Finding innovators

I recently read The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution. I didn’t know what to expect when I started reading this book, I had heard a lot of mixed reviews about the book for a variety of reasons. I fell in love though with the concept of the computer all over again, the dreams that Ada Lovelace articulated centuries before the iPhone 6 hit the market amazed me only because all of Ada’s dreams of what computing could eventually deliver have yet to be created. Despite the decades of innovation that have been built on the foundation of the pioneers in the decades before them, the ultimate vision of computing emancipating humans from the worries of work have yet to occur. Today we fear AI, in Ada’s day AI was laughed at. The insight that the book does an incredible job at explaining though is that the innovations that we are working on today are truly standing on the shoulders of the giants before us. Walter Isaacson does an amazing job at articulating the incremental advancements that truly lead to innovations in our society. He wanders through the history of the men and women who actually contributed to the advancement of computing and although software development hasn’t in the recent past been a female dominated profession, Walter discusses how critical women were in the innovations in software development that everyone appreciates today.

As an investor, the critical component that Walter discusses is how slow the innovations truly came to fruition. By the time any major innovation took the world by storm, everyone already knew about the innovation. Everyone knew about personal computers, if they didn’t the home computer movement would never have succeeded. The same was true for personal calculators, Microsoft Basic, and so on. The proliferation of a technology always proceeded the creation of a profitable business based on that technology. I’ve invested in a couple technology intensive business that were truly innovative, when I think back about them after reading this book I realize that they may have a much longer runway before they take off simply because society in general can’t possibly be ready to adopt them.

Like Moore’s law though the rate of innovation to adoption is increasing within the technologies that we generally understand; while innovations outside of the cultural norm need to cross the chasm before the enjoy the incredible rate of growth that we see in generally accepted technologies. Thinking about future technologies such as artificial intelligence, long distance wireless power, and autonomous robots they are far outside of the realm of generally accepted technologies and are thus advancing at a much slower pace than near-term technologies such as self-driving cars, bespoke medicine, and augmented reality. These nearer term technologies are much more accepted in society, our sociological imagination about how these technologies could be used in our everyday lives is much more prolific and advanced. This is why the innovations on nearer term technologies is so much more rapid that those on future technologies. Of course the more broadly a technology is understood and accepted in everyday use the more rapid the innovations.

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