6 World-Changing Inventions (That Failed Spectacularly)
It's easy for tech companies to brag about their world-changing innovations, but more often than not, when it comes to executing their big ideas, they're not so much boldly stepping into the future as they are drunkenly tripping into a dumpster full of hubris and failure. We as a society are so ready for the Jetsons technology that will make us live forever in talking houses running on clean energy that we'll lose our minds over any crackpot idea, no matter how obviously flawed and ultimately unworkable it is. For example ...
A Revolutionary Piece Of Medical Tech Was A Weird Disaster Built On Lies
The end of disease is the golden chalice of Futurism. So when a company claims to have made a giant leap forward in the field of medicine, we all eagerly perk our ears and listen. That was the case with Theranos, a company that was going to revolutionize health care and save millions of lives. But the company's founder faced one minor obstacle: Her entire empire was built on a childlike lie.
"Here's my machine that tests for diseases with a mere drop of blood! We tested it in Canada. In hospitals you never heard of."
Theranos, a nine-billion-dollar company, was known for its blood-testing equipment which looked like something out of Star Trek. Their machines, called Edisons, could take a drop of blood from your finger and test for hundreds of diseases and health problems within hours (like Thomas Edison, apparently). Its pharmaceutical wonder spread like wildfire, attracting countless businesses, such as Walgreens and Safeway, who were willing to set up testing centers so that shopping for groceries and finding out whether or not you have gonorrhea can be done in one convenient trip.
Vertical integration at its finest.
CEO Elizabeth Holmes dropped out of Stanford at 19 to found Theranos and accumulate a personal net worth of $4 billion, which is the kind of success story that gets you a lot of fawning PR write-ups. And while most journalists treated her claims that she was inventing the future with about as much scrutiny as they'd treat a toddler claiming they like ice cream, The Wall Street Journal's John Carreyrou decided to investigate.
She also made the cover of Steve Jobs Cosplayers Monthly.
To cut a long con short, Theranos' technology, which was never peer-reviewed, simply didn't work the ways Holmes continually claimed. Between dozens of articles by Carreyrou and an investigation by the FDA, it was determined that an Edison diagnosed your blood about as accurately as spilling it on some bird bones and consulting an augur, mainly because a pinprick's worth of blood isn't enough to get accurate results. Medical labs don't drain entire vials out of you to feed secret hospital basement trolls.
And Edison test results weren't just unreliable; they were potentially life-threatening. Patients could be told that they were peachy when they were at risk of internal bleeding, blood clots, or other major problems. Even worse, Theranos ignored obvious problems brought up by their own quality control checks, because who cares about a few dead people if they get you on the cover of Glamour?
"Well, the hospital tests didn't even detect her midi-chlorian levels, so who are you going to trust?"
As a result, the FDA banned the Edison, Theranos' partners disappeared in a puff of smoke, and Holmes was banned from running a medical lab for two years. Theranos is now an industry joke, and we all have to go back to watching our cholesterol intake instead of letting a magical machine do it for us. It turns out that medical breakthroughs are made by decades of slow, tedious, unglamorous work, not passionate speeches by Steve Jobs wannabes with rich parents.
Most Of The F-35's Features Still Aren't Operational, And The Project Is Massively Over Budget
Ever since the Top Gun wars, one of America's most defining high-tech marvels has been its ability to deliver large, explosive bursts of freedom from the sky with fighter jets. To ensure the country's aerial dominance and the awesomeness of pre-game fly-bys, Lockheed Martin developed the F-35 stealth fighter, a piece of astonishing technology that would make American aviation resemble the aliens at the beginning of Independence Day. But the project has turned out to be a bloated, broken mess, much like the aliens at the end of Independence Day.
Not even Jeff Goldblum's Powerbook could fix this pile of crap.
It's always good to start a critique with a compliment: The plane can fly just fine. Really, it has wings and everything. Unfortunately, that's about all it can do. Among the jet's many, many issues is the fact that its software (the thing fighter pilots use to track enemy targets, aim guided bombs, fire guns, and do all sorts of cool military things) keeps getting delayed, to the point where it might not even be tested until 2018. Sure, it can stay in the air, but it can't shoot anything, which you may recognize as one of the primary functions of a fighter jet.
Then there's the concern that humanity's most advanced death delivery system has the same safety issues as an old minivan. An overly large headrest impedes rear visibility to the point where test pilots are worried about getting shot down with ease by some rogue pilot obnoxiously flying in their blind spot, and the elaborate computer displays designed to let you avoid having to to look behind you like you're parking at the mall can't even accurately show the location of the horizon, which is a rather important landmark when you're flying a plane. That particular report concluded by calling the F-35 "flawed beyond redemption," which seems like a fair assessment for a $109 million machine that needs a goddamn rear-view mirror.
