Tim Arends has written a number of articles analyzing the progress of technology including one on predictions made by Yahoo Internet Life
When the “Experts” Predicted the Future
Imagine you walk into a bookstore. (“Bookstore? What’s that?” Work with me here.) You come across an intriguing title that promises to tell you what the future is going to be like 25 years from now.
That sounds cool,” you think, “Everyone wants to know what the future holds, but I don’t want to have to wait 25 years to find out if it’s right.”
Friend, you’re in luck, because I’ve managed to dig into the past and find a book that was written 25 years ago that attempted to predict the future. Now you get to see just how right (or wrong) the experts were without that excruciating 25-year-long wait. Aren’t you lucky?
The book is titled “Reality Check” by Brad Wieners and David Pescovitz, written under the auspices of WIRED magazine. It was published back in 1996–exactly 25 years ago as of this writing. Cover blurb: “You’ve heard the hype. WIRED asked the experts. Here’s the real future.”
This is particularly intriguing, because WIRED has a reputation (justified or not) for predicting the future of technology. I was lucky because the original price was $16.95 but I got it at a used bookstore for one dollar.
Although the book claims to examine predictions of the future with a skeptical eye, I find it to be a mix of naïveté and giddy techno-optimism, with a hint of raw decadence thrown in.
The book is unconventionally laid out in the flamboyant WIRED style, and chapters are divided roughly into years, with a two-page spread devoted to each year. Each prediction has a bright, fluorescently-colored full-page illustration.
A timeline of years runs across the bottom of each page with the year of the current prediction highlighted. The year by which each expert they talked to thought the prediction would be fulfilled is marked. The predictions run from 1996 (the year the book was published) to 2225. Following that are the predictions the editors thought were unlikely to occur, followed by the ones they thought would never occur.
Naturally, I can only evaluate the predictions up to the current year (2021) but that covers, I would say, about 80% of the predictions in the book. For predictions that are still up in the air, I give my own guess as to their likelihood of fulfillment. Call it a reality check on Reality Check, if you will.
So exactly how well did WIRED do? Read on to find out.
1996 - Genetically Engineered Weapons of War
Let’s take it by year, the same way the book did. Reality Check’s predictions start with 1996, the year it was published.
It’s first prediction is genetically engineered weapons of war. The book admitted that while President Richard Nixon signed a ban on chemical and biological weapons in 1969, the US department of defense 18 years later admitted to funding sites conducting such research.
So what about the use of such weapons? What did the book predict about that? Unfortunately, it wimped out when it came to predicting whether genetically engineered weapons would actually be used.
Unfortunately, the answer appears to be yes. There is evidence that COVID-19 is a genetically engineered bioweapon cooked up in a lab in Wuhan China, and then released either accidentally or intentionally. (City Journal: The Evidence Mounts: A new NIH letter reinforces the lab-leak hypothesis for the origins of COVID-19).
A prediction that is not really a prediction is not a good way to start the book.
1997 - Affordable Home CD Recorders
It may seem hard for us to believe today, but home CD burners, or what the book called “recorders,” were considered an enticing, cutting-edge technology back in 1996.
Remember, at that time, the standard method of writing data onto a removable disk was with a floppy drive. These held a miserably small 1.2 MB each. What if you had a file that was bigger than 1.2 MB? Well, assuming you couldn’t squeeze the file down small enough through compression, you had to split it into two or more pieces and store each piece on a separate floppy disk!
So the idea of being able to burn 600 MB of data onto a single shiny, inexpensive disk seemed like a miracle of technology back then. Although the definition of “affordable” might depend on who you ask, I would say the book’s prediction was correct, since external CD burners were indeed available by 1997. Computers with built-in CD burners came along a few years later.
1997 – Movies on Demand
Around the mid-1990s, there was quite a bit of excitement about watching movies on computers. To understand the excitement, you have to understand what was meant by “watching movies.” There was a big difference between watching short video clips and watching full-length feature films (the book Reality Check was talking about watching actual feature films, not short clips or user-generated videos on a site such as YouTube).
In the mid-1990s, even a short video clip put a strain on the capabilities of the average personal computer. First of all, video took a lot of storage space on computers whose hard drives were measured in megabytes. Secondly, bandwidth was extremely low, with most people using 56K modems or slower. Thirdly, computer monitors were low-resolution CRTs. Fourth, displaying a video took quite a toll on the average personal computer’s processor.
Computers got around these limitations by playing short video clips at low resolution in only a tiny window on the screen, not one that filled the whole screen as we would expect today. So watching a full length feature film on a computer required overcoming quite a few hurdles.
Even watching short video clips was not possible until the arrival of multimedia computers. This was a fancy way of saying a computer with a CD-ROM drive. Only CD-ROMs at the time had enough storage space to store even short video clips (certainly, floppy disks were not up to the task). Multimedia computers also had better screens and more powerful processors.
Still, watching full-length motion pictures on the computer was a dream that most people had to wait quite a bit past the decade of the 1990s to experience. Netflix didn’t introduce its streaming service until 2007. With this in mind, I would have to say the prediction of movies on demand by 1997 was a bit optimistic—by about 10 years.
1997 - Intelligent Agents
Reality Check identified the difficulty of evaluating predictions when it stated:
“Depending on how you define ‘intelligent agents,’ they either remain a fantasy or a prototype, or they have been with us for some time.”
