Progress – plus ca change (, plus c’est la meme chose?)

Image courtesy of jscreationzs at FreeDigitalPhotos.netThe pessimistic French saying may make sense at some deep philosophical level, but certainly not in the field of technology. I’m a fan of the quirky website WaitButWhy. Although I don’t always agree with the main author’s conclusions his posts are always thought-provoking, and he obviously does a lot of research. A recent post about the Artificial Intelligence Revolution caught my attention even before it got onto its main subject, by illustrating Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns.

What I find most fascinating about this is that it seems quite counter-intuitive.  To me the natural expectation would be for progress to always be asymptotically approaching some limit.  Progress in some things, such as the 100-metre sprint record, obviously is limited but the application of new scientific knowledge to advances in technology really does seem to be accelerating.

It’s only a few years since two Manchester University physicists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics for their work on carbon nanotubes.  At the time, the material at the core of their research was not much more than a theoretical concept because it was so difficult to synthesise in quantity.  Today, Samsung and others are already on the verge of launching products with touch screens where indium tin oxide is replaced with a sheet of graphene that has a virtually unlimited service life. This is a pace of technological change that is simply hard to believe.

Things are moving on relentlessly.  I recently greeted a new graduate entrant to the company, and in discussion made reference to the VHS – Betamax shoot-out.  He gave me a blank look.  I explained that there had been two (three actually, but no-one remembers Video2000) competing VCR standards, and was then floored when I realised that he had no idea what a VCR was…

Closer to home I thought about a product that I had been peripherally involved with just a couple of years ago.  Developed in collaboration with optics company Carl Zeiss Jena, the product took and stored retinal scans at the time of patients’ routine eye examinations.  By comparing images taken at successive annual exams, the product was able to detect and warn about the development of macular degeneration, which is a very common and in some ways tragic side-effect of diabetes.  It would be reasonable to expect that having made an investment in such a product, the companies involved could reasonable expect to get a return from its uptake and future use.  But what’s this?  Today I received a reminder about my own annual eye examination being due, together with the offer of an Optical Coherence Tomographer scan.  The operation and purpose of this new scan is exactly the same as the earlier one, but with the added benefit of being three-dimensional, i.e. looking below the surface of the retina for otherwise hidden problems. Evidently, if the former market leader hasn’t kept pace its expected sales will never materialise and it will be dead in the water.

As a developer of technology products, the lesson I take from this is that now more than ever the companies that succeed are going to be those that guard against complacency and factor in the cost of remaining at the forefront of R&D.  Coming up with a great product, without pouring the necessary energy into it to keep it great is simply doomed to failure in today’s ever more competitive world.

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