We will live in an era where nearly every emerging development – whether it’s coming soon or is further in the future – is hyped to the max, along with promises and predictions. Among the many developments we are hearing about are:
- The fully self-driving (Level 5) autonomous vehicle. Some deskbound pundits even have quantified how many accidents will be avoided and lives will be saved once these dominate the road, tossing around numbers such as 30% and 50% based on sheer conjecture. Experienced engineers know that reality is that the last 5-10% of a project takes as much time as the first 90-95%, but that doesn’t stop these hype-masters. Some who are much more expert in robotic technology, such as Rodney Brooks, have a more-realistic perspective on the situation; see his piece “The Big Problem With Self-Driving Cars Is People” in IEEE Spectrum and his blog “Edge Cases For Self-Driving Cars”
- Then there’s quantum computing, which will presumably completely change computing, algorithms, and encryption as we know them. There is a lot of very impressive research underway spanning fundamental physics to crude “computers” at university and corporate labs. Again, some pundits are proclaiming that first-level practical implementations are coming very soon, but a senior computer scientist has a more-skeptical perspective (again in IEEE Spectrum ), “The Case Against Quantum Computing.“
- 5G: just those two alphanumeric characters are all it takes for commentators to earnestly toss out numbers about what this wireless will enable, based mostly on raw bit rate numbers. Sometimes, it seems as if whatever your connectivity problem, their promise is 5G will miraculously solve it.
- Artificial intelligence (AI): again, it’s just a single alphamerical pairing but represents both fear and promise of across so many dimensions, and it can take on almost any guise, shape, or definition you want.
- Flying cars, delivery by drone, virtual reality (VR)….well, you can make your own list.
I don’t mean to be a nay-sayer; it’s easy to stand on the sidelines and throw verbal stones at the genuine progress that is being made in some many areas. Experience also shows that skeptics and naysayers are often wrong. Statements such as “they’ll never succeed at XYZ” have often turned out to be flat-out wrong (“heavier than air flight is not possible,” “a rocket can never reach the moon, there’s nothing for it to push against.”). At the same time, the shape that future developments actually take and their impact are much harder to foresee than these pundits acknowledge – and does anyone ever go back and look at their track record?
It’s easy to get so caught up in the hype of these promises that a sanity check is a good idea. That’s one of the attractions that “analog” circuits and ICs have for me: in general, they are based on reality typified demonstrable components; Yes, they may need some software for initialization or setting of parameters, but their functioning is usually clear once they are operating. I like to say that you can leave the latest analog IC and its data sheet with a prospective user and state with confidence, “go check it out for yourself.”
If it doesn’t meet the specifications, either the device can’t deliver on its promises, or the evaluation arrangement is not quite right (which is a very real possibility for a high-performance part, of course). But what you can’t say is “oh, just wait, it will work when we get you the next software revision” — that’s not a viable excuse with analog components.
I also like to keep in mind the so-called “hype cycle” popularized by market-research and advisory firm Gartner, Inc. It has a general form, Figure 1 with explanation here, and Gartner details it every year such as with their 2018 issue, Figure 2 .
The generalized Gartner hype-cycle chart can be applied to many developments under way but cannot anticipate unexpected advances or “accidental” discoveries. (Image source: Gartner, Inc)
The experts at Gartner detail their hype-cycle chart every year with the current “hot topics” and their assessment of where each really stands. (Image source: Gartner, Inc.)
Looking at both an individual year’s version and also a succession of these hype-cycle graphs is a reminder to not believe all those glowing predictions you see breathlessly hawked by insiders who are perhaps too close to be objective, as well as those keyboard-based “experts” who both feed and feed on the hype cycle. After all, engineers are expected to eventually deliver more than a bag of promises or the equivalent of slick marketing brochures with data sheets stamped “maybe in the future.”
Perhaps we should keep in mind the simple yet insightful statement that Yogi Berra (supposedly) quipped: “it's tough to make predictions, especially about the future.” Is there an emerging technology and prediction which you feel is currently most overhyped in terms of when it will be ready, or what it will actually do? And is there a long-standing one that you feel has been touted as being “just around the corner” for much too long?