It’s hard not to notice that the future is arriving faster than ever. Innovations are arriving at breakneck speed. In just the last couple of years we have seen things like self-driving cars, software that beatsJeopardy!, bipedal robots that can navigate difficult terrain just like humans do, and a very convincing defeat of one of the world’s best Go players by Google’s DeepMind technology. These are all things that knowledgeable people predicted would still be decades away, yet they are all happening right now. Why is that, and what does that have to do with your IP strategy?
Most of us would agree that digital technology is a big, if not the biggest contributor to the accelerating pace of innovation. By now, everyone should be familiar with Moore’s law, what it has done to processing power, and how this has impacted every aspect of our lives. It’s been more than 50 years since Moore first published his “law,” and it is still going strong. However, what a lot of people may not realize is that we’re only now getting to the incredibly fast growth part of the exponential curve. This means that the speed of progress that we observed in the past will no longer be a reliable indication for what will happen in the future. In other words, the acceleration itself is accelerating, and it’s happening so fast, that it’s forcing organizations to adjust the way they do business.
Nowadays, Moore’s law applies to more than just computational power. Other technologies have been miniaturized and transferred to silicon, thereby becoming subject to a similar pace of digital progress. These technologies include microfluidics and the wide variety of sensors that are driving life science technologies like increasingly efficient whole genome sequencing, high-throughput screening of drug compounds, and combinatorial chemistry.
Of course, hardware isn’t the only technology that is responsible for these changes. There is a mountain of freely available data that is growing at a staggering speed. It is mind-blowing to think that over 90% of all digital data in existence today has been produced only in the last two years. Ranging from the latest Neanderthal genome to the holiday pics that my Uncle Joe posted on his Facebook page this morning, the volumes of data that are available are opening doors to more measurement-driven decision making. For example, the frequency of specific google search terms is now a much more reliable indicator for upcoming house price changes in an area than the expert opinions of local real estate agents.
We’ve all witnessed the advancements in technology, and we’re all trying to get a grip on the incredible increase of readily-available data. But how exactly does this lead to more and faster-paced innovation? The quick and simple answer is that it lowers the costs of entry dramatically, making it is easier to do very targeted experiments. However, there’s more to it than that.
Innovation often takes place at the intersections of existing technologies. When the people at Waze combined a digital map with GPS navigation and sensor feedback from millions of mobile phones, they got real-time information about what is happening on the road. This allowed them to suggest the best way to travel for you at the very moment you need it, taking into account current traffic flow and road accidents. (In 2013 Google paid almost a billion dollars for this idea). Sure, Waze didn’t invent rockets, satellites, GPS, digital maps, or smartphones, but they did create a clever combination of already existing technologies.
Likewise, the people at IBM are now feeding Watson (the machine that won Jeopardy!), medical textbooks and literature so that it can assist with difficult medical diagnoses. One can only imagine what will be possible when software like this is able to run on ordinary computers and becomes available to the public. Would you feed it MedLine and the world’s patent literature just to do your next prior art search?
In addition to more combinatorial innovations based on past accomplishments, another promising effect is that we may also have more people to do the actual innovating. In 2011, when Sebastian Thrun from Stanford University decided to put his introduction to artificial intelligence online, over 160,000 people from 190 countries signed up. While not all of them finished the course, out of the ones who did, 400 of them had better grades than the best Harvard student doing the same course in person. High quality online education now has the brightest minds of the entire planet working on interesting problems, not just those that are lucky enough to have access to traditional education.
So what does that mean for your IP strategy? Of course, patents will continue to protect and commercialize ideas. However, new ideas and opportunities are going to continue to arrive at a much faster pace, and innovators will have to become more efficient at recognizing and managing them, or risk missing out.
The potential cost of missing opportunities is probably what should worry organizations the most. There is less and less room for second and third best place in today’s world. New technologies allow delivery of goods and services on a worldwide scale, but they also allow people to be very selective. Online reviews and comparisons help them identify the best solutions, services, and products instantly. To take an example from the consumer space, where once a restaurant could get away with lousy food because a nearby tourist attraction supplied an endless stream of first-time customers, Yelp now supplies data from the public that forces a restaurant owner to become better or get forced out of the market.
Although the acceleration of innovation is leading to an ever-increasing number of product and services, in a growing number of markets, the momentum created by various forms of data (including user data) is creating more and more winner-takes-all scenarios. There’s only room for so many good navigation apps, and even when the 10th most popular app does most of the things that Waze does, it will not be worth anywhere near a billion dollars.
Why would you expect customers to settle for anything less than the very best solution, when all relevant information is easy to find online? When this happens in your industry, (and it is almost inevitable that it will), you want to be the one with the best solution, or at least be holding a part of the relevant IP.
The better your organization is at visualizing and processing the bounty of opportunities that can be found in the sea of data and exciting technologies heading our way, the better prepared you’ll be for what will come next.