Why isn’t digital technology helping us innovate?

22 March 2012

More than a decade ago, I wrote an essay for one of those EE Times year-in-review editions that would announce its presence with a resounding "thump!" on your desk.

The essay's premise was that Moore's Law had advanced so far, so quickly that pretty soon a single engineer could become the next Intel because the entire design and supply chain would be at his or her fingertips.

And that was written before the advent of social networking.

Move it forward a bit, and I wrote on my personal blog frequently 4-5 years ago about the pending rise of the "gig economy," where digital tools and high-speed, ubiquitous connectivity would create work ecosystems in different industries in which skilled workers would float in and out of organizations as needs changed. Work would be plentiful (and hours flexible) because there were no longer geographic boundaries for either companies or workers.

Where's digital utopia?

And while I think some of this is happening–and is one reason behind slow job-creation growth in North America–this digitally-enabled utopia is not here yet.

Sure, we're seeing glimpses of it. I was really impressed by two guys' use of a global supply and design chain to start to build an embedded systems product to monitor head trauma. Or two guys building a copper nanowires business in a Duke University lab. You couldn't do this a decade ago.

Yet, what one would think would be an increasingly quickening pace of innovation doesn't seem to have materialized, despite the dizzying array of digital tools, networks and smarts we've seen emerging in the past two decades.

Why, for instance, are we still working with that huge email albatross around our necks–a technology that hasn't moved forward in a decade? And why hasn't search improved markedly, writes venture capitalist Paul Graham.

Forest, trees, blurred vision

It could be a tipping point, to be sure (it's darkest before dawn breaks, kind-of-thing). In the semiconductor industry, no one is funding anything, so entrepreneurs are figuring out how to do it on their own dime (like Adam Nepp and Scott Wohler, and, as you'll read in the coming weeks, Terry West and Greg Lahti).

It could be that there's just a biological regulator on how quickly human beings can understand, internalize and exploit advances in technology. Take social media for instance: Half my friends don't participate and could care less; of the other half, I would say less than 5% are truly engaged with the technology and networking possibilities. An older demographic to be sure, but if you look carefully at the so-called digital natives, while they are more likely to glom onto digital technology, they tend to stick with one or two tools and move on to the "next big thing" quite slowly.

So what do you think?

+Are we at a tipping point, and is dawn breaking shortly? 

+Or are we slogging, as humans always do, through a slow but inexorable shift in how we deploy hot new technologies?

Carroll Bunch March 27, 2012 at 7:19 am

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Well we're of the RF world and digital has not come up to our frequencies … YET!  Yes I agree and get asked everyday by Mech Engrs why don't we exploit the digtal world and use that technology?  Well I don't have an answer for them … maybe its too soon to see those results!  Someday it will happen and that ought to be very interesting!!!

Alex Templeton March 27, 2012 at 8:10 am

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How naive. We're living in your digital utopia, Mr. Fuller, and it's called Hell.
All that digital gig economy brought the line engineer was outsourced jobs and nosy, tyrannical bosses.
Tell us again how Facebook or LinkedIn is supposed to have improved the lives of their users.

Fernando March 27, 2012 at 9:00 am

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From my point of view:
Why is not digital technology helping us to innovate?  Why is not our knowledge in mathematics, chemistry, history, economics, management helping us to innovate?.
The above resources are very valuable, but innovation requires training that can be learned, a change of methodology’s think.
That is not taught in universities that teach and improve knowledge in the vast majority.
So the first change has to appear in our mind, generating behavior observation training thought the curiosity relationship.
The generation and evolution of changes; Its creation and detection of evolution rules.
The resource may be available but without a conduct of innovation,  the resource is static or under used.

