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Rob Preston
Rob Preston
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Is Technology Innovation Too Incremental?

Two prominent big thinkers think it is. But I’m not buying their unsupported arguments.

Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel, in a recent column for the Financial Times, argue that true innovation-led economic and social progress is a thing of the past. Ever since the breakthroughs of the 1950s and '60s (jet aviation, the integrated circuit, nuclear power, communications satellites), this country has "discarded a century of can-do ambition built on rapid advances in technology and replaced it with a cautiousness far too satisfied with incremental improvements," the authors argue.

The column is breathtaking in its sweeping, unsupported generalizations and its omission of countless examples to the contrary. Apparently lost on Kasparov, a former chess champion beaten in his prime by a masterfully programmed supercomputer, and Thiel, a co-founder of PayPal, a product of the Internet revolution that has transformed how people pay for goods and services, is the irony of their untenable position given their own run-ins and rich experiences with innovative technology.

"The genuine progress in IT from the 1970s up to the 2000s," they write, "masked the relative stagnation of energy, transportation, space, materials, agriculture and medicine." Really?

Stem cell research is the integrated circuit of modern healthcare, a seminal breakthrough that promises to drive cures for decades to come. Is the mapping of the human genome an "incremental" advance? What about techniques for tapping billions of gallons of previously inaccessible natural gas and oil reserves? What about the launch of the Hubble telescope and the automated exploration of Mars and other planets? What about the mass production of electricity-powered cars? The world's population has doubled since 1970, partly because healthcare advances have lengthened life spans, and somehow food supplies managed to keep pace -- all while the agriculture industry stagnated?

Thiel's a sharp guy and a contrarian thinker. I cited his provocative "education bubble" thesis in a column last year, in which I agreed with him and went on to argue that the higher education market is ripe for technology disruption. Kasparov, the Russian chess master and political activist, is clearly no intellectual slouch either. Which makes their diatribe in the Financial Times all the more perplexing. It says at the end of their column that they were due to participate that evening in a debate on technology at the Oxford Union, so maybe they were testing the waters by firing a few torpedoes.

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At least the authors give the IT industry some props -- sort of. "Today when people say 'tech' they think of a small cohort of computer-related companies rather than the continuing transformation of every industry that people envisioned back in the 1950s," they lament. Perhaps the reason people don't think of the likes of FedEx and Vail Resorts and John Deere and Union Pacific when they think "tech" is because those companies' profound technological advances are now so ingrained in the customer experience or are so embedded in their supporting infrastructures that people take those advances for granted.

Technology's ability to transform companies and industries isn't a function of how high profile that technology is, but how valuable it is in improving products (simple online package tracking, a social skiing experience, remote diagnoses of vehicle problems, efficient and reliable freight hauling), as well as in improving supply chain management, manufacturing, distribution, sales, marketing and other support functions -- without sticking out like a sore thumb.

The rest of the Financial Times column is a jumble of non-sequiturs about short-sighted investment practices, the inability (and ability) of governments to foster innovation, the systemic shortcomings of Apple and Google, and the merits of private versus public corporate ownership -- all to exhort the masses to accelerate the pace of technical innovation. "Above all the future will be created by individuals," say the authors. No kidding. Then what?

Predictive analysis is getting faster, more accurate and more accessible. Combined with big data, it's driving a new age of experiments. Also in the new, all-digital Advanced Analytics issue of InformationWeek: Are project management offices a waste of money? (Free registration required.)

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