As seen on Bloomberg.com
By: Mark Milian
The head of Google’s self-driving car unit says his team is committed to getting autonomous vehicles on the road within five years. That’s a wildly ambitious goal, considering Google has a long list of technical, production, and—perhaps most difficult—regulatory roadblocks to overcome.
Five years may seem like an arbitrary time frame to promise delivery of a controversial, unproven product, but it turns out to be a sweet spot for technology predictions. In the past year or so, Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and other tech executives have chosen five as the magic number of years for their big predictions to come to fruition.
Sometimes these estimates do come true: Mobile carriers in the U.S. are on track to deliver on President Obama’s five-year promise from 2011 to cover 98 percent of Americans with high-speed wireless Internet. Just don’t get your hopes too high. In 2001, Bill Gates told us we’d all be using Windows tablet PCs in five years. Another Microsoft exec, Nathan Myhrvold, predicted the five-year demise of Windows, starting in 1999. By next year, IBM should be bringing us mind-controlled computers. Good luck with that.
Why five? When you consider that there were no iPads or mass-market electric cars five years ago, it shows how much can be accomplished in a half-decade. A cynic might say it’s because nobody will remember a crazy prediction five years from now.
Five might be the favorite number among technologists (and, incidentally, Joseph Stalin), but it’s not the only measurement for prophecies. New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman frequently and infamously predicted during the height of the Iraq War that “the next six months” would be critical to determining success or failure. More recently, an Italian neuroscientist says it’ll be possible to transplant a head onto someone else’s body within two years. Senator Harry Reid predicts the Washington Redskins will change their name “within the next three years.” A NASA astronomer thinks we’ll find evidence of aliens within 20 years. A group of scientists predicts that a volcano could make Japan “extinct” within 100 years—or maybe the entire planet will face mass extinction, according to another group. Those are cheery thoughts.
While this isn’t a comprehensive list—we haven’t forgotten about 5G, Star Wars holograms, a universal flu vaccine, or Myanmar’s first satellite launch, which will be no easy feat for one of Asia’s poorest countries—here are five of the most amazing (and horrifying) things we’re supposed to get within five years.
1. Google self-driving cars on the road
Chris Urmson, the director of Google’s self-driving car project, gave a presentation at TED Talks on Tuesday, where he said the company is aiming to get its vehicles on the road within five years. Urmson has a personal reason for picking that deadline: His 11-year-old son will be eligible to get his driver’s license in about four and a half years. “My team and I are committed to making sure that doesn’t happen,” he said.
Few people are as optimistic about the road to autonomous vehicles as Urmson. A director of General Motors’ self-driving car research lab at Carnegie Mellon University said they’ll be common within 15 years. An analyst at Morgan Stanley went with 2026. Musk, who’s not shy about making predictions, avoided nailing down a time frame for autonomous vehicles this week. The chief executive officer at Tesla Motors, which has been developing its own autopilot system, said on Tuesday that we’ll “take autonomous cars for granted” in a short period of time.
2. Netflix everywhere in the world
Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, told the audience at a UBS media conference in New York on Dec. 8 that the company would like its streaming service to “be completely global, available everywhere in the world” within five years. Netflix is currently available in 78 markets, mainly in the Western Hemisphere.
3. Zuckerberg’s vision for a mostly video Facebook
Smartphones are making it easier for people to shoot video, and the latest server tech is making it possible for Facebook to store and deliver more of it than ever before, Zuckerberg said in a public question-and-answer session on Nov. 6. “Now, most of Facebook is photos,” the CEO said. “Five years ago, most of Facebook was text, and if you fast-forward five years, probably most of it is going to be video.” If it turns out to be anything like the Ice Bucket Challenge of last summer, we’ll go back to Friendster.
4. Musk’s killer robot nightmare
The Tesla and SpaceX CEO started sounding the alarms about the risks of artificial intelligence last year. Musk joked at a Vanity Fair conference in October that an AI system designed to get rid of e-mail spam may determine that “the best way of getting rid of spam is getting rid of humans.” Then in November he penned a dystopian prediction on the website Edge.org. “The risk of something seriously dangerous happening is in the five year timeframe. 10 years at most,” he wrote in a comment that has since been deleted. Musk, along with physicist Stephen Hawking and many researchers in the field, co-signed an open letter pushing for “maximizing the societal benefit of AI” to avoid a doomsday scenario.
5. Amazon drone delivery
Bezos announced Amazon.com’s delivery drone in December 2013, saying the company may start using them within five years, pending U.S. Federal Aviation Administration approval. That’s turned out to be a big “if,” and a year later, Amazon told the FAA it may move drone testing outside of the U.S. On Feb. 15 the government agency introduced a proposal to open the skies to unmanned flight. But the rules would prevent companies from flying the vehicles outside of the operator’s line of sight. That kind of eliminates the point of delivering packages via drone. Meanwhile, Alibaba has been flying drones over Beijing to deliver ginger tea.