years, at least by our standards.

    Sure just like the romans solved it, by Egyptian standards, and the holy Roman empire solved it by dark ages standards, and the 1900s had solved it by the standards of the age of sail. Energy is one thing we will always find a use for, even if that use is just to climb the gravity well, permanently.

  4. Energy is a solved problem but we are too obstinate to embrace nuclear power. We should either just put the spent nuclear waste back in the mountains we originally mined for the material, or we could just recycle it into the un periodically. If we imagine a world with abundant free energy, then many many thighs become possible. California could simply convert the oceans into drinking water, electric cars could deliver goods for free and manufacturing would become almost free as well. So many problems could be solved if we just turned our weapons into plowshares.

    1. Our present inabilities shield us from unforseen consequences of our realized dreams. It is somehow better to can but abstain for good reasons, than to dabble in our impotence and inexperience (not intended as “that’s what she said”). But, experience with what we witnessed so far is that “abstain for good reasons” part seldom comes. The push to get what we want usually kills the bringers of bad news… for at least decades, and almost always Until It’s Too Late.

    2. Just that nuclear power is not as cheap as proponents claim it to be. If you include all the costs, including wast disposal, mining and protection against radiation, it is quite expensive.

      Renewable energy is cheaper already, the issue is scaling.

  5. Free energy: it costs something to produce, so if you’re getting it for free either someone else is giving it to you or you’re stealing it. The dream of effortless living is the dream of a bum.

    Wars and other physical conflict come from bad people. Weapons are entirely superfluous to initiating conflict; without weapons bad people will beat you with their fists. Weapons in the hands of good people protect them from bad people. Would you leave good people defenseless?

    1. So apparently my cat is a master thief because he has stolen many many hours of sunlight energy and he hasn’t paid anyone.

      And golly I charged my phone at the train station a couple of years ago, I’m sure there must be a warrant for my arrest.

      Oh and let’s not forget the time I stole some heat energy from the Starbucks, I went in to warm up on a frigid day and I didn’t buy anything. Gosh I’m a terrible person.

      So when my Scottish ancestors took up arms to defend themselves from the Saxons, that made them bad people?

    2. No weapon (or invention in general) stays a monopol of good but weak people. Even if it did, many would also argue that invincibility begets belingerence, so goodness leaves soon after weakness.

    3. If the way to make people safer is to give more powerful weapons to good people, why not give every citizen a nuclear warhead? If there is no danger in giving weapons to “good people” then surely this could only improve public safety.

  6. VHF and microwave might count as “new rays”, too. While science was aware that such rays could and did exist, the technology to generate or detect them wasn’t really around in 1922. And then they developed non-communications uses such as radar and microwave ovens. Kind of like terrahertz radiation today – we know what it is, but not how to build anything particularly useful with it.

    1. I haven’t looked too deeply at what inspired Nolan & Johnson to write Logan’s Run, but it’s interesting that the book was written 2-3 years after Weinberg famously said, “We have a saying in the movement that you can’t trust anybody over 30.”

      1. The age-based trust idea is ridiculous itself, and actually a form of group think that generates just what it claims to prevent.

        However invented that idea must be delusional about the group think in teens.

        If anything, you become more free as you age, *if* you take the right steps.

      2. Age-based group think is really ironic, because thinking someone is free just due to age is ignoring reality. Anybody who has seen teen group think knows that this is definitely inaccurate.

        Freedom is not a function of age, but a function of the decisions you make and the environment you are in.

        That age makes you inflexible is one of those notions that are self-limiting. Ironically, the people who said those very thing become what they predicted.

  7. In 100 years replacement body parts will either repaired by DNA changes, stem cell injections, or growing body parts and operations. If the body gets too worn out, we will cut off the head and mount it either on a new body (grown in a body factory) or on top of a robot.

    Moore’s law will still be a few years out, but the definition will have been adjusted to mean the chip or chip module. 3D chips (ie 1000’s of layers) will be the norm, as will multiple chips on a substrate. Heaven only knows what they will be capable of.

    Space ships will travel orders of magnitudes faster and we will have exploratory ships going to our nearest stars and their planets. Maybe we will have a small colony on the moon and Mars, but in 100 years I don’t see much happening for humans.

    We will probably have detected some form of life on some of Jupiter or Saturn’s moons. We will likely have found fossils of some form of life on Mars.

    However, all this assumes we haven’t annihilated ourselves with some war, or greenhouse effects, or some other form of catastrophe such as the sun’s coronal ejection, a comet or asteroid hit, or volcanic eruption.

  8. It’s interesting that “the future” is discussed in such an abstract nature as if it were self deterministic and beyond the influences of humans.

    The future is always a result of the expression of human nature. It has times of good and it has times of ugly parts.