This is why evaluating predictions is difficult, because a lot of it depends on how you define things. For example, can email spam filters, spellcheckers and virus filters be called primitive intelligent agents? Is a prediction correct merely because a certain technology exists in the design stage, or does it have to be in common use?
In this case, I would judge Reality Check’s prediction to be correct, because 1997 was the very year that Microsoft Clippy, the most well-known intelligent agent, was introduced. While most people view Microsoft Clippy as primitive and annoying, I think it’s fair to say it was one of the most ambitious attempts at building an intelligent agent into software up to that time. Nowadays, of course, we have Siri, Alexa, Cortana and other natural language software assistants.
1998 - E-Cash Gets Real
E-cash, nowadays called cryptocurrency, has several traits that define it. To describe e-cash, Reality Check quoted the book Digital Money: The New Era of Internet Commerce: “Digital money is an electronic replacement for cash. It is storable, transferable, and unforgeable.” Reality Check also correctly identified the “pivotal enabling technology” for e-cash: cryptography.
While e-cash may seem to offer some exciting benefits, such as the ability to automatically track where every penny of your money goes, it also has some scary downsides. It could allow the government to track where every penny of your money goes!
Imagine if the government could automatically fine you if you said something it didn’t like on social media or if it insisted you take some future medical intervention, such as a vaccine, you didn’t trust. If universal basic income ever becomes common, the government could very easily punish dissidents by withholding their food allowance. The government could institute a “social credit score” like in China using some very questionable criteria to determine a system of monetary rewards and punishments. In other words, e-cash could be used to impose a system of socialism or even communism.
But all these are concerns for another essay. In the case of Reality Check’s prediction, 1998 seems to have been a bit over optimistic. Bitcoin, the most popular form of digital cash, didn’t come along until 2009. Still, the book was correct in identifying the imminent arrival of digital money. Therefore, I will rate it as partially correct.
VERDICT: Partially Correct
1998 - First Virtual High School Graduating Class (distance learning)
Reality Check began this section by stating “at first glance, there isn’t a teenager alive Who wouldn’t like to go to high school without having to actually go to school.“ However, it concluded by suggesting that a virtual high school might be about as appealing to teens as a virtual mall. True, kids wouldn’t have to put up with teachers’ dirty looks or with the bullying of their classmates, but they would lose out on the chance to socialize with others their age as well.
Ironically, the big impetus to distance learning turned out to be the coronavirus, which forced many students to stay at home to avoid spreading “infection.” This led to some insane controversies, such as the school that insisted that a student take down a BB gun or toy pistol or some other supposedly scary weapon from his wall because it showed up behind him on his webcam! That’s right, the school insisted that he follow their dictates in arranging his own bedroom!
At the time of writing of Reality Check, there were already some universities that offered courses on the World Wide Web and a few that included “resources” for students in grades K – 12. However, it was a far cry from that to the “first virtual high school graduating class“ which implied a class of high-schoolers would spend all four years engaged in virtual learning.
1998 - Flat Rate Phone Service
It may seem hard to believe now, but at one time, back in the days when everyone used land lines, there was a big difference between making a local call and making one long distance. Local calls were included in your monthly telephone bill at no extra charge (“flat rate“), While long distance calls – those over a certain number of miles away, and especially overseas – were charged by the minute.
The difference between local and long-distance was huge, especially for working people. People learned to make long-distance calls in the evening, after standard business hours, to take advantage of lower rates, and even then they had to ration their minutes and be careful not to talk too long. There were even long distance calculator dials to help people calculate the best hours at which to make a long distance call.
However, one of Reality Check’s consultants speculated that “in the future telephone service subscribers might pay a greater part of their monthly bill for increased bandwidth as opposed to long distance. And, as phone companies see greater bandwidth as a major source of new revenue, they might reduce or “flatten“ long distance rates...”
I’m not sure if flat rate phone service became common by 1998, but since it did eventually become almost universal, I will rate this prediction as right on the mark.
1999 - Male Birth Control Pill
This was one of Reality Check’s more decadent predictions, as it fantasized about the day in which people could have sex with even fewer consequences than they do now, such as the messy business of actually having children.
The authors thought it unfair that women had a birth control pill but not men – unfair to the women, that is. They cited some of the negative side effects of the female birth control pill, such as bloating, risk of cancer, etc. They thought men deserved to have an equal chance to suffer negative side effects.
They did admit that “engineering a method to deactivate sperm is biologically more difficult than disrupting a woman’s monthly egg output.” However, they immediately fell back on a conspiracy theory to explain a “double standard” that they said discouraged research into a male birth control pill. Nevertheless, they predicted that such a pill would arrive by 1999. There still isn’t one to this day.
1999 - Overnight Custom Clothing
Reality Check lamented that research found that “half of all Americans buy clothing off the rack that doesn’t fit.” They fantasized that digital body scanners that were “more accurate than tape measures” would “enable haberdashers to deliver custom clothing overnight.” However, for balance they also quoted a professor and chair of the textile development and marketing department of the Fashion Institute of Technology who said that “mass-produced clothing will always be cheaper than clothing produced on an individual basis.” She was right and Reality Check was wrong, at least so far.
2000 - Gene Therapy For Cancer
According to Reality Check, “cancer remains one of death’s favorite guises. According to the national Cancer institute, cancer claimed more than 500,000 lives last year — in the United States alone.”
The book continued to state that studies suggested susceptibility to cancer is genetic and that there were promising cases in which gene therapy had proved effective at the time of writing. (And, although the writers of Reality Check didn’t mention it, The Human Genome Project, which started in 1990 and ended in 2003, attempted to identify all of the genes in the human body, which was expected to lead to numerous gene therapies.)
