Secret Innovation

One of the staples of near-future science fiction is organizations working in absolute secrecy to produce big game-changing innovation. I’ve been trying to come up with examples of this in the real world, but haven’t found any.

A few examples from science fiction: (These are kind of spoilers, but not very good ones.)

  • In Daniel Suarez’s Daemon a character named Matthew Sobel invents a new world order in the form of a not-quite-intelligent internet bot. Even the contractors working with Sobel don’t really know what they’re working on until Sobel dies right before the book begins, causing the Daemon to be unleashed.
  • In Ernest Cline’s Ready Player One James Halliday and his company go complete dark for several years and emerge with OASIS. This was a combination of hardware and software that created a globe spanning, latency-free shared virtual world for the people of earth to inhabit.
  • In Kill Decision (also) by Daniel Suarez, a shadowy government contractor builds automatous drones and deploys them for months before anyone realizes what’s going on.
  • The society ending technology from Directive 51 by John Barnes is a prime example. The book uses nanotech, extreme mental subversion and idealist/zealot manipulation to hatch a world wide society ending event. (via Jake)
  • In Nexus by Ramez Naam somebody engineers nanobots that link people’s emotions. Then some other people develop software to run on Nexus that give them super-human abilities. All of this happens in secret.

(There are certainly more examples than these. Mention them in the comments and I’ll add them to the list.)

In reality it doesn’t work like this, and there are two reasons for that.  The first is that the secrecy is far from perfect and the world gets a gradually better picture of whatever the thing is as it approaches completion. The second is that in the real world every successful innovation is an improvement on a usually-less-successful innovation that came before it.

The most likely counter-example people will bring up is the iPhone. Didn’t it spring fully-formed form the head of Steve Jobs on January 9, 2007?  Well no. Not even remotely. Apple’s own Newton, the Palm Pilot, the HP 200LX, Blackberry, and many more were clear fore-bearers of the iPhone. Apple certainly drove the design of that sort of device further than anyone else had. They definitely improved it to the point that millions of people bought them as quickly as they could be manufactured. They didn’t spring an entirely new kind of device on the world in a surprise announcement. The iPhone was basically a Palm Treo with the suck squeezed out.

Unfortunately as the iPhone demonstrates, “Big game-changing innovation” is not very easy to define. Let’s go with:

A new product or service that is so advanced that society doesn’t have a cultural niche in which to put it.

The Daemon, OASIS, and the swarms of killer drones from Kill Decision certainly fit this definition.  Are there any examples of products or services from the real world that do? If you can think of one, please leave a comment below and tell us about it.


11 Responses to “Secret Innovation”

  1. Sulka Haro thought on :

    Based on your definition, I’d say Google Glass. At least people are having tremendous difficulty figuring out how they feel about it. :)

    Segway, perhaps?

    Or how about the original fax machine, which was considered so weird at the time of introduction that adopting the tech was delayed by tens of years.

  2. John Scott Tynes thought on :

    The Manhattan Project.

  3. Jake commented on :

    The society ending technology from Directive 51 by John Barnes is a prime example. The book uses nanotech, extreme mental subversion and idealist/zealot manipulation to hatch a world wide society ending event.

    Eventually fusion weapons and moon bases come into play and all secretly built and operated by various shadow governments.

  4. Joe said on :

    @John: Yeah, ok. I’ll give you that one.

  5. Joe thought on :

    Was the original fax machine developed in secret?

    Google glass definitely wasn’t they announced it 15 months before they gave anyone a unit because they knew they couldn’t keep it a secret. (And it’s pretty much the same as other existing devices like Golden Eye with much better software.)

    The Apollo Program is a much more common form for big government projects to take. Not at all secret and tons of people working interatively over a decade.

  6. Joe thought on :

    Segway is probably another good example of this in the real world. Nobody knew what “it” was after the announcement was scheduled. It’s smaller than any of the literary examples above… anybody have a bigger one?

  7. Rick Saada commented on :

    And the Segway was hardly a game changer for anyone but meter maids. They kept it secret well enough, but the invention itself was just a commercialized version of the tech that they’d developed for wheelchairs.

  8. Sulka Haro thought on :

    There’s probably plenty in intel/military industries.

    Most people still don’t know about the wiretapping systems NSA has.

    Take the 1.8 gigapixel surveillance drone. I doubt most people saw it coming, or understand the implications.

    How about the Dead Hand? (An ex-military dude in Russia gave an interview a couple years ago, saying he’s the only surviving designer of the system.)

    Coming to think of it. listing potential suspects is hard because by the definition it’s likely the inventions failed at the introduction and hence we’ve never heard of them.

  9. Tom Forsyth thought on :

    When people talk about the iPhone coming out of nowhere, they always think of the current one, not iPhone 1. The first one had a very small memory capacity, couldn’t shoot video, and didn’t have a compass or positioning systems (they later added CheapPS in software, but it wasn’t until the 3G that they had real GPS) so maps were far less useful. It was a good phone, but it certainly wasn’t the one we have today – which actually makes it a perfect example of open public iteration. And of course the thing responsible for at least half the iPhone’s meteoric success is the massive number of applications, and you can’t do those in secret.

    Kinect was very secret for a long time. Almost all the people hired on it were not told what they would be working on when they joined, and they were forbidden to discuss it even within the company. That seemed to work out OK, in that it sold a ton of units, and introduced some genuinely new experiences (Dance Central). The fact that it was pushed into areas it wasn’t that great at (e.g. Steel Battalion: Heavy Armour and that Star Wars thing) was really a problem of unrealistic expectation rather than a failure of the device itself.

    I’d say Google Glass is a good example of how secret development can backfire. As-announced, it seems really inelegant and I’m not seeing any killer apps. Those can take time to make, and they sometimes come out of left-field, but if you’re developing in secrecy the chances of finding those are very slim.

    Secrecy is usually counter-productive, and only justified if you think someone else is going to steal your idea and make it first. I don’t know if that ever actually happens in real life. The one semi-secret project I’ve worked on was Larrabee – nobody else could have made that even if they knew what it was (and they did – it wasn’t a very well-kept secret).

  10. Joe wrote on :

    It seems like secrecy puts a cap on the size of the innovation. The segway was a new UI on an existing tech. Kinect was a new interface peripheral for an existing console.

    @Tom: The original iPhone also didn’t have apps at launch, so even that wasn’t an innovation they delivered as part of a big package.

  11. Tim! wrote on :

    Googly eyes for VR goggles.

    Your secret is out now Joe.

Leave a Reply