/The humbling truth about the limits of innovation (via Qpute.com)

The humbling truth about the limits of innovation (via Qpute.com)

Suits with a digital history of their every thread, giving us blockchain proof that no child labour was involved. Shared flying cars that can be ordered up as easily as an Uber. A demonstration rocket capable of flying passengers from London to Dubai in 29 minutes (although it may take a while longer to get the safety right).

These are just some of the innovations that await us in the next decade or so, according to Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler. It does not end there. The authors of The Future Is Faster Than You Think go on to describe a world in which nanoscale motes will float through our bloodstream, collecting data. Drugs will destroy the “inflammation-producing zombie cells” believed to cause ageing. Ten to 12 years from now, we could reach “longevity escape velocity”, extending our lives by a year for every year we live.

And yet here we are in 2020, banned from travelling to the next town — never mind Dubai — ravaged by a virus that we are struggling to understand and seeing the elderly die while tended by medics desperate to find basic protective clothing, let alone any with a digital history. The techno-optimism of this book has collided with the humbling reality of Covid-19.

I have no grounds to ridicule the authors. I did not foresee the coronavirus pandemic, nor did I grasp its seriousness when it began. The Future Is Faster Than You Think is still worth reading, if only to show how far, as societies, we have fallen short of our potential. It is thought-provoking and brightly written and was alert, even before the pandemic, to how dysfunctional many of our healthcare systems were, particularly America’s.

The book was written before the pandemic and published into the thick of it, as were Dan Heath’s Upstream and Peter Westwick’s Stealth. Yet all three show how we ended up where we are and point to the possible ways out.

Diamandis is no mere theorist. He has been involved in more than 20 start-ups in areas such as space, education and health. This is his third book with Kotler, following Abundance (about how technology is making energy, food and water abundant) and Bold (about entrepreneurs who are taking advantage of these technologies). Their thesis is that when it comes to tech breakthroughs, we have only just begun. Amazon (and the other online retailers that have been serving us during our home confinement) used just one new technology, the internet, “to expand upon an old technology, mail-order catalogues”.

The convergence of many technologies — artificial intelligence, quantum computing, sensors, virtual reality, biotechnology, nanotechnology, 3D printing — now promises us far bigger breakthroughs, they write. Back in 2018, when an astronaut on a mission to the International Space Station broke his finger, he didn’t have to wait for a splint to be delivered from Earth. The astronauts “flipped on their 3D printer, loaded in some plastic feedstock, found ‘splint’ in their blueprint archive, and created what they needed”. Scroll forward to 2023 and we should have 3D-printed transplant organs.

The authors quote Chad Rigetti, a California-based quantum computing entrepreneur, describing how the time it takes to develop drugs is going to become immensely shorter: “Instead of building a large-scale wet lab to explore the properties of hundreds of thousands of compounds in test tubes, you’re going to be able to do much of that exploration in a computer.”

If only the drug development process was that quick now. Researchers worldwide are racing to find coronavirus vaccines and antivirals. Diamandis and Kotler acknowledge in their book how far we still were from Rigetti’s ideal. Out of every 5,000 new drugs investigated, only five made it to human testing and only one was approved. The average medicine was taking 12 years to get from laboratory to patient.

The US medical system was, they write, often sicker than the patients. “It’s reactive, not proactive. Doctors make after-the-fact interventions, fighting a rearguard battle.” So how, in spite of the tech wizardry described by the authors, are we scrabbling in the dark over Covid-19? Why, after the fright of Sars, Mers and Ebola, were we so unprepared?

Three books on innovation falling short

Although it predicts ‘smart’ textiles, flying cars and rocket planes, this optimistic view of a possible future is worth reading for an idea of where present-day society is failing

We send aid to flood victims while failing to prevent floods in the first place. We fret over youth crime but don’t invest enough in services like education. Is there a better way?

Lessons from the US’s multibillion-dollar race to develop radar-deflecting military aircraft — few were built and, with the end of the cold war, they were barely used as planned

In Upstream, Dan Heath considers our chronic failure to address our problems before they hit us. The book’s title comes from the fable of two friends picnicking by a river who see a child drowning. They dive in and rescue the child, only to see another child drifting along. They save that one, and then a few more, until one of the friends runs off. The other asks what he’s doing. “I’m going upstream to tackle the guy who’s throwing all these kids in the water,” he says.

Heath’s book offers clues as to how we were caught unawares by this crisis. He starts with a prosaic business problem: why, back in innocent 2012, were so many Expedia travel site customers calling its helpline? Trawling through the company’s call centre data, Ryan O’Neill, head of customer service, found that an incredible 58 per cent of people who booked flights, hotel rooms or rental cars through Expedia were then phoning for help. The main reason was that they couldn’t find their itineraries.

