1) Vaporware is perpetually in the extremely early stages of R&D, like fusion power, connecting human nerve cells to computers directly, faster than light travel, and teleportion.
2) When a cool innovation is proposed the time line before we'll see it on the market is always 5+ years, aka "impossibly far in the future."
And yet, people seem to be okay with this. Take this announcement on MSNBC about "spacesuits of the future" being developed by a consortium of MIT and Draper Lab (aka MIT for post-docs) for NASA:
Duda's Draper Lab group has partnered on the project with scientists at NASA's Johnson Space Center and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. They plan to first create a prototype for a spacesuit arm by 2012, with funding from the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts program.Within a decade? They're overtly admitting they want to bilk Federal dollars for a decade at best. And see how they carefully veil the fact that NASA's "next big thing" is even farther into the future?
If success attracts continued funds, Duda said, a full-body wearable suit could become a reality within a decade — easily within the time frame for NASA's plans targeting the asteroids, Mars and beyond.
Am I the only one that gets SUPER chagrined at this? It means I'll likely turn 40, my entire "thirties" having gone by while they worked on this. Assuming the funding isn't killed. And its really only an incremental innovation. Then there are other timelines for major research projects that make my teeth hurt:
- The Joint Strike Fighter program started more than 15 years ago.
- The powered exoskeleton program DARPA funded in 2001 ran for 7 years then quietly ended with no usable prototypes. The only working unit, the Sarcos XOS, is still in early stage development.
- NASA's search for a new orbital delivery system has been ongoing for two decades.
One might say that I am impatient with the status quo rate of innovation in this country. The seeming perpetuity of government-funded research and development leads a cynic to conclude that these projects are not meant to have an end, rather they are a means to transfer taxpayer dollars into industrial stimulus. Can you imagine if a project manager at a company spent $75 million company dollars, but did not meet the project goals and did not delivering a single thing at the end? That PM would have his/her head on a platter. And their box of belongings with them as they were shown the door and their keycard was deactivated. But on the contrary, can you imagine a project manager that managed to bilk a customer out of $75 MEEELLION dollars and at the end didn't actually have to meet the goals they had outlined in the proposal nor deliver anything to the customer? That PM would be heralded by the company as a genius.
That's the rub, isn't it? Fast innovation...the kind with high risk and high reward...is fraught with peril. Lengthy, open-ended government projects are ripe with fee and more fee. And the best thing about a big government contract is you can dump all the risky work on subcontractors and they not only strengthen your proposal by giving you "a small business plan" but you collect fee on what they do too, just for overseeing them. And so government-led innovation, sadly, is counterproductive.
Unless, of course, the deliverable of the funded work is harder to achieve, and the contractor risk is higher. For instance, what if instead of DARPA spending $75M on the exoskeleton project and at the end not really having much expectation other than "maybe the Army will continue your funding" they had instead told Sarcos/Raytheon "here's $150 million. You have 5 years to deliver 20 working, production-quality exoskeletons. If at the end of the 5 years you do not deliver the prototypes then you will immediately pay back the $150 million under the same pay schedule as an IRS tax payment: the full tax burden owed, plus an immediate 16% fee, plus 6% compounded interest for each month. Essentially Sarcos would either get a check for $150 million or they'd owe the government $564 million. Their reward is compounded as well, though. Under a successful project, they'd come away with twice as much money, plus they'd stand to be the sole company on Earth capable of producing Iron Man.
The government could fund competing projects more effectively this way. What if, when they funded Lockheed and Boeing to build a Joint Strike Fighter prototype, the winner got the contract but the loser got penalized? As in the government said "you each get $750 million and 5 years to have a new supersonic fighter capable of VTOL. Which ever one has better scores on the following 10 metrics wins the contract. The other has to pay the government $2.8 billion in penalties." Can you imagine it? The incentive to not lose is massive. But I digress. And I am not so naive as to think the puppets that fund projects like this are willing to iceberg a major military-industrial corporation. Too many voters work at (insert military-industrialist corporation with branch offices in 100+ Congressional districts), if you catch my drift.
In any case, the bottom line remains the same: funding agencies and the general public have way too much tolerance for long time lines.
Sometimes when I argue this with my friends, I'll come around to "why should we have to wait 15 years for the development of (insert vaporware example here)?" and they give me this bull-crap cop out "if you don't like it, do something about it." Do I tell a teacher complaining about NCLB that they should be able to fix the whole system? Do I tell someone who complains about American politics that they should run for office? No, I don't. When a problem is systemic it cannot be mitigated by the actions of a single person. It needs a system-wide change. And in this case, a little less patience with the process might not be so bad.
There is good news, potentially. If and when the economy recovers to a sufficient degree, there will be a tidal wave of Boomers who retire and analysts suggest that venture capital will surge. So the private R&D industry might be one we shouldn't underestimate in the next 10 years while that new spacesuit is being developed.