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Jonathan Margolis: the harsh truth about tech predictions [EMEA Atmosphere]

Nothing makes people quite as uppity about the future as technology. And few things get as much attention as a high-profile tech personality making a wild prediction about the future. Take The Singularity — the point at which progress is so rapid it outstrips humans’ ability to comprehend it — for instance.

In 2006, Ray Kurzweil predicted that it would occur by 2045 and that the outcome would be less than favourable for human beings. Similarly, Stephen Hawking has warned that Artificial Intelligence (AI) could end humanity.

Thing is, those kinds of predictions are a complete crock and should almost always be ignored. At least, that’s the view of Financial Times columnist and futurist Jonathan Margolis.

Speaking at Auba’s EMEA Atmosphere conference — currently underway in Faro, Portugal — Margolis suggested that while such predictions are great for grabbing headlines, the futurists we should be listening to are the ones who combine imaginative thinking with a healthy dose of common sense.

The FT columnist rates himself as one such futurist, suggesting that the common sense which comes from building electrical circuits with a soldering iron (as he did during his childhood) has given him a conservative, but ultimately hopeful outlook on the future of technology.

Returning to the subject of The Singularity, Margolis says predictions surrounding this hypothetical event will always be nonsense. Instead, he believes, machines will be our docile and benevolent slaves for a long time into the future.

“Computers cannot and do not write code,” Margolis says, “and I’m reliably informed that they never will.”

So, if The Singularity really isn’t that big an issue, why are so many big-name experts worried about it?

The trouble with experts

According to Margolis, it’s partly down to the fact that while their practical knowledge gives them an advantage, they can often be too close to their field to apply their imagination.

But, he says, it’s also partially down to the fact that experts are only human. Even the greatest minds, he says, are “fatally prone” to Tabloid-style exaggerations about the future.

Instead, Margolis believes that we should take more seriously the predictions of generalists, especially those that can look at what’s happening now and extrapolate “with a twist” the direction we’re likely to take. The twist, he says, “all about thinking around corners”.

Take clothes as a viable piece of the ecommerce pie for instance. In the early days, everyone laughed at the idea. The twist came when retailers started including generous returns policies.

So what should we expect from technology in the coming years?

Here are some of the insights Margolis shared with the conference:

Don’t write off old tech

Margolis recently met a team of professional gamers (a group he incidentally believes will be the last young users of desktop computers) to talk to them about their profession.

After the meeting, he asked them how he could keep in touch. He felt his heart sink when they told him that they were supposed to use Slack, something which he’s not a fan of.

But that feeling quickly dissipated once a team member told him he’d probably be better off using their hotmail addresses and that they’d respond faster too.

The message is to be very sure of your ground before you write off technology. Margolis is confident that we will still be using email for important messages in 20 years.

The future of tech will be much more exciting than we imagine

As Margolis points out, we can sometimes be too conservative when predicting how technology will change.

Take Blade Runner for instance. Set in 2019, the future shown in this 1982 film included flying cars and Androids indistinguishable from human beings. Heady stuff indeed. But every time someone from the film wanted to make a video call, they had to step into a phone booth.

That’s because its creators couldn’t imagine a future where we’d be all have devices in our pockets that allow us to connect with people around the world in any number of ways.

Young people will mock your tech naivety

Everyone reading this article has probably had to play tech support to their parents at some stage. No matter how keen they might be, there are things they just don’t “get”.

While you can undoubtedly keep learning, Margolis reckons that it’s almost inevitable that we’ll all turn into our parents at some point. It’s part of the cycle of technology and we just have to get used to it.

Convenience will out

When looking at what technologies are likely to do well in the future, a good place to start is the areas of people’s lives which could stand to be more convenient. Of course, this tends to be a lot easier to see in retrospect. There are plenty of things that make Uber successful, but it’s real appeal lies in how much more convenient it’s made the process of getting a ride from point A to B.

But that convenience has to be tied to people’s comfort. It’s one reason that Margolis thinks that thought-controlled computing could leapfrog vocal computing in the near future. Despite virtual assistants having been around for more than five years, some people are still uncomfortable making vocal requests of them in public.

The right personality can change the future

There are plenty of very clever inventors out there, but it takes a special force of personality to convince people that they need a new technology in their lives. Henry Ford did it with the car and Steve Jobs did it with the iPod, and the iPhone, and the iPad, and we’ll you get the picture…

There (probably) won’t be togas

Despite futurists throughout history having a penchant for retro styles in their depictions of the future, it’s highly unlikely we’ll go that far back.

Everything will be okay

Margolis acknowledges that “nobody, not even those of us in future-facing positions think nearly enough time thinking about the future”. Despite that, he remains optimistic about it.

“There’s an accelerating trend,” he says, “for the future to work out better than we thought”.

Author | Stuart Thomas

Stuart Thomas
Stuart is the editor-in-chief of Engage Me Online. After pursuing an MA in South African literature, he spent five years reporting on the global technology scene. Intrigued by the intersection of technology and work, he joined Engage Me as the editor-in-chief. He is a passionate runner, and recently ran... More