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Professor Predicts the Future, Discusses Error

For the first NS&M lecture of the semester, A. Bowdoin Van Riper, a professor at Southern Polytechnic State University, discussed why the future frequently turns out differently from the way we would expect. (Photo by Brendan Larrabee)
For the first NS&M lecture of the semester, A. Bowdoin Van Riper, a professor at Southern Polytechnic State University, discussed why the future frequently turns out differently from the way we would expect. (Photo by Brendan Larrabee)

For the first Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquium of the semester, Southern Polytechnic State University professor A. Bowdoin Van Riper presented on how views of the future have changed over the decades, and why they never seem to be accurate.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, behold the Future!  At least, behold the future as people invisioned it in the 1920s,” began Professor Van Riper, in a presenter’s voice that seemed to capture the audience of College students, faculty, and community members in Schaefer Hall’s lecture room on Jan 28.  “Really big skyscrapers…heliports outside your door for your own personal auto gyro…robot servants…and jumpsuits.”

As the decades have passed, ideas of how the future would be have evolved from food pills and flying cars to space stations and supersonic airliners, but these ideas never seem to define those futures, Van Riper explained.  “What’s missing in these past visions of the future?  Why are our visions of the technological future so often off the mark?”

Van Riper went on to explain one major reason for the flawed predictions: people believe that big technology will define the future.  While the atomic bomb and ballistic missile were both incredible innovations in the mid-20th century, no one expected the best invention out of World War II to be penicillin, the beginnings of a new wave of antibiotic drugs.  Big technology is certainly impressive, but not always era-defining, and certainly not always easy to predict.

Another fallacy people seem to follow is the idea that technological advances will happen without any way of controlling it.  Van Riper disagreed, stating that consumers have the power to endorse or reject any great technology simply by saying yes or no.  From the large kitchen computer with built-in recipes, to food pills that take away the social experience of dining, to the Boeing 7207 that flies at supersonic speed but costs a fortune to fly, Van Riper suggested one answer that anyone can give:  “Thanks, but no thanks.”

Van Riper presented a third possible reason for this trend, that people believe in linear growth in technology; that is, tomorrow’s technology will be bigger and better than that of today.  In reality, the growth is not so simple, following a more branching or even “hockey-stick curve” pattern due to the unpredictability of success of certain inventions over others.  But, with this curve comes another problem: with new inventions entering the market at a faster rate, the usefulness of previous inventions diminishes, decreasing the value of consumer products over time.

Some technological “masterpieces” truly are magnificent, but have too many negative aspects that make the benefits seem less helpful.

A nuclear-powered car may be more energy-efficient, even faster, but the damage due to a “fender bender” could be enormous.  Flying cars would certainly save airspace, but asking people who have difficulty enough with forward, backward, left, and right to also drive up and down would lead to catastrophic disasters, not to mention how dangerous an empty gas tank could be.

The lecture concluded with Van Riper discussing his own predictions for the future of our generation: wearable computers, smart houses, electric cars, designer genes, nanobots, and (Van Riper said with a smile) “jumpsuits.”

“I really enjoyed it,” said Dr. Charles Adler, an associate professor of physics at the College.  “I’m a long-time science fiction reader, and when you read science fiction from the 1950s, there are all of these predictions about the world in the future: by the year 2000, we’ll have bases on the Moon, settlements by Mars, and have had a nuclear war with the Soviets.  It’s always interesting to think why didn’t we get those things, although I’m glad we didn’t get the war, and I think that Dr. Van Riper’s talk showed why not, or at least some of the reasons why not:  the future isn’t a simple extrapolation of what went on in the past.”

“I thought he was very enthusiastic about his subject, which made me become involved in his presentation,” said Jesse Burke, a sophomore who also attended the lecture.  “I felt that he was correct to say that we always try to predict future technologies, but always expect way too much.”

The next lecture of the Natural Science and Mathematics Colloquia, Waging Chemical Warfare and Hazardous Waste: Green Chemistry at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, will be on Wednesday, Feb 10, presented by College chemistry professor Leah Eller.

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