Are we in danger of taking technology for granted and losing the magic of innovation?
- Dickie Liang-Hong Ke says wondrous technological innovations have become so commonplace that we risk forgetting the effort needed to sustain these discoveries. Concrete support aside, we need to nurture the spirit of invention
Technology has become truly pervasive. It is wide and it is deep. It transcends industries, professions, economies (developed and emerging) and straddles the globe, showing no respect for borders or passports.
Technology has presented us with a somewhat eccentric narrative over the years. In the 1950s and 1960s, technology was characterised by the space race. The British prime minister at the time called this era “the white heat of technology”, perhaps summoning up a reimagining of the forges and the “dark satanic mills” of the Industrial Revolution. In the 1980s, 1990s and early 2000s, IT and telecoms, together with a myriad of embryonic online businesses, defined “tech”. In 2018, AI, the internet of things, blockchain, XR (extended reality), AR (augmented reality), VR (virtual reality) and MR (mixed reality) were the buzzwords.
Today, at the edge of the 2020s, technology is truly everywhere. The scope and range of innovation in technology is truly awe-inspiring, ranging from advances in materials science, to developments in propulsion systems, to an exponential growth in energy solutions and services.
In 2018, we saw the beginnings of ambient computing, huge strides in robotics, “cloaks of invisibility”, robocops and flying police scooters in Dubai, and serious plans for a commercial jet replacement for that venerable Anglo-French queen of the skies, the Concorde. Meanwhile, the convergent technologies of telecoms and IT are no dawdlers. The coming of 5G will represent the greatest leap in processing speed since computing began, and it is predicted that 5G will be a staggering 20 times faster than 4G. And for those of us concerned about the future of education, AI and VR are transforming the classroom.
One could devote quite a bit of editorial space to identifying the top technologies to look out for in 2019, but then, everyone does that, don’t they (and, frankly, they’re not all that hard to predict). The more important questions to be asked concerning technology are philosophical, and not related to the stepping stones mankind might take in the next year, or even in five, 10 and 50 years.
Technology will almost certainly become more and more part of ourselves. Not so much held or worn; we might one day place tech on our faces, insert tech into our eyes, embed it into our ears – and we may even ingest tech. We’ll soon have autonomous vehicles delivering products to our door, UAV ambulances, amazing advances in biomaterials for medical purposes, self-healing concrete, and brain-machine interfaces that enable humans to combine their horizontal intelligence, with the vertical execution capabilities of artificial intelligence.
One could go on, but the point is well made. Over the past 200 years, and certainly in the last 50, mankind has created a magnificent, mutable staging point which will continue to see technology evolve rapidly, in all manner of directions. We have truthfully achieved critical mass where, in the words of technologist and science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, “any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
Magic or no, rather like latter-day wizards, we have become extremely blasé about technology and no longer notice how we ever lived without it – and therein lies the problem. We are, I believe, in danger of forgetting the chemistry (or “alchemy”, to stay with our theme of magic) that fosters technological innovation.
Technological innovation does not always come from one direction. Companies need breakthroughs to build businesses on, but they don’t always possess the funds for the development of those breakthroughs themselves. And, while convention has it that market forces foster innovation, it is occasionally big government which provides the cradle for invention (the space race, for example). In fact, it is sometimes government’s separation from market forces that has historically made it such a successful innovator (witness the “potting shed” style of inventions which came from state-owned enterprises in Britain over the years).
The broader point here is that no matter where future developments in technology do come from, it is the spirit of invention that we need to continue to nurture. From energy to telecoms, from aerospace to the latest in shape memory alloys, whether the invention is from a garage in Palo Alto or through state-funded research in Shenzhen, the incubation and sustained development of new technologies lies at the heart of successful innovation.
Whether one believes in a dystopian vision of the future, a future where we've all got technology at our fingertips, meeting our every need, or a technology-driven nightmare that leads to wide-scale unemployment, the truth is that we need technology in the same way that we need plumbed water and mains electricity.
And to sustain the passion for inspiring and promoting the latest developments, we need to look to our schools, our universities and colleges to inspire the young.
Dickie Liang-Hong Ke is a business innovator and incubator, technology investor and adviser, educator, London Business School Sloan Fellow and contributing writer for the Handbook on China and Globalisation