Sun, Apr 30, 2017 - Page 15 News List

Firms churning out useless tech harm innovation

By Leonid Bershidsky  /  Bloomberg View

The story about a US$400 Internet-connected juicer that turned out to be superfluous since a human could simply squeeze juice from its producer’s proprietary packs by hand was destined to go viral and did, with more than 800,000 hits on the Bloomberg Web site and strong reactions in other publications.

It is evidence of a growing resistance to Silicon Valley-style innovation. Countering this resistance is not just a marketing problem for the industry; it is a strategic and perhaps even existential one.

It is easy to laugh at a juice squeezer produced by a relatively small start-up, whose real competence is in making fancy fruit-and-vegetable packets. It is not really problem-solving tech; it is a money-raising gimmick.

The laugh is on the investors who fell for the concept of a high-tech device whose price is an entry fee for a subscription service — which delivers the juice packs.

Disparaging something proposed by Tesla Inc founder and chief executive Elon Musk or Facebook Inc founder Mark Zuckerberg is not as risk-free for a tech pundit, if only because they have armies of fans that rip into critics, and yet these innovation gurus, too, are increasingly proposing gadgets offering solutions to problems that are sometimes imaginary, often unimportant and in some cases are features, rather than bugs, of the human existence.

The media are generally enthusiastic about fully electric cars, though, in terms of consumer qualities, they are at this point inferior to gasoline-powered ones, with shorter driving ranges and long charging times. There is a lot of excitement about self-driving vehicles, though they cannot be safely used on roads without clear lane markings, in poor visibility conditions and under a myriad other common circumstances.

The assumption is that all these obstacles quickly will be overcome: Throw enough money at engineers and they will get there somehow.

Recent promises from Zuckerberg and Musk on brain-computer interfaces are the latest example. Facebook promises to turn thoughts into typed text at the speed of 100 words per minute by scanning the brain without surgical intervention, though researchers have achieved only eight words per minute with the help of an implant.

Musk’s new company, Neuralink Corp, plans to use electrodes implanted in the brain to exchange information between human and computer.

Both promises carry unrealistic timeframes, which is fine because optimism about cutting-edge science rarely gets punished even if it is an indirect method of boosting a tech company’s stock price.

The problem is deeper, though. Musk, a slicker marketer than Zuckerberg, talks about initially releasing a technology that would help people with brain damage — from strokes, for example.

He is aware that twice as many Americans are worried as enthusiastic about brain enhancement through implants. So he is pointing to a real problem that can be solved using this decidedly creepy technology.

Facebook is talking about “sharing thoughts,” hitting precisely on the most worrying aspects of the nascent technology: Who wants to share uncensored thoughts, especially with a company that collects information about its users without explaining to them exactly what is harvested? Who wants to give a machine built by a corporate entity access to one’s brain?

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