What Makes a Technology a Mere Laboratory Curiosity?

  • A laboratory curiosity is a scientific discovery or engineering creation which has not yet found practical application in the real world.
  • A laboratory curiosity is a scientific discovery or engineering creation which has not yet been effectively transformed into a product or service which economically delivers substantial real-world value and which can be used outside of the laboratory. It still requires the careful attention of the research technical staff for its use, and faces significant ongoing research and development. It promises to deliver fantastic benefits, but has not yet done so, and doesn’t yet have a very short-term path to doing so. It is not yet ready for prime time — for production-scale real-world applications. A new technology needs to offer clear, substantial, and compelling benefits of some sort over existing technology, whether they be new functions and features, performance, less-demanding resource requirements, or economic or operational benefits. There may well be papers, books, conferences, conventions, trade shows, seminars, online communities, and meetups focused on the technology and its potential applications, but they may focus more on academic topics and evaluation and experimentation — proofs of concept and prototypes — rather than focusing on actual delivery of substantial real-world value — they are necessary but not sufficient to advance beyond mere laboratory curiosity.
  • delivers substantial real-world value
  1. Main motivation
  2. General goal — foundation and framework for evaluation
  3. What is a technology?
  4. What is a laboratory?
  5. Research
  6. Theoretical research
  7. Basic research
  8. Applied research
  9. Engineering research
  10. More lab time is needed
  11. Engineering
  12. Product development
  13. R&D
  14. Limited talent pool
  15. Value for evaluation and experimentation
  16. Evaluation kits
  17. Proof of concept
  18. Prototypes are good but don’t deliver substantial real-world value
  19. Production-scale for real-world problems
  20. Progress vs. value
  21. Criteria for whether a discovery or technology is still a mere laboratory curiosity or not
  22. Proof point milestone
  23. Critical mass for proof point
  24. Critical mass for advancing beyond being a mere laboratory curiosity
  25. Candidate for release from the lab
  26. Moment of truth — imminent deployment
  27. Actual deployment vs. mere intent
  28. Evaluation of deployment
  29. A discovery or technology is generally still a laboratory curiosity if…
  30. A discovery or technology is generally not a laboratory curiosity if…
  31. Difficult borderline cases
  32. Some anomalous gray areas that are still a laboratory curiosity
  33. Some qualities of laboratory curiosities
  34. Some characterizations of laboratory curiosities
  35. You never know — use cases beyond our current knowledge
  36. Some special cases
  37. Purpose of a technology
  38. Criteria for success
  39. When does a laboratory curiosity become no longer a mere laboratory curiosity?
  40. Cheats to get past the laboratory curiosity stage
  41. Examples of technologies which have successfully transitioned from laboratory curiosity to production-scale real-world use
  42. Examples of technologies which struggled greatly but eventually transitioned from laboratory curiosity to production-scale real-world use
  43. Examples of technologies which are struggling to transition from laboratory curiosity to production-scale real-world use
  44. Examples of technologies which are well on their way to transitioning from laboratory curiosities
  45. Examples of technologies which never made it past being laboratory curiosities
  46. Fraud
  47. Mistakes
  48. Subsidiary technologies
  49. Degree of technical feasibility
  50. Degree of benefit
  51. Degree of progress
  52. Early-stage vs. later-stage laboratory curiosities
  53. Normal engineering product development process
  54. Documentation and specifications
  55. Turning point
  56. The two extremes
  57. Setting expectations
  58. Papers, books, conferences, conventions, trade shows, seminars, online communities, and meetups
  59. Need to move beyond the lunatic fringe of early adopters
  60. Science fiction — not even a laboratory curiosity
  61. Flashes in the pan
  62. Zombie technologies
  63. Technology winter
  64. Limited commercial success
  65. Unique and special government needs
  66. Ethical considerations
  67. Regulatory considerations
  68. Are any of your favorite technologies laboratory curiosities?
  69. Conclusions
  70. What’s next?

Main motivation

General goal — foundation and framework for evaluation

What is a technology?

  1. A scientific discovery.
  2. An experiment. Scientific or engineering.
  3. An engineering prototype.
  4. A mathematical model which is believed to be reducible to practical implementation.
  5. Speculation about an idea or concept which is believed to be reducible to practical implementation.
  6. An experimental device or apparatus. May be electrical, electronic, mechanical, chemical, biological, or any combination thereof.

