Beware the techno-hype (part 1)
You’ve probably seen articles in the mainstream media about how we will soon be transported anywhere we want to go by autonomous vehicles, have 3-D printers in our homes that will make anything we want, or that robots and automation will soon steal our jobs. What do all of these things have in common? Hype.
When companies and researchers are developing new technologies, their main requirements are for talented individuals, and money to pay them. Attracting talent and investors requires creating excitement about the technology, and this is often done through press releases and news stories about the technology’s amazing capabilities that will transform our lives.
Companies promoting their products show concepts and demo models that make our imaginations run wild and we envision how these great new inventions can solve our problems and make our lives much better. We see the new technology through our own personal filters and imagine it in the form that we would most desire. In our anticipation, we underestimate the difficulties in refining new products and the level of detail required for them to function as we imagine. We oversimplify and assume that it will immediately perform as we would want it to. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case.
The result is that these stories create a high level of enthusiasm and anticipation. Companies are in a hurry to release products to the market so they do so with simplified versions that do not have all of the features and performance that the enthusiasts had imagined. This leads to disappointment, disillusionment, and criticism. The media stories turn to negative reports about unfulfilled expectations, often resulting in ridicule or dismissal of the technology as a fraud or false hope. Attention to the technology fades as media switch their focus to the next big thing. Meanwhile, the technology developers gather feedback and continue to improve their products, fine tuning features and performance. As a technology becomes more and more refined, it becomes more widely accepted and gains momentum in the marketplace before finally reaching a critical point of price versus performance that enables it to gain considerable market share and deliver, and sometimes exceed, the previously envisioned potential.
The IT consulting firm Gartner has developed a tool called the Gartner Hype Cycle that illustrates which stage of development a specific technology is at a given time. Gartner divides the cycle into five steps:
• the technology trigger
• the peak of inflated expectations
• the trough of disillusionment
• the slope of enlightenment
• the plateau of productivity
These titles are somewhat self-explanatory but for more information you can visit the Wikipedia article here.
Given the coverage that abounds in current media, and the current state of development of autonomous vehicles, 3-D printing, and job-stealing robots, I would place them all at or near the peak of inflated expectations. This means that over the next few months and perhaps years we can expect to see the media coverage turn to disillusionment, but we must be careful not to interpret this as evidence that these technologies will not be disruptive. They will doubtless change your life, just not yet. I will examine each of these in more detail in future posts.
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