Is there a pattern to technology

I don’t know if there is an established pattern in futurology as to how new technology comes along. I would assume it goes something like this. Technology tends to become

more pervasive
more durable
easier to use
more portable
more options
more specialized

And I assume certain branches of technology follow this path like medicine, communications or computers. The internet as a form of communication is more portable, miniaturized & offers far more options than libraries, and in the last 10 years has gone from desktops with dialup to laptops with broadband citywide wifi. If there is a methodology to how technological innovation works you’d assume in 10 years nationwide broadband with digital watch sized computers will be widespread. Is there research on this subject so people can have a vague idea what technology will do in 10-20 years?

There are a variety of people in different fields that are sometimes caused futurists. They try to tell us what the world will be like in the medium to long-term. The one thing they all have in common is how often they are completely wrong. That includes most of the time. It makes the rare correct prediction look like a lucky guess.

Even Microsoft itself didn’t really predict what a huge force the web and rest of the internet would be as they were developing Windows 95 and that is after it already begun to take off. They spent the next few years frantically playing catch-up with it.

We know that gas will become more expensive in the next few decades (actually we don’t KNOW that but it is a good bet). We don’t know what effect this will have because there are unknowns everywhere and some better energy source could swoop in and save the day.

That is the beauty of life. You have to wait to watch things unfold.

Yeah, you can’t predict on the microscale what will happen. However can’t you predict on the macroscale what will happen just due to why we have technology in the first place? The pony express gave way to telegraphs, then to phones, then to cell phones & IMs. Each was faster, more portable, more accessable & cheaper than the last. We have technology for various reasons (entertainment, communication, medicine, education, knowledge of natural laws, etc), and as knowledge grows we’ll be able to use it for those reasons better & better.

You pretend like we can know that stuff in advance though. Computers are about the only field shere there is a known imporvement rate and that will top out sometime in our lifetimes due to physics and require altnerate stragies than simply more minituarization. We are also hitting other limits with computing devices such as the necessary size of the user interface.

You can look and see that gasoline powered cars are better than the ones they had in the 1930’s. The thing is though, people in the 1930’s would be amazed that we still drive gasoline powered cars on regular roads in 2006. Ours don’t go that much faster and the roads are bigger but they are still roads and we use the same ones they did as well. We were supposed to be driving flying cars or at least something running on some exotic fuel. Many people in 1975 thought the same thing.

Commercial aircraft are quieter and safer than those in 1960 but they don’t get us to Europe much faster. We were supposed to have supersonic jets everywhere now but that was a plan that was tried and was too expensive and had other drawbacks to make it worthwhile. To the best of my knowledge, all mainstream passenger jets that Boeing and Airbus are designing and producing now will not be supersonic and the the service life of one delivered today is decades.

Most things still have incremental improvements rather than revolutionary ones. Firearms technology took off in the early 1900’s and then slowed way down. Clothes aren’t all that much different although the materials have seen steady improvements.

I will make one prediction if you want it. I designed something in my head very much like an Ipod in the late 1990’s. I am sure a ton of other people did too. There are some things that are obvious when they are right upon you. GPS embedded systems will be much, much bigger today than they are now. The ability to locate a person in space in real-time is going to be exploited all over.

Moore’s Law works not because it is a law but because it used to be the thing companies designed their roadmaps around - since everyone else was using it also. It is slowing down not, not because of physics but because of economics. The next few nodes are so expensive that there are fewer and fewer types of chips that need that kind of speed at volumes that will pay off the costs of the new fabs.

Most technologies follow similar S curves - they start off slowly, with the kinks being worked out and first adopters using it. Then they accelerate rapidly, and then slow down again as all the obvious innovations get made and the product become commodities. Cars and PCs are both at this final stage. I’d say electronic navigation in cars is still in the first stage.

Engineer Henry Petroski has written a series of popular books on the way technology works and evolves. He would never predict what future trends might be, either micro or macro, but he understands how it’s worked in the past. I’d recommend any of his books on how “failure,” i.e. the continuous gap between current design and the potential for a technology, drives innovation.

MIT’s Media Lab has spent thirty years working on the future of technology. There are several books about the work they’ve done. While much of it is interesting, I can’t think of a single example of anything they’ve said was the “future” of something that’s happened that way, although many individual components exist in the real world today.

Futurists have about the same success rate as psychics. Back in grad school (c1972) I wrote a paper about how radio would fragment into narrowcasts for specific audiences. The notion was obvious: the reality took many zigs and zags before it happened. The best way to determine the worth of a prediction is to go forward twenty years and look back. You can then cherry pick the ones that came true. But you’ll notice how few people ever make two correct hits.

There are two different types of technological development. The simpler, and simpler to predict, is refinement. You take something that already exists, and you make it a little better in some way. What that “better” is depends on what the original tech was. For an MP3 player, making it smaller might be a good thing. For a car, maybe not, since you still need to fit people inside it. For the car, you might make it more fuel-efficient, or you might give it a greater top speed, or make it safer, or re-arrange the cabin to make it more space-efficient, or any number of other improvements. The MP3 player would be improved by giving it a better interface, or a longer battery life, or making it more durable, or giving it more capacity. And we can expect that all of these incremental improvements will be made, to some degree, as time goes on. So the car of the future will be faster, safer, and more efficient than the car of today, and the MP3 player of the future will last longer on a charge, store more songs, and be easier to use.

But there’s a limit to how far you can refine any given technology, and that’s where the second type of advance comes in. The second type of advance is innovation, making a completely new product. This new product may fill a similar niche to an existing product, but it does it in a very different way. It might start off not as good as the older style product, since it hasn’t had the years of refinement yet. But it will eventually be refined as well, and eventually hopefully supass the old style. One example of this might be electric cars: An electric car is not just a slight modification of a design of a gas car; it’s a completely different sort of thing. And right now, electric cars are worse than gasoline ones in almost every way: They’re slower, they have a shorter range, they’re more expensive both to buy and to maintain. But they have a different set of limitations than gasoline cars, and might, with sufficient refinement, end up better than them. The thing is, while incremental advances are somewhat predictable, innovations are not, in general. They mostly depend on someone getting a good idea, and if nobody happens to have gotten that idea yet, they don’t happen.

Of course, there’s some overlap. For instance, the fuel injector, which replaced the carberateur, was an innovation, but it resulted in an incremental advance in the automobile. It was easy to say that somebody would come up with a way to make a car better; that’s the predictable type of advance. It was more difficult to predict that what they came up with would be a better way of mixing the fuel and air, since that specifically is an innovation.