Locklin on science

Technologies which did not live up to the hype

Posted in Progress by Scott Locklin on May 14, 2017

There are many, many false technological alleys which continue to be pimped as things worth investing time and money into.

  • Automotive Gas Turbines:
    In the 1960s, several car manufacturers made gas turbines. The batmobile, for example. Turbines were supposed to be “jet age” machines of the future. You could get more fuel efficiency and energy per cubic meter out of the things, plus they were simpler in design (in theory, only one moving part), and easier to cool (they basically cool themselves). Unfortunately, gas turbines are lousy at acceleration in stop and go traffic. You might some day have one in your laptop though.
  • Disco Space Colonies:
    Back in the 1970s, when America had just been exposed to its first real energy crisis, a fellow by the name of Gerald Kitchen O’Neill came up with the marvelous scheme of blasting enormous chunks of glass and metal into space (presumably not using fossil fuels), which would produce clean solar energy and beam it back to earth in the form of microwave radiation. O’Neill wasn’t just some looney with a Pete Rose bowl cut; he invented the particle storage ring. His disco space colony idea was related to this in that he suspected the “mass driver” -a sort of particle accelerator for large pieces of matter he also invented, might one day be an important component for construction of such colonies. He also proposed this immediately after the Apollo Space program, which was a huge success, and made space travel look routine rather than extreme. He forgot to take into account that, at it’s peak, the Apollo program was consuming about 1% of the economic output of America. Just to send a couple of freemasons to the Moon, let alone skyscrapers filled with space colonists, giagantor microwave guns and mongo solar panels made of unobtanium the equivalent distance. Amusingly, a guy named Eric Drexler was one of O’Neill’s proteges via an MIT conference on space colonization in the 1970s. I like to think Drexler realized one could make a career out of making scientific sounding honking noises about impossible technology from hanging out with O’Neill.
  • Nanotech:
    I’d first heard of nanotech as a science fiction plot device. I never gave it much thought until I was writing my Ph.D. thesis. Sitting in the library alone with my laptop in my own personal hell, I did a ton of procrastination reading. One of the things I read was Drexler’s alleged science book on nanotech; “Nanosystems: Molecular Machinery, Manufacturing, and Computation.” I figured it would be interesting and inspiring, as it was a very famous Ph.D. thesis, and of course, nano-stuff is gonna change the world, right? Hell, there was a ton of funding coming into my lab to set up the center for nanotechnology (name changed to equally bullshittium “molecular foundry”); maybe I could stick out my hat and capture some low hanging fruit! By the time I was done this book, I finally made up my mind to go into finance and applied mathematics. It is the sheerest science fiction. Almost every assertion he made about what is possible is wrong. Much of the “science” asserted as fact is obvious baloney. Many of the things he waves around as trivial violate the laws of thermodynamics. Matter simply doesn’t work the way he wants it to. I remember running into a very bright surface scientist who had gotten on board the mighty gravy train of nano-nonsense at tea time shortly after reading this book. I was all, “dude; Drexler is smoking crack!” My pal gave a world weary moue, and agreed that one could make a living correcting Drexler. But, the money was good, and there was interesting material science to be done under the rubric of “nano.”
  • Fuel Cells:
    Fuel cells are one of those ideas that’s been around for almost as long as regular chemical batteries; since the early 1800s. The problem with fuel cells has been obvious since then. They’re hugely expensive, big, fragile and they either require extremely clean fuels like liquid hydrogen, or they wear out fairly quickly. There isn’t much that technology can do about this, though mass production may lower the cost some. And nobody likes the idea of driving around with a bunch of hydrogen in the tank of their car.
  • Biotech:
    Biotech provides employment for a lot of my smart friends. None of them have been able to tell me what their work actually does for humanity. In the realm of human health, it has enabled enormously fat people to live longer and eat more sugar, by making humulin cheaper than what they used to extract from dead racehorses. It also allows idiot bodybuilders to inject themselves with human growth hormone grown in toilet water, instead of HGH extracted from pineal glands of cadavers. There are also enormously expensive and mostly ineffective drugs used in certain kinds of cancer. In agriculture, it has provided some modest benefits, and created an entire industry of paranoids who think they’ll grow 8 heads if they eat genetically modified corn (which gets fed to cows anyway). While this could change in the future, I’ve been hearing about how biotech is going to change everything since Genentech was founded in 1976.
  • Stem Cell Research:
    Remember stem cell research? How we were going to cure Parkinsons and chewing with your mouth open using stem cells? How the eeebil Jeebers creeps from the middle of the country were denying the progress of science by keeping the white jackets in test tubes from sticking embryos in a blender? Well, as I recall, nothing ever came of it. It’s not because it was banhammered (it isn’t, mostly); it’s just not useful. I mean, it was politically useful for beating up on people who are classically religious rather than politically religious people who “fucking love science.” But to first order, the political battle seems to have been the main contribution of stem cell research to human culture.
  • Quantum Computing:
    I opined that it was probably a big nothingburger 7 years ago, despite having myself expended some not-inconsiderable time thinking out the semiclassical dynamics of such a device. Nothing has happened since then to revise my opinion on the subject. It’s now been 32 years since David Deutsch had his big idea. He’ll most certainly die before a useful quantum computer exists. I probably will too, as will everyone reading this prediction, making me, alas, unable to collect on the bet. All you need do is look at history: people had working computers before Von Neumann and other theorists ever noticed them. We literally have thousands of “engineers” and “scientists” writing software and doing “research” on a machine that nobody knows how to build. People dedicate their careers to a subject which doesn’t exist in the corporeal world. There isn’t a word for this type of intellectual flatulence other than the overloaded term “fraud,” but there should be.

