THIRTY YEARS LATER...

Popular Science - - NEWS - by Corinne Iozzio

A robot just made me french fries. De­li­cious, they cooked for four min­utes less than the in­struc­tions dic­tated. One minute less, they’d’ve been soggy. A few more, burnt. An ea­gle-eyed ar­ti­fi­cially in­tel­li­gent oven made the timing and tem­per­a­ture calls. My con­tri­bu­tions: Ar­range fries on tray, slide tray into oven, ac­quire ketchup. (In­vent ketchup drone?)

That smart cooker, which we’ve nick­named the Mil­len­nial Oven, per­fectly fol­lows the tra­jec­tory of in­no­va­tion over the past 30 years. It’s built around bedrock tech­nolo­gies—con­vec­tion cook­ing, im­age recog­ni­tion, mi­cro­pro­ces­sors, com­pact cam­eras, wire­less ra­dios—but el­e­vated by the ad­di­tion of an any­one-proof in­ter­face.

We’ve seen this story time and again since 1988, the year Pop­u­lar Sci­ence ed­i­tors first anointed 100 prod­ucts as the Best of What’s New. The cul­tural shift over those years is re­mark­able.

Thirty years ago, sci­ence and tech were the do­mains of en­thu­si­asts: au­dio­philes, me­chan­ics, and IT gals MacGyver­ing to­gether the com­po­nents for makeshift lo­cal net­works. To­day, spe­cial­ized ideas—like print­ing wire­lessly or blast­ing into space—have rock­eted into the main­stream. Be­cause of that shift, by to­day’s stan­dards, many of the first BOWN win­ners are just plain wonky.

Two classes of prod­uct dom­i­nated those early years. First, you have the stuff that makes the other stuff work, the un­der­ly­ing tech­nol­ogy: proof-of-con­cept wire­less in­ter­net, early neu­ral-net­work com­put­ers. Then you have de­vices de­fined by nu­anced im­prove­ment or a sin­gle at­ten­tion-grab­bing fea­ture, which, if we’re hon­est, most folks nei­ther wanted nor un­der­stood.

Con­sider Pana­sonic’s PV-4826 VCR from 1988. A com­bi­na­tion video-cas­sette recorder and an­swer­ing ma­chine, the $470 (that’s $938.30 in 2017 money) deck let own­ers call in to pro­gram record­ings us­ing touch-tone key codes. Use­ful? Yes. Cool? Sure. Kludgy as hell? Most def­i­nitely.

Fast-for­ward (sorry) 30 years, though, and the abil­ity to re­motely cue record­ings is still im­pres­sive, a fea­ture you’ll find only on more-ad­vanced set-top boxes. These days, we ac­cess our DVRs over ca­ble, DSL, or fiber-op­tic hookups in­stead of phone lines; we set pro­grams via app in­stead of touch-tone, and record Game of Thrones onto hard drives in­stead of mag­netic tapes. Even cord-cut­ters tap the same back-end tech­nolo­gies to stream or down­load a binge-ben­der’s worth of episodes from Ama­zon, Net­flix, or YouTube.

For the per­son do­ing the watch­ing, the dif­fer­ence be­tween then and now lies in the smooth­ness of the process. It would take un­til the late ’90s for tech­nol­ogy to fi­nally work well— and to do so for ev­ery­one. Palm Pi­lots and iMacs and Mo­torola StarTACs weren’t ob­jects peo­ple put up with in their of­fices or homes be­cause they had to; they were things folks wanted to and could use, free of ex­cru­ci­at­ing early-adopter non­sense. Tech­nol­ogy was sub­cul­ture­turned-zeit­geist, with nowhere to go but every­where.

Think of this ti­dal shift as the as­cen­sion of the user ex­pe­ri­ence or the de­moc­ra­ti­za­tion of in­no­va­tion. But the sum to­tal of the past three decades is the same: It’s up to us to per­fect prod­ucts, or to de­cide when per­fec­tion is achieved. It’s borne out again and again, no mat­ter the field of en­deavor. Where NASA once dom­i­nated space, we now have pri­vate en­ter­prises like SpaceX, Bigelow Aero­space, Vir­gin Galac­tic, and Blue Ori­gin. Where AIs once did their think­ing only in univer­sity labs, we now in­ter­act with the sim­ple in­ter­faces of voice-rec­og­niz­ing Google as­sis­tants and facede­tect­ing se­cu­rity cam­eras as ca­su­ally as we’d chat with a co­worker. And we sprin­kle this once-rar­i­fied gear through­out our homes and of­fices as ca­su­ally as ra­dios and lamps.

Tech­nol­ogy, once im­pen­e­tra­ble, has be­come the wreck­ing ball that breaks down bar­ri­ers. We can down ma­li­cious drones. We can teach our kids to build ro­bots. We can blast our­selves to Mars. And, while we’re at it, we can make the cap­sule pretty damn comfy.

IT WOULD TAKE UN­TIL THE LATE ‘90S FOR TECH TO WORK WELL—FOR EV­ERY­ONE.

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