Overestimating the Near Future

It is a truism that, in general, people who look ahead to the future both greatly overestimate predicted progress in the near term of twenty years or less and greatly underestimate predicted progress across longer timeframes. One might argue that this is due in part to most memorable predictions being made about industries and technologies in the early stages of an exponential curve - not much happens for many years as people experiment, persuade, bootstrap support and funding, and then a lot happens in a comparatively short period of time after someone hits the big time, gets it right, and the mainstream wakes up to the latest new new thing. But that's an oversimplification; there are many factors at work here, such as the many variants of hopeful but ultimately self-deluding optimism in the advocacy and technology development communities.

So it is a useful exercise to temper our own predictions of what lies ahead with a look back at earlier well-thought-out and detailed predictions of past progress, to see where they fell down. Here's an example via New Cryonet, written in 1987, and making a set of predictions that, in many cases, have yet to come to pass despite being fairly reasonable - we are not as far along as we'd like to be:

Fairly predictive tests for Alzheimer's disease, schizophrenia, depression, some malignancies, heart disease, and most of the rest of the major killers and disablers will probably be in place by 2000 to 2010. Many if not most of these ailments will be assessable in terms of a very sophisticated genetic risk profile which it will be possible to generate in infancy or childhood (or in utero).


Tissue rejection will be amenable to treatment in almost all cases by highly selective destruction or inhibition of certain parts of the immune system without the negative consequences of today's immunosuppressive drugs. Monoclonal and synthetic antibodies carrying toxins or regulatory molecules will be used to turn off or destroy the fraction of immune cells which initially respond and proliferate when a transplant is carried out. More widespread transplantation of tissues will be undertaken, including transplantation of limbs and scalp. Xenografts will be used increasingly in the mid to late 1990's and it will not be uncommon for people to have pancreatic tissue from bovine or porcine sources and perhaps hearts, lungs, and livers from other animals. Expect the first workable transplants to be from great apes (chimps, gorillas, orangutans), with porcine and bovine grafts coming later.


By the early decades of 2000, significant rejuvenation and geroprophylaxis of skin, bone, immune, and other "high turn- over" tissues will be possible as the natural regulatory molecules which control these systems are understood and applied. Expect several significant synthetic compounds to be discovered with these kinds of properties as well. There will be the possibility of profound improvement in personal appearance and general health as these agents enter the marketplace. By the early years of the 21st century the first generation of compounds effective at "rejuvenating" (i.e., restoring some degree of normal maintenance and repair to existing brain cells) the central nervous system will be available. These drugs will work by turning on protein synthesis and stimulating natural repair mechanisms.

Many of the specific predictions in the article were in fact demonstrated in the laboratory to some degree, and were technically feasible to develop as commercial products by the year 2000, and in some cases earlier but at much greater expense. Certainly there are partial hits for many of the predictions by 2010, in the sense of it being possible, somewhat demonstrated, or in the early stages of being shown to be a practical goal. Yet the regulatory environment in much of the developed world essentially rules out any form of adventurous, rapid, highly competitive development in clinical medicine - such as exists in the electrical engineering, computing, and other worlds. We are cursed therefore with the passage of many years between a new medical technology being demonstrated possible and then attempted in the marketplace ... if it ever makes it to the marketplace at all. This must change if we are to see significant progress.