I don’t think people should abandon all thought of any of the above subjects. Nor any of the abundant subjects which are presently grossly overrated by futurologists. I do think these historical examples should give any young researcher pause when it comes to devoting their lives to future boondoggles. Do you really want to work in the technological equivalent of macro-economics?

The more hype there is around a subject, the more  marketing personnel and quasi academic mountebanks there are involved in promoting it, the less likely it is to be important or useful. The really important breakthroughs of the last 20-40 years; networking protocols, photolithography improvements, cryptography, various improvements in statistics, signal processing and linear algebra and such; these have been relatively quiet occurrences.

If you want to make a difference in the world, learn some practical math, physics and chemistry. Ignore the wares of humbugs and quacks, keep your nose to the grindstone and read Phil Anderson (greatest physicist of our era);

Feynman’s cryptic remark, “no one is that much smarter …,” to me, implies something Feynman kept emphasizing: that the key to his achievements was not anything “magical” but the right attitude, the focus on nature’s reality, the focus on asking the right questions, the willingness to try (and to discard) unconventional answers, the sensitive ear for phoniness, self-deception, bombast, and conventional but unproven assumptions.

69 Responses

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  1. crocodilechuck said, on May 14, 2017 at 3:48 am

    1) In 1969 NASA represented 5% of USA GDP https://history.nasa.gov/Apollomon/Apollo.html

    2) Since we don’t understand how life works at the molecular level, it seems a bit churlish to denigrate Biotech & stem cells, just because of loudmouths like Craig Venter

    3) Quantum computing: The jury’s still out.

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 14, 2017 at 4:25 am

      3) QC deserves the right to a fair and speedy trial. It’s been 32 years.
      2) It’s not churlish to notice they’re not paying out. What if I was an investor? As fields of inquiry, they are tremendous and interesting, but as technologies, they’re ass.
      1) Yikes.

      • electricangel said, on May 14, 2017 at 4:19 pm

        Met with Michael West of BioTime a few years ago. They’ll do something, eventually, but I doubt it’s going to be as universally applicable as, say, steam or transistors. You cannot, like drugs, come up with one pill for millions. So as a technology, it’s likely to fail.

  2. Mark Plus said, on May 14, 2017 at 3:50 am

    Marvin Minsky was one of Eric Drexler’s thesis advisers, so you have to wonder about Minsky’s competence at evaluating science. Also why did Drexler have to get his doctorate from MIT’s Media Lab, instead of one of the regular science or engineering departments?

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 14, 2017 at 4:31 am

      You can’t always get interesting mind and useful skeptic in the same brain. I’d argue the best brains have this quality, but Ralph Merkle did invent vast swathes of cryptography (IMO vastly more important contributions than Minsky), and he’s also a nanoshite enthusiast who publishes with Drexler.

      • Mark Plus said, on May 14, 2017 at 5:06 am

        BTW, who, if anyone, got the second, third, fourth, etc. Ph.D’s in “molecular nanotechnology”? And then what became of these individuals?

        • Scott Locklin said, on May 14, 2017 at 7:47 pm

          I worked with a guy who got his Ph.D. in nanotech. He was a pretty good programmer. He was also embarrassed to admit he got his Ph.D. in nanotech.

  3. Ian said, on May 14, 2017 at 4:29 am

    Personalized medicine? Deep learning? Topological materials for spintronics and other applications? Graphene interconnects or transistors? Hyperloop? Self-Driving cars?

    They all seem like candidates for your ire.