Unfortunately, the human body is extremely complex, and refuses to yield its secrets to medical science at a pace we might wish. In fact, many people say the old-fashioned health remedies work the best to prevent diseases—exercise, healthy eating, keeping one’s weight down, avoiding processed foods and general clean living. Also, avoiding carcinogens, of which there are many, is extremely important in avoiding cancer.
Unfortunately, an indication of how little progress we have made in conquering cancer is evident in the death statistics. Reality Check stated in 1996 that 500,000 lives were claimed by cancer in the United States in a single year. According to a 2021 check of WebMD, “About 600,000 cancer deaths happen in the U.S. each year.” That’s not progress, folks, that’s regress!
2001 - Solar Powered Automobiles
Reality Check’s experts anticipated “cars that take advantage of onboard solar power generators for supplemental power, and the emergence of electric cars that use solar power to recharge their batteries.”
One of the book’s consultants also anticipated “photovoltaic sunroof and rear spoiler collectors [that] will be incorporated in auto designs within a year or two.” Obviously, Reality Check anticipated faster progress in solar power than actually occurred.
Solar energy is extremely powerful, but also very diffuse. It is hard to collect with solar panels, and they must cover a very large area to collect a relatively small amount of energy. Therefore, the idea of automobile-mounted photovoltaic cells providing a significant amount of energy was unrealistic then, and still is today.
Perhaps a more likely scenario would be cars that plug into standard electrical outlets like today’s electric vehicles, with the energy coming to those outlets being generated by solar energy. Unfortunately, the reality is that to date, most energy that comes from our electric outlets is generated by coal. Therefore, today’s electric cars can really be more accurately described as coal-powered cars!
2001 - Fortune 500 Virtual Corporation
Many companies have workers that telecommute, or work from home. However, there’s a big difference between that and a “virtual corporation,” as Reality Check defined it: a corporation without a headquarters. They expected “companies large enough to be listed on the Fortune 500 list would take full advantage of telecommuting and video conferencing to eliminate the need for a majority of its staff to assemble in one place each workday.”
I don’t know of a single large corporation that fits that description today. The headquarters of the country’s biggest corporations are generally located in our cities’ biggest buildings. Not only is this a status symbol, but bosses and supervisors like to keep a close eye on their workers, something that is difficult to do when employees work at home.
Also, one wonders what cities would look like if everyone worked at home and avoided commuting to a central headquarters. Would there be any need for cities at all? Would they fall into decay and abandonment? Fortunately, that is not a situation that needs to be addressed quite yet.
2001 - Global Wireless Telephone Number
Reality Check stated, “For multinational businesspeople who need to take their calls literally wherever they go... a handheld phone connected to a global wireless communications network would be a dream come true.” It also said that “handheld telephones that allow global service will be useful in the 24-hour world of finance and market analysis.”
I don’t think it was common by 2001, but mobile phones are indeed a worldwide phenomenon today. However, it sounded like Reality Check was predicting a single number that people would dial into that would guarantee worldwide service. I don’t think that is the case, so I rate this prediction correct—with qualifications.
VERDICT: Partially Correct
2002 - AIDS Vaccine Available
According to Reality Check, “A preventative AIDS vaccine has never been more urgently needed or more susceptible to exaggeration and opportunism.”
It seems exaggeration and opportunism, as well as a great deal of hype, is often characteristic of vaccine development. The book stated that the chief biological challenge for scientists developing an AIDS vaccine was the “evolutionary adaptability” of HIV, and cited Dr. David E.R. Sutherland who said the “mutability” of HIV is the reason we may never see a 100% effective aids vaccine.
But isn’t this true of all communicable diseases? It seems to me that anybody who says an effective vaccine can be developed on demand for any infectious disease is either dishonest or deluded. As far as AIDS is concerned, according to Wikipedia in 2021, “There is currently no licensed HIV vaccine on the market.” And they’ve had nearly 40 years to develop one.
2002 – Computer Handwriting Recognition
Computer developers have been tackling the challenge of “teaching” computers to read printed text for a long time. At first, they achieved this by developing a special font just for computers—the blobby font you still see along the bottom of paper checks. However, when they attempted to get computers to recognize words and characters not printed in this special font, their efforts failed badly.
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, the US Postal Service hoped to develop a system that could read ZIP Codes on envelopes for automated sorting, but even after a decade of work, machines were able to process less than 10% of the mail. Any kind of handwriting was completely beyond their capability. They were also stymied by odd-sized envelopes, colored paper, dirt smudges and fading typewriter ribbons.
Jump to the year 1993, when Apple introduced its PDA (personal digital assistant) called the Apple Newton, a handheld device that lacked a keyboard but permitted data entry through a touch-sensitive screen. Apple thought the most natural way of data entry would be by writing on the screen, so it developed a handwriting recognition system for the device. However, this was so notoriously susceptible to errors that it became a running joke among users and non- users alike.
In 1997, Palm corporation introduced its Palm Pilot, and it circumvented the problem of handwriting recognition by developing its own special character set called Graffiti. This was similar to the normal handwritten alphabet but required the user to draw each character in a certain way. When Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007, it dispensed with attempting handwriting recognition altogether and simply provided an on-screen keyboard for text entry.
