Issues with professors' 'breakthrough tech' analysis

Professors Jeffrey Funk and Asit K. Biswas made several egregious errors in their description of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Technology Review's annual list of 10 breakthrough technologies, which undermine the entire purported analysis ("Prof, no one is using your ideas"; Feb 8).

First, they wrote that we work with MIT's scientists and engineers to predict the 10 breakthrough technologies.

This is incorrect. Though we are owned by MIT, we operate independently.

In preparing the list, we solicit guidance and input from experts everywhere: companies, investment firms, and research labs at MIT and around the world.

In recent years, the list highlighted commercial technologies such as Tesla Autopilot, Apple Pay and Oculus Rift. Technologies developed at MIT account for only a small percentage of the breakthroughs, and not "most" of them.

Second, Profs Funk and Biswas wrote that the lists in aggregate have "40 predicted breakthroughs".

Given that there have been 15 lists published, and the professors themselves noted that it has come out almost every year since 2001 - which would give a total of 150 technologies - where did the figure 40 come from?

Equally bizarrely, the professors say that only one of the breakthrough technologies identified has a market larger than US$100 billion (S$142 billion), and only three others have markets larger than US$10 billion.

It is unclear why any technology market smaller than US$10 billion must be unimportant.

Even if we accept that threshold as meaningful, we must recognise the fact that many of the technologies have expanded opportunities in existing markets or given rise to technologies that have created enormous economic value.

Examples of such technologies include data mining, synthetic biology, epigenetics and augmented reality.

Finally, Profs Funk and Biswas say that our publication "ignored" technologies that emerged outside of academic papers, and cited smartphones, cloud computing and the Internet of Things, tablet computers, and social networking as the real sources of action.

Perhaps they are unaware that mobile and cloud-related technologies have been on a few of our lists. Facebook's Timeline was on the 2012 list; Snapchat was on the 2013 list; and Internet of Things devices that power themselves were on last year's list.

It is fine for the professors to argue that college professors are out of touch with "the technologies that are actually being commercialised" and the things students need to learn.

But they ought to find something to support it other than a bad analysis of what they call "MIT's predictions".

Brian Bergstein

Editor At Large

MIT Technology Review


Our op-ed argued that start-ups and other companies are not using ideas from academic papers for new products and services ("Prof, no one is using your ideas"; Feb 8).

One type of evidence was the first 40 predictions of "breakthrough technologies" by Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Technology Review, done between 2001 and 2005.

This analysis chose the earliest predictions made by Technology Review because a 10-year period increases the chances that markets for the predicted breakthroughs will emerge. Market data was gathered from reports done by internationally recognised organisations such as Gartner.

To simplify, we used a benchmark of US$10 billion and compared the number of predicted breakthroughs with a market size of more than US$10 billion to technologies missed by Technology Review that currently have markets larger than US$10 billion and that were not available by 2005.

The analysis found that one prediction (data mining) had a market size in 2015 of more than US$100 billion, and three others (power grid control, biometrics, distributed storage) had markets larger than US$10 billion (the analysis assumed data mining, power grid control, and distributed storage are similar to Big Data, smart grids, and cloud storage respectively).

As we noted, predictions missed smartphones (US$500 billion), cloud computing and software-as-a-service (more than US$100 billion), the Internet of Things and tablet computers (more than US$50 billion), and social networking, e-books, wearable computing, and fintech (more than US$10 billion).

Our purpose was to draw attention to the fact that ideas for new products and services are coming from outside academic papers, which have become the sole measure of university faculty performance.

The fact that Technology Review missed many technologies that have experienced growth over the last 10 years suggests that university professors are not researching or writing about many of the technologies that are soon to become important technologies.

Instead, companies are finding ideas in other places largely by understanding how exponential improvements in electronic components, Internet speed and cost, and smartphones enable new types of products and services.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 20, 2017, with the headline 'Issues with professors' 'breakthrough tech' analysis'. Print Edition | Subscribe