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 14, 2017 at 4:48 am

      Oddly, I know a technology which can potentially help do personalized medicine. I also know nobody is taking advantage of it, because I have a personal relationship with all the folks who know this trick (they all worked at Ayasdi). It ain’t done, but they can certainly point out stuff like gene activations in breast cancer tumors that are endocrine and lymphatic using tiny (~200 examples) data sets of 20,000 feature space data. Probably works on lots of similar problems.
      Deep learning is interesting, but certainly overhyped, and as far as I can tell, pretty much at the end of its tether. Yann LeCun is one of my favorite people, so I won’t say anything bad about his subject in public. Young researchers and data scientists: learn Bayesian models instead. Way more low hanging fruit there.
      Graphene … cool science bro.
      Hyperloop: weev pointed out the example of Eike Batista as prototype for Elon Musk. Trains and rockets and cars! Whether or not weev is right, hypeloop is quite possibly the stupidest thing I have ever heard of.
      Self driving cars are fraudulent nonsense.

      • ian said, on May 14, 2017 at 5:41 pm

        Interesting re/ Ayasdi, I switched to engineering from physics because I felt the physics department was plagued by the Cult of Paul Dirac and worshipped froofy math far too much; do you think Ayasdi’s fancy math is really effective to the point of out-performing the simpleton’s ML methods I can actually understand?

        Also, the human genome project overlaps with various fields that have already been mentioned but did help further force open the flood gates on the tidal wave of moist, stinky garbage science in various bio departments (and other departments desperate for some oxygen, my home physics department started a biophysics wing populated by a hive of scum and villainy, short of one genuinely good theoretical chemist). The genome project is a great place to start a treatise on problems with government science initiatives and hyped tech…

        • Scott Locklin said, on May 15, 2017 at 12:11 am

          Ayasdi’s fancy math is basically point topology applied to statistical inference. It’s legit and could be explained on a piece of paper in 10 minutes. Could be developed more.

          There’s certainly a lot of interesting research in genomics. I’d have a hard time justifying investing in a genomics company, but I might invest some of my fun-time in looking at such things.

          • ian said, on May 15, 2017 at 5:23 pm

            Well I’ll look at Ayasdi again, good to know I was just being lazy, thanks.

            • Scott Locklin said, on May 15, 2017 at 6:24 pm

              Solid tech; they convinced me with the breast cancer example in one of their early papers.

  4. crocodilechuck said, on May 14, 2017 at 4:30 am

    ‘What if I was an investor?’

    Then you would be an idiot, investing in something you, nor anyone else, understands.

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 14, 2017 at 4:34 am

      Boy, you don’t know many investors do you? How many of Tri-Alpha’s inevstors understand nuclear fusion? How many people at the VC firms who invest in biotech, deep learning or automated vehicle startups actually understand the issues involved? While VCs are smart and canny guys; they usually do not understand the tech they invest in.

  5. crocodilechuck said, on May 14, 2017 at 5:19 am

    VC’s are idiots. Why none of them ex-Kleiner make any money. http://www.riskoverreward.com/2010/02/is-venture-capital-model-dead-yes-alpha.html

    ‘Smart & canny’ Heh, heh

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 14, 2017 at 8:00 am

      I won’t disagree with you on them mostly being idiots, but some do manage to make money. It’s possible to make money on investing in tech you don’t understand; trend following.

  6. mpatton said, on May 14, 2017 at 7:02 am

    Hard to choose which of the half-dozen verbal equivalents of a flaming bag of dog shit here is my favorite. “scientific sounding honking noises” might be it.

    I’ll try to remember to provide proper credit if I re-purpose one.

  7. fpoling said, on May 14, 2017 at 9:41 am

    It is still to early call fuel cells as dead hype as there are prototypes of air-breathing batteries that run on aluminium. And I assume that people will not mind driving with a load of aluminium bars even if they are more energy dense than gasoline.

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 14, 2017 at 11:12 am

      Aluminum batteries are batteries, and date from the 20s. They’re nowhere near as energy dense as gasoline. 200wh/kg (about same as lithium ion which works more reliably) versus about 13000.

      • fpoling said, on May 14, 2017 at 12:26 pm

        Various designs of non-rechargeable Al batteries are just fuel cells in disguise that essentially uses Al as fuel. Their potential energy is that of Al + O2 reaction that gives higher energy output than that of burning gasoline. Even Al + water gives enough energy to work as a rocket fuel (ALICE propellant with *nanoparticles* of Al) . The problem is how to harness that as electricity and there was slow but steady progress on that.

        • Scott Locklin said, on May 15, 2017 at 5:46 am

          Zinc batteries are also related and kind of interesting. They’ve also been around forever.
          You could torture the idea of a fuel cell to find interesting battery technologies to talk about, but the real promise of a fuel cell is turning hydrocarbons or hydrogen directly into electricity on a large scale. Doesn’t look likely to happen.

