Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Hark! Did Somebody Say Eureka!?

Our track record of foreseeing technology's future is abysmal. Can we improve it?

The automatic calculator was invented in the 1950s. Mobile telephones were invented in the early 1970s. Agree?

If you agreed with either statement above, you were off by only a few centuries in the first case, and a few decades in the second. IBM, Bell Punch and Sharp pioneered electronic calculators in the 1950s, but automated devices for performing numerical calculations have existed, in concept as well as in actual physical form, since the 17th century, when Wilhelm Schickard and later Blaise Pascal built the first mechanical calculators. AT&T and Southwestern Bell introduced the first commercial mobile radio-telephone service to private customers as early as 1946. Bell Labs received the patent for cellular telephony in 1972.

Surprised? You are far from being alone. In fact, this fits what appears to be a general - and generally wrong - pattern of how we view the process of technological innovation. We tend to underestimate the time it takes for a technology to be born and gain widespread use. I call this pattern the "Creative Burst Fallacy".

But before we talk any more about the creative burst fallacy, why do we need to be aware of it at all? Knowing it is of great practical interest. In fact, this belief is one of the reasons for what I call the human race's Technology Foresight Deficit - our inability, demonstrated time and again, to correctly foresee the potential of upcoming technologies. Thomas J Watson, no less than the Chairman of IBM, opined in 1943 that the world would need no more than 5 computers. 3G, or third-generation telecommunications technologies, were projected to become the wireless communication technology of choice by the early 2000s - they are yet to take off in any big way in any part of the world. This was a costly mis-judgement indeed: ask the companies that paid billions for the rights to roll out 3G. The days of the bubble saw legions of such technologies being touted as the panacea for a wide range of business and consumer problems. At the same time, many technologies fly "under the radar", or remain unrecognized. Using these and other examples, I have written elsewhere how we can Re-engineer our Crystal Ball, or learn to look at emerging technologies more realistically.

So, Here's the Creative Burst Fallacy. The popular view of how technolgies evolve typically includes the belief that a new technology takes birth in a burst - or a series of bursts - of creative energy. The reality is usually far more prosaic. Technologies are rarely conceived in a "Eureka!" moment - the birth of a technology is typically a deliberate, painstaking and well-thought out process. Further, once having been born, most technologies spend months, or even years, before they reach a stage where they get widespread attention and use.

Then why this fallacious belief? As with most erroneous beliefs that are widely held, this one has some very good reasons for it's existence. I outline some reasons in my article, "Did Somebody Say Eureka!?", in the March 2007 issue of R&D Magazine, and show some patterns which drive how technology takes shape in reality.

Overcoming the creative burst fallacy is an important part of improving our ability to foresee emerging technologies correctly, and of overcoming humankind's technology foresight deficit.