What is a laboratory?

  1. Research laboratory run by scientists, students, and technicians who support them.
  2. Research laboratory run by a company.
  3. Research laboratory run by a non-profit organization.
  4. Advanced technology experimentation and evaluation facility.
  5. Any controlled setting which is atypical of those normally operated by organizations not pursuing research in that setting.
  1. An IT (information technology) facility including data centers.
  2. A manufacturing floor.
  3. A warehouse.
  4. An office.
  5. A classroom.
  6. A non-research vehicle.
  7. A home.

Research

  1. Theoretical research. Ideas and concepts. Nothing ready for the laboratory.
  2. Basic research. Experimentation to understand underlying phenomena, to test (validate) the theory.
  3. Applied research. Exploiting basic research and trying to apply it to address real-world problems.
  4. Engineering research. Trying to actually build prototypes that accomplish functions believed to apply to real-world problems.
  5. Engineering. The research is complete. Using research results to build real-world products. Technically, this is not research, but it is the logical successor to research.

Theoretical research

Basic research

Applied research

Engineering research

More lab time is needed

Engineering

Product development

R&D

Limited talent pool

  1. In the lab itself. For research.
  2. In product engineering. To develop products and services.
  3. In the field. For development and deployment of applications of the technology.

Value for evaluation and experimentation

  1. Does the technology work at all as other than a pure science or engineering experiment?
  2. What are the limitations of the technology in its current state?
  3. What are the difficulties or problems with the technology in its current state?
  4. How usable or useful is the technology in its current state?
  5. Can the technology readily be scaled to production-scale applications?
  6. What organizational problems could be addressed with the new technology?
  7. How can researchers inform the activities and plans of practitioners?
  8. How can practitioners inform the activities and plans of researchers?

Evaluation kits

Proof of concept

Prototypes are good but don’t deliver substantial real-world value

Production-scale for real-world problems

Progress vs. value

Proof point milestone

Critical mass for proof point

Critical mass for advancing beyond being a mere laboratory curiosity

Candidate for release from the lab

  1. Raise the prospect of release to begin considering whether the technology is ready for release from the lab.
  2. Go through a vetting process to determine if that preliminary decision is worthy of being finalized.

Moment of truth — imminent deployment

Actual deployment vs. mere intent

Evaluation of deployment

Criteria for whether a discovery or technology is still a mere laboratory curiosity or not

A discovery or technology is generally still a laboratory curiosity if…

  1. It exists only as a concept with only occasional laboratory experiments to test portions of the overall concept.
  2. Little more than just an idea or speculation.
  3. It is a mere scientific plaything.
  4. It seems flighty.
  5. It seems unsubstantial.
  6. It is not reproducible.
  7. It is not reliably and consistently reproducible.
  8. It cannot be practically fabricated.
  9. It must be tediously and laboriously fabricated by hand with a high risk of failure.
  10. It exists only in prototype or demonstration form.
  11. It exists only within a laboratory environment.
  12. It is known only by scientists and engineers.
  13. It is known by scientists and engineers, but few people see it as a practical solution to current real-world problems
  14. Only one exists, and only in a laboratory environment.
  15. Only a few exist, especially if only used for evaluation and experimentation rather than production applications.
  16. It exists only as components on a lab bench or on the floor of the lab.
  17. It doesn’t have a cover or proper, commercial packaging. Possibly components spread out on a lab bench or floor.
  18. It seems too minimal to accomplish substantial real-world tasks.
  19. It is unclear how to turn it into a commercial product.
  20. It cannot be scaled up to a size and capacity sufficient to solve real-world problems. It hasn’t been or maybe cannot be produced in volume.
  21. It has not yet been proven with a production-scale real-world application. Focus is on what it might do, its potential.
  22. It is outside the lab but can only handle such limited amounts of data that it is not suitable for production-scale use.
  23. It is not ready for prime-time use.
  24. It has been released from the lab but doesn’t appear to be capable of handling production-scale use cases.
  25. It has been released from the lab but appears to be too toylike and clearly incapable of handling production-scale use cases.
  26. It has been prematurely released from the lab before it is ready to directly address real-world problems.
  27. It has intentionally been released in a limited form for the purposes of organizations wishing to perform preliminary evaluation of the new technology well in advance of its availability for serious production-scale use for real-world applications.
  28. It is ridiculously expensive. Uneconomical.
  29. It is too fragile to hold up in real-world environments. Can only be used within the lab
  30. Cannot be reliably recreated outside of the lab. Too difficult to recreate or reproduce, too difficult to work with or operate, may require lab-quality equipment that is not practical outside of the lab. Note: Original classical computer systems, including mainframes and many minicomputers, required sophisticated rooms and cooling systems, so that’s not an absolute criteria, but does place severe constraints on usage in the real world.
  31. Not clear how it solves any real-world problem.
  32. It is incapable of real-world impact.
  33. Does not address what are considered important problems or important applications.
  34. It is not an economic reality.
  35. It is too risky to operate safely.
  36. It is merely a proof of concept rather than ready for prime-time commercial scale applications which deliver real business value.
  37. Most people seeking to use the technology must resort to the use of simulators and emulators rather than using the real technology in the lab.
  38. It is labeled as “alpha” test. And sometimes even as “beta” test.
  39. Unfulfilled promise of great commercial success.
  40. Significant technical and engineering hurdles remain to be overcome.
  41. Timeline is much further out than tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, or even 2–5 years.
  42. It’s primary real-world use is limited to gaming and entertainment or other relative frivolous pursuits — unless that is in fact the full scope of all of its believed application or a profitable business in its own right.