  8. Mark Plus said, on May 14, 2017 at 2:14 pm

    You probably should add “Friendly AI” to the list. It’s just astonishing to me how Eliezer Yudkowsky has gotten away so far with his doomsday-prevention scam. He’s pushing 40, yet he has never held a real job which has added value to the world.

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 15, 2017 at 5:48 am

      Someone compared me to him once, I guess because we both live in Berkeley and have blogs. I was of course insulted; my blog is anti-bullshit, and I have skills that some people find valuable.
      Coulda been worse, I suppose. Could have been Anissimov.

      • FRJ said, on June 5, 2017 at 12:15 pm

        I’ve always thought of you as Jim Goad + 30 IQ points or so.

        • Scott Locklin said, on June 5, 2017 at 4:58 pm

          That’s an actual compliment. Jim’s the H.L. Mencken of our era.

  9. electricangel said, on May 14, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    Was musing about turbines and external combustion engines the other day. If you paired a turbine with an electric battery pack and maybe capacitors, could it make a viable automotive power source? As I recall, the maximal thermal efficiency of a steam turbine is about 50% for large, stationary ones, while the maximal thermal efficiency of existing internal combustion engines in cars is about 20%. BY itself, the turbine could not respond to demands for surges of power, but paired with some ultracapacitors and a backup battery, maybe so.

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 15, 2017 at 5:54 am

      I can make handwaving arguments that turbines are unlikely to be that much more efficient than piston engines of a similar size (it’s a surface area argument).. I think the main thing they offer vehicles is their very light weight and simplicity for a given power output. What you describe can be done, but people haven’t invested in the idea in a long time.
      A more steampunk idea: use them to power laptops.

    • George Okromchedlishvili said, on May 25, 2017 at 3:34 pm

      Quite a tempting idea actually. I guess it simply has not been looked at much by industry

    • George Okromchedlishvili said, on May 25, 2017 at 3:48 pm

      On the other hand seems like given modern safety regulations it’s hard to make a car with noisy, high temp engine that can also (potentially) damage asphalt layers

      • electricangel said, on May 26, 2017 at 5:22 pm

        Literally burning up the pavement!

  10. Rohan Jayasekera said, on May 14, 2017 at 4:39 pm

    This might be the only time in the history of the English language that both of these favourite words of mine will ever appear in the same article: “moue” and “mountebanks”. Thank you, Scott.

  11. Gail said, on May 14, 2017 at 5:49 pm

    Where in the world do we find these nuts like this author – geez. WHAT AN IDIOT!

  12. crocodilechuck said, on May 16, 2017 at 11:12 am

    You don’t read enough on Biochem Molecular Biology eg, re: stem cells


    whether this comes true [drug on market] or not is immaterial there are 15-20 things like this popping up every month

    laugh while you can now

    as with autonomous vehicles, it will eventually come true.

    “We always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next ten. Don’t let yourself be lulled into inaction” Bill Gates

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 16, 2017 at 11:48 pm

      What interesting technological thing happened in the 10 years since Gates mentioned this? I’m genuinely curious. Technological progress has been pretty lousy lately; you’d be cheering me up.

      • crocodilechuck said, on May 18, 2017 at 2:58 am

        Why should ‘interesting technological things’ have to be created, gestate, launch and penetrate the user base/society in ten years?

        Per Kondratieff’s ‘Long Wave’ model of technological change, these things take 50-70 years to come to pass.

        What you’re really targeting, without realising what you’re doing, is the superficial marketing of science & tech, which is indeed a travesty.

        Don’t be confused.

        • Scott Locklin said, on May 18, 2017 at 3:04 am

          I don’t think I am confused. I strongly suspect Kondratieff is confused if he thinks anything happens with a postulated technology on a 70-80 year timescale.

          • crocodilechuck said, on May 18, 2017 at 3:13 am

            Shakes head..

            You can read it yourself.

            • Scott Locklin said, on May 18, 2017 at 5:06 am

              The wiki page is the sheerest gorp.
              Go read Burton Klein’s Dynamic Economics. It uses actual examples rather than astrological signs.

  13. collimatrix said, on May 16, 2017 at 1:46 pm

    Stem cell research seems to have followed a superficially similar trajectory to fusion research.

    Step 1: The theoretical basis is solid and enticing.

    Stem cells differentiate into more specialized cells. If they can be tricked into doing so on command, all sorts of previously untouchable diseases ought to be easily curable!

    Light atomic nuclei fuse together if you smack ’em together hard enough and liberate energy from the binding mass deficit. If they can be tricked into doing so on command, the duterium collected from seawater will trivially power civilization for the foreseeable future!

