The rise of many technologies can be traced back through a progression of major breakthroughs and incremental improvements. When we look back, the steps of these progressions often seem logical. Music formats, for example, gradually evolved from analogue to digital formats, moving from vinyl records, to cassettes, to CDs, to Mp3s and now streaming services.
In some cases, it can seem obvious in hindsight how one innovation would naturally lead to the next. But when we try to examine how today’s technologies will progress, the long-term direction is far from obvious. For instance, when Sony released the Walkman™ in 1979, it would have been difficult to imagine Apple’s iPod™ of 2001, let alone the impact of Spotify™ since 2008.
Part of the reason for this is that our historical narratives leave out all the noise, tangents, failures, and second-place finishers. The story of music formats features only the winners, with footnotes, at best, for the likes of Minidiscs, Digital Audio Tapes, Digital Compact Cassettes, Super Audio CD or DVD-Audio.
When we look ahead, we often cannot tell the winners apart from future footnotes—not with any certainty, at least. What we can do, however, is learn from the technology evolutions of the past. Doing so will offer us both a clearer glimpse of the future, as well as a useful perspective on present day decisions.
From artificial ice to artificial intelligence
Leaving music formats for now, let’s turn our attention to refrigeration technology. This began in the 1850s—when the first mechanical ice-making devices were developed—and enters the modern era in the 1950s, when electric fridges became commonplace. The history of refrigeration offers useful parallels with the emergence of AI from its origins after WWII to the present-day proliferation of AI-driven applications and innovations. I’ll draw three key points from these parallels, designed to help you better anticipate the impact and potential of AI in the decade ahead—and beyond.
Expect both revolutions and stagnations
Let’s begin by looking at the pace of development in AI. Often technologies progress incrementally. Think of batteries, vacuum cleaners or running shoes: Over the past 20 years they have all improved, but they still share many core components, features and limitations with their 1999 equivalents.
However, one major breakthrough can see a technology make a giant leap forward in a short space of time. This is what happened with refrigeration in 1928, when the invention of Freon (a refrigerant gas) made refrigerators safe and reliable enough to roll out to mass markets. Today, Freon™, a trade name for chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), is widely known for causing ozone depletion.