We're sorry to say that this may be the last Top 10 Shaun and I will ever do. According to local preacher Harold Camping, the world will effectively end tonight, when a series of earthquakes will signal the start of the Rapture.
Camping and his followers have been taking out advertisements around the world to warn of the impending apocalypse, garnering international attention and proving a great excuse for a party.
From a scientific perspective you can't rule out the faint possibility that he'll be right, but we're going to take the chance and suggest that Camping may be a false prophet (he has predicted this before), and use this as a good excuse to look at some of technology's worst predictions.
If we're wrong, I suspect we'll have more pressing concerns on our minds, what with battling demons and plague-ridden survivors, overlooked from above by some very smug Oakland churchgoers.
Technology is a great field for messing up when making predictions. The speed of innovation is so fast that it can catch most people unaware, even if they've been a part of creating it in the first place. For simplicity's sake we've limited this list to the PC age, with a couple of historical honourable mentions.
One item which is notably absent from the list is the famous: "I think there is room in the world for maybe five computers," attributed to IBM chief Thomas J. Watson in 1943.
Aside from being over-quoted, the authenticity of the attributation has been called into question on more than a few occasions, Shaun pointed out.
My favourite was a quote from Sir William Preece, chief engineer of the British Post Office, who said in 1878 that "the Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys."
It's a great example of why we lost the empire race with the Americans because of stupid parochialism.
Assuming you still have power tomorrow, feel free to tell us if you think we've missed anything.
Honourable Mention: Artificial intelligence
"[By 1985], computers will be capable of doing any work man can do." Herbert A. Simon, Carnegie Mellon University.
Iain Thomson: I picked this one because it shows the continued hubris of the artificial intelligence (AI) community, which carries on to this day.
AI is a tricky area, but it's worrying how often these same predictions come up. The current theme is that we are approaching the birth of AI, known as the Singularity, almost as an inevitability, thanks to the increase in transistor densities. Once we can replicate the number of connections and nodes in the brain, AI is inevitable, the thinking goes.
I have my doubts. Having the hardware is only one part of the equation, you need the software as well. AI may well come, and when it does we may wish that it hadn't, but I suspect that we're centuries away from true AI, not decades.
You can play all the fancy Turing test tricks you like, but until you can get a program to question and empathise I'm not sold. As Pablo Picasso said: "Computers only give you answers."
Shaun Nichols: We're rapidly approaching the point where the big hurdle for AI will not be hardware limitations, but our own understanding of psychology. If we're still not sure how our own brains operate, replicating that function on a computer will be next to impossible.
What might be fast approaching, however, is a reconsideration of what we term 'intelligence'. We may not be able to replicate all of the crazy chemical interactions that drive our own emotions, and we may not even be able to develop a system that can carry on a decent conversation for more than five minutes.
But what if we were able to create a system which can analyse, manage and adjust on a higher level? Is self-awareness required for intelligence? Is open communication required? Perhaps we will shift the definition of 'intelligence' away from a human standard to something more abstract.
Honourable Mention: Communications satellites
"There is practically no chance that communications space satellites will be used to provide better telephone, telegraph, television or radio service inside the US," T. Craven, US FCC Commissioner, 1961.
Shaun Nichols: This one wasn't directly related to IT, but we thought that it still deserved to go on the list, if for no other reason than the extremely short duration between when the declaration was made and when it was proved spectacularly wrong.
Craven made the statement in 1961, just as the space race was kicking off and the computing and electronics industries were beginning to blossom. Within a few years, television broadcasts were being transmitted via satellite and Craven looked very much the fool.
In the man's defence, however, the progression of technology in the 1960s was absolutely phenomenal. The development of the space program, combined with increased interest in military systems driven by the Cold War, afforded huge resources to research and development operations, and major leaps were made over the course of a few years.
Iain Thomson: Craven could have done with a good dose of science fiction. Arthur C. Clarke was one of the first to popularise the idea of communications satellites, so much so that the geostationary orbital pattern he first suggested at 22,000 miles from the planet is now known at the Clarke Orbit.
By matching the planet's spin a satellite could remain in position and relay data far faster than sub-atmospheric contact, thanks to escaping the boundaries of geography and the ionosphere. But before we are so hard on Craven, let's consider the times in which he spoke.
Back then, Russia was beating the pants off the US in the space race. A communist state that was a nation of serfs 50 years before was now putting satellites into orbit, and threatening to bury capitalist colonialism into history with orbital nuclear weapons. It's understandable that Craven would downplay the satellite's importance given the recent notable failures of US rocket technology.
Nevertheless, there's a depressing tendency in this week's list of people who dismiss what they don't understand, and this highlights it very well.
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