Expedia discovered this was because emailed itineraries were going into people’s spam, or customers had deleted them thinking they were junk mail, or they had mistyped their email addresses in the first place — and there was no way for them to retrieve their itineraries online. Taking the calls was costing Expedia $100m a year. Fixing the spam problem and creating an online itinerary-finding tool largely fixed the problem.

Having a call centre expensively deal with the problem you have created is typical of downstream rather than upstream thinking. A Canadian deputy police chief gave Heath another example. Imagine a turn in the road where a lot of collisions happen. One officer stands before the turn where her presence makes drivers more cautious. The second officer hides around the turn, nabbing motorists for driving violations. The second officer gets credit for the number of tickets issued; the first gets nothing for preventing accidents from happening.

We see this everywhere. We send relief to hurricane and flood victims without thinking about how they could be better protected in the first place. We fret over youth crime but are unwilling to invest in early health, education and parental guidance. Doctors prescribe inhalers for children while we fail to clean the air that caused their bronchial problems.

An F-117 in flight. Source: U.S Air Force
An F-117 in flight. ‘Stealth’ recounts the secrecy, science and skulduggery that led to the creation of the F117-A, the stealth fighter, and the B-2, the stealth bomber © US Air Force

The problem is not just that upstream action gets little kudos. It is hard to organise, it requires money with an uncertain result and it doesn’t always work. Heath points to the two areas where we do put in the upstream investment: concerned parents who watch their kids’ screen time, health and nutrition in pursuit of long-term success. And our teeth. We brush them twice a day and go to the dentist. Elsewhere, we spend money on the consequences. “Broken artery? We’ll unclog it. Broken hip? We’ll replace it,” Heath writes. “The US healthcare system is designed almost exclusively for reaction.”

What else is the US system — and those in other countries as well, for that matter — designed for? Building armaments. In Stealth, Peter Westwick, an aerospace historian, also explores questions of innovation, foresight (or the lack of it) and public priorities. He recounts the secrecy, science and skulduggery that led to the creation of America’s two radar-evading military aircraft, the F117-A, the stealth fighter, and the B-2, the stealth bomber. Both planes were conceived as a means of penetrating Soviet air defences and both resulted from ferocious competition between two stalwarts of the US military industry, Lockheed and Northrop.

To decide who should build the stealth fighter, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (Darpa) arranged a contest in the New Mexico desert in 1976. The two companies had different approaches. Lockheed was famous for the Skunk Works, its innovation centre. It saw flat aircraft surfaces as the key to dramatically lowering the potential plane’s radar profile; Northrop realised that curves could also deflect radar. Engineers hoisted their two models on to a pole and “zapped them with various radar beams, and measured the radar waves that bounced back”.

Darpa declared Lockheed the winner of the stealth fighter competition, but four years later the two companies were back in the desert, this time with designs for a stealth bomber. This time Northrop won.

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Westwick is an astute analyst of what makes for technical breakthrough. He is also a debunker of myths. Lockheed’s Skunk Works has been held up as innovation model and has acquired many imitators. But Westwick demonstrates that the stealth fighter was built in spite of Skunk Works, which often resented new ways, rather than because of it.

By the time the two aircraft took to the sky, they had largely lost their purpose. The cold war was over. The stealth fighter saw action in the first Gulf war and the stealth bomber in the Balkans, Afghanistan and Iraq. But the B-2 bomber in particular was a huge waste of money. Only 21 were eventually built for a programme costing $45bn. The B-2 became known as the “$2bn aeroplane”.

What lessons does the stealth saga have today? First, that although the aircraft were intended to defend the free enterprise system, technological breakthrough (and radar-evading planes were quite an achievement) often requires government-industry co-operation. Second, that just as with vaccine science and production now, projects of this scale require intense co-operation between researchers and manufacturers. And third, as Westwick notes, the billions spent on stealth aircraft may have “been far better invested in, say, electronics or molecular biology, not to mention social programmes such as education or healthcare”. Let us see whether we carry that lesson into a post-Covid-19 world.

The Future is Faster Than You Think, by Peter H Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Simon & Schuster, RRP$28/£20, 384 pages

Upstream: How to Solve Problems Before They Happen, by Dan Heath, Simon & Schuster, RRP$30/£14.99, 320 pages

Stealth: The Secret Contest to Invent Invisible Aircraft, by Peter Westwick, Oxford University Press, RRP$27.95/£20, 272 pages

Michael Skapinker is an FT columnist and contributing editor

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