Adam Ozimek -- blogger at Modeled Behavior and associate at Econsult Corporation
As a child I used to read my grandfather's Popular Science and Popular Mechanics magazines. The constant promise and inevitable disappointment of amazing technologies that mostly never materialized (a problem likely exacerbated by my focus on the amazing and outlandish ones) made me skeptical of futurist predictions. It is somewhat strange then, that I now commonly find myself a proponent of futurist visions equally as grand as those that once made me a cynic. But I'm not alone in seeing the near future as a quickly changing technological landscape. In their recent book Race Against The Machine: How the Digital Revolution is Accelerating Innovation, Driving Productivity, and Irreversibly Transforming Employment and the Economy, MIT's Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee* offer a similarly sweeping view of how technology is, and will be, shaping our future
They present two convincing cases of technology changing quicker than we would have thought. First is the driverless car. This is something that Popular Science has been promising since the 1940s, and I remember reading about 20 years ago. But despite the optimistic predictions of yesterdays futurists, a car without a driver was always a farther off than it seemed. As recent as 2004, in fact, economists Frank Levy and Richard Murnane argued that the kind of pattern recognition that driverless cars required was impossible:
The... truck driver is processing a constant stream of [visual, aural, and tactile] information from his environment. ... To program this behavior we could begin with a video camera and other sensors to capture the sensory input. But executing a left turn against oncoming traffic involves so many factors that it is hard to imagine discovering the set of rules that can replicate a driver's behavior. ...
In that same year DARPA held their first Grand Challenge, which asked competing teams to build a driverless car that can make it across 150 miles of dessert. Confirming Levy and Murnane's pessimism, the longest any car made it was 8 miles, and this took several hours.