With the history of handwriting recognition in mind, I was somewhat dubious as to whether computers today could recognize cursive, otherwise known as script or longhand – that is, writing in which the letters are connected to each other. However, my research for this essay led me to the Apple App Store, where I found an app called Handwritten OCR by Global Business LTD, and my tests found that it could indeed read handwritten text, and do a pretty good job of it! So the capability exists, but it was not achieved by 2002.
VERDICT: Partially Correct
2002 - Fat Destroying Pill
Desire for a pill that would magically allow you to eat as much as you want and never gain weight has existed as long as we have lived in a land of plenty. Food is so cheap and easily obtained that, rather than worrying about starving, we are suffering from an epidemic of obesity.
According to Reality Check, however, “Early in the next century, gym memberships may decline as the weight-and waist-conscious no longer need treadmills to burn off their favorite fast foods. Instead, all that will be required of those wishing to remain thin is to pop a fat destroying pill.”
The book pointed to products called thermotropics which already existed as a line of over-the- counter powders, marketed as weight loss or dietary supplements, that could be added to a blended drink. The book claimed that “these products accelerate one’s metabolic rate and so help the body to burn fat faster – hence the nickname, ‘fat burners.’”
This prediction sounded a little like the one made by acclaimed futurist Ray Kurzweil in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near. In that book, he told about the conversation he had with James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA, who claimed that in 50 years we would have drugs that would allow us to eat as much as we want without gaining weight. Kurzweil replied, “50 years? We have accomplished this already in mice by blocking the fat insulin receptor gene that controls the storage of fat in the fat cells. These will be available in 5 to 10 years, not fifty.”
Obviously, the due dates for such predictions have come and gone and we are no closer to a fat burning pill than we are to one that magically restores hair to a balding pate. The human body is a complex organism and it defies quick and easy changes to the way in which it normally operates.
People want easy answers to difficult problems. They don’t want to give up their tasty junk food. Most people could probably eat as much as they wanted every day and still lose weight as long as all they ate was fruits, vegetables and salads, with a bit of salmon or tuna for dinner, and they walked for an hour each day. But most people don’t want to do this.
2002 - Remote-Controlled Surgery
Reality Check laid out a scenario in which a surgeon, watching a TV screen in one place, and carefully moving a dataglove-clad hand would be able to control a robotic surgery device in another place, perhaps miles away. The book pointed out that at the time of writing, surgery over a closed-circuit had already been conducted in Italy, a surgeon operating on a patient in a hospital 6 miles away.
This is one of those predictions that I would have thought back in 1996 was the least likely to come true, but I would have been wrong! The Puma 200 robotic surgery device had already been released in 1985. And the da Vinci robotic surgery system was released in the year 2000. That makes this prediction by Reality Check pretty much right on the mark.
2003 – Universal Picturephones
Picturephones have long been a staple of science fiction, even before AT&T unveiled its first such device at the 1964 New York World’s Fair. From the Jetsons and Star Trek to Victor Appleton’s Tom Swift and his Photophone, published in 1914, the concept of being able to see who you’re talking to on the phone has gripped the public imagination.
In the 1960s, picturephones were envisioned as being pretty much like standard landline telephones, except with a small TV screen attached. However, the way in which video conferencing really arrived was through software and affordable WebCams that allowed people to video chat through their desktop computers.
In 1999 Kyocera introduced the VP-210 – the first commercial videophone. In 1994, Connectix released its QuickCam, the first popular commercial webcam. And in 2010, Apple introduced FaceTime on the iPhone 4. Nowadays, it’s common for people to video chat on their desktop and laptop computers and on their mobile devices.
2003 – One-Fifth of U.S. Workers Telecommute
Reality Check defined the term telecommuting as “replacing the conventional commute to work (whether by car or public transit)” with phones, modems and desktop computers, and described the advantages as less air pollution from automobiles, more time spent with family and improved worker morale. However it also admitted that telecommuting could lead to a “virtual dead-end“ characterized by “employee isolation and bureaucratic ineffectiveness.”
Reality Check was a little vague in its prediction. It did not specify what percentage of the average worker’s worktime would be spent telecommuting. However, according to the website marketbusinessnews.com, by 2003, the percentage of Americans who had telecommuted was 30%, so I will give Reality Check a “correct” on this. Ironically, the big boost to telecommuting came from the coronavirus lockdown in which people were forced to work from home under not the best of circumstances, perhaps giving the concept of telecommuting a bad reputation.
2004 — Commercially Viable Nanotechnology
Reality Check defined nanotechnology as “a manufacturing technology able to inexpensively fabricate most structures...with molecular position.” This definition conjures up visions of most of the things we use being made through nanotechnology, something that is obviously not the case. And if your vision of nanotechnology involves swarms of microscopic robots destroying cancer cells or synthesizing a five course meal like the replicator on Star Trek, you are bound to be disappointed.
One of the most common uses of nanotechnology today is in the fabrication of computer microprocessors and memory chips. But nanotechnology has not revolutionized most areas of manufacturing, and it looks like it’s a long ways off.
2004 – Solar Power To The People
Reality Check admitted that “economic competitiveness” stood in the way of mass utilization of solar power. Nevertheless, the authors thought that solar would be “economically competitive” with natural gas by 2004, something that is still not true today. Solar is one thing that never seems to be able to keep up with the predictions that are made for it.
Reality Check’s entry on solar also mentioned, as a possible force in driving solar energy forward, Enron, the notorious energy company that went bankrupt in 2001 as a result of shady deals and poor financial reporting.
