27 Jul 2016

Herman Kahn and the 'Flying Car Problem'

Another choice quote from Herb York’s Race to Oblivion:

Herman Kahn in his book On Thermonuclear War, written in 1959 when the rate of breakthroughs seemed to be still rising, ma[de] a whole set of extrapolations which turned out to be false. He predicted then that by 1969 we would probably have “cheap simple [nuclear] bombs,’ “cheap simple missiles,” controlled thermonuclear power, “Californium bullets” (by which he meant A-bombs very much smaller than any we now have), and a superior substitute for radar. He said we would be able to put payloads in orbit for only ten dollars a pound. He predicted that by 1973 we would be working on supersonic bombers and supersonic fighters two generations beyond the B-70 and the F-108 and that there would be manned offensive satellites and manned defensive satellites in orbit. Every one of these errors in prediction arose out of the twin false assumptions that the immediate past was typical and that the technological future could be predicted by simple extrapolation. These errors are also illustrative of what happens when analysts use sophisticated methods but poor or nonsensical inputs: the final result cannot be better than the inputs no matter how fancily they may be processed.

(From Chapter 8, “The McNamara Era”, page 158.)

This is a particular military example of what I like to call the ‘Flying Car Problem’, which is the tendency for predictions of the future to massively overestimate gains in one area while completely ignoring others, due to a reliance on flawed straight-line approximations of technological progress. The result is a feeling of vague disappointment when those predictions don’t come to pass: “it’s 2016 and I have an iPhone… but where’s my flying car?”

It’s worth noting that York was writing in 1970, about predictions made only 11 years prior and which were even by that time clearly ridiculous (and may have been ridiculous when they were written, though I’ll give Kahn the benefit of the doubt); from our vantage point here in 2016 we can see even more clearly that York was correct.

The difference between the mid/late 50s, when Kahn was writing, and the late 60s, when York was writing the first edition of Race to Oblivion, represents the second inflection point on a sigmoid-shaped curve, where the rate of change of technology (in this case, nuclear technology), suddenly changed back from an exponential to a much slower linear regime. The late 50s were in the thick of the exponential phase, and nobody knew at the time exactly how long it would continue.

I don’t think it’s a terrible stretch to say that the 50s and perhaps early 60s were analogous, in terms of nuclear and space technology, to the 80s and early 90s with personal computers. And Kahn’s predictions of pocket nukes and $10/lb orbital delivery are analogous to a host of breathless (but perhaps somewhat less apocalyptic) predictions of the PC revolution toppling nation-states and bringing about a new technocratic/individualist world order. As someone who lived through the PC and Internet revolutions but was born too late for the excitement of the Jet Age, these comparisons help put the “too cheap to meter” predictions of the past in perspective. They were wrong, sure, but they weren’t any more wrong than the turn-of-the-21st-century Internet utopians. It’s very, very hard to judge when that second inflection point – the one that brings you out of the exponential and back into the slow, linear curve of technological development – when you are in the midst of exponential year-over-year change. It’s only obvious after the fact.

And like York in 1970, we are now realizing that the future probably isn’t going to be quite as radically different as we thought it was going to be, even though there’s still a lot of technical work to be done. It’s just that the low-hanging fruit has mostly been picked; what’s left is the slow, expensive grind of incremental engineering, which generally doesn’t lead to what we perceive as sweeping social or lifestyle changes. (Though I’d argue that in fact it does result in just as much progress; it just doesn’t feel the same.)

At some point in the future I’ll probably devote a separate post to it, but Bruce Schneier’s new article Power in the Age of the Feudal Internet deals with this at length, as it applies to the Internet and networked society. As we come, ‘unevenly distributed’, over the peak at the top of the exponential-growth phase, many predictions of what the future will look like will have to be reevaluated.

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