Searching For the Future

By Kyle Munkittrick | December 23, 2010 5:45 pm

D. Boucher at The Economic Word generated the above chart with Google’s endlessly entertaining Ngram viewer. The Ngram viewer lets you search for the number of occurrences of a specific word in every book Google has indexed thus far. As you can see, “future” peaked in 2000, leading Boucher to wonder if we’re beyond the future. Yet, Boucher hedges:

Strangely, however, I look at the technological improvements over the past ten years and I see revolutionary ideas one on top of the other (for instance, the iPhone, iPad, Kindle, Google stuff, Social Networks…). My first reaction is to blindly hypothesize that our current technological prowess may distract us from the future. If it is the case, could it be that technology is a detriment to forward-looking thinkers?

I thought it might be fun to Ngram the Science Not Fiction topics of choice and see if we live up to our reputation as rogue scientists from the future. I figured if we’re all from the future, then our topics should either a) match the trend or b) buck the trend. I’m not sure which is right, but the results were quite interesting. Charts after the jump!

I searched the topics from 1900-2008 with a smoothing of 4.

To start, Kevin Grazier with Space and Physics:

Jeremy Jacquot with Biology and Biotech:

Malcolm MacIver with AI and Robotics:

Erik Wolff with Engineering, Energy, and Electronics:
It seems my compatriots are all from the future, indeed! Peaks in the ’80s and ’90s right down the line, as predicted by the initial “future” graph. The hypothesis holds. The future must be behind us.

And now, yours truly with Transhumanism and Human Enhancement:

My goodness, an anomaly! Look at that exponential growth–whoa, so intense, but what does it mean? I honestly have no idea. Now, both transhumanism and human enhancement are much smaller percentages of the total word count (.000001% as opposed to say, AI’s peak of .001%), but they are the only words still on the rise. Do scientific words with futuristic connotations hit a saturation point? Or are we no longer thinking of the Next Big Thing as being futuristic? I hope to have something resembling an answer before the New Year.

MORE ABOUT: charts, future, ngram

Comments (5)

  1. Hi Kyle,

    I just wanted to specify that Derek Powazek is not the author of The Economic Word, I am.
    Good post.

    Cheers,

    David

  2. Kyle Munkittrick

    Ah! Whoopsies! Misread the bottom of your blog as the author of the site, not the wordpress theme, sorry! Error corrected. Sorry, D.

  3. Chris Winter

    It could be that you are from the future, and the others aren’t. There’s a line from Star Trek… How did it go? “Improve a machine and you may gain a few percentage points of efficiency. But improve a man, and you gain a thousandfold!” Or something like that.

    Which leads me to wonder: Could you be Khan Nuniyan Singh?

    ;-)

  4. Chris Winter

    I hope I didn’t kill this thread with my off-the-wall comment. It could well be that the total volume of the first four blogs you searched tails off after 1990, while yours expanded in output. I do hope you return to this topic.

  5. Al Cibiades

    Self-referential, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, and Wittgenstein’s Propositions #6 and #7…Since the entire class of all relevant documentation is NOT available within Google (yet?), what is graphed represents a view with a skew.

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