One Small Step for Man…

Have you ever found something to be inconvenient, and the solution seems so obvious you wonder why it hasn’t been fixed yet? Welcome to the world called reality.  Despite the incredible advances in technology, we don’t live in a technological utopia, and it seems there are several reasons why:

Impossibility

While this might seem like a cop out, some technology seriously is impossible to make: teleportation devices, time machines, siblings who never annoy you their entire lives.  These inventions may be within the realm of imagination, but deny the laws of physics (or at least our current understanding of them).  It is not incredibly helpful to mention these, but my analysis would be incomplete without them.

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Impracticality

Are flying cars one of those “impossible” technologies? No. See for yourself:

https://www.youtube-nocookie.com/embed/VRZNLBL7Px4?rel=0&start=105

However, despite the Terrafugia Transition being “street legal,” that doesn’t mean you could drive it on the streets no problem. What the video fails to mention is that airplane wings are very sensitive to damage. Aerospace engineering is a precise science prone to huge errors with even minor discrepancies. If you drive on a gravel road and ding up your wings? Forget about trying to fly that safely. Furthermore, you’d always have to park it in a private garage. In public lot, there’s no way you could trust that no one accidentally bumped into your vehicle, and you might not know the danger until it’s too late.

Impatience

Related to the idea of impracticality, some technology needs time before it’s perfected. Generally these needs fall into two categories: engineering and marketing.

Engineering time needs are there because no one ever gets innovation just right on the first try. Thomas Edison is often quoted as having said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” in reference to his efforts to invent the light bulb. Because of the risky and costly nature of R&D, companies generally only want to invest if they can see a clear return on investment. This risk-aversion leads to a lack of general scientific research. Though such a strategy might yield short-term profits, it is ill-advised. Directed research is strategically advantageous in that it “promotes serendipitous long-term innovation because you don’t know exactly what you’re looking for when you conduct it or how it may be used in the future.”

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Engineers don’t always do well with open-ended questions.

Marketing time needs refers more to timing than an amount of time.  This 2011 Business Insider article provides just a few examples of companies that were mistakenly ahead of their time.  Being ahead of your time is not always a good thing, because if the markets are not ready for your invention – regardless of its quality – you will fail.  For businesses without a diversified portfolio this means certain death, but those with extra capital may be able to take the hit. Apple’s original MacBook Air was at the forefront of mainstream products that were completely wireless, and many people were annoyed by the inconvenience.

haircut

You know you’re jealous.

Impact

What might the implications be of new technology? People might lose their jobs @markdimeglio. Those same people might be killed by the self-driving cars that took their jobs @realjakejordon. We might lose the “human element” of the game we love @danmiller315. There’s even a chance our way of creating art might be impacted @jamessenwei.

Developing automation technology goes hand in hand with losing control.  When I bought my truck last summer, I would have loved for much of the process to be automated. I found a price listed online and ended up having to haggle for several hours at the dealer just to get the price advertised. It was ridiculous. Some people might balk at the idea of not being able to negotiate a price, but those are people who don’t understand that salespeople have a set limit on how low they are actually allowed to go.  You aren’t really bending the salesperson to your will when you ‘negotiate’ a price.  I would much rather save the hassle and have a take it or leave it price. Of course, it’s probably not to the dealership’s advantage to have a set price.  That would be far too easy for price wars to start.  Additionally, if customers see the listed price and think they can haggle a person down (even if that’s a false perception), they are much more likely to get sucked in to a dealer and make a purchase just for convenience sake. Even if you know exactly what you want, car-buying is a long and arduous process. Unfortunately, tech is unlikely to be integrated for efficiency’s sake, because it’s not to the house’s (dealership’s) advantage, and the house always wins in the long run.

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What I imagine it’s like to buy a Smart car

On the flip side, as a customer I truly appreciate being able to tour apartments in person.  Virtual tours don’t give you the same feel for how big a place really is, and most apps like Trulia, ApartmentList, or Zillow don’t have anything besides a limited amount of still photos.  I’m sure realtors would love to never spend time giving tours and could just rake in the dough sitting at their desks, but that simply won’t ever be the case.  Some people do follow this method out of convenience or necessity (no time or they live out of town and only have the ability to look at a floorplan).  As unlikely as apartment-renters are to transition fully to virtual tours, home-buyers are exponentially less likely.  Home-buying is a huge commitment.  The risk associated with not seeing a house just to save time is usually not worth it.

Imagination

Even if we are willing to accept the costs listed above, maybe we just haven’t thought of the next best thing.  Necessity is the mother of invention, and some things will only be invented after other inventions have failed in one way or another.  It’s doubtful the Model T had cup holders, because why would anyone imagine a luxury like that when they have the mantra “You can have any color as long as it’s black?”  However, as soon as people started making longer journeys and thought, “Where in the world do I put my cup of iced tea?” they realized the need for such a device.

gwmmn

May not fit in a cup holder, but still pretty cool

Not everyone is a Steve Jobs thinking of the next iPhone, but not everyone has to be. We just need to live life and decide to create solutions to our problems. So, what is your big idea?

hoverboard-with-lights-blue

Anything you invent will never be as much of a letdown as the “hoverboard.”