"Back-up cameras aren't in the budget!"
The F-35 project, which started in 2006, is now estimated to have cost $1.5 trillion over its lifetime, nearly double initial estimates. But because of the way planes are made in America, there's so much inertia behind its development that it's all but impossible to reevaluate it or find a way to cut costs. After all, we wouldn't want to waste that money on our already over-funded healthcare and education programs.
There Are Problems With The Hyperloop, Which Isn't Even A Thing Yet
When Elon Musk isn't busy trying to send us to Mars or convince us that we're all living in an elaborate computer simulation, he wants to stick us in pods and shoot us through tubes like sperm with an urgent downtown meeting. That's the (unofficial) pitch for the Hyperloop, Musk's proposed railgun-powered public transportation system that could send passengers from LA to San Francisco in half an hour at speeds of 750 mph. But because Musk wants to build his Utopian train in our simulated reality, and not a game of Sim City with the infinite money cheat turned on, he's going to discover that just because the technology for something exists doesn't mean it's practical or affordable.
Also cures ED and whitens your teeth.
Musk argued that the Hyperloop could be built for $6 billion, or a fraction of the cost of a conventional high-speed rail system between San Francisco and LA. But Fortune pointed out that $6 billion doesn't even account for the cost of traversing San Francisco Bay, and that the Los Angeles station would have to be located somewhere much cheaper well outside the city, eliminating much of the "convenience" aspect of this expensive-ass future train.
There's also a serious problem with scale. A Hyperloop pod can only hold a handful of people, so the train would only be able to carry around 10 percent of the passengers that a high-speed train could handle. That defeats the entire purpose of public transportation, essentially making it a glorified Disney ride for millionaires -- which is how you can describe almost everything in Musk's portfolio.
"But look at how easily you can bang in these seats!"
But perhaps the biggest issue, as The Guardian noted, is that there doesn't appear to have been any progress yet. The companies working on the Hyperloop aren't exactly shy about talking up their marvel to the press, but so far, all they've done is test roller coaster technology in the desert. They haven't even started on the actual engineering problems yet, like figuring out how to deal with the steel in the tubes expanding in the heat of the Sun.
Again, it's not impossible, but the cost, challenges, and lack of progress make it pretty damn unlikely that the Hyperloop will be built within a decade like Musk claimed. Currently, it is feasible in the same sense that it's feasible to launch people wherever they want to go in a catapult. Hey, in the game of Futurism, go big or go home. On a Greyhound bus.
Where people have been banging in 90-degree seats for generations, thank you very much.
Speaking of buses ...
China's Elevated Bus Ended Up Abandoned In The Middle Of The Road
The issue with buses being able to solve traffic jams is that they often get stuck in the traffic they're supposed to unjam. Finally, China has come up with a solution to this by pioneering a bus that's elevated so it can zoom right over cars. It's amazing -- not just as a feat of innovation, but also that it took this long for an engineer to be inspired by G.I. Joe vehicles.
And for extra frustration, the rear end doubles as a mobile traffic light.
But the bus has problems beyond the fact that it looks like the bastard offspring of a straddle carrier and Transformer. The video of its "test" that captivated the media was done on a 300-meter stretch of road stripped of regular traffic, which kinds of defeats the purpose of testing the merits of a traffic-jumping vehicle. Also, the bus can only accommodate small cars, so what happens if there's a van or a semi-truck hauling Make America Great Again hats fresh from a Guangdong factory? It's also unclear how the bus would turn without sideswiping half a dozen cars, or what it does if it encounters a narrow road or low overpass. Oh, also, it's not a freaking bus. It runs on tracks, like a streetcar or a house designed by Mattel.
Terrified driver trapped underneath sold separately.
It's the kind of technology that looks amazing when you're skimming your Facebook feed before your first coffee, but once you stop and think about it, the problems become obvious and insurmountable. That may explain why Chinese state media accused the bus of being a scam, noting that all of its funding came from a rough Chinese equivalent of Kickstarter. But it could still work with some refinement, right? If so, the work will have to be done by someone else. When last seen, the "bus" had been abandoned in a garage, and the company behind it appears to have vanished. That might have something to do with the revelation that the section of road it was tested on was left unusable. That's right -- the bus was such a colossal failure that it literally destroyed everything it touched.