A discovery or technology is generally not a laboratory curiosity if…

  1. Commercially available. Is a priced product — and there are customers (plural) actually paying for it.
  2. Available in volume. Easy to reproduce or manufacture and distribute, operate, and maintain.
  3. Has been readily available at an economical price for years.
  4. Is readily available at an attractive and economical price. But beware of new products which may be available at deeply-discounted teaser prices that don’t reflect true economic cost.
  5. Exists outside of the laboratory, in an environment which does not need to be attended by research staff.
  6. Can be operated and maintained by non-research staff.
  7. It’s easy to understand and easy to use.
  8. Consumers are using it widely — and happily.

Difficult borderline cases

  1. Substantial preliminary results have been achieved and mainstream deployment really does appear to be “just around the corner”, but much of such promises amount to little more than illusions (and delusions) and hype. By default, such cases should be classified as laboratory curiosities until the corner actually has been turned, decisively.

Some anomalous gray areas that are still a laboratory curiosity

  1. Device is remotely accessible over the Internet, but exists only within a research facility attended by research staff. Remote online access is fine, but only for commercial-quality systems.
  2. Device can be moved outside of the lab and operated in a non-research technical environment attended to only by commercial or industrial technical staff, but is still just a prototype or tediously built by hand.
  3. Device can be assembled by a non-research customer from blueprints, instructions, or a kit, but is not available as an off-the-shelf assembled and packaged product which is ready to use without the need for research-quality technical staff.
  4. Only the most advanced, elite, and sophisticated users can effectively use it.
  5. Lower quality “beta” test products which are not yet appropriate for a general audience.
  6. Available outside the lab, but only in prototype or demonstration form.
  7. Available outside the lab, but can only handle such limited amounts of data that it is not suitable for production-scale use.
  8. Available outside the lab, but doesn’t appear to be capable of handling production-scale use cases.

Some qualities of laboratory curiosities

  1. Promise grand benefits, but have not yet delivered on those promises.
  2. Promises are for the medium to long term, but not the short term.
  3. You just don’t know what the likely applications, use case, or benefits of the technology might be.
  4. Does not have a UL (Underwriters Laboratories) approval. For electrical and electronic devices.
  5. Difficult to use. Not easy to use.
  6. Not very reliable.
  7. Limited reliability.
  8. Only one exists.
  9. Only a few exist.
  10. Very limited commercial success. Despite valiant efforts.
  11. Poor, mediocre, or nonexistent documentation.
  12. Poor, mediocre, or nonexistent training for users.
  13. High degree of sophistication needed to use it.
  14. Very high tolerance for flaws and deficiencies is required.
  15. Limited talent pool available to acquire staff to utilize the technology.

Some characterizations of laboratory curiosities

  1. Raw science or engineering prototype vs. engineered technology.
  2. Isn’t able to solve any significant, meaningful real-world problems in a practical, meaningful, economical, and profitable manner.
  3. Not reached the mainstream yet.
  4. Not considered an off the shelf technology yet.
  5. Not yet seen as a widely applicable technique.
  6. “Little more than” a laboratory curiosity. Has begun to move out of the lab, but not very far, yet.

