Tech Things I was wrong aboutSun, 29th Nov '20, 11:25 pm::
For centuries, people have made predictions on what the world will be like decades and centuries into the future. I am a lot more interested in 5-10 year predictions than 20-50-100 year ones because the former are more actionable. Like many others, I could easily see that streaming services were going to take over the world and that nearly everyone was going to have a smart phone. Nothing worth bragging about as it was pretty obvious since 2005 unless something went terribly wrong.
What fascinates me are the things that I was wrong about 5-10 years ago, not because I lost money or respect over it (trust me, I care for neither of those) but because it means I was imagining a different world than the one we live in now. It means that today when I see 5-10 years into the future, I could be similarly wrong and it is best that I take some time to look back and alter my underlying assumptions that turned out to be wrong.
1. Bandwidth: I grew up with 28kbps and 56kbps dial-up connection and personally experienced the jumps to DSL, then cable modem, and right into the 2G, 3G, 4G/LTE speeds. And now I manage fiber and cloud networks at 5-10gbps daily. So you would think that someone in my place would be optimistic about there always being enough bandwidth in the future. But turns out I am not. At each of these stages, I could not foresee things getting any faster and instead spent my time optimizing and building for the current speed. While this sounds like a bad thing, it actually works in my favor in day-to-day work situations because it makes me build things that work fast now, not after everyone upgrades to 5G. However, if I was more "futuristic" in my thinking, I would build things for the future. So when 7G comes, my bandwidth-hog 3D video-streaming game-simulation app will be just what people try out first.
2. Video Streaming: Tagging along with my bandwidth shortsightedness, has been my ever pessimistic view on how much video streaming will really be possible. I always thought Netflix wouldn't be able to support streaming a hundred million streams simultaneously so they will come up with alternatives like P2P streaming, DVR-style recording/downloading, custom devices with terabytes of storage etc. But instead they did something that just blew my mind because of how plainly logical it was - they worked with major ISPs and put Netflix servers right on the ISPs internal network and wrote code that cached the most commonly viewed streams. This means that when I click 'Play' on my TV to watch a popular Netflix show, the file is coming to me straight from my ISP's building in my city a few miles away, not across the Internet from New York or California.
3. Compression: I was wrong about how limited the video quality would be too, as I watch nearly everything in 1080p and some 4K today. Compression has continued to blow my mind at how great things look and how small lossy video/audio files are. Sure, nothing beats 70mm film in theory but I can barely see any blurriness or distortion when watching a YouTube video on my phone. Even now I scoff at 8K videos, who needs that! But based on how wrong I have been in the past, within a few years I will surely be annoyed when the 8K stream I'm watching on my virtual glasses hiccups a bit. All of this is made possible due to the insane level of compression thanks to literal geniuses in math, signal processing, and computer science.
4. Battery vs. Phone Weight: I have absolutely been wrong about this and I still don't know why the world doesn't see it my way. My phone is thin and light enough. Even when it's brand new, the battery barely lasts 8 hours. Just make the damn phone thicker and give me a 3-7 day battery! Stop making the screen bigger. But turns out I was wrong. People want thin, light phones that they have to charge 3x a day. Literally every person I know connects their phone to charge the moment they sit down for an hour. I'm not saying I thought batteries would be better by now. I thought people would realize that long battery life was worth the excess weight. But turns out I'm wrong.
5. A.I.: I'm still every pessimistic about strong or general AI i.e. computers with human-level intelligence or beyond (super AI). I don't think that's happening any time soon. I was also always optimistic about weak or narrow AI that has a very specific task like image recognition or text to speech. What I could never imagine was that throwing a data-center's worth of computing resources into a narrow AI can actually make it perform close to a general AI for most purposes. In simpler words, while we don't have a magical smart AI genie, we have really good software that can translate between languages, and if we make that software learn the entirety of everything ever posted on the Internet, the resulting AI will not only be great at translating between languages but it will also be capable of translating between languages it has never seen before. It will also be capable of writing new text in any language, like news reports, based on a few key inputs. This isn't necessary strong AI but for all intents and purposes, it is good enough. If you've read a stock market summary of the day in the last 5 years, it's AI.
