Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Predicting the future

A few weeks ago, Richard MacManus at Read/Write Web posted a list of ten future web trends. At the time, I didn’t take much notice because the list was pretty standard and not very interesting to me. However, yesterday MacManus posted a follow-up article where he listed trends that users had mentioned in the comments to his previous post. It’s interesting to compare the two lists; for instance, MacManus lists boring web trends that will never happen (the semantic web), while his readers list pretty interesting web trends that will never happen (intelligent agents).

All jokes aside, both lists are also intriguing for their attempts at prognosticating the development of future technologies. I’m always fascinated by this behavior: on the one hand, the prognostications are always somewhat off, but, on the other, futurism has an effect on what kinds of technologies are developed. MacManus mentions the history of AI in his first post, noting that it has been a goal of computing since the 1950s. However, there is been practically no progress in the field. Most of the examples MacManus lists are actually human intelligence being connected through computers, as with Amazon’s Mechanical Turk. The only true attempt at AI that is mentioned is Numenta, which is attempting to build computers based on (what sounds like) a connectionist, neural network model. I don’t think that this model is much of an improvement (at least as far as AI is concerned) on the cognitivism model which computers are based on now, so I would be surprised if it led to true AI, but it is an attempt at something new. The point is, the holy grail of AI has been desired for years, even though it hasn’t been practical to apply, because of the effect of the kind of future prognostication that is represented by these posts.

Using this lens, the two articles represent lists of what people desire the future to be. Fortunately, both are a bit more positive than Richard Watson’s chapter on the future from his forthcoming book Future Files: A History of the Next 50 Years, where he sees a future of depressing loneliness and disconnection. MacManus and his readers are much more positive, seeing a future where the web will deliver new systems to improve people’s lives. Simply by virtue of the fact that both versions of the future coexist right now, the new web that emerges will likely contain elements of both.

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