You never know — use cases beyond our current knowledge

Some special cases

  1. Science as the application. Some technologies are intended for use in laboratory settings only. For example, the Large Hadron Collider, typical high-energy physics experiments, telescopes and special equipment for astronomy.
  2. Fundamental science results. No intention to directly or immediately apply outside the lab. For example, proving the existence of the Higgs Boson using the LHC.
  3. Searching for exoplanets. No conceivable immediate real-world application — that I am aware of, but sometimes you just never know.
  4. Limited commercial success. Some commercial success is a good start, but I would argue that if even after significant effort and expense of great resources there is no more than limited commercial success, then that limited success is hardly better than a mere laboratory curiosity. Call it effectively a mere laboratory curiosity.
  5. Search for extraterrestrial intelligence (SETI). Even more far out there than searching for exoplanets. Commercial value? Practical value? Social Value? But, once again, you never know.

Purpose of a technology

  1. To earn a profit for a commercial enterprise.
  2. Reduce expenses for an organization. Whether a commercial enterprise, nonprofit, government, etc.
  3. To accomplish an organizational objective. Other than merely to evaluate and experiment with new technology.
  4. Facilitate the solutions to social problems.
  5. Improve satisfaction of customers.
  6. Satisfy regulatory requirements.
  7. Satisfy safety requirements.
  8. Satisfy security requirements.

Criteria for success

  1. Deliver substantial profits to a commercial enterprise.
  2. Deliver substantial cost savings to an organization. Both commercial and noncommercial.
  3. Facilitate accomplishments of organizational objectives.
  4. Satisfy the needs, interests, or whims of consumers — and for which they are willing to compensate a vendor for the opportunity.
  5. Facilitate accomplishment of societal objectives.

When does a laboratory curiosity become no longer a mere laboratory curiosity?

  1. It achieves commercial success for its creator.
  2. It achieves success for its users.
  3. It achieves widespread usage in some productive sense. Widespread evaluation or experimentation alone with a new technology would not be sufficient.
  4. It is used to solve production-scale real-world problems.
  5. It solves some significant social problem.

Cheats to get past the laboratory curiosity stage

  1. Give the technology a name. A brand name. And a model number.
  2. Create a mockup of real product packaging so the laboratory device looks like a real product. Even though under the hood it is far from production quality.
  3. Have one or more potential customers make a strategic investment in the technology, and book it as sales.
  4. Treat proofs of concept and prototypes as if they were production-scale real-world applications, when they’re not.
  5. Treat breakthroughs and even incremental progress as if they were milestones signifying that the technology has advanced beyond being a mere laboratory curiosity, when it hasn’t.

Examples of technologies which have successfully transitioned from laboratory curiosity to production-scale real-world use

  1. Microscopes.
  2. Telescopes.
  3. Batteries.
  4. Electric power.
  5. Vacuum tubes.
  6. Transistor.
  7. Nuclear physics. Nuclear energy, nuclear weapons, nuclear medicine.
  8. Telephone.
  9. Radio.
  10. Television.
  11. Early computers.
  12. Internet.
  13. Video conferencing.
  14. Augmented reality. Although somewhat tied in with virtual reality, some simple primitive forms are thriving. Most broadcast video is now augmented with various forms of information. Mostly simple, rectangular overlays. Facebook Portal supports masks and filters which modify or enhance the actual video image.
  15. Artificial intelligence. Various subsets that approximate fractions of human intelligence.
  16. Automatic language translation.
  17. Nature language recognition.
  18. Rockets and space travel.
  19. Ion propulsion. Actually in use now for some smaller satellites.

Examples of technologies which struggled greatly but eventually transitioned from laboratory curiosity to production-scale real-world use

  1. Video conferencing. Been around for many decades, but only with the Internet, broadband, high resolution displays, and competent software has it become mainstream.
  2. Automatic language translation. Laboratory curiosity for decades. Gradual but slow improvement. Now a consumer feature — Google translate.
  3. Nature language recognition. Laboratory curiosity for decades. Gradual but slow improvement. Now a consumer feature, such as intelligent digital assistants.
  4. Commercial space flight.

