We know a lot less than we think, especially about the future.

The inventors of the airplane, the Wright brothers, had little formal education (3 and 4 years of high school respectively). They were not engineers. They were not scientists. They ran a bicycle repair shop.

At the time of their invention, there was quite a bit of doubt as to whether airplanes were possible. It is hard to imagine how people could doubt the possibility of an airplane, but many did slightly over a century ago.

Lord Kelvin famously said that “heavier-than-air flying machines are impossible” back in 1895.

But that is not all. The American government had nonetheless funded an illustrious Physics professor, Samuel Langley with millions of dollars in today’s currency so that he would build an airplane. The man had written the textbook on aeronautic at the time.

Langley failed miserably. This lead the illustrious New York Times to publish this prediction:

flying machine which will really fly might be evolved by the combined and continuous efforts of mathematicians and mechanicians in from one million to ten million years

It is likely at this point that many experts would have agreed with the New York Times. Flying was just not possible. We had given large sums to the best and smartest people. They could not make a dent in the problem. We had the greatest scientists in the world stating openly that flying was flat out impossible. Not just improbable, but impossible.

Yet only a few days later, with no government grant, no prestigious degree, no credential whatsoever, the Wright brothers flew an heavier-than-air machine. That was 1903.

In the first Word War of 1914, only ten years later, both camps used war planes.

The story is worse than I make it sound because even after the Wright brothers did fly… it took years for the Americans to notice. That is, people did not immediately recognize the significance of what the Wright brothers demonstrated.

You think we are smarter now and such silliness would not happen.

Here is what Steve Ballmer, Microsoft CEO said about the iPhone when it came out…

it [the iPhone] doesn’t appeal to business customers because it doesn’t have a keyboard, which makes it not a very good email machine. Right now we’re selling millions and millions and millions of phones a year, Apple is selling zero phones a year.

That was 2007. Today Apple sells about 60 million iPhones per month. How many phones does Microsoft sell? How many Microsoft phones have you seen lately?

To be fair, it is true that most new ideas fail. We get a new cure for Alzheimer’s every week. The fact that we get a new one every week is a pretty good indication that it is all hype. But the real lesson is not that we cannot break through hard problems. The true lesson is that we know a lot less than we think, especially about the future.

Pessimism is the easy way out. Asked about any new idea, I can simply say that it is junk. And I will be right 99% of the time. We obsess about not being wrong when, in fact, if you are not regularly wrong, you are simply not trying hard enough. What matters is that you are somehow able to see the important things as they are happening. Pessimists tend to miss everything but the catastrophes.

Daniel Lemire, "We know a lot less than we think, especially about the future.," in Daniel Lemire's blog, April 27, 2016.

Published by

Daniel Lemire

A computer science professor at the University of Quebec (TELUQ).

3 thoughts on “We know a lot less than we think, especially about the future.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You may subscribe to this blog by email.