    Step 2: The initial results were even encouraging, although not practical.

    We got stem cells to grow into nerve cells and cure paralysis! In rats! Slightly less than 1% of the time, the rest of the time it grows into this horrible, cancer-like mass or does nothing.

    We got deuterium and tritium to fuse! In an atom bomb, so I guess we can nuke things even harder now. We can also get fusion to work briefly on the inside of terrifically complex and expensive contraptions that are a hundred steps removed from anything useful.

    Step 3: The once-promising field is used as a sort of welfare for smart people with degrees who will privately admit that progress is occurring at a snail’s pace, and that the main thing they’ve learned so far is that the problem is much more complicated than they thought at first.

    With more funding, we’ll be able to finally understand how differentiation actually works and control it!

    With more funding, we’ll be able to finally design a magnetic containment field that could break even in energy production!

    • crocodilechuck said, on May 16, 2017 at 8:45 pm

      Piss weak straw man.

      ‘Do not pass ‘Go’, do not collect $200′

      • collimatrix said, on May 21, 2017 at 10:53 pm

        I suppose you’ll have no trouble coming up with a better summary of the relevant advances in each field then.

  14. flanagan314 said, on May 16, 2017 at 9:59 pm

    But the fuel tank of my car IS filled with hydrogen! Along with some carbon and oxygen.

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 16, 2017 at 11:46 pm

      Works better when it’s bound in a reasonably stable compound. I prefer diesel myself.

      • Mr Dad Jeans said, on July 21, 2017 at 11:33 pm

        Hydrogen leaks are way better than gasoline. It heads up. Gasoline sends an evil explosive mix along the ground. We are just used to gasoline. (Not that I believe in fuel cells.)

        • Mr Dad Jeans said, on July 21, 2017 at 11:37 pm

          Scott, correct explosive to combustible. Head fried.

          • Scott Locklin said, on July 21, 2017 at 11:39 pm

            I think it’s explosive sometimes (when it’s vaporized properly), so you are correct anyway Mr. Dad Jeans!

  15. fpoling said, on May 17, 2017 at 4:31 pm

    Russian tanks use turbines. But I agree that is not exactly “automative”. Plus even there the affair with turbines is not all roses. After T-80 the tank designers went back to disel for T-90. But latest designs use gas turbines again.

    • Scott Locklin said, on May 17, 2017 at 5:01 pm

      American tanks also:

    • collimatrix said, on May 18, 2017 at 5:06 pm

      Three tanks use gas turbines, the T-80, the M1 Abrams and the weird Swedish STRV-103 (which also has a conventional diesel and a hideously complicated transmission to combine the power from the two).

      The theory is reasonably sound; in a main battle tank about half of the mass of the vehicle is armor. Therefore, the best way to make the tank lighter isn’t to focus on making the subcomponents lighter, it’s to focus on making the subcomponents *smaller* so they require less surface area of armor to cover up. Turbines have nutso volumetric power density, so they should help make the tank nice and small.

      There are several auxiliary advantages. Turbines are much easier to start in the cold than diesels, an advantage that surely appealed to the Swedes and Soviets. Early gas turbines were touchy and fragile, but modern gas turbines have orders of magnitude longer time between overhauls than a high-output four-stroke diesel. They vibrate a lot less than diesels. Gas turbines burn the fuel the instant it enters the combustors, so they absolutely do not care about cetane numbers or octane numbers, and can thus be run on damn near anything that’s liquid and flammable. Surprisingly, what I’ve heard from people on multi-national exercise is that gas turbine powered tanks have a smaller IR signature, despite having greater heat rejection and higher exhaust temperatures. The reason is that gas turbines have less particulate in the exhaust to scatter the thermal radiation.