Examples of technologies which are struggling to transition from laboratory curiosity to production-scale real-world use

  1. Home robots. Laboratory curiosity for decades. Some examples now, such as Roomba-type devices and some simple companion animals. Still a long way to go. Still mostly a laboratory curiosity and concept.
  2. Artificial general intelligence. Still just an idea with no practical or known approach to achieving it. Simplified subsets of AI, yes. Full, true AGI, no. Still more of a topic for movies, TV shows, and works of fiction.
  3. Virtual reality. Elements are here, but mostly problematic and mostly limited to gaming and entertainment. When will it actually deliver real business value? Potential use cases have been identified but not fully and competently rolled out into mainstream production.
  4. Bitcoin, cryptocurrency, blockchain, and distributed ledger technology (DLT). A complex mix of actual practical applications, mixed success, unclear whether benefits really delivered, and promises for the future. To some significant degree, this is still a laboratory curiosity. Debatable whether bitcoin and cryptocurrency are really a commercial success. Some practical applications are able to use blockchain and DLT for real applications.
  5. Quantum computing and quantum information science more broadly. Demonstrated at a small scale. Scaling is needed. There are many subsidiary technologies of quantum computing, each of which is on its own trajectory or its own laboratory curiosity status.
  6. Ion propulsion. Still very much a laboratory curiosity for large-scale spacecraft, even if actually in use now for some smaller satellites.
  7. Nuclear fusion power. Lots of experiments. Waiting for eventual critical breakthroughs
  8. Consumer space travel. A few real examples, but not for the average consumer. Grand promises yet to be delivered.

Examples of technologies which are well on their way to transitioning from laboratory curiosities

  1. Electric cars.
  2. Autonomous vehicles.
  3. Electric airplanes.

Examples of technologies which never made it past being laboratory curiosities

  1. Intel 432. Grand ambitions for a new approach to CPUs. Canceled. Too complex. Existing x86 architecture was more flexible than seen at the time.
  2. Trilogy Systems Corporation with wafer scale integration (WSI). Too ambitious. Existing technology had more life than imagined.
  3. Japan’s Fifth Generation Computer Systems (FGCS). Too ambitious. Too complex. Simpler technology zoomed past it.
  4. Lisp machines. Too complex. Didn’t evolve rapidly enough. Worked, but advances in simpler technology rapidly surpassed it.
  5. NASA/USAF Manned Orbiting Laboratory (MOL). Too complex. Surpassed by advances in automated satellites.

Subsidiary technologies

  1. A family of related but distinct technologies. Variants of a common theme.
  2. Components which come together to produce the overall umbrella technology.

Degree of technical feasibility

  1. Suspected.
  2. Hoped.
  3. Claimed.
  4. Promised.
  5. Believed.
  6. Validated by evidence.
  7. Partially demonstrable.
  8. Mostly demonstrated.
  9. Fully demonstrated.
  10. Proven beyond a doubt.
  11. Suspected that it is scalable.
  12. Scalability is partially demonstrated.
  13. Scalability is significantly demonstrated.
  14. Scalability finally meets production requirements.

Degree of benefit

  1. No apparent or perceived benefit.
  2. No obvious benefit.
  3. Nobody believes there’s a practical application.
  4. Science curiosity which merely proves some theory or conjecture or mathematical model. Any benefits are an afterthought and a side effect result of some experiment rather than by design.
  5. Engineering curiosity which is of iInterest for how it was accomplished and simply describing its effects. No interest in trying to apply those effects.
  6. Hints of possible benefit.
  7. Speculation about significant benefits — wild, unconvincing.
  8. Expectation of significant potential benefits — rational, convincing.
  9. Apparent benefits.
  10. Obvious benefits.
  11. Experimental benefits.
  12. Very minimal demonstration of benefits.
  13. Incremental improvement at demonstration of benefits.
  14. Believable demonstration of benefits.
  15. Small-scale benefits.
  16. Medium-scale benefits.
  17. Significant prospects of ability to scale up to production-scale for real-world applications