    The only tool we have to understand the future is to understand the current state of human nature.

    Here are some clues –

    Just recently we have consumed energy that took thousands of years to create, in the process we have trashed the planet and we still can’t admit that is is the result of consumerism and the only solution is a reduction in consumption. Instead we are holding false faith in “green” energy.

    We have destructively encroached so far into the natural habitat of all other species on this planet we are now sharing a very small number of the thousands of deadly viruses they carry.

    We have (combined) the worlds greatest power (China and Russia) acting together and Russia moving in a totalitarian manner while the leader of America is saying that Russians and Americans shooting at each other is world war.

    We have an ever increasing disparity of health and wealth both within a nation and intentionally which will likely promote the generation of new and deadly variants of COVID and is causing record civil unrest.

    Hopefully we are on the cusp of realising that future is not some abstract self deterministic thing and get off our asses, take control of the future and oppose the systems that are failing us.

  9. I expect the singularity will have happened: computers will “program themselves” based on natural language requests. Networking and trusted interconnections will have improved to the point where the microcontrollers will pass their requests for dynamic reprogramming to bigger equipment.

    Nerve replacement will be designed to reduce the brain-to-hand reaction time, and will become more commonplace via soldier’s leftover implants. As a bonus, they’ll help people with spinal damage.

    Chemical pesticides and herbicides will have lost all effectiveness. Most farming will become fully robotic, including mechanical pest control. Almost all food will be 100% plant based. Vat grown meat will be available, but won’t be regularly affordable by the poor. Sport hunting will be the only common way people get ‘natural’ meat.

    Natural viruses will become deadlier and more virulent. DNA tech will be so fast and responsive that vaccines will become almost instantly available in response to ever changing biological threats. However, expect to see at least one world-changing biological warfare attack.

  10. You guys take good dope. Absolutly none of your predictions here will happend. What is coming is the collapse of our civilisation, nothing less. By the end of century, the people who have not been eaten by their neighbours won’t be in position to train neural networks, of program a quantum computer, or go to Mars, or operate a nuclear power plant, or even connect with the James Webb satellite. It is aleady over because you guys refuse to see what is coming and continue, throughout your daily actions, to make sure the middle age will come back for you and your kid (if you are egoistically cruel enough to have one). How many generations of pathetic dreamers to come? Technically, you are the last one.

    I write that because today I’m tired to read Hack-A-Day spreading all these utopic lies to their young readers.
    Future is not about ordering preassembled pcb’s oversea. Tell them the truth: the Future is pre industrial.

    1. The future is what we make it.

      When I was a kid in the 1970s, people like you were predicting the end of times by the year 2000 – massive wars, extreme pollution, over population, the collapse of civilization.

      We’re still here.

      The world isn’t a completely peaceful place, but there hasn’t been a world war with nuclear weapons.

      The pollution that we had in the 1970s is greatly reduced – the rivers are clean, and you can breath city air without coughing your lungs out. We’ve got other types of pollution, but people are working cleaning them up, too.

      The world population explosion has slowed, and we’re on track to have a stable (if not shrinking) population in the coming years.

      People are taking steps to combat climate change and reduce CO2.

      If you see a problem, do something about it instead of screaming “the sky is falling.”

      We need people to point out things that need to be fixed. We don’t need panic and fear mongering.

      1. I’m afraid we do need panic and fear mongering.

        Not for the likes of you and me, who have been exposed to science and the scientific method during education, and can therefore appreciate the current paradigm, but for the general population who might not otherwise accept the extreme lifestyle challenges that are around the corner.

        1. Extreme life style changes are not around the corner. Most people can live without extreme consumerism. That and advocating extreme restraint are two opposing ends of a spectrum that are both leading nowhere.

  11. Let’s imagine a future in which robots and AI solve all our labor needs. What would people do? Sure, a lot of folks would be happy to be artists of one sort or another. Scientists would continue to science. Maybe a lot of folks would just watch TV all day. I suppose athletes would continue to do their thing. Cities would probably see many changes: no need to have so many commuters going in to the office. There would be much less need for office buildings at all; many could be converted to residential. Lots of folks would probably spread out into less-populated areas.

    Just a few random thoughts. What are yours?

    1. Realistically? There would be constant attempts at massive population culls. Which is already happening in a variety of different ways. We should be wary of that.
      People are not trying to completely automate labor away just because they’re nice and want to help out. That’s a major misunderstanding of power

  12. On the 8th Dec 2014 I left evidence on a forum run by Ray Kurzweil that I had knowledge from a bit over a year in the future regarding record breaking solar cell technology, they were all “Heh so you are a time traveler are you…” etc. then on the 17th May 2016 I went back and posted a URL for a news story that was exactly what I said would happen and to whom. So how did I know?

