Winners, Losers, Holy Grails

The best and worst technology projects of the coming year

2 min read
Winners, Losers, Holy Grails

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True technologists thrive on the chance to be in on the moment of creation, to make something elegant and enduring. Maybe once in their career, if they're really fortunate, they might even get a chance to help fundamentally change the way we work, commute, or play.

Of course, in this big game, technical prowess is necessary but not sufficient for victory. It's all about the project: is it in sync with the shifting shoals of government regulation, market competition, investor interest, and the most murky of all, the public zeitgeist? Those are the questions that inspired this issue.

As you may have gathered already, we picked six categories of technology--electric power, biotechnology, and so on. Then, within each of these categories, we picked a specific project that looked like a winner, one that looked like a loser, and a Holy Grail--a long-standing quest that could fundamentally change something about our lives. We favored bold, risky projects with a sizable potential payoff.

The winner and loser choices here reflect nothing more, or less, than the opinions of this magazine's staff, based on countless telephone conversations, in-person interviews, news database searches, e-mails, and discussions with our editorial board and other sage advisors. We culled all this information, and then argued among ourselves until, exhausted, we had a final list, and then a revised final list, and then a revised revised final list, representing the best judgments of a staff whose combined tenure in technology journalism is measured in decades.

To pick the winning and losing projects, we simply considered the feasibility of their goals. We analyzed these goals in light of technical and technology-related factors: regulation, competition, relevant technology and market trends, and more.

Our inclusion of losers will no doubt arouse the ire of some who believe we have no business commenting on issues that are related to technology, but that are not purely technological. We would remind you that technology does not occur in a vacuum. It lives and dies by market, regulatory, and other elusive factors that anyone who aspires to leadership must contend with.

Also, the dirty little secret of science and technology magazines is that by our selection of article topics every month, we subtly indicate endeavors that we believe to be "winners." But as anyone who works in technology knows, most bold and risky projects ultimately fail. They can fail for many reasons, few of which have to do with technological elegance (remember Betamax?). The science and technology press seldom reminds you of this basic fact.

Others of you will agree that this issue was worthwhile, but will find our specific choices utterly wrongheaded. A survey of IEEE Fellows, the results of which are published elsewhere in this issue, did not ratify our selection of electron projection lithography as a loser, for example. If you disagree with us, we especially want to hear from you. A major purpose of this issue is to provoke a reasonably civil debate on what makes a technology project succeed or fail.

Now to the fine print. The inclusion of a project here doesn't mean the IEEE is endorsing it or giving it a thumbs down. Also, we would rather you read no religious, mystical, or imperial connotation into our use of the term "Holy Grail," which has an essentially secular meaning in technology circles.

Let the debate begin.

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