What Makes a Technology a Mere Laboratory Curiosity?

A scientific discovery or an engineering prototype in a laboratory may or may not have a significant application in the real world. When is a technology merely a laboratory curiosity and when does it warrant the attention of the real world? This informal paper will explore what criteria can be used to distinguish the two.

My personal underlying motivation is to set the stage for discussing this topic in the context of particular advanced technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum computing, but they will be pursued in separate papers. Everything in this paper should in theory apply to all technologies, including artificial intelligence, quantum computing, virtual reality, autonomous vehicles, biotechnology, space travel, or nuclear fusion power.

First, a simple definition:

  • A laboratory curiosity is a scientific discovery or engineering creation which has not yet found practical application in the real world.

And a somewhat more nuanced definition:

  • 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.

The key operant phrase in there is:

  • delivers substantial real-world value

Now we delve into all of the nuances…

Topics covered in this informal paper:

  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

A central motivation for this paper was that it seemed to me that all too often a new technology seems anointed as having arrived and being ready for prime-time production use when it really needs to spend a lot more time in the lab before it is indeed ready for prime-time production applications.

General goal — foundation and framework for evaluation

A general goal of this paper is to establish a generic and neutral foundation or framework for evaluating any technology for whether it is still merely a laboratory curiosity or whether it has successfully made the transition to delivering substantial real-world value.

What is a technology?

By technology, I mean any of:

  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?

By laboratory, I mean any of:

  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.

Some examples which are not laboratories:

  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

Research is essential for any new and novel technology. No question about that.

Research is a good thing. But, it is also generally a sign of a laboratory curiosity, at least until the research is completed, or at least reaches a stage where a real-world product or service can be produced by non-scientists.

There are four stages of 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.

The first three stages result only in a laboratory curiosity.

Generally, progress in research, even great progress is insufficient to advance a technology from being a mere laboratory curiosity to a real-world product or service delivering substantial real-world value.

It is the fourth stage (engineering) which finally advances a technology from a mere laboratory curiosity to a practical real-world product or service which can deliver real-world value.

Theoretical research

If new theory must be developed, that implies that any technology is not even yet at the stage of a laboratory curiosity.

Theoretical research is a very good and necessary thing. But it means that a technology isn’t even in the lab yet, not even a laboratory curiosity.

Basic research

Taking theoretical research concepts and turning them into laboratory experiments to understand the underlying phenomena and validate theoretical models.

Laboratory experiments may simply confirm theoretical research without necessarily building anything which might be called a technology. So there may not even necessarily be a laboratory curiosity at this stage.

Applied research

Building on theoretical and basic research, now prototypes for a new technology are constructed.

The goal here is to validate that real-world functions can be performed using the concepts and theory produced by the theoretical research and validated by the basic research.

This is the stage where you most typically see a true laboratory curiosity take shape. It may or may not resemble a real-world product.

A working product is not the goal at this stage, but simply to validate real-world functions, or at least functions which are believed to be relevant to real-world problems.

Engineering research

The science aspects of research (theory, basic experimentation, applied experimentation) are complete. Now the goal is to validate whether the science can be turned into a functioning prototype at least vaguely comparable to a real-world product.

Many questions are outstanding at the beginning of engineering research. The goal is to answer them so that traditional product development engineering can occur in the next phase (engineering.)

Even upon completion of engineering research, the technology remains a mere laboratory curiosity. Now the technology can be handed off to a traditional product development engineering team to produce a fully functional product which is capable of delivering real-world value.

It is not a goal of engineering research to produce a full product, but simply to answer enough questions to prove that a full product is technically feasible.

More lab time is needed

This is mostly related to the need for more research in general, but simply to highlight the point that many areas of a technology may need to spend a lot more time in the lab before being ready to be considered for application to real-world problems and release to use in the real world.

Sometimes solutions to problems and issues have been found, but experimentation in a controlled (lab) environment is needed to validate the solutions with reasonable care and to iterate on refined solutions in a reasonably methodical manner.

Some problems need more than simply a list of issues to be addressed, but the passage of sufficient elapsed time in the lab to shake out even issues of which we may not yet even be aware.

Engineering

Once all research is complete, a traditional product development engineering team can then develop a functioning real-world product capable of delivering substantial real-world value. It may or may not resemble a prototype developed in applied research or engineering research.

