The best way to invent the future is to predict it

“The best way to predict the future is to invent it.” PARC researcher Alan Kay is widely attributed as having said this here. However, we don’t know this for sure; as Bob Metcalfe aptly shared with us recently (and he was quoting Alan Kay who in turn was quoting Robert Heinlein) – good stories are rarely true.

But we’re not trying to share a story with you here… what we want to share is a glimpse into what PARC alumni, employees, and invited friends of PARC predicted that we as a company would (or should) be working on in the future… the next 40 years.

There’s also a separate 4-minute video with luminaries sharing their predictions with us in person after the jump.

Because why can’t the best way to invent the future be to predict it??

Hindsight is 40/40

Given that these predictions were shared as part of our recent 40th anniversary celebration event, we shouldn’t be surprised that many riffed off PARC’s founding charter from 40 years ago: to invent “the office of the future”.

Looking forward to the next 40 years, people suggested that PARC would move the world’s office away from the desktop and outside the workplace and into the cloud – what one person called the “new Internet-desktop“.

Other riffs on this theme included PARC inventing the doctor’s office of the future, or even finally realizing the paperless office. Though perhaps the most well-reasoned and useful prediction around this theme was this:

Office of the Future is really a never-ending problem to investigate. Work practices evolve constantly and new business solutions need to be invented. PARC should continue to focus primarily on inventing technologies for business operations.

Most popular domains

While many argue that the notion of single mission-oriented research centers may be a thing of the past, collaborative innovation hubs with a mission or collection of domains are certainly not… So it was especially interesting for us to see what people suggested as the top domains PARC should be working in the next 40 years:

Cleantech – including alternative and renewable (“truly clean”!) energy, smart transportation (cars, grids, charging stations), and synthetic fuels to replace gasoline. A number of people specifically called out much better energy conversions. Check, check, and check.

Biotech – this ranged from suggestions as general as healthcare to suggestions as specific as pico-technology for fertility management and edible cancer-seeking lasers. One person asserted that biotech would “grow the same way as the semiconductor industry”, though the best argument was this: “The last 40 years featured major advances in digital technology. The next 40 will feature major advances in bio-tech. Powerful digital technology will be one of the enablers for these advances.” However, we’d also point out that powerful digital technology is an enabler for just about anything.

rank domain
1 cleantech
2 biotech
3 neurocomputing & HCI
4 ubicomp
5 robotics/automation
6 social computing & networking
7 nanotech
8 printing & custom manufacturing
9 office of future (again)
10 natural language, recognition, interfaces
11 programming, logic, memory
12 space & deep sea
13 security/ identity and data protection
14 new materials
15 education
16 technology for developing world
17 teleportation

Our favorite? That “PARC become known as the sower of seed corn for the next round of Silicon Valley new ventures in energy, bio, and other related areas.”

Making science fiction a reality

PARC researcher Stu Card is widely credited with helping create the field of human-computer interaction. But as devices evolved and essentially became mini-computers, the field soon became known as “human-machine interaction”. And as information evolved and was liberated from devices into our surrounding environment, the field then became known around here as “human-information interaction”.

So it’s fitting that this next set of predictions takes the next, huge leap: from interaction, to seamless integration between humans, machines, and information. Enter neuro-bio-bionic-whateveritscalledthesedays computing.

Some of the predictions involved synthetic biology and simulating the human brain, but most of them were focused on various means for direct inputs, cybernetic implants, and neural interfaces to the human brain – including “augmented perception prosthetics devices that you attach directly to your nervous system to provide data about your surroundings at the touch of a thought”.

Also: bio-CPUs. And: brain wave processing, specifically, a “spinoff of the multi signal collaborative processor technology employed in the ‘multicorder’ surpasses diagnostic acumen previously only available in the tricorder.” Sure.

Other suggestions included technologies for scavenging energy from the human body, and biological/electronic hybrids so that “When my children give me a PARC ‘electronic mouse’ that does simple household and personal chores, I will find it disturbing.”

But to us the most intriguing suggestion was:

Developing supporting technologies for transitioning individuals and society to the matrix.

…especially if he meant Matrix with a capital M.

All things 3-D (and… invisible)

The next most popular theme was ubiquitous, personalized, context-aware, embedded, and wearable computing. Some may argue that this domain, especially the “wearable” part, is not that different from the above neuro-computing domain since both blend the digital and physical. We’re not here to argue semantics [but if you're in the mood, do try this post].

Instead, folks offered these suggestions for 3-D technologies PARC would be working on in the next 40 years:

  • 3-D communications especially “really good teleconferencing…that will make the experience as close as possible to the experience of sitting around a table with the people participating”;
  • 3-D collaborative workspaces (been there, done that);
  • Palmtop personal cloud devices that make opportunistic use of available screens and projections” as well as holographic movies (can we project The Matrix?); and
  • Electronic tattoo displays… no comment.

There were also multiple suggestions for invisible technologies. Our favorites: invisible phone (“distributed on a person, in pockets, in ear pieces”) and invisible email (“titles and/or contents come through the ear piece on command”). We sure do like the concept of invisible email.

On a serious note, we can’t ignore this:

In the next 40 years, there will be several battles between ubiquitous personal data and privacy. PARC will be in the trenches of this battle, developing data mining techniques on the one hand, and privacy enhancing technologies on the other.

And on a not-so-serious note, we can’t ignore this:

Creating a digital reality for me to live in when I become a feeble old man. Get cracking, we are both running out of time!

