We hear a lot today about the importance of “disruptive innovation,” “deep technologies,” “moonshots,” and even “technological miracles.” What do these terms mean and how are they related? Are they just silly clichés used to hype techno-exuberant books, articles, and speeches? Or do these terms have real meaning and importance?
This article explores those questions and argues that, while these terms are confronted with definitional challenges and occasional overuse, they retain real importance to human flourishing, economic growth, and societal progress.
Don Boudreaux defines moonshots as, “radical but feasible solutions to important problems” and Mike Cushing has referred to them as “innovation that achieves the previously unthinkable.” “Deep technology” is another buzzword being used to describe such revolutionary and important innovations. Swati Chaturvedi of investment firm Propel[x] says deep technologies are innovations that are “built on tangible scientific discoveries or engineering innovations” and “are trying to solve big issues that really affect the world around them.”
“Disruptive technology” or “game-changing innovations” are other terms that are often used in reference to technologies and inventions with major societal impacts. “Transformative technologies” is another increasingly popular term, albeit one focused mostly on health and wellness-related innovations.
However one defines them and whatever one calls them, it is clear, as a 2015 report from the World Economic Forum (WEF) argued, that, “the list of potentially disruptive technologies keeps getting longer.” “Inventions previously seen only in science fiction,” the WEF report said, “will enable us to connect and invent in ways we never have before.”
More concretely, when people use these terms in reference to existing technologies, or ones currently on the drawing board, they often mention innovations like:
- Artificial intelligence / machine learning / robotics
- 3D printing / additive manufacturing
- Self-repairing / self-building objects
- Driverless cars / flying cars (VTOL), supersonic transport
- Private space travel / lunar mining
- Clean power / alternative energy production
- Genetic editing & life extension technologies
- Implantable tech / human augmentation
- Hyper-connected devices / wearable fitness / sensor tech / IoT
- Precision medicine
- Neural networks
- Quantum computing
- Nanotechnology / synthetic biology
- Immersive technology (AT & VR)
This is just a partial list of the type of technologies that experts mention when discussing “moonshots,” deep tech,” and other “disruptive” or “transformative innovations.” What unifies them more than anything else is the potential for major improvements in human well-being. Significant advancements in these areas could lead to substantial jumps in human welfare, health, and longevity.
These terms have some problems and limitations, however. For example,“moonshots” conjures up thoughts of large, expensive government programs that are centrally-directed in a top-down fashion. Writing in The New Atlantis last year, Mark P. Mills argued that the notion of “technological miracles” can be taken to unrealistic extremes and he specifically cautioned against getting caught up in “moonshot fallacies” as well as “Moore’s Law fallacy.”
The “moonshot fallacy” is commonly heard in policy discussions whenever a policymaker or pundit insists that, “If we can put a man on the moon, then we can…” fill in the blank with your prefered aspirational goal du jour. But as Mills points out, this sort of talk often represents highly unrealistic, wishful thinking. “It is true that engineers have achieved amazing feats when tasked with particular, practical goals. But not all goals are equally achievable,” he correctly argues.
“Moore’s Law fallacy” refers to the fact that innovation in the physical world of atoms is usually much harder and more costly than innovation in the digital world of bits. “If energy technology had followed a Moore’s Law trajectory, today’s car engine would have shrunk to the size of an ant while producing a thousandfold more horsepower,” Mills observes. The time horizons for big change are almost always going to be significantly longer in the physical world even with the increasing digitization in society and “software eating the world.”
“Disruptive technology” is also a problematic term because its common use is quite different from Clayton M. Christensen’s original explanation of the term in his widely-cited Harvard Business Review articles from 1995 and then 2015. “The original notion of disruption aimed to describe why great firms can fail,” Josh Gans explained in his recent book, The Disruption Dilemma. “Today, use of the term has gotten out of control,” he says. “As a concept, disruption has become so persuasive this it is at risk of becoming useless.”
Gans makes a good point. Not everything can be disruptive. Moreover, some techno-evangelists get carried away with such rhetoric regarding the “disruptive,” “transformative,” and “miracle”-working” potential of various technologies.
But Sometimes Dreams Come True
Despite these definitional controversies or rhetorical excesses from some overly-exuberant tech boosters, these terms retain real meaning and significance.
It is easy to ridicule dreamers, but quite a bit of life-changing innovation begins as a dream of some sort. Without a doubt, a great many “moonshots” will never get off the ground, and many “deep” technologies will end up sinking into the ocean of irrelevant or failed technologies. But that’s OK! It is in the process of risk-taking, experimentation, and failure that wisdom is generated and meaningful improvements in social and economic well-being come about.