      There are three main disadvantages. The first is fuel consumption; it’s several times higher for the gas turbine. Worse still, gas turbines don’t burn that much less fuel at idle than they do at full power, so a turbine-powered tank has trouble just sitting still in overwatch with its engine warm (and this is a lot of what tanks end up doing in combat). A turbine-powered tank has to carry a lot more fuel than a diesel-powered one, which somewhat offsets the smaller volume of the powerplant. This isn’t entirely bad; it turns out that diesel fuel is, pound for pound, decently good protection against shaped charges. As long as the fuel tanks are designed to withstand the hydrostatic shock of getting penetrated by a hypersonic metal jet without bursting, gigantic fuel tanks make a decent secondary layer of protection. The driver of the Abrams is protected on the sides in part by big fuel tanks, so designers are aware of this and do exploit it. But the logistical strain of tanks that burn more fuel is a bad thing any way you slice it. Finally, nobody designs gas turbines specifically for tanks. The two main figures of merit for determining the cycle efficiency of a gas turbine are turbine inlet temperature (TIT) and overall pressure ratio (OPR). For the AGT-1500, TIT is just shy of 2,200 F and OPR is 14:1. By comparison, the GE90 on the 777 manages 42:1 and 2,700 F. So the AGT-1500 is by no means representative of what modern gas turbine technology can accomplish. Thing is, nobody is going to design a tank turbine that pushes the envelope because it makes no sense economically. The fancy CMC and nickel-based superalloys that make the GE90 so amazing cost serious money. A single GE90 turbofan costs about four times as much as an M1 Abrams. There aren’t a whole lot of great ways to spread out the costs over a large production run either. A gas turbine optimized for a tank would be optimized for the air density at or near sea level, so it wouldn’t be too hot for a fighter jet. It would be much too small anyway. What other applications are there for an advanced, extremely efficient turbine that only really operates at low altitude? Hovercraft and small natural gas peaking plants? Racing boats for rich weirdos? It’s not an enormous market.

      I wouldn’t put much stock into the fact that the T-90 uses a conventional diesel engine vice the T-80’s turbine. The T-90 is not a development of the T-80, it’s a development of the T-72. The T-64, T-72 and T-80 all look similar, and it was assumed in the West that they represented a successive improvements of the same basic design, but that’s not true. They are, in fact, parallel and largely unrelated designs from competing design bureaus. In short, the Soviet procurement bureaucracy was insane and very politicized, and thus they ended up with three models of MBT which all did more or less the same thing. T-64 is powered by a weird two-stroke opposed-piston diesel because the Ukrainian design bureau that developed it was enthused with two-stroke diesels. T-72 is powered by a souped-up version of the V-12 diesel that goes all the way back to the T-34, because the Ural design bureau liked to keep with the tried and true. T-80 has a turbine because the Leningrad design bureau was really into turbines. After the breakup of the USSR, the Russian Federation produced the T-90, which is a souped-up T-72. There were more factories for T-72s than there were for T-80s, and I’m not sure that all the components for the T-80 were even produced in Russia. Ukraine produced T-80 derivatives for the export market after the breakup, and they had to supply over half of the components from Russia. Late Soviet military production was spread all over the country, so the breakup seriously compromised the ability of any of the successor republics to actually make anything in the factories they inherited.

  16. Robert Mitchell said, on May 18, 2017 at 7:48 am

    Photonics: probably a lot of items could go here, but I specifically remember Silicon Raman lasers and meta-materials being hyped up when I was in undergrad. Intel talked about using Raman lasers in their chips to alleviate bandwidth and power issues and even showed off a link using a Raman laser about a decade ago at a developer’s forum, but still no products today using them. As for meta-materials we still get the same news stories about some university inventing cloaking with the same caveat that it only cloaks a sliver of the microwave spectrum as a decade ago. I guess with meta-materials there is at least the upshot of people making acoustic meta-materials right now due to inexpensive 3D-printing. Would be neat if someone actually built an acoustic cloak for a building next to active train tracks or in an area with seismic activity to see how effective meta-materials at scale can be at dampening.

  17. Bob Van Wagner said, on May 18, 2017 at 1:51 pm


    Nano: that’s being used in fabrics and evidently: mattresses. Gen Y mattresses, to keep the purple foam honeycombs from sticking . Tiny wee beads. Maybe problematic in lung alveoli. Maybe the next big asbestos. Anyway that is nano, a low tech version, or at least low complexity. Tiny beads embedded in fibers. Like a speciality steel, sort of. Nano beads enmeshed, nano coatings change many a beneficial physical macro level property.

    Bio-Tech: Still going strong. The trailing-edge of he onset of biotech coincided with a change in the SEC, the era of the WWW, that legalized micro-caps. And the sharpies and cons always jump a new economic venue first. So biotech got a really bad rap, and the associations damaged a LOT of resumes. Check out ZIOP and XON, even the whole corral of Randal J Kirk, billionaire.

    Stem Cells: and just as they actually make it to phase III and beyond, (that’s bio-tech lingo) you jump off the circus wagon. Stem Cells and genetic modification do wok, they will in a few years, not many, provide much public benefit.

    Fuel Cells: They’ll be back. That’s a later impact of the normalization and institutionalization of bio-tech by the way. And maybe too, nano-tech. Something is going to be found that can sequester that hydrogen and release it as needed. A tougher call, time line wise, but ten-twenty.

    Things you missed:

    Fusion Power. Always hokum, will always be hokum.

    Electric cars: I mean ALL-ELECTRIC. Why will they not work? Safety. Safety of the home charging station, mainly. Perhaps what all the Tesla fan boys never mention, but owners find out very harshly. Speaks to the value of fuel cells and hybrids.

