PopSci's 'Wonders Of The Year 2020' (from 2011)

It’s always funny to read what people in the past thought the future would be like. It always centred on technology beyond our wildest dreams but still no flying cars and metropolis on the rings of Saturn.

PopSci did a “Wonders Of The Year 2020” list back in 2011 which collected 12 ambitions from a variety of people for 2020 and I thought it’d be cool to see if any of them happened (especially given the pandemic which nobody could have predicted 11 years ago):

1. Japan Will Build a Robotic Moon Base

Did it happen? No.

They made efforts and did plenty of research but no moon base yet. As of 2021, JAXA still plans to do it but we may be waiting a few more decades although they’re still pushing:

According to Space News, Japan has recently passed a space resources law similar to ones enacted by the United States, Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that would give Japanese companies permission to “prospect for, extract and use various space resources.” The new law is an indication that Japan intends to be part of the international return to the moon, led by NASA. Japan is a signatory of the Artemis Accords that seeks to spell out rules for cooperation in the exploration of space, particularly the lunar surface.

More recently, a group of Japanese companies, academics and politicians issued a document called the Lunar Industrial Vision. The document proposes that the moon be incorporated in the Earth’s economic sphere, in effect uniting the Earth and the moon into one “ecosystem” in a concept called “Planet 6.0.” The document advocates that the Japanese government undertake a number of policy initiatives to make this development happen.

via a 2021 article from The Hill

2. China Will Connect Beijing to London via High Speed Rail

Did it happen? Haha, no!

Can you imagine if that actually happened, given how 2020 turned out and why it turned out that way?

3. Cars Will Drive Themselves

Did it happen? Yes and no. They exist but they kill people and aren’t commercially as available as regular cars.

Blame Tesla for that one.

4. Biofuels Will be Cost-Competitive With Fossil Fuels

Did it happen? Kinda. But fossil fuels still reign supreme.

The Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy wrote a piece in 2016 about the demand for biofuels on this basis.

5. The ‘Flying Car’ Will be Airborne

Did it happen? Nope. And please stop trying to make it happen.

6. We’ll Control Devices Via Microchips Implanted in Our Brains

Did it happen? Officially, no. Off the record, if I told you, I’d have to kill you before the microchip in my brain killed me.

There have been examples of implants in people’s hands and arms that can control devices but that’s it.

7. All New Screens Will Be Ultra-Thin OLEDs

Did it happen? Not really, at least not all new screens. But they’re more available on TVs.

8. Commercial Space Will Take Us to the Moon and Asteroids (and We’ll be Mining Them)

Did it happen? Define ‘us’.

It seems to be reserved by the rich and famous.

9. A $1,000 Computer Will Have the Processing Power of the Human Brain

Did it happen? I’ll let Joseph Carlsmith take this one:

Open Philanthropy is interested in when AI systems will be able to perform various tasks that humans can perform (“AI timelines”). To inform our thinking, I investigated what evidence the human brain provides about the computational power sufficient to match its capabilities. I consulted with more than 30 experts, and considered four methods of generating estimates, focusing on floating point operations per second (FLOP/s) as a metric of computational power.

The full report on what I learned is here. This blog post is a medium-depth summary of some contextthe approach I tookthe methods I examined, and the conclusions I reached. The report’s executive summary is a shorter overview.

In brief, I think it more likely than not that 1015 FLOP/s is enough to perform tasks as well as the human brain (given the right software, which may be very hard to create). And I think it unlikely (<10%) that more than 1021 FLOP/s is required.1 But I’m not a neuroscientist, and the science here is very far from settled.2 I offer a few more specific probabilities, keyed to one specific type of brain model, in the report’s appendix.

10. Universal Translation Will be Commonplace in Mobile Devices

Did it happen? Not really.

Google still has Google Translate but it’s not always accurate (DeepL works better in many cases) and a Translation AI that takes place in the cloud but it needs training and it’s available in the way they predicted in 2011.

11. We’ll Finally See Some Decent AR Glasses

Did it happen? Not glasses, but we have cool AR headsets!!

Google Glass walked so Oculus could run.

12. We’ll Create a Synthetic Brain That Functions Like the Real Deal

Did it happen? No. And I hope they never will.

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