2004 – Operational Space Station
Reality Check’s authors admitted that, while it’s easy to recall science fiction movies in which orbiting space stations are a staple, it’s harder to think of justifications for actually building one. They threw out possible uses for a station as a place to conduct research in “microgravity,” as a springboard to a mission to Mars and as “a catalyst for international peace and cooperation.” They also speculated that “although a U.S.-only space station seems unlikely, a concerted international effort could place an operational space station in orbit by 2004.”
It turns out Reality Check was right on this prediction; the International Space Station was launched on November 1998, several years before the deadline set by the prediction.
2004 – Noninvasive Surgery
According to Reality Check, “the experts we consulted agree that the ability to use real time magnetic resonance imaging (MRA) to watch, say, the destruction of a tumor by high intensity ultrasound radiation is only a few years away.” However, according to surgeryencyclopedia.com, the four main ways tumors are treated are: surgical removal, chemotherapy, radiation therapy and biological therapy.
Minimally invasive surgery (the currently accepted term) is extensively practiced today. According to Wikipedia, “Many medical procedures are called minimally invasive; those that involve small incisions through which an endoscope is inserted, [or] end in the suffix -oscopy, such as endoscopy, laparoscopy, arthroscopy.” However, none of these methods of surgery involve high intensity ultrasound radiation and all involve making at least a small incision.
2004 - Holographic Medical Imaging
At the time of the writing of Reality Check, two technologies had already significantly improved on x-rays: computed tomography (CT) and magnetic resonance imaging (MRI). But the authors of Reality Check envisioned a technology that would combine the information gathered by these with “the latest in holographic technology.” They compared (or perhaps contrasted) this to “the x-ray wall Arnold Schwarzenegger‘s character walks behind in Total Recall.” Alas, such technologies will have to remain confined to science fiction for a while longer.
2004 – Most U.S. Produce Genetically Engineered
Reality Check predicted that genetic engineering would reduce our reliance on chemical pesticides and herbicides. It did admit a backlash already existed towards genetic engineering even in 1996, But cited experts that claimed that “good tasting produce will win customers.” One of the experts the book cited claimed that traditional methods of selective breeding of plants to improve yield and quality were themselves a form of genetic engineering.
Despite Reality Check’s prediction of eventual public acceptance, the backlash against genetically engineered food seems only to have grown, so much so that food labels are commonly required to state whether ingredients are products of genetic engineering, and those that don’t have such ingredients often boast of it on their labels.
Why the mistrust of genetic engineering? Probably because science still doesn’t know the full story of why fruits and vegetables are so good for you. These foods are loaded with phytochemicals, carotenoids, minerals, live enzymes, micronutrients, healthy fats, proteins and a whole host of other nutrients, some of which science may not yet have fully identified.
But when fruits and vegetables are genetically engineered, there’s no way of knowing what undiscovered compounds might have been engineered out. It’s kind of like a monkey trying to improve a fine timepiece with a sledgehammer. So while GMO foods do proliferate, public acceptance of them has not.
VERDICT: Partially Correct
2005 - Computer Defeats Human Chess Master
Back in 1957, Dr. Herbert Simon predicted that within a decade a computer would be able to play chess better than a human. Obviously, that didn’t come true, but computers had another chance when they were pitted against human chess masters in the 1996 ACM chess championship. Unfortunately for computers, Gary Kasparov beat Deep Blue in that event.
Still, Reality Check thought the computers’ day would come by 2005. It actually occurred the very next year, when an improved version of Deep Blue finally beat Kasparov. Despite Reality Check’s fears, however, the ultimate domination of chess by computers has not dimmed the enthusiasm humans have for the game.
2005 - Universal Organ Donor Animal
Medical professionals expect some day to solve the organ donor shortage by engineering a way for animals (likely pigs) to grow human organs. To solve the problem of the human body rejecting such organs after transplanting, Reality Check anticipated achieving “immune tolerance” by breeding animals so that they “mimic human antigens.” Organ donor animals are not yet a reality, but scientists are working on it.
However the efforts have also stirred fears of the engineering of chimeras, or the unholy merging of humans and animals, considered by ethicists not only a crime against humanity but against the unfortunate part-humans who are bred as slaves only so that they can provide organs for others (most likely the wealthy and powerful). We are not close to solving the incredible ethical and moral dilemmas that are likely to confront us in the years ahead.
VERDICT: Wrong, but scientists are working on it
2005 - House Cleaning Robot
Reality Check cited two experts, one who predicted that, rather than anthropomorphic style robots, we would instead have “a fleet of mouse or cockroach size robots scurrying around the floor.” He envisioned they would either suck up dirt or emit static electricity to become “dust magnets.”
The book also cited another expert who saw house cleaning robots as being more like the stuff of science fiction, mobile, articulated two-armed robots that could tidy up the place as well as wield a vacuum cleaner.
I think the difficulties of an anthropomorphic armed robot were underestimated at the time of writing. Think of the challenges a robot would encounter in trying to tidy up a room. Say a child left a toy on the floor. The robot would have to be able to see the toy, recognize what it is, and understand that it was out of place. Then it would have to deftly pick up the toy and carry it to the toybox or shelf where it belonged. At the same time, it would have to avoid obstacles or hitting furniture with either itself, the toy, or one of its arms. This means it would have to have an extremely keen sense of orientation and where each of its limbs were at all times in relation to obstacles in the room. And what if the toybox was upstairs and the robot was downstairs?
