2017: The Year of Exchanging Technology Hype for Humility and Hard Work
There has scarcely been a day the past few years in which there hasn’t been a breathless press release or article touting some new technological advance and how it will “literally change the world as we know it — forever.” We’ve seen in quick succession big data, 3D printing, and the Internet of Things (IoT), to mention just a few, given the mantle of being the next big societal revolutionary change agent.
Big Data Lays an Egg
Take big data, for instance. In October 2012, an influential article in Harvard Business Review proclaimed that being a data scientist was “The Sexiest Job of the 21st Century.” According to some industry analysts at the time, there was going to be, conservatively, a major US shortage of data scientists ranging from 140,000 to 190,000 by 2018. Furthermore, despite the shortage, Gartner claimed that big data was still going to create 1.9 million new IT jobs — a 50% increase in the then total number of IT workers — as well as generate another 5.7 million new non-IT jobs in the US by 2015. Yet the latter number is significantly greater than the average annual rate of private and government jobs (excluding farm jobs) created in the US over the past 76 years!
The supposedly infallible predictive power of big data analytics was on display in the recent US presidential election, with some big data–driven pollsters calling for a 95% or even higher probability of Hillary Clinton winning the election. As we all know, those predictions were a wee bit off; in fact, the true outcome served to expose the big data emperor as having fewer clothes than pre-election hyped proclamations to the contrary. Big data answers are not fate, after all, despite what many big data advocates have been strongly selling.
There is now a sense that the field has been greatly infected by “big data hubris,” which in turn has called into question how much decision value big data analytics can actually create. One common excuse for the election prediction failure has been the old IT maxim of “garbage in, garbage out,” which requires one to know what garbage looks like, of course. Maybe if the data scientists behind the recent election predictions had bothered to look into those earlier grandiose predictions of big data job creation, some humility might have tempered the arrogance in their forecasts. For instance, a quick check of the actual US computer and mathematical employment in 2015 showed that it stood at 4,369,000 workers, up from 3,814,700 in 2012. Where were all those new IT jobs that analysts claimed were being spawned by big data, let alone the millions of big data–driven non-IT jobs? It doesn’t take a lot of effort to recognize — or smell, for that matter — garbage inputs.
3D Printing Jams
As recently as 2015, 3D printing was the “hottest new thing” that would change the world forever, since soon there would be a 3D printer in every house. In addition, industry observers claimed there was an acute, massive shortage of 3D printing engineers available to be hired. However, the story today already centers on the lost promise of 3D printing as, unsurprisingly, it turns out that it is a lot harder and more expensive than it first appeared. 3D printer companies are in trouble, with some closing their doors for lack of demand. Those left in the business admit that there is still a large gap between the hype being sold and reality, and that they now need to focus on making 3D printing simpler and more useful to customers in order to repair their damaged reputation.
Internet of Scary Things
Another overhyped technology is the Internet of Things, or perhaps better called the Internet of Thieves. Back in 2012, some analysts excitedly claimed that there would be 1 trillion connected devices in the IoT by 2015. However, the latest best estimate is now closer to 30 billion connected IoT devices — by 2020. What’s also becoming alarmingly apparent is that the world of IoT is not very secure, with many of the connected devices readily available to be used in mass denial-of-service attacks, for instance.
Security expert Bruce Schneier warns that “with the advent of the Internet of Things and cyber-physical systems in general, we’ve given the Internet hands and feet: the ability to directly affect the physical world. What used to be attacks against data and information have become attacks against flesh, steel, and concrete.” Industry IoT groups say not to worry, security standards are on their way, but they admit there is no universal agreement among the various IoT standards bodies on what they should be.
Self-Driving Cars, AI Also Overhyped
Totally autonomously driven vehicles and artificial intelligence are likewise becoming, or already are, overhyped technologies. Tesla, Volvo, and Mercedes-Benz have been warned about misrepresenting their vehicles’ self-driving capabilities, which could lead their customers into thinking they don’t have to pay attention to their driving while employing them. Similarly, artificial intelligence researchers are worried that the term “AI” has been “hijacked by marketers and advertising copyrighters” who will misrepresent what can and cannot be realistically done by current AI systems and turn people away from usefully applying AI because the technology doesn’t meet inflated expectations.
Today’s Hot New Style: Humility
None of this is to imply that there is no value in big data, 3D printing, IoT, autonomously driven vehicles, or AI, only that there is no value — and potentially a lot of harm — in overhyping their vaporware capabilities. Look again at the world of 3D printing. How much further along would the industry be today if there had been more humility about 3D printing capabilities and warnings of the hard work needed to make those capabilities materialize as promised?
Worse, the oversold capabilities being marketed are likely to be wrong, anyway. The late Roy Amara, a researcher, scientist, and past president of the Institute for the Future, made a sharp observation a number of years ago that has been termed Amara’s Law: “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.”
I predict that after the past year of technological overpromises, in 2017 we will start to see a refocus on acknowledging the hard work required to make a technology successful, as well as a bit more humility about what can be accomplished with it today and in the near future.