Bruce Grayson March 27, 2012 at 9:36 am

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Like Alex, I too see friends and collegues fall by the wayside, roadkill victims of the information highway. Connectivity is king. Outsourcing looks like a great model and managers who can't manage across the hall think for some reason they will be able to manage across timezones and cultures.
But, maybe our author,Brian, is hanging out with the wrong crowd, and missed the revolution. I am not sure what innovation he might be speaking of, but I see it every day. The LCD screens that are in every isle of the supermarket, on the roadside, and forming evey possible display; phones, cameras, tablets ( lets not forgt tablets!) and refridgerators. A single new automobile can have more computing power than GM used  in 1950 (and maybe 60s) when it was the greatest example or corporate growth, and more CPUs than the average university in 1974 when I graduated (yes I too am in the "mature" crowd). We are so connected we don't notice it until we can't get a signal, and then we rush to a hilltop for better reception. We have chips that have condensed  themometers, barometers, triple axis accelerometers, magnitometers, bluetooth, Wifi, 4G, stereo audio,  camera, CCD imaging, and GPS with that LCD touch screen into the dash, tablet, and pocket blackberry. Next time you get an X-ray, MRI, IV, or cardiac ultrasound – take a look at the innovation. For fun google (new verb) SXSW and M-Pesa. 
On a contrary note, individuals have a hard with change, large coporations have chronic intertia, and innovation is a new buzzword that execs are using as they used the word "archetechture" in years gone by. Ask 10 people to define innovation  and you will get 11 answers. I think it is here, however you want to define it. The larger question is:  "How do we break the intertia and embrace the possibilities?".

Bill Whitlock March 27, 2012 at 12:05 pm

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I'm with Alex. The shiny, gee-whiz "digital everything" people, who buy into the idea that they're the "movers and shakers" of the world, seem to forget that largely what digital has done is give us some convenient and fast tools … but they're still just tools. How do they improve the quality of life?  They don't teach engineers how to do critical thinking – or stimulate conceptual breakthroughs. Universities have largely abandoned basic engineering in favor of cranking out engineers that can only think about electromagnetic interactions if they have a simulator screen staring at them … and managers that believe their MBA gives them magical insight into how to run technology companies (it's no coincidence that the founders of wildly successful companies like Honda or Hewlett-Packard were honest-to-goodness engineers … not bean counters).  Innovation comes from inspired people and, regardless of how "cool" and profitable games and social media are, I don't see any connection to the real world. The "digital revolution", like fiber-optics 40 years ago, has been grossly overhyped by those eager to make a load of money if only they can convince the rest of us to get on the bandwagon.  Take cell-phone technology for example … has it really improved our lives?  I for one miss the ease of conversation with a full-duplex (look it up) land-line telephone … but it apparently doesn't get noticed that cell phones don't work that way … I often feel like saying "over" to cue the other party that he can speak now. And then there's MP3 and its alleged (by the hype) CD quality. And texting … secret communications for kids. The internet is a very useful tool but as it tries to appeal to the lowest common denominator, it seems headed toward a lower signal-to-noise ratio, with most of its bandwidth wasted on porn and other tiny screen entertainment. Gee, I can hardly wait for the "next big thing".

Phred March 27, 2012 at 12:37 pm

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Why can't one single engineer perform like Intel???  In one word………   Microsoft…  Microsoft take these wonderful pieces of hardware that can run BILLIONS of instructions in just one second, and, typically, has multiple streams of these instructions running simultaneously (in the case of an i7 with 4 cores – 8 Instruction streams – aka threads), and turns them into, essentially, silicon style lead weights that can barely keep up with a clock ticking off seconds of the day.
Seriously, if you run a "bare bones" operating system that only provides minimal function, a processor such as this can be a REAL whiz. 
But, of course, today, we also have the option of offloading numerical tasks to… the graphics card, and, with 3 or 4 of these guys, you can really have darn near supercomputer performance on the desktop !!!
But, the fastest computer in the world can't help you do the work of multiple people, and THAT is the REAL reason why there simply aren't many more real small hi-tech companies.

K Sanger March 27, 2012 at 1:08 pm

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<a href="" title="Because Everything New is Old"></a><br>
Just kidding.  Though I do find that most of my "new" ideas were already taken.  My digital toys let me play with a lot more ideas every day.  They even help me get some work done.  But I refuse to participate in "social" media.  I find the advertisements and marketing anything but.<br>

Eric Edwards March 27, 2012 at 11:34 pm

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When was this written?  The money side only make any sense if chip NRE costs were trending toward zero.  They have been agressively moving the other way for more than a decade.
The work load equation only make sense if higher levels of abstraction were expected to vanquish complexity while rising performance killed off the intrinsic difficulty.  Silicon performance never quite lived up to the calling.  Abstraction just plain failed.  Complexity has exploaded while the usable abstraction has improved very modestly.    The result is that it now takes many *more* people to design a verify a chip rather than fewer.