As it happened, the Roomba robotic vacuum, which resembled the first expert’s vision much more than the second expert’s, was released in 2002. But “house cleaning robots” haven’t progressed very far beyond this since then.
VERDICT: Partially Correct
2005 – Software Superdistribution
Reality Check’s idea of software superdistribution was what we simply call the subscription model of software today. That is, rather than buying a piece of software outright, you pay a monthly or annual fee in order to use it.
Adobe corporation is one of the most well-known purveyors of this model of software distribution. Also, many apps that run on mobile devices have a monthly or annual payment model.
However, Reality Check envisioned the way this distribution model would be implemented would be by the use of a special chip installed on all computers that would serve as a “utility meter” that would manage charging the user of the software.
As it turned out, it didn’t need a special chip, as a system of checksums that handled the payment was simply built into the software itself, or that communicated with the software developer via the Internet to make sure payments were up-to-date before running.
VERDICT: Partially Correct
2006 - Self-Cleaning Toilets Hit Home
Reality Check admitted that bathrooms hadn’t changed much since the modern flush toilet was invented more than 100 years prior. Nevertheless, it envisioned a “self cleaning toilet” that would apparently do away with the need to brush the toilet regularly to keep it clean. The book was vague on exactly how this would be achieved, but threw out ideas such as “an antibacterial tile that kills some kinds of germs” or “auto-flush and automatic seat cover changers.” As it turns out, the toilet brush and the regular application of elbow grease is still necessary to keep modern toilets clean.
2006 – Effective Hair Loss Prevention
It’s a classic hope for the future – a cure for baldness. While a cure for cancer, heart disease or Alzheimer’s is nice, the average man’s deepest desire is to discover a non-surgical cure for hair loss. Back in the patent medicine days, it was already claimed that such a cure existed, but alas, it turned out to be nothing more than snake oil.
Reality Check can’t help indulging in the age-old desire, and their experts saw encouraging promise in genetic engineering. The anticipated success of The Human Genome Project was expected to lead to many genetic cures, and male pattern baldness is almost entirely genetic. Plus, the drug Minoxodil had already been discovered a the time of Reality Check, but it works in only a small percentage of the men who try it.
Alas, the completion of The Human Genome Project led to fewer cures than most people had hoped. Sure, the location of all the genes in the genome was mapped out, but there’s a long way from that to actually figuring out how to cure genetic conditions. Even the renowned Ray Kurzweil stopped waiting for a futuristic, high-tech means to look younger. When he went to work for Google, the balding futurist suddenly sprouted a full head of hair, but he fell back on decidedly old-school technology – he started wearing a hairpiece.
2006– One Fourth Of U.S. Homes Get Smart
Smart homes are another classic prediction of the future; one only has to watch old reruns of the Jetsons to realize that.
According to Reality Check, a smart home is one in which any number of mundane tasks are automated and managed by a computer. These tasks could include sprinkler systems that turn on and off when needed, motion controls that turn on lights when one enters a room, automated temperature control systems and curtains that automatically close in the evening and open at the first break of dawn.
Certainly, smart home systems are a staple of home improvement today. Take, for example, Google Nest, which as Wikipedia puts it, “is a line of smart home products including smart speakers, smart displays, streaming devices, thermostats, smoke detectors, routers and security systems including smart doorbells, cameras and smart locks.”
Ring offers a line of smart home security products, such as lighting systems, motion detectors, video cameras and a networking smart phone app to enable neighborhood watch members to keep in contact with each other. Amazon offers its Alexa voice-controlled smart speaker system to control smart plugs so that you can turn the lights on and off with the sound of your voice.
Some of the innovations are getting a little creepy, though. In an age when more and more Americans are starting to cast a wary eye towards the monopolistic big tech companies, their control over our lives and the amount of information they keep on us, the idea of a home in which outside forces may be listening in on the occupants is starting to seem less and less crazy. Didn’t George Orwell warn of something like this?
Amazon smart speakers and similar devices have to always be listening in order to respond to user commands, and although Amazon promises it never eavesdrops on our private conversations, that capability is certainly always there. Amazon has even announced a new “smart robot” called Astro that runs around your home spying on you and uploading audio and video to company servers.
The big tech companies have increasingly been censoring regular Americans, telling us what we can say on social media sites and what books we can read on their e-book platforms. Apple has even floated the idea of spying on all of its users’ images on the off-chance that they might be sharing something illegal. Since the big tech companies obviously don’t trust ordinary Americans—their own customers—to hold unapproved opinions or to keep from doing something wrong, one wonders why on earth we should trust them?
VERDICT: Correct (but smart homes come with unintended consequences)
2007 – “Fiber to the Home”
Fiber optics allows super-fast Internet service, high resolution video streaming, movies on demand, teleconferencing without latency, and all the other conveniences we take for granted. Reality Check’s prediction was for access to high bandwidth service to American homes to be universal by 2007. This prediction has come true, as fiber optics facilitated the high bandwidth Internet service many people enjoy today. Reality Check speculated that the last stage of transmission of high-bandwidth to the home would be through copper telephone wires (or as actually happened in most cases, through cable TV lines).
2007 - Smart Fabrics Go Mainstream
A lot of futurists predicted in the 90s that the ultimate in clothing would be “smart fabrics,” or “materials that automatically adjust to their environment,” as Reality Check put it. Uses for such fabrics thrown out by the book were materials that would change color, gloves with cell phones woven into them, fabrics that “sing” (whatever that means) and even clothes that could “serve as a computer screen.”
