Realizing the Impossible: Part 2

By Robert Koeneman, President and SVP Technology on August 09, 2016
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Three Technology ‘Impossibles’

Last week, I shared the first of three articles in a series that I call “Realizing the Impossible.” The first article focused on space exploration and NASA’s invaluable contributions ignited by President John F. Kennedy’s famous moonshot challenge. This week’s article focuses on three technology ‘impossible feats’ that resulted in dramatic “before” and “after” market transformations to the betterment of our society.

This “before and after” concept is just another way to frame what the J-Curve (which I introduced in last week’s post) helps us to understand. This concept illustrates that human progress is, more often than not, marked by game-changers. Game-changers introduce radical innovation breakthroughs; after which nothing is the same. Dramatic growth takes hold after these seemingly impossible feats, and the speed of advancement exponentially outpaces whatever progress was made before, transforming entire industries or creating entirely new ones.  An early proponent of this concept was Clayton Christensen with his theory on Disruptive Innovation published in 1995 that explains how innovation-driven growth happens. While incumbents follow an incremental or “sustaining” growth trajectory, innovators follow a discontinuous or “disruptive” one that eventually takes over.

Game-changers Move Us Forward

The applications and inventions (many of them completely unpredictable) that result from game-changers and spur this kind of rapid growth usually benefit society as a whole. Think of how the world wide web moved into your life from an obscure collaboration tool conceived for academia or how GPS, invented to aid the military, enables an ever-increasing array of applications—from maps to Twitter to picture tagging—in your mobile phone.

In this article, I will explore the game-changing concept through three disruptive technology innovations in human flight, which had a century of exponential growth; computing, whose exponential growth we are still experiencing; and DNA-based medicine, whose exponential growth has just started.


Courtesy of “1897 newspaper ad for Wright Van Cleve bicycles. ‘Van Cleves get there first,’ was a play on words, but you had to know local history to get the joke. The Wright’s great-great-grandmother, Catherine Van Cleve, and her daughter, Mary Van Cleve, had been the first to step ashore from a boat of settlers that had traveled upriver in 1796 to the site where Dayton was built.”

Human Flight: A Bicycle Takes to the Sky

Inventions around human flight have arguably had one of the slowest linear progressions technology has ever seen. That is, until two bike shop guys achieved the impossible and changed the game in 1906, igniting a century of exponential progress in aviation. Even if we don’t count the millennia of humans inventing flying devices (the first known were kites several hundred years B.C. in China), progress was quite slow. In 1799 Englishman Sir George Cayley conceived a flying machine with the three basic elements we take for granted in airplanes today: a fixed wing, a propulsion system, and movable control surfaces. He even built and successfully tested the machine, which consisted of a rudimentary kite mounted on a stick with a tail that moved.

Consider this: there was a time span of 107-years from what we today would call Cayley’s “primitive MVP” (or Minimum Viable Product) to the Wright brothers epic flight. Now contrast this: there were 63-years between the Wright brothers first flight and a man landing on the moon. This is exactly what a game-changer does to an industry. It puts it on steroids through exponential growth. There are many theories as to why the Wright brothers succeeded where so many others had failed (or stopped making progress, like Sir Cayley)—many with more resources and know-how than Orville and Wilbur Wright. The fourth ingredient for a successful flying machine was a deep understanding of the concept of a “light machine.” From there, it was just natural that two young guys, who knew how to make bicycles and had a passion for invention, connected the dots and invented the technology for flying. The Wright brothers not only changed the trajectory of flight but changed the course of human history.

The Logic Inside Your Computer was Invented 215 Years Ago

The computer revolution was not a revolution until 1959 when Robert Noyce at Fairchild Semiconductor developed an integrated circuit that solved many of the problems that had previously made computers impractical. Before Noyce’s game-changing “chip,” there was a very slow progression towards computing, which began more than 150 years prior. In 1801, the binary system of zeroes and ones that now forms the ubiquitous language of computers was developed by textile entrepreneur Joseph-Marie Jacquard. Looking to speed up his production capacity, he invented a loom in which the pattern being woven was controlled by a paper tape constructed from punched cards. This paper tape could be interchanged in the textile machine without changing the mechanical design of the loom.

Computer historians call this “the landmark achievement in programmability” because, in the punched card, the hole is zero, and no hole is one, providing the very foundation of the binary logic that powers all of computing today. Yet, it took 158-years of slow, incremental progress between the punch card and the invention of Noyce’s disruptive integrated circuit. However, it only took six years to jumpstart Moore’s Law of computer processing capacity. Published in 1965, Intel co-founder Gordon Moore made an observation that the number of components per integrated circuit, and thus the processing capacity of computers, would double every 18-months. This is exactly what exponential growth means. Needless to say, Jacquard never conceived that his invention would expand from the textile industry to power things like your mobile device or the latest Jupiter probe.

DNA-based Medicine: Made Possible by the Game-changing Human Genome Project

Medicine that works by tweaking our DNA was actually a moonshot, just like, and inspired by, JFK’s call to land a man on the moon within a decade. This impossible happened nearly 30-years later when the science community realized that understanding our DNA would be game-changing. Thus, the $3 billion Human Genome Project was created and funded by the U.S. government as the two major funding agencies, the U.S. Department of Energy and National Institutes of Health, developed a memorandum of understanding to coordinate plans and set the clock for the initiation of the Project to 1990. The objective of this project was to determine the DNA sequence of the entire human genome “within 15 years.” Two years before the goal, in April 2003, the project was declared “completed.” Our DNA ceased to be a mystery; scientists were able to map it up to the last strand of nucleic acid. April 2003 was the inflection point that accelerated what, until then, was a normal growth curve.

DNA was first isolated by Friedrich Miescher in 1869. It took almost nine decades for the next technology leap when its molecular structure was identified by James Watson and Francis Crick in 1953. Their model-building efforts were guided by X-ray diffraction data acquired by Rosalind Franklin. Then another 50 years passed before the radical 2003 breakthrough sequencing of the DNA that makes up humans. From then, progress has been exponential. The sequence of our DNA is now stored in databases available to anyone on the Internet (another game-changer). In a decade, the $3 billion price tag to sequence the first human DNA fell to a few hundred dollars, and it is expected to fall all the way to a few dollars within the next couple of years. Industry has developed miracle medicines (a revolution indeed) that go straight to the piece of DNA that needs to be repaired. The Cancer Moonshot initiative, established by President Obama during his State of the Union address on January 12, 2016, and led by Vice President Joe Biden, relies on several innovations sprouted by the Human Genome Project.

The Game of Game-changing

Sometimes it is a moonshot called by the experts that proves to be the game-changer, like the Human Genome Project. Other times it is an engineer with a very specific problem to solve that fuels human ingenuity and puts an entire industry in exponential gear, like Robert Noyce with his semiconductor. Occasionally, it is only the passion of people like the Wright brothers that enables them connect the dots and use their know-how in one field to change the game in another. Yet, it is always the human spirit, our ingenuity, our thirst to make progress, to solve problems and to achieve impossible feats, which continue to move humanity forward—exponentially.

Coming next week: Energy ‘Impossibles’


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