William Ketel March 29, 2012 at 8:06 pm

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I agree with quite a few of the posts: the concept of drifting from gig to gig is one good description of hell, whatever your theology, it is where you do NOT wish to go, at least I certainly don't. And all of the wondeful tools, just loke a toolbox full of hammers, when you need a screwdriver. Tools don't innovate. Instant communication does not innovate, and a sterile environment mostly could not innovate even if it knew how and wanted to. Thinking people innovate, and the less distraction the better the innovation, for the most part.  And ten thousand tools will not make the untalented, unwilling, and uninspired any more able to innovate well than transplanting on an extra head would.  The challenge is that many organizations have such a neat and organized sterile culture that innovation is thwarted quite well. Innovation is typically a departure from the exact sameness, but if an organization's culture demands exact sameness it has already pushed innovation out the door.  The intense regimentation prevents the disorderly process of innovation, so having a huge number of powerful tools does not help make it work.

Alex Templeton April 3, 2012 at 7:36 am

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I hadn't intended to poke a stick into the hornets's nest… well, not much. But focusing on aspect of tech–be it digital or networking–is beside the point.
I find my iPad2 useful for writing this posting, or previewing an eBook I'm authoring–on beekeeping, not engineering–but it does not, cannot help me innovate as when I wear my engineering hat, sitting at a drafting board (old days) or workstation. Which is pretty seldom these days, given the state of the profession
Don't let's talk about Bill and Dave, after Fiorina, Hurd, and the other mediocre MBAs got through with HP. How could an engineer with any self-respect concentrate on innovating, digitally-assisted or otherwise, with that cr*p going on in the boardroom? And it is the same to some extent across all tech firms. Digital ain't gonna help.

Mauricio April 3, 2012 at 7:39 am

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The question is why is technology not helping us innovate?, I think the question should be why are we expecting it to? Innovation comes from the creative mind of the savvy nonconformist, from people dreaming and willing to work to be able to do something that could not be done before. Once an innovator gets a jumpstart technology becomes an aid but is not an enabler, the reason why we experience plateaus in development is because we create an industry and put boundaries around the creative process, normally the big leaps in technology evolution occur when there is no previous reference, once we create something that we previeously thought was just sci-fi we tend to just tweak it in a safe way, normally we suppress the revolutionary thoughts because we already have something that is working and probably selling. In order to innovate you have to break from improvemen to revolution and that is never a safe move, so we tend not to risk it. I'm not against industrialization and comercialization, but we have to separate the creative process from the boundaries of safe thinking if we relly want to leap ahead.

Alex Templeton April 3, 2012 at 7:49 am

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BTW I quite agree with Mr. Ketel, in that the culture has over the last generation driften into collectivist and coddling, such that the mental and sensory solitude necessary for creativity is seen as a pathology. Also boys spend more time kicking soccer balls around than using tools in the garage, making things go BANG, or blowing (hopefully only small) holes in their flech. Digital toys, iThis and iThat, only worsen the sitch.
So the new question becomes not, Why doesn't digital tech help innovation, but How can digital tech be set aside to allow innovation to flourish?

Infogleaner April 3, 2012 at 8:18 am

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We've planted seeds that have yet to grow. 
The digital age is giving educational access to people who otherwise would have been born and died in ignorance.  Hungry people, who want to lift themselves out of their plight.  Their innovation has yet to fully kick in. 

Mohamoud April 3, 2012 at 10:55 am

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Hi all, I'd quick point some before I read anyof yours, so spare me that for this time. Well, I guess the digital tech advanced into smart devices, on the line forgetting that those were just exectubable and we're doing the thinking needed for innovation  " wa karamnaa bani aadama " "wa 'alamal aadama asmaa'a kulaha". So technology innovations suffers from "smart" laziness it brought to scene in the first place. We know less… Mohamoud

    elmira fydd April 4, 2012 at 9:23 pm

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    'scuse me, Mohamoud, get a dictionary if you have some (relevant) wisdom to share. Your English is about 20%, for all that.

