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.

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

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)