It is at the completion of this stage that a technology can finally advance from being a mere laboratory curiosity.

To be clear, this stage only delivers a technology product. It is up to application developers to then exploit the technology product to actually deliver substantial real-world value. So, there may be a gap in time between the release of a product and actual proof of delivering substantial real-world value.

Product development

Engineering and product development are really the same thing. Engineering emphasizes what goes under the hood of a technology. Product development emphasizes the capabilities which users directly experience, regardless of what is under the hood. Both are needed.

Product development is a strong indicator that a technology is about to advance from mere laboratory curiosity to delivering substantial real-world value, but there is no guarantee — the product may fail, potential customers may shun it, it may be too expensive, or it may be too difficult to use. Many things can go wrong, leaving a promising product stuck at being a mere laboratory curiosity.

Again, there may be a gap in time between the release of a product and actual proof of delivering substantial real-world value. Only after finally bridging that gap can a technology be considered to have advanced from being a mere laboratory curiosity.

R&D

R&D, short for research and development, is simply the same as research and engineering or product development.

Some people sometimes see R&D as emphasizing research alone and others see it as emphasizing product development alone, while others see it as both. You have to carefully examine the context to determine how the term is being used.

Generally, when a technology is “in R&D”, it is still a mere laboratory curiosity.

Limited talent pool

Progress at any stage of research, development, and uptake of a new technology can be severely constrained by a limited talent pool of technical staff needed to work on and utilize the new technology, especially for very advanced technologies which require the expertise of elite scientific and technical disciplines.

Lack of sufficient technical talent may mean that even though people know how to advance a technology and the theory is just sitting on the shelf, they simply cannot get enough of the right people to do so, leaving the technology stuck in the lab as talent slowly becomes available.

Talent shortages may be for the staff needed:

  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.

Maybe even in all three areas. Different areas might have needs and shortages at different stages of the development of the technology.

A core challenge is that you can’t simply develop talent at a moment’s notice. It can take years, even many years. So even if application development talent isn’t needed during the research stage, that may in fact be the stage when the development of talent needs to commence.

Value for evaluation and experimentation

Even as a laboratory curiosity, a new technology has some value for its potential. Evaluation and experimentation with a new technology, even one which is still merely a laboratory curiosity, can have value to a non-research organization, including commercial enterprises, even if the technology is not ready or able or proven to deliver substantial real-world value.

Evaluation and experimentation can give valuable feedback to both the researchers in the laboratory and practitioners in the field. Such as:

  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?

All of that is all well and good, but… does not indicate that the technology is ready for prime-time production-scale practical applications. And activities in evaluation and experimentation by themselves don’t constitute delivering substantial real-world value. Value in that sense needs to address actual organizational, customer, and social needs, not merely the functional benefits of the internal processes of evaluation and experimentation, as valuable as they are.

Evaluation and experimentation are internal processes that have value internally but that don’t deliver commercial, business, or organizational value until deployment of actual production-scale real-world applications.

Evaluation kits

It is quite common for the creator of a new technology to assemble a collection of equipment, tools, and documentation to facilitate evaluation and experimentation with that new technology. That’s a very good thing. But, by itself an evaluation kit does not signal that the technology is no longer a mere laboratory curiosity. In fact, it usually signifies that the technology really is new, untested, and not yet ready for prime-time production use.

Evaluation kits may also be available for technologies which actually are already out in the real-world and tested and proven, for technologies which are indeed no longer mere laboratory curiosities. But it is the state of the technology or product or service itself which tells you that, not the mere availability of the evaluation kit.

An evaluation kit might not include actual equipment or even necessarily tools — these days a lot of technology is available remotely over the Internet or in the cloud. In fact the entire evaluation kit, including equipment, tools, and documentation might be available through online access alone.

Proof of concept

The ultimate value of the work on a technology in the laboratory is to prove that the concept is valid and workable. That doesn’t mean that the concept can necessarily be successfully packaged as a practical real-world product which can solve production-scale real-world problems, but it’s the essential starting point.

To be clear, proving the concept behind a technology does not automatically mean that the technology is no longer a mere laboratory curiosity.

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

Evaluation and experimentation might lead to or result in creation of a prototype for a product or service which may or may not establish whether the technology could deliver substantial real-world value.