But of course, and… whoa??

Many of the predictions were more generic to PARC as an entity; these were pretty standard, focusing on professional services and incubation and patents and the vague but interesting “reinventing invention“.

A few folks riffed on Moore’s Law, replete with order-of-magnitude calculations and the general “extending of Moore’s Law beyond currently viable ranges and to just about anything. Can’t have a Valley event without Moore’s Law being mentioned at least once.

In the general predictions category, though, our favorites were: “a PARC employee winning the Nobel Prize” (= impact the world) and “endowment from wealthy alumni (= money) — so why not combine them into the neat distillation of “occasionally making a profit while inventing some cool and useful stuff”?

Finally, there were the predictions we simply Could. Not. Categorize.

“Single set clothing technology” (is this fashion)? One person even suggested we work on the “separation of soul and body”. Hmm.

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly!), a number of folks suggested teleportation, exhorting us with “Come on, it’s time to get going on this now.” Okay; at our next 40th celebration, you can just teleport here.

Foresight is 40/40

Here’s the thing. Predictions are fun — and useful — but let’s not forget what Niels Bohr (and later Yogi Berra, as one person submitted) said: “Prediction is hard, especially about the future.”

So we’ll just keep doing what we do best, and let you worry about this part.

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7 thoughts on “The best way to invent the future is to predict it

  1. Pedro

    Hello. In my blog I am exploring all kinds of throughts about Lucy Suchman, PARC, and the future of business anthropology. I agree that predicting the future is the way forward. I would love your visit and an exchange of ideas. Regards, Pedro

  2. Howard Rheingold

    One of the aspects of PARC that I’ve always admired is the interdisciplinary nature of what goes on there — from atoms to societies. And I’ve been following your work on augmented social cognition. But I’d like to nudge the social-minded among you to go against your instincts as a social scientist and join the prognostication.

    I’m reminded of Doug Engelbart’s formulation in his 1962 paper on augmenting human intellect: Humans using language, artifacts, methodology, and training. So much development and so many of your predictions were focused on the artifacts. How about the methodology and training? What about the emerging literacies? I’ve written and videoblogged about this elsewhere, but I see the need to learn and teach cognitive and social competencies to be a critical uncertainty. I’m thinking aobut the divide between those whodo and don’t know how to filter the small residue good info from the overwhelmingly larger flood of bad info (misino, disinfo, crap, spam, spew). Or how to deploy their attention productively and mindfully. Or how to join and instigate mass collaboration. Or how tune and feed networks. Participate effectively as a citizen. Grow social capital with their compatriots. Protect their reputation and privacy to whatever degree is possible. The list goes on.

    We already have at our disposal an extremely powerful neural interface — learning. Undoubtedly, the artifacts play a huge role. What about the less visible parts? Competencies. Literacies. Pedagogies.

  3. Pete Pirolli

    A great point, Howard. I was recently invited to participate as an “expert” on social computing in the ATCS21 effort directly aimed at understanding and promoting “21st Century Skills”. That project, which has pulled together a set of educational researchers, is funded by an industry consortium (Cisco, Intel, Microsoft) which requires a workforce that is sophisticated in not only navigating and filtering the online world, but also competent in exploiting all the new ways of creating and using social capital, crowdsourcing, etc., as you have said.

    A major focus of PARC input into this project was to provide a bit of an over-the-horizon view of these new competencies and technologies that have not quite made it into the world of academic educational research. The ATCS21 mission is to influence educational assessment and practice around these competencies, and they’re rolling out initial projects in six countries over the next year…

  4. Ed Chi

    Howard, You’re right that there’s a certain level of social intelligence that people might need training around. Much of system design these days consists of two flavors: (1) people already know how crowds work, so “just get them together and intelligence will spring forth”; (2) crowds need to be augmented with data mining, so “let’s aggregate the data, apply my multi-regression, and look! I have a new application that’s smart.” Our research is certainly culpable on both fronts, mainly because that’s the fruit ripe for picking.

    However, as Pete mentioned, our group is very interested in learning psychology, and how it applies to human information interaction as well as social intelligence. Clearly, people had to learn how to make wikis work for constructing an encyclopedia; people had to learn how to tag for their own benefit and possibly for others’ benefit; people had to learn about to use hashtags; etc. Then there are the skills involved to determine what information is trustworthy or not; how to participate, obtain, and retain web-wide reputation; training for privacy, security, identity; etc.

    These are all a kind of new social literacy that you’re speaking about… Wikidashboard was just one of our attempts at addressing that by showing Wikipedia editors (and readers) how transparency might affect growth and reputation.

  5. Clive Boulton

    I imagine demographics will pull PARC into both new and old product categories:

    …BCI – Brain Computer interfaces for aging populations to be assisted by technologies;

    …ERP – Enterprise software is still anchored in pushing plans down a hierarchy and measuring results through accounting. The heart of MRP has not been rethought for social collaboration. The basis for ERP, MRP is 50 years old.

    …BIO – Clearly the USA will loose its lead in embryonic fertility medicine. However, Synthetic knees and other parts that wear out. PARC will head up bio-bits.

    And for PARC’s business model:

    …R2C – Research to Commercial business model costs will entail PARC orchestrating open source collaboration. Patent laws are out of date for shared innovation. Inevitably PARC will spend more time in Washington, Brussels and Beijing lobbying for changes in patent laws.

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