How would such fabrics work? The book was vague on this, but threw out the idea that they might be woven with “threads that thicken or knit themselves closer together” or loosen as the temperature required.
Futurists like Ray Kurzweil made similar predictions, envisioning electronics “woven” into our clothing, but aside from very niche products, few items that could be described as smart clothing have hit the market. It is hard to envision how smart fabrics would even work. Could they be laundered or would that fry the circuitry? Would your clothes come with a warranty? Would smart clothes last longer than ordinary clothing or would they be more likely to fall prey to planned obsolescence? I guess we will never know.
2007 - Online Mass Retailer As Big As Sears
Reality Check experienced a bit of disagreement among its consultants on whether a “Sears-caliber retailer” would appear online, and whether consumers would “favor a central location for their shopping needs on the notoriously decentralized Internet.” Three of its consultants thought it was unlikely that it would ever happen, including an executive at shopping channel QVC.
Ironically, Amazon, which would come to dwarf Sears in size and influence, already existed at the time of the writing of Reality Check, having come into existence in a garage in 1994, but it was still primarily seen as a bookseller. Today, Sears is struggling and Amazon is a behemoth— and many say an unfair monopoly.
2008 - Hemp-Based Auto Fuel
Reality Check had a fascination with things that are considered decadent or are in some way frowned upon, and marijuana was one of these. The book envisioned that prohibitions on the growing and harvesting of marijuana would be lifted and that the crop would be processed into a “environmentally-friendly ethanol-based automobile fuel.”
While marijuana has been legalized in many states today, it is not used to create auto fuel. For a while, there was some interest in using corn for such purposes, but such talk seems to be less common today. Using farmland to produce fuel rather than food raises ethical dilemmas in a world where some are still hungry, and there is a question as to whether such use of land would be a positive or a negative for the environment.
One of Reality Check’s consultants speculated that solar-based automobiles would negate the need for hemp-based auto fuel, but of course, that prediction didn’t pan out either.
2008 – Twenty Percent of U.S. Customers Tele-Grocery Shop
According to Reality Check, “in the future, grocery shopping may be a simple matter of dialing up an online service or using a personal barcode scanner to order groceries from your home.”The book did admit that some market research bulletins suggested that the 20% figure represented a cap – that is, the upper limit of Americans who would shop for groceries online. Still, the estimate that one customer in five would regularly use online grocery shopping services in 2008–or even today—was overly optimistic.
True, there are many online grocery shopping sites today. Amazon has its Amazon Fresh subsidiary that is especially popular with its Prime customers. Then there is Boxed, FreshDirect, Hungryroot, Instacart, and others.
Still, I’ll wager you haven’t heard of most of these. Online grocery shopping has not really taken off the way many expected it would. Some of the more famous early ventures, such as Peapod.com seem to have fallen by the wayside. I used to see delivery trucks for grocery shopping services on the road. Today, not so much.
Why has online grocery shopping not taken off as expected? I don’t know. Perhaps Americans like the weekly grocery shopping ritual, being surrounded by massive shelves of food, the chance of stumbling onto something new, the ability to feel and eyeball the produce for freshness. This could all change, however, if there’s another pandemic scare, and Americans are frightened out of going to the grocery store, or even of leaving the house.
2009 - VR Sunglasses
Reality Check admitted, “rarely has a technology caught on as quickly or suffered from its hype as ‘virtual reality’ has.” In the late 1980s, the concept of virtual reality first gripped the public imagination, but computers were too slow and screen technology too primitive to do the concept much justice. Even today, VR has failed to catch on the way some people predicted, so oculus owner Mark Zuckerberg has decided to try to jump start the process with his new service called Meta.
But this chapter of Reality Check is not really so much about virtual reality—it’s about lightweight VR glasses. Unfortunately, when the authors asked their consultants when virtual reality headsets might be replaced by something like a pair of sunglasses, the experts were not optimistic. They said the most one could expect would be computer screens that could be worn on one’s face, not the fully immersive world of VR. However, Reality Check didn’t explain how the eyes could possibly focus on screens so close to the eyeballs.
2009 - Orgasmatron
Apparently, Reality Check was influenced by Woody Allen’s comedy movie Sleeper about a brain stimulating device that could deliver an “orgasm on demand.”
Comedy films are perhaps not the best source of futurist predictions, but the concept did appeal to Reality Check’s sense of decadence; that is, the ability to make love without actually having to bother with the “love” part. They even somehow thought it would improve prospects for world peace!
However, one of their consultants predicted that before a neuro-electric Orgasmatron appeared, there would be a neurochemical one, an “orgasm-in-a-pill.” It seems to me there already is such a thing: it’s called heroin, opium, cocaine, etc., although these are snorted or injected into the veins, rather than taken in pill form.
The problem is, when you try to get ecstasy for nothing, it usually ends up eating you inside, sapping your initiative and ultimately destroying you.
I’m afraid Reality Check’s accuracy rating does not improve from here.
2010 - Smart Drugs
After a brief discussion of drinks and supplements that were supposed to be good for the brain, Reality Check went on to predict “drugs that boost one’s intelligence will be in hand by 2010.” Yet the book went on to claim that “all of our experts agree that the IQ test is an outmoded gauge of intelligence.” If this is the case, one wonders how it would be possible to judge the effectiveness of smart drugs if they ever did appear?
