The future, it turns out, starts in 2020. Far enough in the distance to dream, yet seemingly within arm’s reach, that year was attached to more predictions of technological innovations from readers than any other in the interactive, crowd-sourced timeline published online with “The Future of Computing,” last week’s special issue of Science Times. Holographic displays. Robotic restaurants. Computers that replace doctors, translators and drivers. If it’s proximate science fiction you want, you’ll have it, it seems, at the end of the decade. Looking at 2020 and beyond, readers imagined a future with cures for intractable diseases, direct links between brain and computer, automated everything, contact with alien life forms, sentient machines and no language barriers.
Readers were invited to make predictions and collaboratively edit this timeline, which was divided into three sections: a sampling of past advances in computing, predictions that readers could push forward or pull backward in time with the click of a button (but not, of course, into the past), and a form for making and voting on predictions. Tens of thousands of edits were made. Starting with predictions from experts like Sebastian Thrun, Georges Nahon, Larry Smarr, Drew Endy and David Patterson, the timeline grew in scope and creativity with the addition of selected reader suggestions as word of the project spread socially via sites like Twitter. Optimistic predictions far outpaced negative ones — a wishful view, perhaps, of technology as panacea. The most popular reader-submitted prediction came from Roy in Italy, who wrote that by 2020, “Google will provide everyone with the ability to communicate with everyone else, regardless of the specific language they speak, via their smartphone, with real-time language translation.”
Pushing and pulling dates on the timeline, readers said it would take 65 years to connect our brains to the Internet via Wi-Fi, as D. Moysey of Boston predicted, “granting nearly unlimited memory and communication ability, provided you don’t lose the signal.” Not all predictions were rosy. In David Gibson’s dystopian view, “humans will become so integrated with electronics that more people will die from computer viruses in a year than from biological viruses.” Readers suggested this would happen about 2170. Many of the negative forecasts were bullish on technological growth, just skeptical about our ability to control it. In 2021, Steve Williams wrote from Calgary, Alberta, “computers will become so ubiquitous that they will be relegated to appliance status like toasters, as people strive to put the misnamed ‘social media’ aside in favor of face-to-face human connections.”
Some predictions, good or bad, were open to interpretation. Within 10 years, wrote Ian Breckheimer, “more people will enter into romantic relationships with people they met online than people they met in person.” Predictions about the far future — 2100 and beyond — took a broader view of changes that might affect all of humanity. Will we speak telepathically? Maybe by 2484, readers said. Will we be governed by an all-knowing artificial intelligence? In 2267, perhaps. Live forever? That could happen as soon as 2100, according to Jay Snipes of Pickerington, Ohio, who predicted, “Medical and computer sciences will learn to map the human brain, preserving the memories, knowledge, and wisdom of selected individuals before they die.” When, if ever, will these flights of fantasy become fact? Perhaps the most accurate prediction of all belongs to R. Campos of Brazil, who wrote that in the year 2025, “we’ll be laughing at these predictions.”