Where’s My Flying Car?

John Pientka

A cottage industry has grown up around lamenting how we just aren’t making the progress we used to. Planes and cars go no faster than 60 years ago. We were told the cloud was supposed to bring us that innovation. Maybe it is but think biology not machines.

You’ve got to admit it. Sometimes it does feel like we have topped out. Where are the flying cars, personal jetpacks and supersonic flight we were all promised? What happened to that heroic future in space? No one has left earth orbit in 45 years.

Sure, our computers are faster and cheaper. We’ve all got smartphones with cameras, GPS, text, voice, and most importantly Facebook and Twitter. Mmmm! Feel satisfied? And how about that instant delivery from the “Everything Store” (Amazon)? That stirs my loins. What? It doesn’t it do for you?

Life is more convenient and machines are more fuel-efficient but is that it? Just four years ago Robert J. Gordon published his book “The Rise and Fall of American Growth”. In it he suggested we are at the end of a 100 year wave of innovation. Gordon’s view was not alone. Back in 2011 Peter Thiel, a well-known venture capitalist published: “What Happened to the Future?” with its famous subtitle: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

It seemed that the smart money was going into “trivial” software apps that did not require lots of resources but had huge upsides if it was a hit. (Ironically, Thiel was an investor in both PayPal and Facebook – Sigh!) Where are the Wright’s, Ford’s, Goodyear’s, Carnegie’s, Rockefeller’s, etc. of the past? Well, what about Travis Kalanick of Uber? No – I thought not.

Don’t get too depressed. Maybe innovation has not stopped, just gone in a different direction. Could it be we can’t see the forest fore the trees? After all history teaches us that human events don’t proceed in a linear fashion. There are stops and starts, weird turns and unforeseen leaps. Let’s look at potentially one of those – the cloud. The cloud is only about 15 years old and brings almost boundless computing power cheap and easily accessed.

Just think, many of the signature innovations in planes, autos, manufacturing, etc. were achieved with pencil, paper and slide rules. Remember back then a computer was a person who ran a tabulating (adding) machine. It’s just amazing what our predecessors accomplished with these. But in the end your tools limit you. And if you want to explore something that comes in billions and trillions, like biology and medicine, a slide rule and an adding machine are just not going to cut it. But, the cloud is a turning point.

Let’s look at the potential demand. There are over 130,000 medical and 42,000 biological scientists in the U.S. alone. In order to be productive and advance the science they need powerful computational tools at their fingertips. How do you distribute to all of them, today’s equivalent of the old slide rule? Viola! Enter the cloud.

Let’s look at a couple of examples. Consider the challenge of really understanding the biological world. Researchers face phenomenal complexity and staggering scale. There are 40 Trillion cells in your body! Believe it or not, we just don’t know how they actually do their thing and work with other cells. A massive global project is underway to provide the answers: The Human Cell Atlas. Imagine the vast amount of data this is producing. How do the scientists handle this? They are using the cloud.

Dive down another level to inside the cell. Proteins are another sea of mystery to us. They are an essential part of all living organisms, especially as structural components of body tissues and as enzymes and antibodies. Yet, we know only a limited amount about just a number of them.  

Ever hear of cryo-EM? Don’t worry it is the latest thing in Electron Microscopy. Proteins functionality comes not only from their chemistry but also their shape. With Cryo-EM proteins are frozen and then scanned into a 3D image essential to understanding their function. The old way just gave a 2D image. Cryo-EM’s resolution and utility has driven an explosion in its use and a tsunami of data. An international database has been established and already has 10,000 entries. Guess what they use – the Amazon Cloud.

Almost daily headlines point to new cures and promises of cures. These are the “trees” that maybe obscuring the forest:

What happened? The power of the cloud enabled scientists to develop tools, techniques and therapies. The forest is coming into view – a phenomenal ability to understand and manipulate biology and medicine, the elements of life.

In the 20th Century the average life span doubled. That was achieved not through a deep understanding of the genome but decent public health measures, germ theory and the use of antibiotics. It’s comparable to the progress in amazing machines we engineered with just pencil, paper and slide rules.

What we consider diseases of aging were barely scratched back then. Now, we are innovating at a furious rate. Today, the understanding is that “organisms are algorithms” and the cloud is illuminating it. Talk about innovation. In the 21st Century will we double our lifespans again, or maybe even more?

So, we didn’t get our flying cars yet. I think we need to revisit how we measure innovation. What do you think?

By John Pientka


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