It’s easy to talk about “trial-and-error” without thinking much about the “error” part of the process. It is only through constant experimentation and failure that we learn how to do things more efficiently and create or improve goods and services.
Perhaps the most straightforward definition of “technology” is Ian Barbour’s: “the application of organized knowledge to practical tasks by ordered systems of people and machines.” But organized knowledge requires lots of trials and lots of errors — by both people and machines — in order to find workable solutions to the tasks we hope to accomplish.
It would seem that most people appreciate how much technological innovation has improved their lives. A 2017 Pew Research Center poll asked, “What would you say was the biggest improvement to life in America over the past 50 years or so?” An overwhelming percentage of respondents (42%) said technology had contributed more than any other factor. That was three times as many people as the second-place answer, “medicine and health” (14%) (much of which could also be considered technological innovation). ”Politics” came in a distant 6th place with just 2% of respondents believing that it has changed life for the better.
To the extent that we would like to see more technological improvements, we need more “dreamers” who hope to change the world. Entrepreneurs are the key to this process because, by their very nature, they refuse to settle for the status quo. They dream of a world that can work differently; one in which they can improve their own lot and (whether intentionally or not) improve the lot of humanity simultaneously. “What entrepreneurs do,” venture capitalist Vinod Khosla argues, “is they imagine what feels impossible to most people, and take it all the way from impossible, to improbable, to possible but unlikely, to plausible, to probable, to real!”
That is why entrepreneurialism is so important, and it is also why shouldn’t roll our eyes when people dream about “moonshots” and the ways in which “deep technology” might “disrupt” and “transform” society for the better.
While we should always keep both feet firmly rooted on the ground, there is nothing wrong with looking skyward and dreaming of a better future. Indeed, as a society, we should seek to foster a culture of innovation that rewards entrepreneurial dreaming and daring, because in seeking to make the world a better place, progress and prosperity become reality.
Donald J. Boudreaux, “What’s Your Moonshot?” Mercatus Center at George Mason University, Mercatus Original Video, November 16, 2017, https://www.mercatus.org/videos/whats-your-moonshot.
Joseph L. Bower & Clayton M. Christensen, “Disruptive Technologies: Catching the Wave,” Harvard Business Review, January-February 1995, https://hbr.org/1995/01/disruptive-technologies-catching-the-wave.
Clayton M. Christensen, Michael E. Raynor & Rory McDonald, “What Is Disruptive Innovation?” Harvard Business Review,December 2015, https://hbr.org/2015/12/what-is-disruptive-innovation.
Tyler Cowen, “Is Innovation Over? The Case against Pessimism,” Foreign Affairs, March/April 2016, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/reviews/review-essay/2016-02-15/innovation-over.
Swati Chaturvedi, “So What Exactly is ‘Deep Technology’?” LinkedIn, July 28, 2015, https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/so-what-exactly-deep-technology-swati-chaturvedi.
Mike Cushing, “Moonshot Projects — Innovation or Wishful Thinking?” Enterprise Innovation, http://www.enterpriseinnovation.com/articles/moonshot-projects-innovation-or-wishful-thinking.
Vinod Khosla, “We Need Large Innovations,” Medium, January 1, 2018, https://medium.com/@vkhosla/we-need-large-innovations-58e3eaaf8138.
Josh Gans, The Disruption Dilemma (MIT Press, 2016), https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/disruption-dilemma.
Mark P. Mills, “Making Technological Miracles,” The New Atlantis, (Spring 2017): 37–55, http://www.thenewatlantis.com/publications/making-technological-miracles.
Albert H. Segars, “Seven Technologies Remaking the World,” MIT Sloan Management Review, March 9, 2018, https://sloanreview.mit.edu/projects/seven-technologies-remaking-the-world.
Adam Thierer, Permissionless Innovation: The Continuing Case for Comprehensive Technological Freedom, (Mercatus Center at George Mason University, 2016), https://www.mercatus.org/publication/permissionless-innovation-continuing-case-comprehensive-technological-freedom
Adam Thierer and Trace Mitchell, “The Many Forms of Entrepreneurialism,” The Bridge, August 30, 2018, https://www.mercatus.org/bridge/commentary/many-forms-entrepreneurialism
Adam Thierer, “Making the World Safe for More Moonshots,” The Bridge, February 5, 2018, https://www.mercatus.org/bridge/commentary/making-world-safe-more-moonshots
World Economic Forum, Deep Shift: Technology Tipping Points and Societal Impact (Geneva, Switzerland: September 2015), 3, http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_GAC15_Technological_Tipping_Points_report_2015.pdf.