Degree of progress

  1. Inkling of some phenomenon of value or at least of interest.
  2. Preliminary ideas about implementation. The research project.
  3. Approval for the research project.
  4. More advanced plans for implementation.
  5. Progress on implementation.
  6. Identification of difficulties, obstacles, and challenges.
  7. Conceptualization of strategies and approaches for surmounting difficulties, obstacles, and challenges.
  8. Implementation of strategies and approaches for surmounting difficulties, obstacles, and challenges.
  9. Incremental improvements based on new ideas.
  10. Incremental refinements based on experience with what has been implemented.
  11. Incremental refinements based on feedback from early users or prospective users.
  12. At some point it becomes clear that a proof of concept has been achieved. The basic concept is no longer in doubt.
  13. Iterating as advances are made on all new ideas, experience, feedback, difficulties, obstacles, and challenges.
  14. At some point it becomes clear that a prototype for a usable technology has been developed. The possibility of practical use can now be entertained.
  15. Hope that the current state of the technology is good enough for real-world use.
  16. Retrench on realization that the current state of the technology is not good enough for real-world use.
  17. Continue iterating on a stream of improvements.
  18. Possible eventual realization that real-world use is beyond reach given current technology, current science, current resources, and current organizational commitment.
  19. Continue iterating on a stream of improvements.
  20. Eventual realization that the current state of the technology actually is good enough for real-world use.
  21. Handoff to normal engineering for productization and release.
  22. Possibly recover and rework if release turns out to be premature.
  23. Continue research and pursuing improvements even after release. Normal engineering process will enhance the productized technology, but improvements in underlying science and engineering research may feed into future generations of technology.
  24. Possibly terminate the laboratory project if technology is mature enough to be sustained with the normal engineering process.
  1. Very preliminary stages. Just getting started. Very high uncertainty.
  2. Middle preliminary stages. Starting to take shape.
  3. Late preliminary stages. Most of the initial pieces in place.
  4. Early middle stages. Beginning operation, starting to see some results.
  5. Middle middle stages. Relatively full operation, significant results. Uncertainty declining.
  6. Late middle stages. Full operation, most results to be expected. Most uncertainty gone.
  7. Early final stages. All of the really hard problems have been addressed. Final result mostly in place.
  8. Middle final stages. Moderately through minor remaining issues. Finalizing most details. Fair degree of detailed testing.
  9. Late final stages. Finishing up on minor remaining issues. Polishing and fine-tuning results. Final testing.

Early-stage vs. later-stage laboratory curiosities

Normal engineering product development process

  1. Filling in gaps in the technology.
  2. Integrating with other technologies.
  3. Packaging the technology to make it usable by non-researchers.
  4. Development of example use cases.
  5. Documentation. Including all relevant technical specifications and any limitations.
  6. Quality assurance testing.
  7. Performance testing and characterization. Documented, of course.
  8. Regulatory compliance.
  9. Ethical considerations.
  10. Training development.
  11. Marketing.
  12. Sales.
  13. Distribution.
  14. Support. Bugs.
  15. Customer service.
  16. Consulting. How to more fully exploit the technology.
  17. Maintenance.
  18. Minor enhancements.
  19. Major enhancements.
  20. Community. Developers. Users. Online. Meetups. Conferences. Conventions and tradeshows.

Documentation and specifications

Turning point

The two extremes

  1. A technology might give the appearance of being a mere laboratory curiosity, but actually have real but unperceived potential.
  2. A technology has significant perceived potential, but great difficulty being realized in the real-world for practical applications.

Setting expectations

  1. Too low or not at all. There’s no ready and enthusiastic audience or market to take the technology and run with it when it is ready. The technology may end up fizzling and dying off.
  2. Too high. Disappointment and outright disenchantment can set in. People may simply walk away in frustration when the technology doesn’t meet expectations and perform as expected.

Papers, books, conferences, conventions, trade shows, seminars, online communities, and meetups

  1. Academic research.
  2. Experimentation.
  3. Evaluation.
  4. Proofs of concept.
  5. Prototypes.
  6. Interest in the technology.
  7. Discussions and interactions among potential users.
  8. Consultants.

Need to move beyond the lunatic fringe of early adopters

Science fiction — not even a laboratory curiosity

  1. Time travel and time machines.
  2. Travel faster than light.
  3. Matter transmitter.
  4. Superhuman AI.
  5. Artificial biological life. Not simply reengineering of existing DNA.
  6. Shrinking humans to very small scales.

