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The Quantum Mechanics of Innovation
Predicting the future is really hard. However, creating the products that will shape the future requires us to imagine the world of that future. For instance, if you’re planning to revolutionize transportation, the cost of gasoline, existence of roads, and population density 20 years from now is probably important. Market researchers will often take current trends, draw a straight line into the future, and then gladly take your $1000 per report. A slightly more sophisticated model might take all the quantifiable expert predictions and then average them out to give you a high number, a low number, and the average or “right” number.
Averaging works well when looking in the near term, but tends to fall apart when trying to predict long term events, especially in the areas of interest for innovators. Statistics for topics such as the number of computing devices or the number of fax machines per capita tend to go off the rails in either direction. If you decide to base your business on the average expected values, then in either case, you lose.
Here’s a simple analogy. You’re traveling down a road on the way to grandmother’s house. You can see up ahead that there is a T-intersection where the road dead ends. You can either go to the right or to the left but have no way of knowing which will take you to your destination. What do you do? The answer is probably not to take the average and go straight through the dead end and into the brush. But what is the right path?
We often run into the case where we don’t know if a technology or an assumption is will be proven. A new drug in the works may eradicate malaria or not. Fusion may make energy free or not. Data storage has met its fundamental limit or it will increase by orders of magnitude due to new technologies. Population will skyrocket due to growing wealth or we will have a labor shortage as the economics of an urbanizing world change. Which is right?
They both are. At the time of unknowing, the future is unwritten, and both possibilities exist. This kind of thinking is mirrored by physics. In quantum theory, superposition states that when we don’t know the state of an object, it is actually in all possible states simultaneously. It is the actual measurement or observation that causes the object to be limited to a single possibility. The famous Schrodinger’s Cat example describes this using a cat in a box which has (as determined by a random relay) possibly been poisoned. However, according to quantum theory, until someone looks into the box (or determines the cat’s state in any other way), the cat is both alive and dead at the same time. Yes, this is crazy sounding, but there is one thing that would be even crazier. The cat is not the average of alive and dead. There is zero possibility that the cat is half-dead.
This means that when we design for the future, we often have to hold two opposing views of the future as both true. Ideally, we design for both cases. This can mean splitting the effort and doing two solutions, or trying to find a solution that succeeds in both cases. But what if you have to take a bet, and you can only choose one solution for one possible outcome? The temptation is to take the middle road, but sometimes an average outcome makes no sense (like a half-dead cat). In this case, you should simply choose the outcome which is better for you.
Is light a wave or a particle? This used to be a much debated topic, but it turns out, that for most people it doesn’t really matter. When you want it to be a wave so that you can use electromagnetic equations and make LED’s, then it acts like a wave. If you want it to be a particle so that you can make giant solar sails to travel the galaxy, then it’ll be a particle. Choose to view it in the way that is most useful for you at this time.
But can you really have your cake and eat it too? How can the future have free energy AND an exponential rise in energy costs? Which is right? Let’s play the odds. Say both outcomes (let’s call them A and B) have a 50% probability of being right. If you have one tech solution (a) that will make you $100B if A is true and another possibility (b) that will make you $100M if B is true, then it is clearly in your best interest if A is true. You should go with (a) because the pot odds are 1000 times higher. However, this does not mean that A is more likely than B. For a different project, the pot odds may dictate that you go with a project bb which relies on B being true. You can bet on both A and B, and you should.
The future is a world of endless possibilities. For the inventors of the world, it is most useful to think of those many branches as opportunities. We should be comfortable believing that all futures exist and pick the ones which allow for the most constructive inventions at the time. We must resist the urge to average the future into a straight line extrapolation of the present. In doing so, we unlock a powerful mindset for innovation.