A Utopian City Is Now A Ghost Town
Maybe the failings of the stilt bus and the Hyperloop were that they were too narrowly focused. Why try to improve flawed cities with small innovations when you could build a perfect city from scratch? That was the dubious logic behind Masdar City, a project of the United Arab Emirates that quickly turned into the opening scene of an apocalypse movie.
If you want to hold a paintball tournament, on the other hand ...
The goal of Masdar was to be the world's first carbon-neutral city, powered entirely by sustainable solar power and good vibes coming from local poetry slams. It was supposed to hold 50,000 residents and 40,000 commuting employees, who would be shuttled by electric public transportation to jobs where they would work to make the world a better place. It was a beautiful vision, but so was that dream where you were having a threesome with your two favorite celebrities on top of a giant ice cream sundae, and the two are about as equally achievable.
"Masdar: Where your human transportation pod doubles as a computer mouse."
Masdar began its development in 2006, and it was supposed to be completed and carbon-neutral by 2016. But so far, only 5 percent of the city has been built, and it's not so much carbon-neutral as it is a carbon junkie begging for another hit. Only 2,000 people currently work there, and only 300 of them live there. The automatic electric transportation system was abandoned, leaving only a bike-sharing station with no bike paths. And, you know, a bunch of regular old carbon-spitting cars.
Not a screencap from the new Resident Evil movie
Oh, and the goal of being green and sustainable was abandoned too, so at best, this hypothetical eco-friendly utopia will be nothing but another smoggy community with a few more bells and whistles. There's still vague talk of it serving as an inspiration to the world, but it's been called out as a gimmicky publicity stunt by an environmental economics expert, and also by us right now, so it's unlikely that they'll bounce back from such expert admonishments.
But Masdar isn't showing any signs of giving up. It's now planning to be finished by 2030, because nothing says practical sustainability like overshooting your target completion date by 14 years.
Smart Home Devices Are Screwing Customers
Smart home devices work on the age-old principle that technology is driven by humanity's laziness. Devices like Nest, Wink, Homey, Honeywell, and other nonsense single words are useful tools for tracking your energy usage, controlling your locks and lights, and adjusting your home's temperature without you ever needing to get up from the couch. But as anyone whose toilet turned their phone into a $700 paperweight can tell you, devices are only as smart as the humans responsible for them.
See also: the internet.
Nest, for example, bought a rival brand called Revolv, and then two years later quietly announced that they were killing Revolv's entire product line. And this was an ugly murder. Nest didn't just stop at selling Revolv; they disabled devices that had already been sold. That meant, as one angry user pointed out, his automated lighting and security features abruptly stopped working, which is about a step away from Nest employees showing up at your house, smashing everything with a baseball bat, and telling you that you owe Nest protection money.
To be fair, as the fact that you just had to look up Revolv to make sure that we didn't invent a ridiculous name proves, this only affected a tiny group of consumers. And the features of the house themselves didn't vanish -- they could still be controlled manually or hooked up to a new hub with a different uniquely stupid name. But it does serve as more evidence that you can spend $200 on a device that's supposed to make your home safer and more convenient, then wake up six months later to discover that the manufacturers of your fancy hub went out of business and left you with a useless doodad you'll have to start passing off as a piece of abstract art.
"This piece represents the fickle, impersonal vicissitudes of capitalism."
And Revolv wasn't an isolated case, either. There are plenty of terribly named start-ups that can vanish like the corporate equivalent of your dad going out for smokes. Wink used to be owned by Quirky, but in less than a year, Quirky collapsed and Wink only found a new home with Flex at the last minute (Jesus Christ, these names). For a while, Wink's users were left worrying that their expensive integrated smart home devices would end up useless (well, more useless, anyway).
Alternatively, your smart home device will keep running but be so broken that it's functionally useless, like that elderly relative who still insists on driving everywhere despite having long ago succumbed to dementia. Samsung's SmartThings, a victim of its naming hubris, is prone to glitching out, firing off false intruder alarms, and messing with lights in the middle of the night. It's also vulnerable to hacking, allowing someone to disable your smart motion sensors, unlock your smart locks, and then stroll in and steal all of your possessions, except the unreliable piece of shit that can't even keep a dude with a laptop out.
Though if you've ever wanted to Ocean's 11 a place, this might be your shot.
So while there's definitely an appeal in having your lights automatically turn on whenever you come home like you're the suburban goddess of dawn, you might want to wait until the companies that make them are more established than your local lemonade stand.
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