But until a production-scale product or service is developed, the technology will remain a laboratory curiosity.

It may be possible to do a variety of scaling tests to determine whether the technology is capable of scaling to production-scale, but that is typically well beyond the scope of a prototype.

Production-scale for real-world problems

It is indeed essential that any concepts behind a technology be proven in the laboratory — proof of concept. And it is indeed essential that prototypes be developed to prove the basic operation of the technology. But those two steps are only the start. The ability to scale up or scale out the technology to handle real-world problems of a much larger size is essential for transitioning from a mere laboratory curiosity to a production-scale product capable of solving production-scale real-world problems.

It’s easy to handle small amounts of data or small problems in a laboratory environment. Handling large amounts of data or large problems is another matter.

Actually, those two steps (proof of concept and prototype) may in fact be the end of the initial work on a technology in the laboratory, but until some additional work is done to evaluate and experiment with the technology to confirm whether it is capable of scaling up to production-scale operation, it won’t be clear whether the technology really is ready to transition from mere laboratory curiosity to being a candidate for development of a real-world product.

Progress vs. value

Sometimes it just takes a long stream of incremental improvements over years and even decades to finally advance a technology out of the laboratory and into the real world, but incremental progress alone does not automatically transform a nascent technology from its status as a laboratory curiosity to a real-world product or service which is delivering substantial real-world value.

Granted, as the technology gets near the end of that stream of incremental progress, then we can begin to tentatively speak of the technology as if it had in fact finally made the leap out of the laboratory, but that kind of talking is definitely not appropriate back deep in the middle of the long period of incremental progress.

In short, progress is good, even great, but mere incremental progress is insufficient to advance beyond the status as mere laboratory curiosity to the desired end state of delivering substantial real-world value.

Proof point milestone

Although the ultimate criteria for deciding whether a technology is ready to advance from being a mere laboratory curiosity can be complex, there is one critical milestone to watch for, the proof point, the turning point moment where there is a sufficient breakthrough or achievement which makes it crystal clear to any and all that the technology really does work in some significant fashion and that it is only a matter of time before the remaining pieces of the puzzle fall into place and the technology will be ready to deliver substantial real-world value. It’s the point when suddenly you become aware of the light at the end of the tunnel, even if the end of the tunnel is still quite a distance away.

With classical computing it was what I refer to as the ENIAC moment. There were some earlier efforts to produce experimental digital computers, but then in 1946 ENIAC was able to actually perform some practical calculations that had real-world value. It was suddenly clear that digital computing had arrived. ENIAC itself never made it out of the lab (technically it did make it out of the lab — it was moved from a university lab to a government research facility for use in military research), but a number of new computers quickly followed in ENIAC’s footsteps, and commercial computers were available within five years. So ENIAC was a clear proof point. A very notable milestone.

That is not to say that the proof point actually marks the advance from being a mere laboratory curiosity, but that it’s almost a slam dunk that it’s a fait accompli in the not too distant future. That said, the not too distant future could still be years — two years, five years, or even ten years further away.

Critical mass for proof point

The simple way to put it is that a critical mass of technological advances must come together or be brought together to hit the proof point where it finally becomes clear that the technology is finally on the verge of advancing to the stage where it can begin delivering substantial real-world value.

Critical mass for advancing beyond being a mere laboratory curiosity

Reaching a critical mass for a proof point is necessary but not sufficient to advance beyond being a mere laboratory curiosity. Additional technological developments may be needed. In fact, additional discoveries and advances in underlying basic science or even advances in underlying theory may be needed. But most of all, a critical mass of applications and a critical mass of demand and interest in the technology for applications is needed.

So, a combination of the proof point critical mass, additional technological development, and a critical mass of applications and a critical mass of demand are needed to finally advance the technology from being a mere laboratory curiosity.

Even relatively minor deficits in any of these areas could make all the difference in whether the transition beyond mere laboratory curiosity happens at all. That’s the point of requiring a critical mass.

Candidate for release from the lab

It generally won’t be clear in advance exactly when a technology is going to be ready to leave the lab and be released to engineering product development and then eventually released into the real world, but from time to time it may be clear that the technology seems to be ready to leave the lab. At such a point the current state of the technology can be considered a candidate for release from the lab. A lot of thought, testing, packaging, documentation, etc. may well be needed to follow through, but it should be relatively easy to at least propose that the technology be considered for release from the lab.

