Published May 02, 2012
In the high-tech sector, there's an unrelenting din about the importance of innovation. Too bad there's precious little of it around.
Aside from "disruptive," there's probably no more overused buzzword than "innovation." Every speech, every business discussion, every CEO presentation is peppered with the word. Apparently, every idea, every new business, and every startup is staggeringly "innovative."
Indeed, the word itself has spawned an industry built around the concept. There are scores of books penned in just the last couple of years bragging about innovation. (I stopped counting at 30 on Amazon.)
But where is this innovation of which they speak? As Inigo Montoya says in The Princess Bride, "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."
Having armies of HTML5 coding monkeys churning out new ways to datamine our personal information in order to sell us Groupon deals is not innovative. Devices that play music with less fidelity than a previous technology or strain your eyes more than a book are not innovative either. Location-based apps that identify nearby friends or wirelessly pay for mocha lattes don't qualify as innovative.
In fact, even an app that could take your blood pressure, order in Szechuan for you, and get you a date all at the same time wouldn't be innovative. (Okay, maybe the date part would be pretty darn innovative.)
Innovation solves major problems facing humanity. Innovation created the vaccine. Innovation harnessed electricity. But innovation requires a lot of tedious drudgery, as people like Thomas Edison have demonstrated over and over again. He and his workers tested thousands and thousands of different materials, for example, trying to create a viable electric light, persistence which paid off in patent number 223,898.
Some argue that there hasn't been much technological innovation since the personal computer and the integrated circuit. That's a dry spell of 30 to 40 years, depending upon when you think PCs really began to make a difference in scientific and industrial quarters. Some people, recalling a famous 2003 headline from the Onion -- "48-Hour Internet Outage Plunges Nation Into Productivity" -- blame the Web.
As the science fiction writer Neal Stephenson recently put it, thanks to the distraction of the Internet it's as if everything had been put on hold for a whole generation.
There's also the fascination with individual wealth offered by stock market IPOs. The private equity and venture capital people investing in these companies have no interest in solving serious problems or supporting the risky business of technological innovation. That's a money loser. They are after a quick return on the market.
But we could be slowly awakening from our Web slumber. There are plenty of people hard at work, struggling for long hours in research labs and "skunk works" around the world trying to solve what seem like intractable problems. Many of these endeavors and technology trends show great promise:
Zero Car Fatalities: The innovation here involves cars that communicate with each other, so-called vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications. Safety improvements coupled with an infrastructure that can support V2V will mean that an automobile in the future will know, for example, there's a car stopped on the road ahead in the fog and bring itself to a stop before there's an impact.
It's not a fantasy. Such V2V tests are underway, and Freescale CEO Rich Beyer and others have told me they believe it's an achievable goal in as little as 10 to 20 years.
Pervasive Solar Power: The issue here is one of efficiency; how much sunlight can be converted into electricity. So far, conventional photovoltaic modules convert roughly 16 percent of sunlight into electricity. However, to make it a more pervasive solution to meet our energy needs, more efficient designs and materials are needed.
This is a project made for the likes of a Thomas Edison. I think he or she is out there, and there are regular announcements of ever more efficient panels, such as a recent release from a Siemens-backed company claiming it has hit 33.9 efficiency. The trick will be making such panels inexpensive.
Human Space Exploration: This is probably the last bastion of nuclear power where the benefit of this type of energy production really does outweigh the costs and inherent dangers. Using current technology, for example, it would take months to shuttle astronauts to Mars.
David Thompson is a rocket scientist and the CEO of Orbital Sciences, one of two companies that will be responsible for replacing the Space Shuttle taxi service to the International Space Station. Thompson told me he thinks a safe nuclear source of power could be used for high efficiency propulsion systems in space.
Instead of taking months to get to Mars we could do it in weeks. Time frame: 50 years from now.
Personalized Medicine: It turns out a lot of grunt work has to go into making this work. Simply enumerating everyone's genetic makeup or genome isn't going to suffice. It's only a first step, but there are plenty of scientists and researchers working on understanding how certain enzymes affect certain cancers, for example, and how cancer uses multiple paths to attack the body.
Their work will make cancer a chronic rather than a fatal disease, it's just going to take a lot more time, effort and money than anyone previously thought.
So innovation isn't completely dead. It's just too often applied to trivial pursuits today.