    1. Predicting the future isn’t prima facie evidence of time-traveling. For instance: “my son will turn eight in early May this year”. If that happens, is it strong evidence that I’m a time traveler?

      Instead, you want to use something that’s verifiably unknowable at the present, but will be established without a doubt at a point in the future. We’ve got that:

      Oddly enough, the randomness beacon is going down for maintenance this week, so you’ll have to hurry! But if you’re from the future, tell me the last six hex digits from the output value at the following URL, before Friday:

      If you think that your future self wouldn’t have been able to know to check this URL, perhaps figure out a way to pass yourself a note? Or maybe future Daniel Scott Matthews will have searched through all of your Hackaday comments? (Note to future version of time-traveling self: plan for a dead drop.)

      1. The example I gave was equivalent to the randomness beacon pre-knowledge, it was a case of “this research team will discover exactly this thing at this point in time”. Nothing as weak as your calendar based straw man argument. BTW I also uploaded the page onto as you do with such matters. :-) I didn’t say that I was time traveling, that was their joke when they noticed I was referencing a future event so I played along with it. So the question still stands, how did I do it, how could I have known with such precision what was going to happen? Also N.B. how the current version of the page has all of the comments removed.

        1. There’s definitely a wide range between Christmas coming on the 25th _again_ this year, and predicting 48 bits of entropy. I have no idea how you “knew” that it was going to happen, but the event is kinda of a 0.5 on my scale. You’re only 50% likely to be from the future. :)

          But still pretty cool!

          Of course they took out the comments, the future police have no sense of humor.

          1. A mere 0.5? Huh! I am insulted, pulling off a time travel troll on the famous futurist Ray Kurzweil is probably my greatest work of transtemporal performance art.

      2. I’m not sure entropy really means anything by itself. If we consider the future to be an infinite collection of possible causally linked timelines spanking out from the moment you process this statement, then the entropy only matters so much in that it increases or decreases the density of the timelines in any particular direction. Because a meaningless string of hex has almost no meaning by itself and is not even read by a sentient entity very often, it can be almost considered an even source of white noise.

        Basically it matters way more what your intention was going into your encounter with the random number than the number itself.

  13. !remindme 100 years

    Ah, bugger.

    “Today, it is clear that what drove the true universal adoption of computers was their ability to connect us to other people.” – sorry, way off the mark – what has driven the rise of computers, and multiple technologies before that, is porn. From printed pages to home video to the internet, it’s an unfortunate truth that the oldest profession, or some variant of it, still drives the adoption of a lot of tech.

  14. >Our houses are not made of easy-to-replace paper mache.

    What is flat pack furniture then?

    The cheapest kind is low density fiberboard which is basically the same as paper mache, covered in a vinyl wrap, and if you so wish you can buy rolls of printed vinyl to re-surface if every year. It’s just that when a simple book shelf costs $20 and takes 30 minutes to assemble, you might as well throw it out and have a new one.

  15. i think the big 3 of the next 100 years is fusion, offworld colonization, and biotech and their spinoffs. with fusion, crypto will replace normal currency (though not the kludgy systems we have now) and electric cars will be the norm. quantum supremacy and ai is a given, though i think when we get to the point of producing a human equivalent intelligence, ethics will rear its ugly head and stop it. easier access to space will enable offworld mining and manufacturing.

    i dont think pandemic effects are going to linger at all, i have a feeling if you made people wear masks for another year or two, the world would be on fire. our biotech capabilities have really come far, shows what the lag time between a major pandemic and a vaccine is, and that lead time is only going to get shorter in the future. we will likely have a vaccine for the next pandemic in as little as 6 months. biotech is going to find its place in industry, in public health, and agriculture. of course biotech may go the way of nuclear, it will have the potential to solve all our problems, yet will fall victim to fear mongering and bad publicity instead (we have already seen the start of that with gmo foods).

    1. The problem of biotech is that it will fall victim to capitalism. Sure, you can make this really excellent and healthy plant burger, but if you just replace some of the healthy ingredients with cheaper ones, you can make more profit. Repeat this until we are eating processed garbage. Until we all have too much money, it’s hard to see a way around this.

        1. I get your point, though It isn’t always so easy to tell garbage from non-garbage. Some forms of garbage are more acceptable than others, and companies are always keen on inventing new and improved garbage, for which the level of garbaginess remains to be discovered.

  16. Here’s how it generally works:

    100 people predict the future. 95 of them are completely wrong, and 5 of them get some stuff right.

    Then we take one of the luck few and say “what a genius he was”.

    A different approach is to take a wide prediction of the future, ignore the many thing that didn’t happen, and celebrate the one thing that panned out. For 2001: a Space Odyssey, the one thing was tablet computers.

    It just isn’t possible to predict technology decades away, as has been shown again and again.

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