[6 Minutes Read] “Stop creating apps, we’re not interested. Work on hard technologies instead.” These were the words by a speaker in one of the talks I attended and it struck a chord in me.
What made him say that? Why did he mention that we should ‘work on hard technologies’? Are we not already doing so right now?
I mulled over his words for the next few days and I surmised that the reason is because he believed that the pace of innovation in today’s world has slowed.
We were once great at innovating the physical world. The Industrial revolution in the mid-18th century saw machinery taking over manual labour, fossil fuels replacing wind and the mass production of iron was made possible. Fast forward a century, Jean-Joseph Etienne Lenoir introduced the first workable internal-combustion engine. It redefined the way mankind harnessed power. This new technology gave rise to practical machines such as aircraft engines and automobiles. Hardware innovations drove a wave of developments for the past 200 years which changed the way we live today.
More recently, software has increasingly become the focus of innovation – and it’s happening at an unprecedented speed.
In the 1990s, only 2.8 million people had access to the Internet. Today, it has over 2.5 billion users. Facebook started out as a website to connect varsity students, it was only 11 years old when it hit the 1 billion user mark worldwide. The speed at which software is being adopted in our daily lives is phenomenal.
Innovation in the physical world – or what I will refer to as ‘hard’ innovations – over the same period of time has been less impressive. It took approximately thirty years for the jet engine to replace the piston engine. It took another thirty years for us to put our first step on the moon. Since 1939, jet engines have certainly improved incrementally, but there was nothing revolutionary.
To be fair, there has been some progress. It took a man who was bold enough and who had the determination to take up the challenge to make space aviation affordable and safe for the masses. This man is none other than SpaceX founder, Elon Musk. Musk is also the CEO of Tesla Motors, an automotive company which aims to eventually offer electric cars at prices affordable to the average consumer. People like Musk are few and far between, he is but one in a billion – in fact, one in 7 billion. Had we have more people like him, tackling the world’s greatest problems, imagine how different the world would be today?
Triumphs in hardware innovations captured the zeitgeist of the 18th to 20th century. The early innovators saw technology as a means to change the world we lived in and the way we live. Something tells me that we have become complacent today. The problems are obvious and known, but the call to actions are weak. Take energy for example; in the 1960s, oil was the primary source of energy, followed by coal, gas, hydro, nuclear and a small fraction of renewables. Today, the order remains unchanged. Instead of creating technologies to change the way we produce energy, we talk about reducing usage. Does it not seem like there is something defeatist about it? That we have opted to take the easier route instead. We could have been generating a huge amount of clean and cheap energy today, but we are not.
Perhaps, one of the reason the software business is thriving more than hardware is due to the fact that it is relatively simple to make quick iterations with incremental changes in software. The cost to make such iterations is also low making them a more attractive business.
Moreover, it’s a lot easier to raise money for software products such as a new website, a new program or a new mobile app. (Of course, it’s harder to raise money for companies working on long-term and niche projects like artificial intelligence). However, when it comes to hardware, it’s difficult to raise money for research and development to even make incremental changes to existing technologies. Let’s not even talk about raising money to develop novel technologies which have the potential to revolutionize the world.
Some possible explanations for this are risk aversion and impatience. People are generally not comfortable with the idea of putting a large sum of money where there is high risk. They prefer quick and tangible returns. There is an entrenched human appeal in getting rich quickly and they will put their money where it pays the most in the shortest amount of time. This has worked well for some in software businesses and explains why there is a natural inclination to invest in them.
So how then can we make hardware innovations thrive again in a world which sees software as more promising than hardware?
Perhaps, we could use software to drive innovation in non-software fields. We could bridge the disconnect between software and hardware and focus on the intersection between them. For example, the UK manufacturing startup CloudNC is currently developing an artificial intelligent Computer Aided Manufacturing platform to cut manufacturing cost and time. There are a million ways to cut a metal block into its desired product. CloudNC’s computer software will run various simulations and recommend the quickest possible way of cutting the metal block. The software is even equipped with machine learning, allowing it to remember the sequences and use the information for future sequencing.
We also need more people with hard technical skills, not just a few months of programming DIYs. We need people who are willing to put on their coats and get dirty in research, people who are unafraid of the long periods of uncertainty and risk of failure in experimenting new technologies. We need people who dream of redefining how humans take flight, how we drive (yes! we have autonomous driving vehicles on the streets now) or even how we live our lives. More importantly, we need people who are willing to pursue research for a cause and not for its riches.
I am certainly not the first person to recognize the decline in hardware innovations. Much has been done to raise the innovation levels across nations worldwide and while the number of people entering technical fields is marginally increasingly, the corresponding output in hardware innovations is still lackluster. It may not be completely accurate to say that innovation has slowed. Instead, what has happened is that innovative energy has mostly been directed to short-timeframe opportunities in software and it appears to stay this way, at least for the near future. Instead of fighting against the waves, we should ride on it. We should leverage on the advancing software technologies to make hardware innovations cool again.
Let’s get back to down and dirty.
Written By: Ren Yi