Tuesday, February 07, 2017

Profiles of the Future

I've been thinking about the laws of the universe recently and came across a book written by the science fiction master Arthur C. Clarke called Profiles of the Future. Over the course of many years and several revisions he put forward the hypothesis that there are 3 laws for predicting the future. These are:
Clarke's first law
When a distinguished but elderly scientist states that something is possible, he is almost certainly right. When he states that something is impossible, he is very probably wrong.
Clarke's second law
The only way of discovering the limits of the possible is to venture a little way past them into the impossible.
Clarke's third law
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

The third one has various alternative explanations such as:

Any technology, no matter how primitive, is magic to those who don't understand it ,and
Any sufficiently ancient recovered wisdom or artifact is also indistinguishable from magic
There's a couple of variations I like that are particularly related to the field of computing in which I work. 
These are:
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from a rigged demo, and
Software tests that inexplicably pass or fail are indistinguishable from voodoo
Over the course of my career I've seen the truth of these last two. Many years ago I had the privilege of being invited to the demo of a new piece of software that was slated to be years ahead of its time. It was being shown to us by an executive of that company and what we saw really was a leap beyond anything any of us had seen before that is, until one of us spotted that what appeared to be buttons being clicked on a screen actually looked suspiciously like a PowerPoint presentation moving from one picture to another. The buttons were not depressing and the positioning of some of the buttons moved ever so slightly from one screen to another.
At one point a question was asked from the audience if we could go back to the previous screen to look and see what one of the other buttons could do. Of course this would have been impossible but the presenter was slick and had anticipated such a request when his reply was that we had so much to cover in a short period of time and would love to show that feature in a separate demo after the main presentation.
When the presentation was over, some of us went to ask about that feature to be told that the link back to the database at head office had gone down and therefore we would not be able to see a demo of that feature after all.

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