Have we passed peak innovation?

Why do we laugh at old representations of the future? You know the kind – the Jetsons, flying cars, the “power laces” in Back to the Future 2. Many of their predictions now seem either patently absurd, or as far away as they ever have been. Either way the real 2018 bears little resemblance to a 1950s vision of it; indeed if we’re honest, outside of computing and the internet, disappointingly little has changed. A time traveller, landing today, would find a world he pretty much recognises. Smaller cars, bigger TVs, but overall, his world.

Bearing this history in mind, are we being too bullish in our own visions of the future?

Today we think we can see radical shifts on every horizon – in the shape of AI, biotech, VR, wearables, you name it. But what is it that makes these predictions any more plausible than the flying car? Recent news of the first fatality caused by a driverless one has acted as a wake up call for that vision, begging the question of why we are so optimistic given our poor track record.

Perhaps we are operating under the same fallacy as 1950s futurists – where we take the radical developments of the last decade and project that same speed of change indefinitely into the future. Life in 1959 was undoubtedly remarkably different from life in 1949, just as life in 2009 was from life in 1999. But the difference between 1862 and 1872? Or 1973 and 1983? Not so much. And the signs are that 2018 is going to be more like 1973 than 2009.

Why might we think this?

Naturally we face practical limitations, like those that saw Moore’s Law shudder to a halt in 2016. But more limiting than that are market factors. Quite simply we reach a point where something is “good enough”.

Think about window blinds. In 1950s visions of the future, it went without saying that in 2018 all window blinds would be controlled with a remote. That would be the inevitable zenith of window blind technology. But how many remote-powered window blinds have you ever seen? Certainly they exist, and have been possible for more than 40 years, and yet they never really caught on. Why? Because they’re pointless. Fundamentally the analog window blinds tech – developed much longer ago – is “good enough”. That neat system where you pull the string one way and it moves, the other way and it sticks – that’s as advanced as things really need to be for the human animal. Any fancier and the juice isn’t worth the squeeze – the market won’t support it. We are satisfied.

This is precisely the reason why we’re still waiting for Marty McFly’s hoverboard. What would the benefit really be? I guess you can fly it over rough surfaces, which you can’t with a skateboard, but then we’ve got roads and such to deal with that. It’s basically a gimmick, and gimmicks don’t command enough investment and ingenuity to come true.

If that makes sense then ask yourself this. Have we reached the same “satisfaction threshold” with the most revolutionary piece of tech of our era: the smartphone?

We’ve already seen innovation in this space become remarkably superficial since the original iPhone. We introduce needless widgets like facial recognition and 3D cameras, but fundamentally it’s the same thing – a pocketable device that allows us to access information on demand wherever we are. How do you improve on that in a game-changing way? Google tried with Glass, others tried with smart watches, but none of these innovations have really stuck because they all offered only marginal benefits. The difference between being able to access the internet on-the-go versus not was huge; but being able to have that information laid over my eyes versus having to reach into my pocket for it? Meh. It’s like remote control blinds. I get that it’s a step forward, but not such a big one I’m prepared to change my behaviour for it.

Of course some mooted innovations would be genuinely game changing. Theoretical VR is one such area. If we could genuinely disappear into a parallel universe indistinguishable from the real one there would doubtless be major consequences. However the catch with many such innovations is that we have to get there first – and that requires the market to want not only the dream, but all the intermediary steps in-between.

For instance people no doubt thought that the Concorde was merely a step along the road to inevitable 20-minute transatlantic crossings. But people had to want Concorde first. They didn’t, and so that dream disappeared, with air travel speeds seemingly destined to remain at one level forever. Are Siri and chatbots the Concordes of AI?

Ultimately these are the tests any innovation has to pass to deliver real change – the electric blinds test and the Concorde test. Is the benefit ten times bigger than the status quo, or is it just a tweak? Nobody shakes up their life to save 2 seconds. And can you deliver a big win immediately, or are you going to try and make the public patronise poor-value beta versions in the hope of something worthwhile years down the line?

Using this model, it’s clear why things like the iPhone, Airbnb, Uber, and I guess fundamentally “the internet” caught on. They changed the game, and they did it pretty much from version 1.

But do they apply to our visions today? We may find the future is a more familiar place than we’re expecting…

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