Anti-Buzz: Why Innovation is So Unpredictable

by Andrew Emmott on January 3, 2012

in Anti-Buzz,Future Tech,General

The Buzz: The wise observer is able to predict all tech trends.


The Anti-buzz: True innovation is always unpredictable.
Why: Because difficult problems always defy intuition.

Happy New Year! I’ve been at a loss for how to kick off the New Year in anti-buzz fashion. Do I review the past year? Do I make bold predictions about the coming year? I think the first is too easy and the latter is too hard, but this dichotomy is itself a good topic on it’s own.

This, of course, is not to step on my father’s toes regarding his own predictions, but big sweeping innovations tend to surprise us and we all collectively scratch our heads and wonder why we didn’t see it coming.

How can it be that bold innovations seem so obvious in retrospect, but are impossible to predict beforehand? This feels especially true with consumer electronics because a requirement of success with consumer electronics are that they are intuitive to use, and so the “seems so obvious” factor is exaggerated.

¬†For example, nobody asked for tablet PCs – the consumer didn’t see them coming – but once we saw them we all nodded and said, “Yes, that is what I want.”

And it’s fairly easy to summarize why tablets have been successful, what trends and signs should have helped us predict them, and what impact they might have on the near future. My quick take on tablets is this: They are netbooks. They fill the same function for users. People want the Internet without the computer, and they want it to weigh 2 pounds and fit in their briefcase. If I am to make one prediction for 2012, it’s that it will be the year we see the netbook die, but this is a pretty cowardly prediction. However, if you consider what I said about innovation a few weeks ago, iPad vs. netbook is a pretty good example of how these transitions happen. The iPad doesn’t out-netbook the netbook, it instead addresses the same public demand in a radically different way.

But why are things that feel so obvious so hard to predict? The seemingly paradoxical answer is that they defy intuition, (Yeah I know, “How does intuitive software defy intuition?”). It would be good to qualify “intuition” here. One might liken it to common sense. Intuition is imperfect, but it is fast and nearly always adequate. Intuition is what keeps you safe, what quickly solves most of your problems, and what keeps human civilization efficient. People make mistakes, and they make a lot of them, but as someone who studies artificial intelligence let me tell you: People spend most of their time making intelligent decisions, and making them quickly, and most amazingly, making them without a lot of facts or evidence. The human capacity to “just know” the right thing to do is amazing. We accomplish this with our magic bag of rules-of-thumb. Let’s call this bag intuition.

So here’s the catch: difficult problems cannot be solved with intuition.

Difficult problems need all the evidence, and also need the flexibility to ignore prior beliefs about the universe. Old rules-of-thumb become barriers to discovering something new or solving the unsolved. The cliche “thinking outside the box” comes to mind here. When you think of “difficult problem” you probably think of tax codes and other economic policies, or the cure for cancer, genetics and other medical research, or space travel, or electrical engineering and microscopic manufacturing techniques. Those are all difficult problems and all require counter-intuitive solutions.

The “gotcha” I’m going to provide here is this: pleasing consumers, that is, inventing new products that people actually want to buy, is also a difficult problem. Perhaps not as difficult as cancer, but definitely outside the box. Figuring out what will make people happier is hard work, and usually defies intuition. The new industry wisdom is that consumers often don’t actually know what they want. Asking consumers what they’d like to see on a product often pleases nobody, because the consumer isn’t obligated to inconvenience themselves with thinking outside the box, especially about the gadgets whose sole purpose is never to inconvenience them. The true innovator is able to know the consumer better than they know themselves.

The life-cycle of innovation, however, is that yesterday’s crazy counter-intuitive invention or scientific breakthrough is today’s common sense rule of thumb. Not that long ago the idea that our health can be affected by tiny organisms that we can’t see sounded crazy. Today, only a small percentage of us are doctors or biologists, and yet we all make pretty good guesses about sanitation that would have boggled the minds of yesteryear’s geniuses. Similarly, few of us are economists, but a lot of us have an intuitive understanding of business and capitalism that would have defied all intuition 200 years ago.

And so, simple as that, the lot of us will once again fail to see the next tablet PC coming, and will once again slap our palms to our forehead after it gets here, because that’s how it has always been: today’s innovation is tomorrow’s common sense.

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