Mars or bust: Why your future plans need a dose of technological optimism

NASA’S new Mars rover, Curiosity, has a processor ten times slower than a modern smartphone. Its main imaging camera may be taking some groundbreaking photos but it can only manage a resolution of two megapixels. The current iPhone offers eight. That’s what happens when you have to design a rover eight years before it actually makes planetfall.

Of course, there are obvious technical limitations with transmitting higher levels of data back to earth – and size and weight limits on the equipment that could be transported to the red planet in the first place – but an interview with the rover’s camera project manager in Digital Photography Review really did recently reveal that the main reason Curiosity’s camera is so underpowered is simply that the decision was taken in 2004, when state of the art technology was much less sophisticated. In the manager’s own words, “2MP with 8GB of flash [memory] didn’t sound too bad in 2004. But it doesn’t compare well to what you get in an iPhone today.”

The extraordinary speed at which technology advances presents a challenge for anyone trying to keep up. While few projects are so constrained and so long-term as a Mars mission, entrepreneurs in any area that relates to the digital world – which now means pretty much everything – find themselves trying to hit a moving target. It’s not enough to innovate to take advantage of the latest capabilities; you have to be ready to take advantage of capabilities that don’t exist yet.

That might seem an impossible task. But there are regularities in the relentless advance as well. Moore’s Law, which predicts the doubling of the number of transistors on a chip every two years, is the most famous. It has held true since 1958, and has now become self-fulfilling, as engineers fight to continue to meet its demands. Jonathan Koomey of Stanford has also recently argued that at a fixed computing load, the amount of battery you need will continue to fall by a factor of two every year and a half, unlocking new possibilities for mobile devices.

One innovator who has shown it is possible to take advantage of these lawlike improvement rates is the maverick futurist Ray Kurzweil. Some of Kurzweil’s more outlandish predictions about living forever and uploading mindclones to machines make him easy to dismiss. But Kurzweil is also a distinguished inventor. Appropriately enough, as the Paralympics get underway, his pioneering work on optical character recognition and related technologies has helped to significantly improve the lives of the blind, through devices that convert text to speech.

Kurzweil attributes his success as an inventor in part to his willingness to innovate for the technology just around the corner. By preparing for things to come, he gains the first mover advantage. He shows that by trusting to the trend you don’t have to commit to technological standards that are out of date before you even launch.

This is a cheering message, and not just because it suggests a way to navigate the bewildering pace of technological improvement. It also means that the most responsible outlook on technological progress is optimism. 3D printers and self-driving cars here we come.

First published: City A.M., 31/8/12

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