So this is really a two step decision:

  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

The ultimate moment people are waiting for is the moment of truth, the moment when the technology is ready for imminent deployment and is about to be switched on or placed online and the intended operation or application can commence. Will it work as hoped and planned, or stumble badly, or sort-of work but in a mediocre manner? This is a very important milestone.

If significant problems are encountered, it may be back to the drawing boards. Or hunt for a quick fix.

This is almost the moment when the rubber hits the road and it becomes crystal clear whether the technology has indeed advanced beyond being a mere laboratory curiosity.

Actual deployment vs. mere intent

Imminent deployment is certainly a fantastic milestone to achieve, but it is actual deployment which is the true milestone, the true culmination of the technology development process. The true moment when the rubber hits the road and it becomes crystal clear whether the technology has indeed advanced beyond being a mere laboratory curiosity.

Evaluation of deployment

Even then, once deployment has occurred, there is still more work to do. Deployment simply means the technology is available for use. There is still the need to see actual evidence of use. Did it work as hoped and planned, or stumble badly, or sort-of work but in a mediocre manner?

Once you’ve performed an evaluation of the deployment, only then can you pass judgment on whether the technology has indeed advanced beyond being a mere laboratory curiosity.

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

The criteria for whether a discovery or technology is still a mere laboratory curiosity are not absolutely cut and dried, but generally…

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

With a commercial product you are expected to know how it will likely be used and its likely benefits, but with basic science and basic engineering, and laboratory curiosities in general, part of their appeal is that they may have application far beyond our current knowledge.

Superficially, it might seem as if confidence in our knowledge of the applications, use cases, and benefits of a technology would seem to argue that it is more than just a mere laboratory curiosity, but the problem is that often our hopes, dreams, and expectations can greatly exceed the actual facts and reality.

On the flip side, an unsettling feeling that you just don’t know what the likely applications, use case, or benefits of a technology might be would argue in favor of it more likely being a mere laboratory curiosity, but breakthrough technologies will tend to have that quality. Just because you don’t know or lack confidence doesn’t mean that they aren’t there.

You have to use careful judgment in such cases. Excellent intuition is required. Otherwise, you’re just shooting in the dark and rolling the dice with your eyes closed. Know yourself and your limits. Some people are cut out to work well with such technologies while others are not.

When in doubt, the safe presumption is that a new technology is in fact a mere laboratory curiosity until and unless there is ample evidence to the contrary.

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

A technology exists for some purpose — not just because it’s there. A technology attempting to exit from being a mere laboratory curiosity needs to serve some nontrivial purpose in the real world, such as:

  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

A technology needs to be a success to advance from being a mere laboratory curiosity. A success for somebody. Success means different things in different contexts and for different people, such as:

  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?

The ultimate goal for a technology is to deliver substantial real-world value, such as:

  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

Technical staff, including engineers, and scientists are usually quite good at being modest about their accomplishments and prospects for the future, but once marketing, sales, and managers and executives come into the picture hype and a desire to look as if a technology was no longer a mere laboratory curiosity can get out of control. Some of the ploys or cheats include:

  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

Prototypes and experimental units have been produced. Even possibly some degree of commercial success. Obstacles remain, but optimism is high for dramatic advances within a small number of years. As opposed to technologies which are struggling and have obstacles with no readily apparent solutions and face more than a few years to achieve real-world success.

  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

This paper generally couches the technology under discussion as a singular, monolithic entity, but the reality may be that the technology is an umbrella concept with a variety of subsidiary technologies under that overarching umbrella, which may come in two forms:

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

Either way, each subsidiary technology may have its own arc and trajectory from concept to final product. Some of the subsidiary technologies may indeed advance from being mere laboratory curiosities sooner even as others remain stuck in the lab a little longer or even a lot longer, or maybe not even make it out of the lab at all.

In the case where the subsidiary technologies are components of a whole, having one or more of the subsidiary technologies stuck in the lab even as others are ready to leave the lab can leave the whole umbrella technology stuck as a mere laboratory curiosity until the stuck components finally, hopefully eventually get unstuck.

