Predicting the future isn’t easy

Megatech book coverMegatech: Technology in 2050
Edited by Daniel Franklin
Published by The Economist, £15
(Buy on Amazon)

It is an understatement to say that predicting the future isn’t easy. Fifty years ago, some people were certain we’d be routinely holidaying on Mars, driving flying cars and being attended to by robot butlers by now – things that still seem far away. Yet even the smartest minds of the 1950s and 1960s failed to predict the internet, the computing revolution and social media. Despite this, Daniel Franklin, The Economist’s executive editor, has decided to tempt fate by putting together a collection of 20 essays about the changes in technology that we are likely to see over the next three decades.

The first third of the book tries to tackle the problem of how we can predict technological change more accurately, including a discussion of where we should be looking to spot future trends. The middle section considers how various sectors of the economy, from manufacturing to healthcare, will be affected by these changes. The final part looks at the wider implications of innovation, including the changes and regulations that we may need to make to ensure that everyone benefits.

One of the strengths of this book is its wide variety of perspectives, with contributions from entrepreneurs, science-fiction writers, philosophers, scientists and journalists. Particularly memorable is the short story Visiting Hours, which weaves predictions about transport, medicine and architecture into a moving tale with a surprising twist at the end. Some of the contributors also stress the limits to change. For example, Tim Cross of The Economist warns that Moore’s law, which has powered the revolution in computing, is starting to slow down, though he does suggest some potential replacements.

A few contributions are underwhelming. Melinda Gates’s chapter, which is taken from an article she wrote for The Economist’s website, covers barely more than a page and essentially serves to promote her charity. This is a pity, because it addresses an interesting topic: how technology can transform the economic lives of those in the poorest developing countries. Yet these dud chapters are the exception in an otherwise excellent collection.