Is Bitcoin a greed-driven fad or will the blockchain technology that underlies it revolutionize the internet? Will artificial intelligence produce a world of ease and plenty or turn on us and kill us all? Is that jet pack you always wanted arriving any day now, or basically never?
There are no shortage of people who make their livings by claiming to have answers to these questions. You should probably meet their claims with a healthy dose of skepticism.
Futurists aren't all snake oil salesmen, of course, and it's sensible for both individuals and businesses to think ahead and develop contingency plans for possible future scenarios. But history also offers plenty of reasons to be skeptical of "experts" with crystal balls.
In the past, a great many of them have often been outrageously wrong.
You may have heard the infamous 1977 quote by Digital Equipment Corp. president Ken Olson -- "There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home" -- but as a highly entertaining recent roundup of failed tech predictions by blog Relatively Interesting illustrates, Olson's flub was just the tip of a very large iceberg.
Here's a small sampling of the sometimes hilarious quotes that made the list. I can't guarantee the historical accuracy of all of them (many quotes have incredibly murky origins), but I can promise they'll remind you that confidence is no guarantee of actual competence when it comes to predictions of the future of tech.
- "With over fifteen types of foreign cars already on sale here, the Japanese auto industry isn't likely to carve out a big share of the market for itself." -- Business Week, 1968.
- "Lee DeForest has said in many newspapers and over his signature that it would be possible to transmit the human voice across the Atlantic before many years. Based on these absurd and deliberately misleading statements, the misguided public ... has been persuaded to purchase stock in his company ..." -- a U.S. District Attorney, prosecuting American inventor Lee DeForest for selling stock fraudulently through the mail for his Radio Telephone Company in 1913.
- "To place a man in a multi-stage rocket and project him into the controlling gravitational field of the moon where the passengers can make scientific observations, perhaps land alive, and then return to earth - all that constitutes a wild dream worthy of Jules Verne. I am bold enough to say that such a man-made voyage will never occur regardless of all future advances." -- Lee DeForest, American radio pioneer and inventor of the vacuum tube, in 1926.
- "Heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible." -- Lord Kelvin, British mathematician and physicist, president of the British Royal Society, 1895.
- "Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years." - Alex Lewyt, president of vacuum cleaner company Lewyt Corp., in the New York Times in 1955.
"There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will ever be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will." -- Albert Einstein, 1932.
- "The cinema is little more than a fad. It's canned drama. What audiences really want to see is flesh and blood on the stage." -- Charlie Chaplin, actor, producer, director, and studio founder, 1916.
- "The Americans have need of the telephone, but we do not. We have plenty of messenger boys." -- Sir William Preece, Chief Engineer, British Post Office, 1878.
- "The world potential market for copying machines is 5,000 at most." -- IBM, to the eventual founders of Xerox, 1959.
- "How, sir, would you make a ship sail against the wind and currents by lighting a bonfire under her deck? I pray you, excuse me, I have not the time to listen to such nonsense." -- Napoleon Bonaparte, when told of Robert Fulton's steamboat.
- "[Television] won't be able to hold on to any market it captures after the first six months. People will soon get tired of staring at a plywood box every night." -- Darryl Zanuck, movie producer, 20th Century Fox, 1946.
- "When the Paris Exhibition [of 1878] closes, electric light will close with it and no more will be heard of it." -- Oxford professor Erasmus Wilson.