History is littered with the failed predictions of experts. Yet governments hire high-paid consultants to advise on policy; businesses use them to vet research and development projects; and venture capitalists have them make investment decisions.  Experts excel in looking backwards, protecting their turf, and saying what their clients want to hear. Their short-term predictions are sometimes right, but they are almost always wrong in forecasting any more-distant future.

Experts are the greatest inhibitors of innovation—the ones who shouldn’t be listened to. Peter Diamandis says it best: “an expert is someone who can tell you exactly how it can’t be done”.

Look at some of the most famous historical examples:

“The telephone has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us” said a Western Union internal memo in 1876.

“Heavier than air flying machines are impossible” said Lord Kelvin (William Thomson), President of Royal Society of London in 1895.

“There is no reason for any individuals to have a computer in their home” said Ken Olsen, President, Chairman and Founder of DEC in 1977.

The problem with experts is that they think they know it all; ignore data that don’t fit their points of view; and extrapolate from the past on a linear basis. If some disruptive technology hasn’t come along in the past, the assumption is that it won’t happen in the future. What’s worse is that experts often try to block technologies that might up-end their roles. After all, if things change too fast, they will no longer be experts.

You see these specialists in governments, businesses, and academia. Government experts usually have an agenda. Business experts are typically old-timers trying to protect their jobs. Academics specialize in digging deep into fields that most people would consider arcane or obscure. They gain tenure by writing academic papers and being extremely knowledgeable in a narrow area. They often remain in the same field for decades and can’t see the forest for the trees.

Technology is, today, moving faster than ever. Advances that took decades, sometime centuries, such as the development of telephones, airplanes, and the first computers, now happen in years. Witness how smartphones and social media have come out of nowhere in the past seven years and changed the way we interact and communicate. We are always connected to each other and to our employers. Computing power is advancing at exponential rates and causing acceleration in fields such as artificial intelligence, robotics, 3D printing, sensors, and medicine.

When advancing technologies converge, they lead to artificial intelligence–based apps that analyze data from medical sensors, with the potential to disrupt the medical industry. Smartphones apps such as Uber and AirBnb are already threatening transportation and lodging. Amazon.com has made bookstores disappear and Apple has changed the music industry. Which experts ever predicted these disruptions?

The experts are becoming more wrong—and irrelevant—than ever.

In the early 1980s, for example, McKinsey & Company created a forecast for AT&T of how many cellular phones would be in use in the world in 2000. It estimated this number to be 900,000. The actual number was greater than 100 million.

In June 2007, then Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer said in an interview with USA Today that there is “no chance that the iPhone is going to get any significant market share. No chance. It’s a $500 subsidized item”. The iPhone currently has 42% market share in the U.S.

Silicon Valley’s most respected venture capitalists can’t see even the near future. Mary Meeker of Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers produces a yearly report, Internet Trends, which is the tech industry’s bible. Its May 2013 report analyzed the leading players in social media and made predictions on the future of mobile technologies. It did not even mention WhatsApp—which Facebook acquired for $19 billion in February 2014. This was the largest acquisition in history of a venture-backed company and was not even on Meeker’s radar.

As an academic expert in advancing technologies, I may lack the credibility to write this article. When entrepreneurs come to me for advice, I tell them, as I am telling you, to take it for what it’s worth. No one can accurately predict the future of business any more, because too much is happening too fast. At best, you can gain an understanding of the overall trends and the types of opportunities and obstacles that lie ahead. You can look backwards to understand what problems have already been solved, how others overcame hurdles, and what types of business strategies worked best. You can learn what questions to ask. You can realize yourself when your idea is either just plain silly or impractical.

I tell entrepreneurs that if they really believe in their gut that they have a world-changing idea, then they should pursue it. They shouldn’t let anyone stop them—no one really knows more than they do. As Peter Diamandis also says, “The day before something is a breakthrough, it’s a crazy idea”.

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  • Daen de Leon

    “History is littered with the failed predictions of experts.”

