Which technologies will be the next Googles and Priuses? And which will be the Betamaxes?
This is part of IEEE Spectrum’s special report: Winners & Losers VII
Try to remember when search engines were new, hybrid cars were unavailable outside of Japan, and MP3 players were clunky bricks (1998, in other words). Today we’ve got Google, the Prius, and the iPod. And they seem to have been absolutely inevitable, don’t they?
Historians have a term for that kind of thinking: determinism. And some even think they’ve found a remedy for it: counterfactual thought experiments. They try to imagine what would have happened had a single event gone differently—if, say, Lee had won at Gettysburg in 1864, or if Babbage had completed his stored-program computer at about the same time.
In this year’s Winners & Losers issue—our seventh—we submit ourselves to a similar exercise. We strive to free our minds of bias. And then we peer into a messy, bubbly brew of technology ferment and try to see if it’s going to yield fine wine or plain old vinegar.
To make the game consistent and fair, we also follow some hard-and-fast rules. We do not evaluate projects that have been fully unveiled; that’d be like shooting first and then drawing the bull’s-eye neatly around the bullet hole. Nor do we predict the distant future or evaluate blue-sky projects designed mainly to stimulate thought; that’d be like shooting blanks. Nor do we spend time on government projects that eschew the market altogether; that would be shooting fish in a barrel. Finally, we never aim our guns at an entire category of technology, such as lithium-ion batteries or organic LED displays, because that would be to praise or blame many—or none at all.
Instead, we examine only particular projects meant to achieve quantifiable (and preferably commercial) goals, although we take into account social, environmental, and other interests. We require that a project be serious, have real financial backing, and be advanced enough to reach the market or at least hit some major milestone within a year of our publication date. This proviso ensures that we set ourselves up as targets—in this life, not just posthumously.
As you can see from the summary updates of winners and losers from earlier issues, we have very rarely been far wrong but sometimes just a bit off target. Undoubtedly, one fine day we will be spectacularly wrong. We’ll probably condemn some hallucinogenic idea as a loser, only to watch it become the next Google or Prius or iPod. Future historians and e-ink–stained wretches will chortle over our sanctimonious censure. We will stand alongside such worthies as Lord Kelvin, who said no heavier-than-air craft would ever fly, and Digital Equipment Corp. cofounder Ken Olsen, who declared, in an auditorium full of people in Boston, that "there is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home." It’s a risk we’re willing to take.
Finally, by consulting our experts and by employing the tools of journalism (tools not all that different from those of the historian), we choose five projects that we think will succeed and five that we think will fail. We work hardest on the losers. A project might qualify as such because it cannot reach its stated goal or because its stated goal cannot successfully juggle commercial, environmental, or other imperatives. Charles Babbage’s computer was wondrously conceived and—within the limits of Victorian tooling—excellently executed, but it just didn’t make economic sense at the time. Of course, not all the candidates for loserdom require us to sweat a great deal. There are a lot of crazy projects out there, waiting to be exposed.
We are indebted to our panel of expert advisers—Kenneth R. Foster, Robert W. Lucky, Nick Tredennick, and T.J. Rodgers—who have offered their opinions on some of these projects, as well as to our anonymous band of peer reviewers who examined the articles and corrected more than a few of our errors.
This article originally appeared in print as “Target Practice.”
For all of 2010’s Winners and Losers, visit the special report.