All successful technologies are alike, but every failed technology flops in its own way.
Success means a technology solves a problem, whether it’s installed on a billion smartphones or used by a few scientists carrying out specialized work. But many—maybe most—technologies do not succeed, typically because they fail to reach the scale of adoption that would make them relevant. The reasons for failure aren’t predictable. This year we saw promising technologies felled by Supreme Court decisions, TV cameras, public opinion, and even by fibbing graduate students.
Below is our list of the most interesting technology failures of 2014.
In 2012, Google introduced the world to Glass, computerized glasses that can show maps, display e-mails, and snap pictures and videos of whatever a person is looking at. But by the end of this year, expectations that the $1,500 wearable computer would be a consumer hit had been shattered. Half of app developers polled by Reuters have stopped working on apps for Glass, and the consumer launchwas postponed until next year. Even the product’s visionary, Google cofounder Sergey Brin, began turning up in public not wearing the device as usual. One user told MIT Technology Review the problem was an experience that was far less helpful than expected: “I found that it was not very useful for very much, and it tended to disturb people around me that I have this thing.” Glass may yet find success in niche applications.
Brazil’s EEG Exoskeleton
Have a paralyzed person get up from a wheelchair, walk onto a soccer field, and kick the opening shot of the 2014 World Cup. This ambitious plan was the brainchild of mind-machine-interface expert Miguel Nicolelis, a professor at Duke University. After winning about $15 million from Brazil’s government, his team raced to build—and deploy—a robotic exoskeleton propelled by its wearer’s own thoughts.
The plan was too audacious. It called for collecting brain signals with an EEG cap. But the signals produced that way just aren’t good enough to control an exoskeleton. When the World Cup cameras cut in to show the demo during the opening ceremony, it was for three brief seconds—only enough to see a soccer ball rolling down a ramp and a paralyzed man steadied by two assistants raising his fists in triumph. Nicolelis declared that “17 months of insane work” had succeeded. But to TV viewers interested in the technology, or those seeing it for the first time, it was hard to know what had really happened. Rather than a man rising from a wheelchair and walking, the exoskeleton seemed to have achieved a simpler task of moving one foot forward to hit the ball.
This was supposed to be Bitcoin’s big year. Instead, the electronic currency looks as if it may be stalling. The value of a bitcoin has dropped by 62 percent (to about $310) since January 2014, but potentially more troubling for the currency, it’s being used to move only about as much cash as it was a year ago, about $60 million a day. The idea of Bitcoin remains intriguing—a peer-to-peer currency with no central controller, instantly transmitted anywhere, and powered by a clever cryptographic engine. But in practice, it is more like a Ponzi scheme that attracts speculators, and it’s become the payment form of choice among professional cybercriminals. Bitcoin also suffers from a headache linked to its first killer app—as an easy way to buy drugs online. Authorities this year have continued to make arrests, and in November, the U.S. Marshals Service auctioned off 50,000 bitcoins, worth about $19 million, seized from drug dealers.
Bitcoin has passionate advocates. But a currency that few people use can’t be called a success.
(See “Marginally Useful.”)
Last January, a team in Japan and at Harvard University published two high-profile papers in the journal Nature claiming they could turn any cell into a stem cell just by bathing it in acid (thus the moniker STAP, for stimulus-triggered acquisition of pluripotency) . The quick and easy recipe sounded too good to be true—and it was. When other labs failed to repeat the process, it became clear the results had been fabricated by an ambitious young researcher. In August, her boss, Yoshiki Sasai, a renowned 52-year-old stem-cell scientist at Japan’s Riken, committed suicide after saying he had been shamed. It’s not the first time a stem-cell discovery has turned out to be bogus. But Jeanne Loring, a cell biologist at the Scripps Research Institute, says there’s no more fraud in stem cells than in other fields. Instead, says Loring, the collapse of this promising technology is due to the growing pressure to publish big results, something that affects all of biology.
Sapphire iPhone Screens
The iPhone 6 that Apple unveiled in September was bigger, slicker, and more powerful than earlier models. But the phone didn’t come with screens made of sapphire—a super-hard transparent crystal that Apple once hoped might give its $700 phones a boost with consumers.
Apple’s $1 billion plan to introduce harder screens went wrong when it built a new sapphire factory before the underlying technology had been fully mastered. To make the stuff, it hired GT Advanced Technologies, a developer of innovative ovens, to cook sapphire crystals. But the company had no experience producing crystals in commercial quantities, or meeting Apple’s famously demanding timelines.
Over the summer, problems mounted. The big, heavy, sapphire blocks needed for phone screens (sapphire is already used in some luxury watches, and to cover the iPhone’s camera) had to cook for a month inside a sealed furnace, but many came out broken. And how to slice the blocks into glass was never sorted out, either.
The ending isn’t pretty. GT has filed for bankruptcy, and now the companies are suing one another. GT says it got a raw deal from Apple, which in turn says GT failed to make “any meaningful quantity of useable sapphire.”
Aereo’s Tiny Antennas
Here’s something odd: broadcast TV is free, the signal is everywhere, but you can’t watch it on your phone or PC. A startup called Aereo dreamed up a way to combine tiny antennas and a big legal loophole to solve that problem. For $10 a month, the company would activate a quarter-sized antenna at its facilities, capture TV signals, and send them over the Web to your phone. Your antenna, your signal, was the idea. But broadcasters including ABC and CBS quickly sued, saying Aereo should pay for “retransmission rights,” just like cable TV providers do. The case made its way to the Supreme Court, where the justices in June sided six to three with the broadcasters.
Aereo had no Plan B and has since gone bankrupt. Its website now displays a farewell message relevant to all innovators, failures or not: “With so many shifts and advances in technology, there has never been a more perfect time to take risks, challenge the status quo and build something special. … We stayed true to our mission and we believe that we have played a significant part in … helping force positive change in the industry for consumers.”
Indeed, since its Supreme Court case, CBS said it would start offering its shows over the Web for $6 a month. Sounds like we’ll be able to watch TV on our phones anyway.