Flashes in the pan

  1. Flawed logic.
  2. Profound technical flaws.
  3. Cost is too far beyond the available resources. Quickly burn through initial funding and then funding runs dry.
  4. Insufficient staff.
  5. A simpler and cheaper technology comes along out of the blue. Blindsided.
  6. A competing technology conceived at the same moment suddenly looks superior and more practical.
  7. Sudden breakthroughs with existing mainstream technology eliminates much of the advantage of the laboratory curiosity technology. Here now vs. promise in the not-near future.
  8. Priorities change.
  9. Interest wanes. Distracted by other pursuits.

Zombie technologies

Technology winter

  • A technology winter is a period of disappointment, disillusionment, and loss of momentum which follows a period of intense hype and frenzy of frothy activity as grandiose promises fail to materialize in a fairly prompt manner. The winter is marked by dramatically lower activity, slower progress, and reduced funding for projects. The winter will persist until something changes, typically one or more key technological breakthroughs, emergence of enabling technologies, or a change in mindset which then initiates a renewed technology spring. The winter could last for years or even decades. A technology could go through any number of these cycles of euphoria and despair.

Limited commercial success

  1. Multics operating system. Plenty of spinoff technologies, including Unix, but Multics itself was not a great direct success.
  2. IBM System/38. Very innovative, but not a great success.

Unique and special government needs

  1. National defense. Including design and development of weapons.
  2. Law enforcement.
  3. Customs and immigration.
  4. Intelligence, surveillance, and espionage.
  5. Air traffic control.
  6. Approval and regulation of food and drugs.
  7. Theoretical and basic research. Even without regard to immediate applications, although a lot will focus on the needs of government itself.

Ethical considerations

Regulatory considerations

Are any of your favorite technologies laboratory curiosities?

  1. It doesn’t exist in reality yet, only on paper, or not even on paper yet. Maybe just in a slide presentation or some mockups or partial prototypes.
  2. It exists only or primarily in a laboratory environment.
  3. You are merely evaluating or experimenting with the technology rather than using it in production.
  4. Your use is not directly helping to achieve an organizational objective. Beyond evaluating or experimenting.
  5. Your use is not achieving a stated purpose of the technology.

Conclusions

  1. Some technologies are obviously still laboratory curiosities.
  2. Some technologies are clearly real-world products and services.
  3. Some technologies look like real products but are actually still laboratory curiosities.
  4. Some technologies look like laboratory curiosities but are effectively just as good and effective as real-world products.
  5. Some technologies are in a transition stage where they have one foot in the real world and usable for production for some niche use cases but they also have one foot in the lab with deficiencies or limitations which prevent full-scale use in production.
  6. Some technologies look and feel like they are production ready to some people but still look and feel like they are still laboratory curiosities to other people.
  7. A critical mass of technology is needing to reach a proof point.
  8. A critical mass of technology, applications, and demand is needed to advance beyond mere laboratory curiosity.
  9. Wait a year or two or three or five, or even ten, and your laboratory curiosity may well make the leap to production-ready real-world product. Or become a zombie technology. Or die on the vine.
  10. But despite the hype, effort, hopes, and dreams, some technologies still manage to never make it out of the lab, dying on the vine as… a mere laboratory curiosity.
  11. Some technologies die quickly as flashes in the plan.
  12. Some technologies end up being zombie technologies, never quite dying but never quite succeeding either.

What’s next?

  1. There are a few technologies of interest that I wish to apply this framework to. Including quantum computing — and to the many subsidiary technologies of quantum computing, each of which is on its own trajectory or has its own laboratory curiosity status — some are further along than others. Update: When Will Quantum Computing Advance Beyond Mere Laboratory Curiosity?
  2. AI and all of its assorted subsidiary technologies is another area of technology worth evaluating with respect to what parts are actually deployable today to deliver significant real-world value and which remain laboratory curiosities.
  3. There are plenty of technologies to keep an eye on over the next five to ten years. Time will tell whether they make the leap during that period, finally die on the vine, end up as flashes in the pan, or end up being zombie technologies — never managing to fulfill grand expectations but always having enough promise to keep hope and dreams — and funding — alive.
  4. As new and exotic technologies and discoveries pop up, it will be useful to apply a lot of the principles from this paper to evaluate how likely or how soon any of these technologies or discoveries might actually advance beyond the stage of being… mere laboratory curiosity.

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Freelance Consultant

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Jack Krupansky

Jack Krupansky

Freelance Consultant

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