Wired UK Founding Editor David Rowan: A Lot of Innovation is Pointless
The business world is obsessed with buzzwords. While often annoying, if you’re involved in a particular community, they can help build a common vernacular and act as a shortcut when talking about wider industry trends. One that is especially pervasive - seemingly across all industries - is ‘innovation’. We can’t get enough of it. We are continually battling to discover the next big idea or development that will revolutionise an entire industry.
At our event in Moscow this summer, David Rowan, founding editor-in-chief of WIRED’s UK edition (2008-17) and ex-columnist for The Times, GQ, Condé Nast and The Guardian, discussed the role of bold corporate innovation in an era of technology-led disruption.
Stop Wasting Your Time
David set out his stall from the off. “Innovation is often pointless,” he began. “The barriers for entry in starting a new business are collapsing, and there is so much competition in almost every area that some truly bizarre and needless products find their way to the market.”
David cited a number famous examples of (usually crowdfunded) ‘innovations’ that really solve no problem, and often end up being wildly disappointing when they actually come to fruition.
“Innovation is often pointless. The barriers for entry in starting a new business are collapsing, and there is so much competition in almost every area that some truly bizarre and needless products find their way to the market.”
“We’re starting to see companies getting funding to do things that really aren’t that worthwhile,” he told the audience. “The annual January consumer electronics show in Las Vegas is meant to be where the latest tech innovations are shown, and this year we had things like radiation-blocking boxer briefs! This was reported and celebrated in the media. This is where tech innovation is now - making pointless things that nobody needs, but somebody thinks ‘well, this is a new idea, we’ll put it to market.’”
David also pointed to a crowdfunded milk jar that sends a message to your smartphone when your milk is starting to go sour, along with a $50 ‘smart egg tray’ that will send a notification when your eggs are not as fresh as they should be. This is what David calls ‘pointless innovation’.
“Sometimes,” he explained, “pointless innovation gets really well funded. For example, a US company called Juicero raised $120 million of venture capital funds to make a juicer that sold for $700. It was internet connected with sensors everywhere. You had to buy very expensive, ‘special’ supplies, put them in the juicer, and then this $700 juicer squeezed them for you and gave you your juice.
“It got a lot of hype, and many investors were worried that they’d missed out on the greatest invention in juicing ever until Bloomberg did a little experiment to see if a human could just squeeze the capsules with their hand and get a similar glass of juice. When they did, they realised that actually it was a complete waste of time spending the $700, and Juicero went out of business.”
Innovation From Above
Cautionary tales like Juicero’s are numerous, yet we still get excited whenever a new way of doing things is ‘discovered’ through the use of technology. The thirst for innovation has led countless companies to set up accelerators, incubators, and even for city planners to build streets with names like ‘Innovation Way’ and ‘Innovation Boulevard’.
There are, however, areas though where this enthusiasm is not misplaced. And we have to look up to find them. David went on to highlight some of these.
“Innovation, real innovation, is coming from the skies,” he noted. “So, there are consumer companies like Planet, one of many companies putting small nano-satellites in the air. They were able to show us the filming of Apple’s Cupertino headquarters being built when Apple really didn’t want anybody to take pictures of it. You can now subscribe to the feed of companies like Planet, and see parts of the world that were, until yesterday, invisible.”
“The autonomous car is going to be safer than the human driver. The World Health Organisation says about 1.2 million people are killed every year through human driving error.”
It’s through technologies like drones and consumer satellites that David sees genuine innovation coming, rather than through the discovery of, say, a novel way to toast bread. He went on to talk about the Internet of Things, which he described principally as technologies designed to understand agriculture and the movement of people.
“These are emerging technologies that are going to change our world,” David said. “And you can’t ignore them if you are a business or if you are any kind of substantial organisation. It’s going to change our lives sooner, I think, that many of us imagine.”
“The autonomous car is going to be safer than the human driver. The World Health Organisation says about 1.2 million people are killed every year through human driving error. The technology is pretty much there, prices are coming down, but what does the car of the future become, as well as autonomous?”
The Rise of Voice Recognition
The development of AI does not happen in a vacuum. Applications of this rapidly advancing tech will pop up as part of other emerging fields. In fact, the majority of currently emerging technologies are fundamentally underpinned by AI.
Developments in both voice and face recognition have game-changing applications in customer service. For example, where a machine can read not just what a person is saying, but the tone and meaning behind their words. Couple this with some scarily realistic CGI bots and you have an almost uncanny customer service experience, as the bot is able to respond in real time and with appropriate emotion.
“We’re now tweeting companies to get an answer,” David reported. “But maybe soon the expectation will be that we will be talking to a very human-like bot which responds to us.
“There is a startup in New Zealand called Soul Machines that is making these very humanoid bots which it is using for customer service applications. Mark Sagar, who founded the company, used to work in Hollywood on CGI. An Oscar winner and involved with the creation of technology for the digital characters in blockbusters like Avatar, King Kong and Spider-Man 2, he is now applying this strength to creating an interactive person who exists only in the screen.”
Looking past the Gimmicks
It’s these applications that the general public will notice making an impact on their lives in the immediate future.
Artificial intelligence will continue to power increasingly effective products, from customer service to driverless cars to the IoT uses in farming. As businesses, it’s important to look past gimmicky ‘innovations’ and focus on the wider trends that could affect particular industries in the near future.
There is a lot of ‘pointless innovation’ out there, but cut through the noise and there are some genuinely exciting developments.
The world of blockchain is no stranger to the concept of unnecessary innovation, with the humble ICO leading the charge of seemingly increasingly bizarre disruptive blockchain ‘innovations’.
The difference between a fervent advocate of blockchain technology with misplaced enthusiasm and a simple cash grab looking to take advantage of blockchain hype is often hard to distinguish, and many a serious investor has been duped by ICO claims.
Rowan’s statement that a lot of innovation is pointless is a helpful, albeit tough, reminder to investors and technologists alike to remain weary in the world of such a nascent technology. It could save you a lot of money.
Illustrations by Kseniya Forbender
To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Margarita Khartanovich at [email protected]
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