5dd April 3, 2012 at 8:20 pm

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I agree with a lot of the points made by the author and by the comments of others regarding the sometimes frustratingly slow pace of innovation within a specific field.  However, from a broader perspective I have to disagree with the claim that digital technology has failed in its role as an innovation enabler.  Perhaps it would be informative to step back and take a longer-term perspective, so let me provide an example related to my field of specialty, which is automatic control theory.  More specifically, I design guidance and control systems for rockets and missiles.   A few years ago I was talking to a couple of retired engineers who were designing rocket autopilots 50 years ago, and one of them asked me how long it takes to design a roll control system for a typical rocket for endo-atmospheric flight.  Well roll control of an axis-symmetric rocket is about as easy as it gets, and I replied “about 2-4 hours”.  He nodded his head and said “40 or 50 years ago, it took half a man-year”.   That’s about a 400-fold improvement, and it is thanks almost entirely to the advent and unrelenting improvement of digital computer technology. 
I could say a lot more about other time and cost benefits resulting directly from improvements in digital computers, communication systems, electronic control units, etc … but I suspect that all of you already know these things.  It’s probably also worth mentioning that there are several technologies currently under development, which lend credence to the "tipping point" theory by virtue of their incredible potential as innovation enablers.  These include (but are not limited to) memristors, quantum computing, nanotechnologies, etc … 

Markus Unread April 4, 2012 at 3:23 am

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As Alex said, sort of – The influx of MBA's into every aspect of the Tech Sector has acted like an innovation crushing, bottom line worshipping, transition into a world where the Golden Parachute Club (revolving door executive staff) are the only ones who truly profit in the long run.  They've made engineering a commodity.  They only care about what happens this quarter and rarely want to back a New Idea because it may not make a profit in the first week of shipping.  Better to just crank out what you can, sell off whatever assets you can, offshore everyone you can, get that stock price up, sell out and jump ship to the next company that your buddies run.
Corporate raiders have re-branded themselves as "leaders of industry".  They run Wall Street and run for president.

Geoff Thomas April 12, 2012 at 8:58 pm

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I also think there are some very good and insightful comments above, I have been running my business over the web for 20 something years now and found the web to be extremely helpful, – it is now just part of my life, – i never pick up a dictionary, all my business is done on line, if, when designing something new I need components not normally available it is amazing how often I can find them over the web, – enabling me to create new ways of putting together components never done before, but there are also many limitations which the web can not cure, – the attitude exposed by Markus unread of nointerest in new products due to financial attitudes (bean counters in control) of many companies, (most?) rather than the salesand research departments working together, the rigidity of many folk, – the education element mentioned by several, the being safe, and if I may add something only hinted at, the lack of creativity, – why this huge emphasis on Innovation? and even then most folk aren't very..  innovation is really the use of something already invented or discovered, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Innovation) not the creation of new ideas, synergies, products, concepts, nor even the desire for them.
For myself, although I use the web so much, (although don't find social networks so helpful) still 50% of my advertising is from going to local markets, expos, etc, bringing a range of products and self designed flyers, brochures and such, setting up my site/stall with the table Behind, not if front, and just talking to ordinary folk, listening to their ideas, particularly what they would like my possible products do for them, – often they have better ideas than me.
I admit I am not rich, although I would say I am a leader in my field, but too far outside the square for the institutions of our society, nonetheless I am free and happy, something I can not say for my competitors.
Without the net I would be in the dustbin, but it can only go so far.

Hugh Gibbons April 17, 2012 at 11:45 am

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I think human nature is the limiting factor, in several respects:
1.  The internet gives us near-instantaneous access to libraries-full of information, but doesn't tell us how to distinguish between the useful, meaningful information, the false and misleading information and the compleletely irrelevant information.  You're still left to do that for yourself and you only have the power of the wetware in your head to do it.
2.  Real innovation requires understanding of the current state of the art (of anything).  As technology advances, the difficulty of understanding what the current state of the art is increases and for an ever-increasing fraction of the populace it becomes out of reach or irrelevant.  Even for experts, it's a problem because you're often not familiar enough with what's going on in adjacent fields to apply knowledge from those fields to your own area of expertise — or vice versa.  In the limit of human-produced technical advancement, it would take the smartest of us our whole working lives just to understand what has been done before well enough to make a modest improvement on it.  But before we get there, the smartest won't be bothered because they wouldn't want to waste years of effort on something that they most likely will never see to fruition.
3.  As more and more technology-based conveniences become available, the inherent desire for more must eventually become saturated.  Eventually the technology you already have becomes good enough for most people and those people are no longer in the market for the latest innovations.  I don't think this has happened yet, but it will.

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