    Side comment on NASA.

    I had a work-buddy who worked on the Apollo missions after his AF special forces gig monitoring nuclear blasts in the far east. He said he was the one who developed the first digital blood pressure gauge fro use on the astronauts, and he also work on that team that saved the crew of the oxygen depleted likely doomed Apollo 13, April 1970. Great American can-do inventiveness combined with a real sense of duty, of individual responsibility. What a difference between that NASA era and the era of February 2003! Even after the terrible lessons of the Challenger disaster in January 1986, group-non-repsonsinbilty was still King of the social dynamics of NASA. Even after the common sense of greats like Feynman, lecturing them. Lectures never work.

    NPR article: http://www.npr.org/2017/05/17/527052122/total-failure-when-the-space-shuttle-didnt-come-home

    The artwork and photos also tell the TL;DR; tale. Especially when compared to the stills from NASA of the control room in 1970. See https://www.nasa.gov/content/mission-control-houston-april-13-1970

  18. Ian Welland said, on July 31, 2017 at 7:45 pm

    Stochastic computing is an oft-forgotten also-ran in the hyped technologies department.

    I have an old tome by Wolfgang Poppelbaum on my desk at the moment; it might not have been that useful, but it sure is fascinating to read about such a peculiar approach to computing.

    It would also be really amusing if a master in statistical physics and field theory could apply some trickery to stochastic computers to show that they too, under unreasonable assumptions, can do Fourier transforms hastier than classical computers, just like quantum computers. Could take some hot air out of the QC hype but it’s just speculation.

    • Scott Locklin said, on July 31, 2017 at 8:02 pm

      I’ve said as much myself. I have a vague recollection (20 years since I read the papers on this) that it was actually deployed in a missile which had RFI problems on the “processors” of the day.
      The nice thing about quantum computers, unlike optical computers (also good at many of the QC things) or stochastic computers: since nobody knows how to build one, nobody will ever look bad by publishing something which is wrong.

  19. Toddy Cat said, on August 28, 2017 at 5:06 pm

    In 1969, NASA’s budget was 5% of all Federal spending, not 5% of GDP.

  20. tr8dr said, on September 26, 2017 at 11:50 am

    You hit on a point that has bothered me as well, the general public and even ML specialists equating ML = AI. Is something I go out of my way to correct when hear someone talking about AI companies, etc.

    Sadly we are very far from true AI. I was educated at the tail end of the era when AI was being pursued in earnest, later to be mostly abandoned and replaced with a focus on statistical techniques (ML). I think the work that DeepMind is doing is touching on aspects of what would be necessary to cross the bridge between ML and AI (I had some interaction with them as was formerly part of a related ML startup, very smart bunch). That said, I suspect the first AI may well be the equivalent of a “mind-upload” translation of the neural circuitry from the organism to a simulator, say for a nematode, ant, or other small creature. There are incredible challenges remaining to do this even for the most basic organisms, however. As usually, science fiction is way ahead of reality here.

    With respect the quantum computing, there is a view in the public sphere that this has magical properties through the use of “spooky action” (an unfortunate choice of words). One of the reasons why we have not seen much here is because of the extremely small size of existing experimental quantum computers (and I don’t count Dwave’s adiabatic as true quantum computing). There was an announcement in the press this week that Tokyo University has an optical approach that can enable millions of qubits. I have not looked back at the original papers nor seen peer review to know how real this is, but if it works, could be transformative in scale. Finally the other problem is that quantum algorithms are few and far between. A remaining question is what class of algorithm can be efficiently solved on a quantum computer, making full use of the superposition of states.

  21. Petr said, on September 17, 2018 at 7:48 pm

    You could have added “superconductors” to the list: that was a failure. I disagree with the “biotechnology” entry in the list of technological failures. It’s too broad of a field, and maybe there is a critique to the disparity between promises and deliverables. The “biopharmaceuticals” have been quite helpful in tacking inflammatory diseases – for example, decreasing the amount of people carrying colostomy bags because of Crohn’s with the use of ramicade and similar successful drugs is a big relief for patients. It also helped patients who suffer from Rheumatic diseases, and it’s really the only hope in that field.

    Maybe it simply needed sub-items because biotech includes far too many topics.

    I fear a revised version of failed technologies will include CRISPRs and our future lives in Mars.

    • Scott Locklin said, on September 18, 2018 at 7:10 am

      Well, the title is ‘didn’t live up to the hype’ -not ‘technological failures.’ Biotech definitely didn’t live up to the hype, even if there were some small improvements.