    History is also littered with the failed predictions of dreamers. It turns out that predicting anything, especially the future, is hard.

  • DoubleDonn

    Could you please provide a primary citation for your quotation allegedly from Lord Kelvin? By a primary citation, I mean a paper or address authored by Kelvin not some third party attribution. This so called quotation is variously stated to have been made in 1880, 1885 and 1895 but only as a statement by some author who alleges that Kelvin made the statement but there is never, just as here, an actual citation to a primary source. Please provide one.

    • It could well be that the quotation is wrong. I saw this cited in several other respectable publications—and may have made the same error as they did. It is amazing how these things become accepted as fact.

      • DoubleDonn

        Mr. Wadhwa, Here is the closest that I have found This is from an interview reported in the first biography of Kelvin published (in 1910) following his death in 1907. The interview is stated as having occurred in the spring of 1902 during a trip to the USA and published in the New York Times of April 20, 1902.

        The Life of William Thomson Baron Kelvin of Largs by S. P. Thompson Vol. 2 p 1168:

        “Beautiful as that wonderful work of nature [Niagara] is, it would be more beautiful
        still if those waters fell upon turbine wheels every one of which was turning the wheels of industry.
        The air-ship, on the plan of those built by Santos-Dumont, is a delusion and a snare.
        A gas balloon, paddled around by oars, is an old idea, and can never be of any practical use. Some
        day, no doubt, someone will invent a flying machine that one will be able to navigate without having to have a balloon
        attachment. But the day is a long way off when we shall see human beings soaring around like birds.”
        This is certainly not as stark as the quoted “impossible” in your article. Both the Balloon airship and flying machine came to pass. The flying machine much sooner than Kelvin anticipated. The airship took longer but proved and continues to prove to be of practical (although limited use). In 1894, he proposed a four position helicopter type design – not dissimilar to some current drones as being preferable to the glider approaches being tested. The issues were always motive power that was sufficiently light in weight. This was the concern that made him pessimistic regarding powered flight.
        Consider this example of Kelvin’s role as a far seeing and capable man of both science and technology: he also stated in the first years of the 20th Century that windmills were the logical method for generating electricity.

        • Thanks for doing all this research. It is amazing to see how these quotes are made. I am sure that most other famous quotes and anecdotes are like this. Your messages have been very helpful…

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  • Prashant Srivastava

    This is really a good read Mr.Wadhwa. I would like to know what are your views on economists when it comes to practical life?

    • Economists who focus on detailed data analysis provide a valuable service. Many others look backwards and make similar predictions…thanks

      • Prashant Srivastava

        Thank you for your reply Mr.Wadhwa

  • @ehenn163

    Mr Wadhwa, thank you for your article. I would be interested to hear your perspective on why deep expertise is so treasured by government & industry?

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  • infoscientist

    Good article.

  • When I was coming back from Finland just before the Global Financial Crisis really started to kick-off, and promoted the idea to establish a school of entrepreneurship, everybody called me “nuts”. Especially during a business plan competition sponsored by the government of the Free State of Saxony which I entered with a concept called “Team Lea(r)ning Experience” http://api.ning.com/files/0qIPIGCCUnK0ACk3-Ea6pXyefGPedsl8tWugMjLeIQ5kr5qTWE90Z9orPQiYH7gSejzOWJaxiH6mHmWyn3AAl2mLDqkPLdGc/090209_Team_Learning_Experience.pdf I got heavy headwind.

    Interestingly professors, and leaders of university-based entrepreneurship centers put the idea onto the utopia side, as I found out during a private meeting with heads of the competition.

    All this was back in 2008, now six years later, and government elections in Saxony in front of the door, things might change much faster than ever envisioned (depending which parties get into power).

    During a world café meeting on the future of education where I proposed the above idea to a larger audience, I publicly announced that three expressions are eliminated from my vocabulary:

    – give up
    – planned action
    – taking no as a no (only)

    This is perhaps what entrepreneurs unite across the globe. h/t Vivek for bringing the experts, and entrepreneurs together