In the case of a family of subsidiary technologies, some of the members of the family can proceed to advance beyond mere laboratory curiosities even if other members remain stuck in the lab.

As two examples of umbrella (broad) technologies, artificial intelligence (AI) and quantum computing both have the dual aspects of families of related but distinct technologies and component technologies. There are many functional areas of AI which can be used independently (e.g., natural language processing, theorem proving, and machine learning), and there are multiple qubit technologies (e.g., superconducting transmon qubits and trapped-ions) which can be used to build quantum computers. Each functional area of AI and each particular quantum computer has many components, all of which need to come together for the product to be usable.

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

To successfully transition from laboratory curiosity, a technology must offer and deliver clear and convincing benefits.

There are degrees of benefit which can be achieved:

  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

The progression from laboratory curiosity to production-scale real-world product or service delivering substantial real-world value is a bit of a continuous spectrum but more likely to be a rather bumpy road, sometimes slow and difficult, many detours, and only sometimes long flat straightaways with rapid progress.

The process may or may not start with grand visions of the ultimate benefits. It may start with much more modest ambitions of a simple science or engineering experiment, with visibility on practical applications coming only later in the process.

Without implying an absolute sequential order, the steps or milestones along the way include:

  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.

By degree of progress, we mean to which stage has the technology advanced. How many iterations of improvement has it gone through and how many iterations may still be required? How close to or far from a real-world product does it feel?

Or in a simplified view, a progression through preliminary, middle, and final stages:

  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.

And that’s all still at the laboratory stage of the technology. Productization and traditional product engineering is yet to come. The end result at this stage is simply a working technology ready to be turned into a product by traditional engineers. The work of the research scientists and research engineers will have been done.

Early-stage vs. later-stage laboratory curiosities

As noted, a nascent technology will progress through a variety of stages. The most important takeaway is to simply distinguish early-stage laboratory curiosities from later-stage laboratory curiosities. The distinction being that at the early stage the technology is more likely to be not usable at all in any real-world sense, while at the later stages the technology is or is beginning to be usable in something resembling a practical sense. That’s not to say that the technology is actually ready for prime time or actually delivering substantial production-scale real-word value, but at least forward-looking organizations can begin contemplating future use and maybe even begin the evaluation and experimentation process. In any case, we’re still dealing with a laboratory curiosity in either case.

Normal engineering product development process

That was the process while the technology was still a laboratory curiosity. Once, it is clear that the raw technology is sufficient for real-world use, it can be handed off to the normal engineering product development process, which includes:

  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

Nobody expects a mere laboratory curiosity to have great documentation or even necessarily formal technical specifications, but for a workable commercial product a technology needs both.

Every relevant detail and nuance of the technology that a developer or user might need to know about needs complete and easy to access and easy to understand documentation and technical specifications.

That’s a quick check to determine whether a technology is still merely a laboratory curiosity — are the documentation and technical specifications incredibly thorough and easy to understand, or minimal, spotty, inconsistent, or even nonexistent.

Turning point

At some point, slow incremental progress may finally hit a critical mass when it suddenly becomes clear that progress from a mer laboratory curiosity to a real-world product or service capable of delivering substantial real-world value is finally a fait accompli. Sure, plenty of work likely remains, but with a clarity and certainty that almost ensures success.

Whether the turning point comes right in the middle, very early, or only very near the end will vary from technology to technology.

Sometimes the turning point will be obvious in advance, but sometimes it may be clear only in hindsight once it is in the rearview mirror.

The main point about a turning point is that once it is clear, it becomes easier for people to make commitments to the new technology. Projects can get a higher priority and greater focus. More resources can be more easily justified.

The great risk is that a perceived turning point may end up turning out to be mere illusion. You just have to watch it all play out. That’s the way it is with any advanced and untested technology. Sometimes it’s a real roll of the dice gamble, but it may just as well be that significant diligence and perseverance carries the day.

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

One way or another, people will develop expectations for a new technology. Better to be proactive and set expectations for them. But the challenge is to set expectations in a realistic manner.

There are two main challenges with setting expectations, setting them:

  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.

It’s a real balancing act.

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

Papers, books, conferences, conventions, trade shows, seminars, online communities, and meetups would all be expected for a commercially successful product or service, but although they may be necessary they are not per se sufficient to prove that a technology is no longer a mere laboratory curiosity.

