The speed of innovation

29 March 2015
29 Mar 2015
West Lafayette, IN
6 mins

Last Tuesday, Amazon made a headline with their statement on the Federal Aviation Administrations’ supposed sluggishness to make decisions responsively and quickly enough. And while Amazon’s baby steps into the complex and heavily regulated industry of aviation may be a story in itself, this event also rings the bell for a greater need for change in how we think about making room for experimental technology in general. Amazon is hardly the only technology giant testing experimental and possibly controversial technology for the future (Google’s Glass is another one under fire from the public), and standing at a point in history where the pace of technological innovation is so mind blowing, it’s difficult to ignore anything conflicting with forward-thinking innovation.

Amazon surprised us a few months ago with the announcement that they plan to begin 30-minute deliveries to some customers within a 10-mile radius of warehouses by using drones. These drones, about 2 feet by 2 feet in size, will be able to deliver packages to customers so quickly that you could theoretically wake up in the morning, realize you forgot to buy something for work or school, and have it in your hands by the time you head out the door. While the convenience is the main idea, the industry of drone and unmanned aviation is also still very much the fringe of federal regulations, where decisions about what is legal and what is not is still very much being debated. Consequently, at this point in time, any company attempting to test and fly drones is required by law to have the individual devices approved by the FAA. This isn’t so much of a problem for commercial drone companies and brands such as Parrot and DJI, but it is a heavy burden for companies trying to test and prototype them in the wild, which is exactly what Amazon needs if it wants to test and improve its drone delivery system. While Amazon submitted their first version of the custom-designed drones for a review several months ago, they’ve been testing their drones and improving them outside of the U.S., in other countries, where drone approval and regulations are much more swift and open. So when the FAA in the U.S. finally approved their original submissions, Amazon dismissed it, saying their pace of innovation overseas made the FAA’s decision “obsolete”.

While the FAA was considering our applications for testing, we innovated so rapidly that the [drone] approved last week by the FAA has become obsolete. We don’t test it anymore. We’ve moved on to more advanced designs that we already are testing abroad. - Paul Misener, Amazon VP

This raises an interesting question, pitting safety and complete security granted by tight regulation against the fast-paced world of technological innovation and experimentation. Personally, I believe regulations and policies that become burdens to innovation are not at all benefiting the society. To explain why, we first need to talk about something called the adoption curve. The adoption curve, sometimes also called the innovation curve, shows (very roughly) the tendencies of different people adopting a new piece of technology, such as wearable computers, smartphones, and drones. In the most common depiction of the adoption curve, a small percentage of very forward-thinking people create and take on uncertified, brand-new ideas that have high risk of failing, but high stakes for success. Then there are the early adopters, who bridge the gap between the early majority and the super-early-bird innovators. Those three groups are followed by the late majority, who only adopt new technology once they have proven their worth, and the last to come are the “laggards”, adopting new technology out of pure necessity rather than convenience*, because the rest of the world would leave them in the dust without them adopting to change. One very important fact to note about the adoption curve is that the people who truly push technology forward, those who make innovation possible, are not the average of the bunch. The average of the adoption curve, what the most number of people want, is to stay in place, at an innovative standstill. Obviously, there are greater powers pushing us forward at all times, or technology itself would be an obsolete concept. But the main takeaway from the shape of the adoption curve is that in a perfectly democratic world, where those who push forward are in balance to the forces pushing against innovation, technology cannot advance.

In short, regulations holding back individuals and companies from using, experimenting with, and distributing unproven technology like Google Glass, drones, or controversial software are comparable to regulations that would mandate the top Olympic marathoners to wear shoes from the last century because there is a risk that the “new shoes” may cause more harm than good. What’s even more crucial is that in a global scale, at least in the automated aviation industry, U.S. policies are in the “late majority” of the adoption curve rather than the “early adopters” or even the “early majority”. In other words, while we’re sending out marathoners to the Olympic Games, we might as well be forcing all U.S. athletes to wear last-decade shoes, leading them to move to other countries, where they can benefit from innovation overseas to extend their abilities.

Innovation is not just a technological buzzword. Pushing forward any front of our society is innovation, from fighting for greater awareness of lesser-known diseases to pushing for governments to stop allowing careless systematic discrimination against LGBT individuals**, to improving technology and policies in education and healthcare. And in all of these areas, there are forces pushing back against the forward motion that we need in order to keep pace with the rest of the world that’s continually increasing its pace of development. Innovation is not about the absence of resistance from the safety-obsessed, nor is it purely about reckless experimentation. Innovation occurs when both the risk-minded and the forward-thinking can work in balance to improve aspects of our lives that we need to be better. When regulation steps in to put a wall between where we are and where we ought to be, it operates under an obviously flawed assumption that the world will stay the same forever. And because it won’t – because the world is necessarily in a constant state of innovation – we need to push forward alongside it.

What do you think? Do you think regulations should have its focus on preserving safety and certainty for everyone, or on allowing more open innovation, even if it may not be in the best interest of many people?

* Namely, those people still sticking to Fax and Blackberries.

** A much longer post on this topic incoming, but seriously, Indiana, what in the name of Dumbledore’s holy underpants is wrong with your logic?***

*** Actually, what’s more likely is that there’s nothing wrong with the logic of most of Indiana. It just so happens that the small majority blinded by the absence of common sense happens to be the majority. Yet another reason why perfect democracy prevents innovation.

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