Predicting the future is never easy, and hindsight often shows how wrong even skilled individuals can be at predicting just 50 years ahead. Thomas J. Watson, then chairman of IBM, made his famous prediction in 1943, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” In most industrialized countries today, many homes have four to five computers—one in each room.
Charles Duell, commissioner of the U.S. patent office at the turn of the century, predicted in 1899 that the U.S. patent office would be phased out in a few years because, “Everything that can be invented has been invented.” By 1899, the U.S. patent office had issued 631,234 patents. Today the number of issued patents is almost eight million.
How did they get it so wrong? The answer in my opinion is that they tried to predict the future looking from the wrong direction. It is not about predicting how a device will be used in the future, nor how it will evolve. This is impossible.
Instead, it is about predicting what needs will exist in the future that will determine the course of evolution. At the time Thomas Watson made his prediction, the computer was mainly used for calculating ballistic tables for the military. Clearly the market for devices to tabulate artillery data is limited.
The other pitfall in predicting the future is assessing the rate of change. How can you predict when a technology will change? How do you know when the old way of doing things will be gone?
It took 100 years for the telephone to become established and available in almost every home and office in the U.S. It took just 10 years for the facsimile machine to become a routine means of communication. But just as we were getting used to including fax numbers on our business cards, the Internet came along, and within a few years, email practically did away with the fax machine entirely. Who could have predicted the rapid adoption of email?
Bhaskar Chakravorti, in his book The Slow Pace of Fast Change, comments on this odd phenomenon where a technology dominates for a long period of time despite the development of better alternate technology. Then suddenly an adoption avalanche takes place, and the old technology disappears almost overnight to be replaced by something often completely different.
Arthur C. Clarke, the author of 2001, A Space Odyssey, is sometimes known as the man who predicted the future. This justly deserved reputation is due to his uncanny ability to describe devices of the future, many of which have already become reality. One of his most famous predictions was the idea of geostationary communication satellites. This was back in the 1945. Modern life today without satellite communications is almost inconceivable.
I think that part of the reason for Dr. Clarke’s success is his ability to foresee the problems of tomorrow, both technical and societal, which then led him to predict appropriate solutions that would evolve in the future.
Looking at a specific device, whether it be a bioreactor or the home computer, we can more effectively speculate on its future embodiment by extrapolating on what made it evolve to what it is today and what demands will drive its evolution tomorrow. A needs analysis is also useful in understanding the shortcomings of current devices and helps in planning future development.
Change and innovation are not inevitable nor are they often incremental. In most cases, change happens almost overnight, and the old ways then seem unthinkable. Look at the cell phone. How did we exist without this constant connection to everyone else? How did we make presentations before Microsoft™ PowerPoint?
I think that we are poised for seismic changes. The steel, stirred-tank bioreactor has been the dominant technology for over 50 years. On a recent visit to the Science Museum in London, I saw the original bioreactor used for making penicillin. It was built in 1957, and I could not help but notice that it looked exactly like a stirred-tank bioreactor that you would purchase in 2007.
The requirements for a bioreactor in the pharmaceutical industry are now quite different from those 50 years ago. We need devices for patient-specific therapies, simple-to-use bioreactors for cell culture, and high-density perfusion devices to make red blood cells.
In the last 10 years, disposable bioreactor technology has taken the industry by storm. The benefits of this single-use technology are starting to accelerate the adoption of new instrumentation beyond the ubiquitous stirred tank.
As with all change, many people are uncomfortable with new ways of doing things. Most people try to cope with change by holding on to some familiar aspects of the past.
A good example is the development of the automobile. The dominant personal transportation mode at the onset of the 20th century was the horse and buggy. The automobile was disruptive technology. If you look at early automobile design, it looks exactly like a horse-drawn carriage with the horse missing. This horse-less carriage was not designed because it was technically necessary but because it was more familiar and therefore less threatening to the person comfortable with the horse and buggy.
In recent bioreactor design we see the same phenomena. Disposable bioreactors have demonstrated how inefficient, costly, and difficult to operate stirred tanks are. Yet, people are afraid to abandon their old beloved friend so easily. Hence, a number of disposable stirred-tank designs have sprung up to make them feel better.
Like the horse-less carriage, though, these steel-less tanks are transition devices and will be replaced by technology with better characteristics, as people get used to the fact that looking like a stirred tank is not a prerequisite for a good bioreactor.