These accessories to commercial success may well enable:

  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.

But until and unless any of that translates into actually delivering substantial real-world value, the transition from laboratory curiosity has not been accomplished.

Need to move beyond the lunatic fringe of early adopters

Every technology needs early adopters, but the earliest adopters commonly won’t be representative of the main audience for the technology. Commonly the earliest adopters are really merely the lunatic fringe, the elite individuals and elite organizations which are able to accept and work with a new technology in its crudest and least-developed form, well before it is ready to be used and exploited fully by mere-mortal users.

I discuss this topic in greater depth in this paper:

The main point here is that until a technology really is ready to move beyond the lunatic fringe, it will remain a mere laboratory curiosity.

Science fiction — not even a laboratory curiosity

A technology which exists only in science fiction (books, movies, TV shows), and isn’t even in a science or engineering laboratory yet, is not even a laboratory curiosity. Such as:

  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

Some technologies are conceived with great hopes and expectations, but somehow, for some reason, those great hopes and expectations are very quickly dashed. Some reasons might include:

  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

Some technologies are the opposite of being flashes in the pan, always just around the corner but never managing to actually turn that final corner, and always managing to make just enough progress to keep hopes and dreams alive.

Or maybe they should be called laboratory curiosities from hell.

In any case, they are best observed and admired from a distance. Just don’t get sucked into their endless whirlpool of endless promises and dashed hopes.

Technology winter

At one or more stages of its development a technology may go through a technology winter, such as an AI 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.

The distinction from a zombie technology is that a technology spring will tend to follow a technology winter, while for a zombie technology, by definition, there is never any relief, no spring.

Almost by definition, a technology winter would be a clear confirmation that the technology remains a mere laboratory curiosity.

Limited commercial success

Technically, any degree of commercial success would seem to indicate that a technology is not a true laboratory curiosity. But… I would argue that a technology with limited commercial success is hardly much more beneficial than an actual laboratory curiosity.

Some examples of limited commercial success, which significantly limited the direct benefit of the technology:

  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.

I would argue that these technologies were effectively no more than laboratory curiosities, but I’ll accept that not everyone would necessarily agree with that assessment.

Unique and special government needs

Most of the concepts in this paper are focused on the needs of businesses, other organizations, and consumers, but there is one special category of customer for technology, namely government.

Actually, for the most part, government at all levels, federal, state, and local, is fairly representative of businesses and other organizations with respect to its use of most technologies.

But there are a variety of unique and special needs that government has that are not representative of non-government entities:

  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.

The point here is that in many of these cases there may be a single customer or user (group) of the technology, so that research and development can focus narrowly on those singular needs rather than seeking to appeal to a broader audience or financial profit or normal cost constraints.

What might indeed be considered a laboratory curiosity from a broader perspective could well be usable by a specialized group who gain great value even if the technology is difficult to use.

So in the case of technologies focused on unique and special government needs the only significant consideration with respect to laboratory curiosities is whether the sponsoring government agency feels that the technology satisfies its narrow needs sufficient to justify the attention and resources. To anybody else, the technology may very well look to be a mere laboratory curiosity.

Ethical considerations

There will always be ethical considerations for any technology which is going to be introduced into the real world. Ethical considerations should of course be considered before transitioning a technology from being a mere laboratory curiosity to being accessible in the real world.

In some cases, ethical considerations may end up being gating factors precluding a technology from leaving the laboratory and entering the real world, until the ethical considerations are addressed. Or, maybe it isn’t feasible to address all of the ethical considerations in any timely manner. Either way, the technology will remain a mere laboratory curiosity until all gating ethical considerations have been addressed.

This paper does not explore ethical considerations, not to downplay their significance, but it should be noted that ethical considerations are worthy of a full treatment on their own.

Regulatory considerations

Generally, any technology advancing out of the laboratory will need to be evaluated with respect to government regulatory requirements, if any apply. The point here is that it may not be possible for a technology to advance from being a mere laboratory curiosity until it successfully complies with all relevant regulations and gains any required regulatory approval.

Are any of your favorite technologies laboratory curiosities?

From your own perspective, and that of the organization which employs you, a technology that you are using is likely a laboratory curiosity if:

  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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