3D printing? Robots? BORING. Give us real innovation

Dr Patrick Dixon's vision of tomorrow isn't quite what you'd expect from most futurists

10 Nov 2015

In the near future, our homes will have 3D printers and smart fridges, we'll work alongside robots and we'll pay for it all with Bitcoin.

Unless, of course, this is all fantasy and nonsense, as Dr Patrick Dixon suggests. A futurist and author, he sought to "uncover the truth of innovation" for attendees of Nexterday North in Helsinki, Finland, which ran from 9-10 November.

He called for visitors to set aside tech hype and think more clearly. "Let's be careful – we need a reality check," he said. 

"The sales of robots are only growing 7% per year"

Let's start with robots. There's no question that robots, drones and other intelligent machines are making headlines and fit our collective image of the world in the future, but Dr Dixon says there's a problem with our enthusiasm: "The sales of robots are only growing 7% per year, and almost all of them are used in the auto industry. Outside of that, almost zero."

While he admitted this could change, Dr Dixon pointed out that "most people don't want them in their homes".

Bitcoin and other digital payment methods also need a reality check, he said. Fascinating though such technologies may be, we have more money in our pockets than ever before, he said. "There's more cash circulating in the European Union than we've ever seen in human history," he said. In the UK, the figure has fallen – but only by 0.1%.

Not even 3D printers and scanners were safe from Dr Dixon's derision. "To be able to scan your bottle of water, and be able to print a bottle of water without the water in it – that's great," he said, to laughter. 

This doesn't mean additive manufacturing is pointless, he stressed – it could be transformative in medicine and industry – but it's less useful in the home. "I've had one for years, so I can tell you it's very boring," he said. "I'm bored of printing toys."

"I'm bored of 3D-printing toys"

And what of the classic overhyped Internet of Things tech, smart fridges? Dr Dixon has had one in his own kitchen for years, but he's not impressed. "It was boring then and it's boring now," he said. "Who on earth wants the exact same thing in the fridge every single day automatically? We take a product out, we throw it away, and the following day, automatically from Tesco, would arrive an identical item."

Most people in Britain wouldn't be able to tell you what they're having for dinner if you asked them in the afternoon, he said. "Why would you want to stuff your fridge six weeks in advance with identical stuff?"

Innovation or convergence?

There is true innovation out there, Dr Dixon said, pointing to technology that actually solves problems for people, such as mobile banking in Kenya or Google's contact lenses that can detect sugar levels for people with diabetes.

Part of the reason we need a reality check is media coverage (sorry, everyone, our bad). Open up a tech magazine or site and the pages are filled with tech, but much of it isn't true innovation, Dr Dixon said.

"Most of the innovation is just another iteration of a smartphone app or a phone with a slightly better camera with slightly more pixels," he said. "I've got more pixels in my camera than I know what to do with already."

This is not true innovation, but rather convergence, Dr Dixon argued. "All innovation is divergent … convergence is ultimately extremely boring because it makes every product look the same, every car look the same, ever smartphone has the same capability," he said. "All innovation, all true innovation, is divergent. When you converge, there's nothing left to compete on except price, and price sucks because, when you compete on price, it's just a race to the bottom."

Don't be disheartened: some companies are doing genuinely innovative things with technology. Intel is one of those companies, and it's using the Internet of Things to help firefighters, farmers and parents, among potentially millions of others. Click here to check out what it has been doing

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