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June 20th, 2018
It is worth noting that in 1901, Wilbur Wright said to his brother. . .
“Man will not fly for 50 years.”
This was not a dejected, negative reaction to one of their failures. This was an honest prediction.*
*I think it’s fair to surmise this because of two auxiliary points: Once after a failed flight attempt when Wilbur really was feeling down, he said that man won’t fly for a thousand years. This has the proper hyperbole of a person feeling like a failure. The other point is that the 50 year prediction is part of a larger quote that assures Wilbur’s attempt to make an accurate prediction. It also encapsulates the main point of this post:
“I confess that in 1901, I said to my brother Orville that man would not fly for fifty years… . Ever since, I have distrusted myself and avoided all predictions” – Wilbur Wright, in a speech to the Aero Club of France, 5 November 1908
Wilbur Wright was one half of the Wright Brothers, who invented the first airplane. They accomplished this two years after Wilbur made the above prediction.
Here was a man who was about as close to the invention of flying as you could get at the time. Someone who thought about the subject deeply – who sought to make progress. We could say that Wilbur, at the time, was one of only two world-class experts in aviation.
And yet, his estimation for how long it would take was 25 times more than what actually happened.
2 years later they had figured it out.
We expect our experts to be a bit more accurate.
That Wilbur’s dreams were realized in only 2 years is not the most important part of this story. What happened 67 years later says far more about Wilbur’s poor ability to predict than his dream being realized in 2 years. What happened 67 years later?
We put a man on the moon.**
From no flight to moon landings. In a breathtakingly short amount of time.
A little more than a hundred years before Orville and Wilbur cracked the mystery of the bird, the first steam locomotive was invented. And before that was thousands and thousands of years of walking or trusting an animal to do your walking for you.
Progress follows a very counter-intuitive trend. While it can crash, stagnate and plateau for long periods of time… when progress is occurring, it does not look like a steady even climb. It’s more like SLIDING UP by driving a motorcycle at full speed up a slide.
Computers used to be giant, slow monsters that cost millions of dollars. Today they fit in our pockets and not only are they 1,000’s of times cheaper. They are millions of times more powerful.
When people talk about nanobots, and AI, our default reaction is disbelief fueling doubt. But if we look on a large enough time line, we can see just how little time is needed for huge changes.
It might be worth pausing to think more carefully the next time we hear something and feel the urge to say….
Not in my lifetime!
**It’s also important to note that Wilbur’s ’50 year’ prediction overshoots the breaking of the sound barrier in 1947. While the moon landing is more iconic and therefore more useful in this post. Breaking the sound barrier deserves special merit, simply because it probably wasn’t imaginable. Going to the moon was imaginable (though not believable) because it was clearly a place, and we are familiar with going from one place to another. But we were not so familiar with special events that occur at obscure thresholds – like the sound barrier. Wilbur could have looked at the moon and imagined himself up there looking back. It’s doubtful that he could have imagined a sonic boom.
What unpredictable sonic booms might lie in the future?