People Tend To Overestimate What Can Be Done In One Year And To Underestimate What Can Be Done In Five Or Ten Years

Bill Gates? Arthur C. Clarke? J. C. R. Licklider? Roy Amara? Alfred Mayo? George H. Heilmeier? Manfred Kochen? Raymond Kurzweil? Anonymous?

Dear Quote investigator: Predicting the technological future of mankind is enormously difficult. One recurring flaw in such projections has been identified. Here are three versions:

We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the short term and underestimate the change that will occur in the long term.

People overestimate what can be done in one year, and underestimate what can be done in ten.

This notion has been attributed to software mogul Bill Gates, science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke, visionary computer scientist J. C. R. Licklider, futurist Roy Amara and others.

Quote investigator: The statements above are not identical in meaning, but grouping them together in a single family provides insight. The variety of expressions makes the tracing task quite difficult, and this article simply presents a snapshot of current research.

Arthur C. Clarke did write a partially matching statement in the 1951 book “The Exploration of Space”, but his point differed from the saying under analysis. He did not sharply distinguish the short run and long run. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI: 1

Yet if we have learned one thing from the history of invention and discovery, it is that, in the long run—and often in the short one—the most daring prophecies seem laughably conservative.

This earliest match known to QI appeared in the 1965 book “Libraries of the Future” by J. C. R. Licklider. Computer memory technology was advancing quickly when the book was written, and Licklider commented on the difficulty of extrapolating trends: 2

Shortly after the text was written, “bulk core” memories, with 18 million bits per unit, and as many as four units per computer, were announced for delivery in 1966. A modern maxim says: “People tend to overestimate what can be done in one year and to underestimate what can be done in five or ten years.”

Licklider disclaimed credit for the saying; hence, this early occurrence was anonymous although some colleagues later ascribed the remark to Licklider.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In 1969 a Texas newspaper printed a piece about humanity’s future activities in space. Alfred Mayo, an aerospace consultant who had worked at NASA, suggested that manufacturing processes in space might be able to take advantage of vacuum, weightlessness, and low temperatures: 3

As for manufacturing prospects in space, he pointed out that men historically have tended to overestimate achievements in the short run and to underestimate what can be achieved in the long run. They also, he said, tend to underestimate effects of the new and try to extend the immediate past too far into the future in forecasting.

In 1976 a journal from the United States Air Force called “Air University Review” printed an article “Guarding Against Technological Surprise” by George H. Heilmeier that included an instance of the saying: 4

Engineers and scientists have perfect 20-20 hindsight but continually demonstrate an appalling lack of foresight. They tend to overestimate what can be done in the short-term and underestimate what will be done in the long-term.

In 1981 Manfred Kochen of the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor published a journal article about “Technology and Communication in the Future” that contained an instance: 5

It is well to remember the tendency of forecasters to overestimate what is likely to occur in the short run and to underestimate or to fail to anticipate altogether what can occur in the long run.

In 1983 Roy Amara, President of the Institute For the Future, a long-term planning organization, was interviewed for an article from the Gannett News Service about future technological developments. His opinion was paraphrased: 6

Investors in high-tech firms, Amara said, have overestimated the importance of robotics and biotechnology in the short run. But in the long run, he added, the success of those and other technologies has been “grossly underestimated.”

The 1989 collection “What Futurists Believe” included two versions of a statement from Roy Amara. The first instance was somewhat verbose: 7

Technology is almost never the driver of social change but it is almost always a major actor. Although society generally has a dismal record in forecasting the diffusion and effect of new technology, one generalization does seem to apply: we consistently overestimate the rate of diffusion and the impacts of technology in the short run but underestimate diffusion and impact in the long run.

The second version was compact:

Always an actor in, but not a driver of, social change, technology is overestimated in its rate of diffusion and underestimated in its long term impacts.

In 1992 inventor and futurist Raymond Kurzweil employed the saying within a column for “Library Journal” predicting the importance of ebooks. The attribution was anonymous: 8

It is said that in the development of technology we overestimate what can be accomplished in the short term and underestimate what can be accomplished in the long term.

In 1995 a piece in the literary journal “Massachusetts Review” ascribed the saying to Arthur C. Clarke: 9

Arthur Clarke has noted that we tend to overestimate what we can do in the near future and grossly underestimate what can be done in the distant future. This is because the human imagination extrapolates in a straight line, while real world events develop exponentially like compound interest.