8 comments

  1. I see what you did there with the I’s…
    You’re housing example struck a chord with me as my fiance and I are currently searching for a new apartment and I complain to her almost daily how there needs to be a better way. I agree most renters will always want to tour the place, but I think tech could do a better job of connecting landlords and potential renters. My biggest issue with renting in a place like Boston is the broker fees…it’s crazy to me to pay someone 1 month’s rent just for unlocking the door and letting me walk around the place. But to your 4th point, Impact: unfortunately some new approach wouldn’t make much of an impact on the landlord since they usually aren’t the ones paying the fee. They give the listing to the broker and the tenant is stuck footing the bill. So until the landlord sees an advantage or impact from an alternate method, I think we’re stuck with our current system…sadly.

  2. Nice Article. What I like about this piece is that it takes a realistic look at innovation. I liked your flying car example, as I didn’t really ever think about the physical reasons as to why the technology wouldn’t really be possible. As it turns out getting the tech right would be a huge undertaking. Additionally, making the technology sustainable would be a near impossibility.

    I think for myself, its good to think about whether your “solutions” to peoples problems are even technologically feasible. So often Ill hear from friends who have been approached to develop an app and the person proposing the idea doesn’t understand that their idea isn’t realistically possible to implement.

  3. First of all, there is a guy in my office that insists on going everywhere on his hoverboard. It’s not cool, its a mini-Segway. He is a walking (rolling?) example of when the marketing timing is not right – society just isn’t ready to take those types of products seriously. This was a nice analysis of what it takes to make something innovative successful. I especially liked concepts that bring up the fact that there are certain things we just can’t help. Timing, preferences, incentives. There are a lot of levers companies can pull to make a product successful, but at the end of the day, innovative products are all about finding the right environment for them.

  4. Bobby, I loved this post! I definitely relate to your point about imagining seemingly practical things that haven’t been invented yet, however they fall into one or multiple of the criteria you provided. While you illustrate some awesome examples, I am eager to see what will be invented during our lifetime that we currently note as impossible, impractical, impatient, or having a potentially negative impact. I am sure that if you told someone in the early 19th century that people will have common items like a device that allows us to speak to someone not physically near us, or see and hear people through a box, they would have thought that to be impossible. This leaves me wondering what crazy inventions are to come and where our technology will take us!

  5. Great post Bobby! When most people think about technology and the way it has advanced in the past 10-20 years, they think that there will be a point where technology will be able to replace anything. Realistically, not every process can be completely automated because or augmented by technology because the human factor is still very important.
    I completely relate to the apartment example also since I am looking for one right now and I’ve been using the platforms that you mentioned and they are lacking so many things. Of course I want to see the apartment before I move in but it is so time consuming and hard to plan that I wish that there was a better way to search for apartments. While it is tempting to try to digitalize everything, the digital innovations such as AR and VR cannot replace the real experience that we get when we tour an apartment or when we drive a car to see how we feel about it. Even buying shoes is something that usually requires you to try them on before you choose to buy them.
    Technology has enabled us to do many things that we couldn’t do before but I still think that some experiences will never be replaced.

  6. Bobby, a wonderful post. I resonated the most with your point in the “Impatience” section, where you highlight that tech needs fall into either engineering or marketing. These two buckets are MECE (Mutually exclusive, collectively exhaustive) frameworks indeed in analyzing a particular technology, and it just shows that marketing is just as important as having the capability to bring an invention to life. The easiest example that comes to my mind is driverless vehicles, where the technology is probably almost there but marketing still needs so much more work to be done. Even without the recent Uber’s failure in California and issues in China, people’s perception of driverless vehicles was already skeptical. It’s only a matter of time where people would react, “look, what did I say about driverless cars?” even though it is probably a lot safer than drunk, aggressive drivers in rush.

    Out of all the “I” factors you mentioned in the post, Impatience seems to be the most relevant and applicable to today’s tech developments. VCs who are investing in startups are not willing to wait another 10000 tries until another invention like the light bulb comes out from the R&D. Long term development and patience is important, but when it comes to receiving investments from someone else, any form of return is always needed to satisfy the resource provider. World is moving fast, and time is money.

  7. Nice post. The pesky laws of physics get in the way of too many cool inventions… my son is coming up with them all the time.

  8. Great post, I think we really take for granted advances in technology – we just sort of assume that they are bound to happen as we progress as a society. We need to remember the absolutely massive amount of trial-and-error that occurs before something is really useful for the public (a la your Edison example). I think it’s also interesting how things we might assume will be the greatest inventions in the near future end up paling in comparison to what we actually get. It’s always fun to see a movie from a couple decades ago that is set in the present: for example, the original Blade Runner’s vision of 2019 LA is full of flying cars, realistic androids, and neon lights. But honestly isn’t the internet, and all that has been accomplished with it, more impressive than all of those things when you think about it?

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