      • Petr said, on September 18, 2018 at 4:31 pm

        Then it’s a lot clearer. CRISPR’s will join stem cells in that list: I give it 5 years….

      • Petr said, on September 20, 2018 at 5:57 pm

        btw, I’d love to read one of your takes on the “neuroscience fad”. Maybe you don’t follow it, but it’s at full speed. Optogenetics, the Blue Brain Project among so many other things…I’ll wait for your post on it. Thanks!

        • Scott Locklin said, on September 21, 2018 at 3:58 am

          I’ve noticed it’s popular -I assume they’re doing something, but it’s obvious it isn’t much different from ‘anatomists’ or whoever looked at brains in the past.

          • Petr said, on September 22, 2018 at 5:10 am

            Well, given your style of writing about such topics, I’ve love to read your take on it. There is also a whole lot of computer simulation involved: check the “blue brain project” for an example – maybe that will be more on your turf. In a way you are not incorrect: anatomists and old-fashioned neuroscientists dedicated a lot of their efforts to establish the brain pathways responsible for different functions, say, a popular one used to be “motivated behaviour”, or “pathways of fear” and so on. Addiction is somewhat well understood by now (if they are not completely wrong).

            The technologies evolved a lot, and they can look at these same problems with fancier toys, and the academic publication mill is trying to convince the world neuroscience is “the new physics”. Optogenetics is extremely popular right now, starting to decline a bit…but huge state funded brain research centers were created, it has attracted a lot of public and private funds (mostly public).

            To me…it’s another academic bubble. You might disagree – I just wanted your particular vernacular on it at some point.

            • Scott Locklin said, on September 23, 2018 at 7:08 am

              I guess I’d have to know something about it to have an opinion; these other subjects actually interest me enough to know something about them.
              I mean, there is probably a lot of bullshit in there, but I can’t debunk everything.

              • Petr said, on September 26, 2018 at 2:11 pm

                Give it a try. Search “The Blue Brain Project”, see what they are trying to do. Neuroscience itself is an honest field, but they’ve grown a lot recently ($$$$) after a few other hot fields deflated. One device I think you’d enjoy is the “human exoskeleton” – that project actually has relevant findings, because they advanced a lot at “brain-machine” interfaces. But the idea that quadriplegics will operate affordable mind-controlled exoskeletons is not fair to the patient foundations that lobby to fund this type of research. That’s an issue in a lot of health technologies: there are foundations of patients and their families, who actually suffer, and they have influence in where funding goes. So, stage-savvy professors sometimes get funding for horrific promises. I can tell you a story with Parkinson’s Disease, that unfortunately was never got published…but the money went to the lab, the grants awarded, all that can be found. The PI went around the world saying he was going to cure PD with “bionano magic”. Well, “debunk” and “bullshit” are words you use a lot better than me, I prefer to spot things that “aren’t even wrong”, or just far-fetched…. Have fun discovering neuroscience: it’s not all nonsense, but there are inflated alleys of over-promising mixed with legitimate work. It can be challenging to tell one from the other. But take a look at the efforts to “simulate the human cortex” – I don’t understand computation at all to form my opinion, but I do not trust their results.

                Btw, do you think electric cars will ever be scaled? If they can’t find a way around platinum as a catalyst, all I see is a luxury item. Same for all the “efficiency record breaking” photovoltaics: they are career-building academic findings, they will never compete with silicon: but that’s my opinion, not the priority of whoever funds labs and decides what gets published in the hot journals.

                • Scott Locklin said, on October 3, 2018 at 10:30 am

                  I am completely uninterested in educating myself on this subject, particularly when you’ve already informed me you suspect it of being bullshit.
                  You might be interested though, in Bruce Charlton’s thoughts on it.

                  • Petr said, on October 10, 2018 at 3:56 pm

                    Thanks for the link. Yes, just reading the first part of it, he nails what most current-day academic research is: material careerism. You guarantee jobs, income, with the blessing of your peers and get to publish rubbish. The problem is that most funding comes from the tax-payer pocket. Add to it the detachment between upper education and the job market, something will have to change in the way education operates and how we do research. Thanks.

                    • Scott Locklin said, on October 10, 2018 at 6:39 pm

                      I dunno, things could remain very bad for a very long time. Most government agencies fail to fulfill their assigned functions.
                      Once in a while things do work; fracking for example. Who knows; maybe it’s worth dumping billions at ten thousand cranks who claim to be scientists when you get the occasional payoff like this. Treat it like VC.
                      Sure doesn’t work like they promised in the funny papers though.

                    • Petr said, on October 11, 2018 at 12:35 am

                      I suspect the student debt crisis will make society review upper education altogether. But you are right: it may take too long.

  22. […] As I said last year […]

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