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.