In 1995 Bill Gates published the first edition of “The Road Ahead”. He quickly realized that he had underestimated the growth and salience of the internet, and the next year he released a substantially revised edition. The “Afterword” of the 1996 edition included the following: 10

We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction.

In 1997 a columnist in a Calgary, Alberta, Canada newspaper credited Roy Amara with an instance: 11

The latest official count says seven per cent of North Americans are now connected to the World Wide Web, although thousands of newcomers join daily. After 10 years, the Internet is about to become an overnight phenomenon. What does that mean for you and me? Roy Amara, former president of the Institute for the Future, explained it this way: We tend to over-estimate the impact of a phenomenon in the short run and under-estimate it in the long run.

In conclusion, the earliest member of this family known to QI appeared in a 1965 book by J. C. R. Licklider, but he called it a modern maxim. Licklider did not craft the anonymous saying although he did help to popularize it. Alfred Mayo employed a version in 1969 containing the phrases “short run” and “long run” instead of fixed time periods such as “one year” and “ten years”. Subsequently, many people have employed versions of the saying. The evidence linking A. C. Clarke to the expression is weak.

Image Notes: Abstract image from insspirito (Garik Barseghyan) at Pixabay. Image has been retouched, cropped, and resized.

(Great thanks to Kevin Bachus whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Bachus noted that the saying had been attributed to Bill Gates, Arthur C. Clarke, and others. Thanks to “The Yale Book of Quotations” which lists the key citations for Licklider and Gates.)

Notes:

  1. 1951, The Exploration of Space by Arthur C. Clarke, Chapter 11: The Lunar Base, Quote Page 111, Harper & Brothers Publishers. New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1965, Libraries of the Future by J. C. R. Licklider, Part 1: Man’s Interaction with Recorded Knowledge, Chapter 1: The Size of the Body of Recorded Information, (Text for Dagger Footnote), Quote Page 17, The MIT Press, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1969 January 26, Express and News, Space Research Promises New Jobs, New Products by Jerry Lochbaum, Section 5, Quote Page 4, Column 1, San Antonio, Texas. (Newspapers_com)
  4. 1976 September-October, Air University Review, Volume 27, Number 6, Article: Guarding Against Technological Surprise, Article Author: Dr. George H. Heilmeier, Start Page 2, Quote Page 5, Column 2, Department of the Air Force, United States of America, Maxwell Air Force Base, Alabama. (HathiTrust Full View) link
  5. 1981 March, Journal of the American Society for Information Science, Article Title: Technology and Communication in the Future, Article Author: Manfred Kochen, Author Affiliation: Mental Health Research Institute, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, Michigan, Start Page 148, Quote Page 148, Column 2, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., Published on behalf of Association for Information Science and Technology. (doi:10.1002/asi.4630320212 Online Library of Wiley)
  6. 1983 May 5, Journal and Courier, Rate of changes clouds the future for seers by John Hillkirk (Gannett News Service), Quote Page D6, Column 4, Lafayette, Indiana. (Newspapers_com)
  7. 1989, What Futurists Believe, Edited by Joseph F. Coates and Jennifer Jarratt, Chapter 4: Strengths, Weaknesses and Gaps in Current Futures Thinking, Quote Page 53, Chapter 5: Roy Amara, Quote Page 66, Lomond Publications Inc., Mt. Airy, Maryland and Bethesda, Maryland, World Future Society. (Verified with hardcopy)
  8. 1992 February 15, Library Journal, Volume 117 Issue 3, Article: The Futurecast: The future of libraries Part 2: The end of books, Article Author: Raymond Kurzweil, Media Source Inc., Plain City Ohio. (EBSCO Academic Search Elite)
  9. 1995 Spring, Massachusetts Review, Volume 36, Issue 1, Article: The dream of spaceflight: Nostalgia for a bygone future, Article Author: Wyn Wachhorst, Massachusetts Review Inc., University of Massachusetts, Amherst, Massachusetts. (EBSCO Academic Search Elite)
  10. 1996, The Road Ahead by Bill Gates, (Completely Revised and Up-to-date), Section: Afterword, Penguin Books, New York. (Not yet verified with hardcopy; based on data from the Yale Book of Quotations and ABC News)
  11. 1997 January 04, Calgary Herald, The Winning Edge: Predictions key to marketing by Natalie Maclean, Quote Page E9, Column 3, Calgary, Alberta, Canada. (Newspapers_com)