2010 - Robot Surgeon (In a Pill)
Reality Check envisioned being able to swallow a tiny robot (or robots) that would travel throughout the body on a pre-programmed course that could “perform internal surgery, clear away life-threatening fat deposits, dispatch tumors or cinch up wounds.”
Futurist Ray Kurzweil made a similar prediction in his 2005 book The Singularity Is Near. In it, he wrote that “Nanotechnology will enable the design of nanobots: robots designed at the molecular level, measured in microns (millionths of a meter), such as ‘respirocites’ (mechanical red blood cells). Nanobots will have myriad roles within the human body, including reversing human aging).” However, Kurzweil envisioned the era of spectacular developments in nanotechnology as occurring in this decade (the decade of the 2020s), not by the year 2010 as Reality Check imagined.
2010 – The Audio CD Becomes a Format of Second Choice
One of Reality Check’s consultants thought the format that would replace CDs might be a flash card or a modification of the digital audio tape. But another one came closer to the truth when he pointed out that “Net-savvy music lovers already sample and buy new compositions via Internet-linked computers.”
According to a graph I found online, audio CD sales hit their peak in 2000 and 2001 and went on a steady decline since then. When exactly they became a format of second choice is debatable, but I would say Reality Check was pretty on target with this one. As we know, audio CDs were eventually replaced by MP3 files, whether purchased / downloaded or ripped from CDs (worrying many for a time in the record industry), and today many or most people subscribe to a music hosting service such as Apple Music.
2013 – The Book Goes Digital
Reality Check predicted that by 2013 electronic books would begin to replace printed volumes for millions of readers. It quoted a researcher who envisioned “digital displays that read like printed pages, except they can be erased and reused any number of times.” Reality Check also predicted that “net-linked computers” would need to become common before a majority of readers would use them as often as printed volumes.
Reality Check’s timeline was pretty accurate, as, according to Wikipedia, “Amazon released the Kindle, its first e-reader on November 19, 2007, for $399.” And, as we all know, Kindle e- readers, tablets such as the iPad, and even smartphones on which e-books are read can be found today in most households.
One concerning development, however, is the rise of censorship by Amazon and the other big tech companies. Some books have simply been banned, or dropped from the service, after a few people or organizations complained, a form of digital book burning, which at one time would have been considered shocking to most Americans. Another is lock-in of e-book formats, in which Amazon has its own proprietary format that others are not allowed to distribute. This allows Amazon to engage in monopolistic and anti-competitive behavior.
This is especially true since the open-source EPUB is available for ebook distribution and is not owned or controlled by any single entity. The current situation is something akin to going to a library and finding that all the books are printed in different proprietary formats and a special pair of expensive glasses are needed to read each book. Or worse, finding that you simply aren’t allowed to read some of the books.
VERDICT: Correct, but it failed to predict the establishment of censorship, monopolies and proprietary, incompatible ebook formats
2014 - Supersonic Flight for the Masses
Reality Check mused about flying to Tokyo in only 4 1/2 hours rather than 10 or to Cape Town in only 12 instead of 23. Supersonic travel was available at the time the book was written via the Concord, which, according to the book, had already been making transatlantic flights for 16 years, but a flight from New York to London still cost almost 10 times the subsonic price. Reality Check expected the price to shrink in the next century and even disappear.
Unfortunately, the reality is that air travel has not advanced much since 1996. In some ways, it has gotten worse. People are subjected to intrusive patdowns as an anti-terrorist measure and fear of the coronavirus has forced air travelers to wear masks while flying. Ironically, masks have never been conclusively proven to stop or slow the transmission of any virus, but they do reduce the oxygen and increase the carbon dioxide being re-breathed, and they serve as bacteria cultures held up against the nose and mouth for as long as they are worn. How in the world was the public talked into wearing these things?
2014 - Online Advertising Eclipses TV Commercials
According to Reality Check “expenditures on Internet-based ads will first exceed those spent on television commercials in 2014.” I guess this prediction was intended to illustrate the rising importance of the Internet in influencing public opinion relative to television, but I doubt it is correct.
It’s true that the Internet has risen vastly in importance over the last 25 years, but online advertising has not changed much since then. Most online advertising is in the form of banner ads, which are just as ineffective as they were in 1996. At the same time, the number of television stations available to the average TV viewer has vastly increased in quantity from just a handful a few decades ago to over 500.
Reality Check’s prediction was actually mild compared to that of George Gilder, who in his 1990 book Life After Television, predicted that the number of people watching the work of independent video creators online would soon eclipse the number of viewers watching television. Yet today, the popularity of YouTube and alternative hosting sites such as BitChute and Brighteon have not diminished the popularity of television. Most people still happily pay monthly cable fees to get those 500 television stations – and they still have to watch plenty of commercials.
2014 - Aquaculture Provides a Majority of US Seafood
Reality Check defined aquaculture as fish raised on a “fish farm” located in enclosed coastal areas or even in land-based tanks, rather than being harvested from the open ocean. The book admitted that the majority of fish available in certain parts of the world were already provided by aquaculture, but the same would be true in the United States by 2014.
According to a September 08, 2009 article on the website Live Science, “Milestone: 50 Percent of Fish Are Now Farmed.”
Whether this is a good thing or not, however, is debatable. Many health advocates charge that farmed fish are fed toxic feed and chemicals designed to make them grow unnaturally quickly to unnaturally large sizes. Wild-caught fish are better, but because of pollution in our lakes, rivers and oceans, many wild fish are believed to have high levels of mercury and other toxic chemicals.
VERDICT: Correct, but is it a good thing?