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Tech Experts Forecast the Next Wave of Innovation

New Survey by Institute for the Future and IEEE Spectrum suggests impact of science and technology on life in the next 50 Years. More than 700 IEEE Fellows tried to foresee such things better than most, because they have so much to do with bringing them about.

Where will the next likely breakthroughs in science and technology come, and how will they impact our lives? What are some of the anticipated breakthroughs for which we may need to wait longer than originally thought? According to a survey of the world’s leading technology professionals, conducted by the Institute for the Future and IEEE Spectrum magazine, here are some of the major advances we can expect to occur in the next 20 to 50 years:

  • “Computation and Bandwidth to Burn” involves the shift of computing power and network connectivity from scarcity to utter abundance;
  • “Sensory Transformation” hints at what happens when, as Neil Gershenfeld, director of MIT’s Center for Bits and Atoms, puts it, “things start to think”;
  • “Lightweight Infrastructure” is precisely the opposite of the railways, fibre-optic networks, centralized power distribution, and other massively expensive and complicated projects of the 20th century;
  • “Small World” is what happens when nanotechnology starts to get real and is integrated with microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) and biosystems; and finally,
  • “Extending Biology” is what results when a broad array of technologies, from genetic engineering to bioinformatics, are applied to create new life forms and reshape existing ones.

“Although many of the most significant technological developments predicted by the IEEE Fellows will be virtually invisible to the naked eye, their potential impact on our lives will become increasingly evident with the passage of time,” said Susan Hassler, editor of IEEE Spectrum.

The Survey also predicts what technology isn’t on the horizon. The IEEE Fellows burst a lot of tech bubbles before they balloon. Forget about being chauffeured to work by your car; the Fellows doubt that autonomous, self-driving cars will be in full commercial production anytime soon. And though they say Moore’s Law will someday finally yield to the laws of physics, slowing the increase in computer performance, the IEEE Fellows don’t expect to get around the problem by using quantum weirdness to perform calculations at fabulous speeds. Seventy-eight percent of respondents doubt that a commercial quantum computer will reach the market in the next 50 years. Similarly, the majority of Fellows don’t expect that humanoid robotic nurses will provide care to the elderly in their homes. In short, the future is taking longer than expected to arrive.

“We tend to overestimate the impact of a technology in the short run and underestimate it in the long run,” observed former IFTF president Roy Amara years ago. The IEEE Fellows seemed to agree. On the whole, the Fellows turned out to be a down-to-earth bunch�no space elevators in most of their forecasts�and they were quick to dispel future hype while eager to ground their forecasts in state-of-the-art engineering.

About the Survey

The Survey was conducted online in February and March 2006. More than 700 IEEE Fellows across the globe participated. The survey asked participants to identify key breakthroughs in their areas of expertise and then to forecast probabilities of specific developments. The respondents were then asked to forecast trends within their areas of expertise. The forecast domains included computer science, telecommunications and media, sensors and robotics, materials and nanotechnology, energy, physics, space and earth sciences, and human health and biology. The respondents were also asked the probability of each forecast�s occurring over the next 50 years. If they believed that the forecast had at least a 60 percent chance of occurring, they were asked to provide a time frame in which it was likely to occur.

“IEEE Fellows are an elite group representing the very best of their professions, and have a big hand in engineering state-of-the-art technology,” said Marina Gorbis, executive director of the Institute for the Future and co-author of the IEEE Spectrum article analyzing the results. “Their forecasts are a good indicator of the direction we can anticipate science and technology to follow in the next several decades.”

“Predicting the future is a task best left to astrologers,” said David Pescovitz, IFTF research affiliate and co-author of the IEEE Spectrum article.

Expert surveys like this one enable us to detect patterns and trends in disparate areas of science and technology and discuss their possible impact on our lives. Inviting the public into these conversations empowers everyone to actively create their own futures.