Some thoughts on innovation

2008-10-01 4 min read

    I stumbled unto an article written in 1968 that tries to predict what the world of 2008 will be like. Usually, these types of predictions are completely off and tend to predict a future far more advanced than what it actually becomes.

    1895 Benz Velo. Along with its contemporary Duryea Motor Wagon, considered the earliest standardized cars. The decade marking further developments in the history of the automobile.

    As expected, the article had it’s exaggerations (automatic cars driving at 250 miles per hour, inter-continental rockets, average work day of 4 hours ) but what struck me the most is how accurate the predictions about computers are:

    The single most important item in 2008 households is the computer. These electronic brains govern everything from meal preparation and waking up the household to assembling shopping lists and keeping track of the bank balance. Sensors in kitchen appliances, climatizing units, communicators, power supply and other household utilities warn the computer when the item is likely to fail. A repairman will show up even before any obvious breakdown occurs.

    Computers also handle travel reservations, relay telephone messages, keep track of birthdays and anniversaries, compute taxes and even figure the monthly bills for electricity, water, telephone and other utilities. Not every family has its private computer. Many families reserve time on a city or regional computer to serve their needs. The machine tallies up its own services and submits a bill, just as it does with other utilities.

    Money has all but disappeared. Employers deposit salary checks directly into their employees’ accounts. Credit cards are used for paying all bills. Each time you buy something, the card’s number is fed into the store’s computer station. A master computer then deducts the charge from your bank balance.

    Computers not only keep track of money, they make spending it easier. TV-telephone shopping is common. To shop, you simply press the numbered code of a giant shopping center. You press another combination to zero in on the department and the merchandise in which you are interested. When you see what you want, you press a number that signifies “buy,” and the household computer takes over, places the order, notifies the store of the home address and subtracts the purchase price from your bank balance. Much of the family shopping is done this way. Instead of being jostled by crowds, shoppers electronically browse through the merchandise of any number of stores.

    Compared to the rest of the predictions, this is amazingly close to what we currently have. There is still some emphasis on the server and treating computers as a utility that is not currently present but with the rise of Google Docs and other online tools, that is not such a distant notion.

    This begs the question, why are the predictions so close when it comes to computers but so off when it comes to other technologies? More importantly, why does Moore’s Law apply to transistors but not to larger technologies? I have a few ideas:

    • Infrastructure costs - it’s cheaper to replace modern day computers than modern day cars. Thus, innovation can happen at a faster pace as people replace their computers. Also, computers tend to work in a much more solitary environment than cars do; being able to drive a car 300 miles per hour is useless when the roads can’t take it and the laws prevent it.
    • Experimentation - it’s easier for the average person to hack around on a computer than it is to hack around on a car. Thus, a lot more people are working on ideas and due to sheer numbers, more ideas are bound to stick.
    • Brand new technologies breed creativity - When computers were invented, no one knew what they were capable of and everyone had ideas as to how they could be used. Many people pursued their ideas and were able to create and improve on various technologies. Also, many teenagers and students were involved in embracing this new technology - and they didn’t know what was impossible so they reached for the stars.Now, everyone is so used to what cars are that people don’t even imagine what cars could be capable of. We may be approaching this same plateau with computers.

    I’ll try to update these when I think of any more.