Change is Never Linear

Notes from a speech by Paul Saffo, Professor from Stamford University, the opening speaker at the World Innovation Forum.

Any interesting change looks like an S curve – except in Silicon Valley where it looks like a hockey stick 🙂

The ghost behind the S curve is Moore’s law – i.e. the number of circuits that could fit on a chip was doubling every 6 months and the performance was doubling every 6 months.

But we are really lousy at understanding the net effect of the S curve running through our lives. Otherwise we would be standing right at the inflection point of the S curve and monitizing it, even in Silicon Valley.

Cherish Failure

Especially if it is someone else’s failure. Silicon Valley is built on the rubble of other people’s failure – big companies grow and have their day then collapse and restart. And progress is built on other people’s failure and in the last year we have seen a lot of rubble!

How do you find a short term success? – find something that has been failing for YEARS. Take Virtual worlds – ex Habitat vs Second Life – took 35 or more companies that tried virtual world between when habitat started and second life started to make it work.

When someone says they have a new idea and you hear “we tried that but it failed and its been failing for 20 years” – quit the company and get venture capital – because it is going to be a big success.


The world of inversion is all around us. Most advanced technologies began to appear in places like NASA. But now the most advanced technology is now appearing in computer games. It’s coming in at the bottom of the market and for consumers and now companies have to wait!

The future has already arrived it just hasn’t been distributed to everyone yet.

There is an leading indicator that showed up a few years ago – take a look at the personal excellorometer (aka the cardio watch) do a search on the web or on Facebook and you will see people publishing their personal workout plans and results on the web!

Again more obscure technology is all of a sudden in consumer devices like Nike and Apple who created shoes that talk to your iPod and collects data. Now Nike holds virtual races online. This is a specific instance of a larger trend – it’s not the semantic web – its sensors!!

Go back in history and look forward – new fundamental technology arrives every 10 years – like cheap micro processors in 70s which set the stage for the innovation of the personal computers in the 80s – then another new technology came along – cheap lasers came along in the late 80s and set the stage for cheap optical storage.

I am here to tell you the next big thing is Robots – it’s already starting to happen.

Look at the Rhumba – it’s a robotic vacuum cleaner (by iRobot). And people even give them names. The Rhumba thing is an indicator – look for clusters of indicators that tell you that you are starting to get into the trough in the S curve. A robot revolution is a lot more than people building robots. It’s about the start of an era of innovation that will be coming into our lives for years.

Do not fear change embrace change.

2 comments to Change is Never Linear

  • atul chatterjee

    I disagree with this business of robots being the greatest wave.
    In the early 1980s when the Japanese launched their 5th generation project they were scheduled to create intelligent robots within 20 years. There are robots in factories and limited functionality at homes but overall the effort to instill them with common sense has proved fruitless. Every now and then a robot is put on show and then disappears.

    Instead of predicting the next wave over five years, it would be more useful to predict the course of events over the next 10 months.

  • Paul Dunay

    @ Atul – you raise a fair point and your time line is certainly more logical but his point is almost “Robots are coming” which is kinda like saying “its gonna rain” – you know he is right just not when he will be right

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