6. Bluetooth: I was more optimistic on this than reality turned out to be. I thought we would have better alternatives to crappy Bluetooth by now. Turns out we don't. I don't even want to get into why because it is just 500 pages of depressing.
7. Social Media: I easily saw where Twitter and Facebook were going to end up and the reality is not too far off from my expectations. I am not surprised with walled gardens and information bubbles etc. That was only natural. What I am surprised about is how easily you can still live without them. I don't use LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok or any number of cool social media apps. I still read and infrequently post on reddit and watch some of my favorite science/tech channels on YouTube regularly. However, I've easily gone weeks without so much as looking at reddit and I signed up to watch my YouTube creators on Nebula for $5/mo. Literally nothing in my life is going to change if any or all of these social media sites went away instantly today. I might have some more time to kill and maybe will read more. I am utterly shocked that something hasn't compelled me to start using them like kids school programs or neighborhood or medical community chat. As relieved as I am to say all this today, I am also still pretty pessimistic for the future. I'm fairly certain there will be a time when I absolutely will have to sign up for some social media site just to go about my life. Note that I don't hate them or anything. I just don't have the time or energy to maintain an online presence beyond this blog.
8. Remote Desktops: I was more optimistic on this too than what really transpired. I thought by now, we would all have an individual "computer" in the cloud that we'd pay $5-10/mo for and it would have all of our files and software that we could access from any computer, phone, TV etc. I thought may be a small token or app on our phone would make any computer/monitor into a full-blown desktop with all of our data. Technically this is absolutely possible today and it was possible 10-15 years ago too. I just thought it would be common. So if a friend came over, they would just connect to their remote desktop on our living room TV and show vacation photos. Instead, people text each other entire movies (hello #1-3 above) or "cast" their phone to a Android/iOS device connected to the TV. The latter technically mirrors my original vision but the phone is the source of the data, not a gateway to the cloud server, so it's not the same. I think if you are in the Apple ecosystem, there are some signs of going this way with AppleTV playing your iCloud photos/videos, sharing your purchased apps/games with family members etc. However, it's all connecting to computers that Apple controls and manages, not you.
9. Self-driving automobiles: I still can't believe we have these and that they work in most environmental conditions. I also can't believe that they are not already the standard in every new car. I thought it would take forever to have cars that drive on their own. Or rather, the whole world would need to install magnets or sensors underneath every road and highway so trucks and cars would detect them and stay in the proper lane. Instead Narrow A.I. (#5 above) got so good at image recognition and depth perception that it can drive cars and identify road markers in real-time. Totally blows my mind. I also thought that the moment one car company came out with self-driving cars, it would be just a few years before every new car would self-drive because that's the best way to ensure safety and remain competitive. But instead every company is selling a few self-driving features like lane-keep and adaptive cruise control in their higher-end models while completely skipping on these for their economy class. I get why they do this because of costs but I thought consumer demand would necessitate these safety features. Nope, I'm wrong for now.
10. Video Conferencing: COVID-19 did more for video conferencing in 2 months than tech advocates did in 20 years. There is literally no way I could have predicted every person with a laptop or phone totally being ok with multi-hour Zoom sessions. Sure, there is still a lot of room for improvement but my 5 year old spends 4 hours each weekday on MS Teams video conferencing with his classmates and teacher in virtual school. That is amazing!
I'm sure I have many other current assumptions about the future that will be proven wrong eventually but for now I am just happy that many of my pessimistic predictions turned out wrong. I am glad Netflix can do 4K on a thin, light cellphone that can also educate my kid during a pandemic. I think I'm going to spend some time on what I believe the upcoming 5-10 years in technology will be like and maybe come up with ideas on how I can create tools for that future instead of just making things for immediate use today.