A once crazy idea relegated to the imagination of billionaires is showing signs of feasibility. Will Asia lead the technology’s development?
“We are excellent at execution, but fall behind in innovation.”
This is the characteristic that defines the Asian tech ecosystem, and why many of the most popular startups are retreads from a Silicon Valley technology.
Take self-driving vehicles as an example. Recently, the governments in Singapore and South Korea as well as private companies in India have gotten on board and are developing technology to integrate autonomous vehicles into the infrastructure of the future. The Singapore government, to use it as an example, got serious about roadmapping the project in 2014.
The problem is that Google revealed the technology in 2010, and had been rumoured to be working on it long before.
Asia waited to ensure Google could prove the technology was viable before pursuing localisation for implementation in this part of the world.
So unfortunately for Asia, no matter if the technology far surpasses that of Google, driverless cars will always be a product of Silicon Valley. Just like, even if it Grab takes 100 per cent market share in the region, the ride-sharing economy will forever be the creation of Uber.
This is all to point out that today we have another high-risk technology, which is more likely to fail than succeed, that is waiting to be investigated. But once again, the people insane enough to at least try are coming from Europe and America.
The technology in question is hyperloop technology.
Come on, that idea is impossible!
Crazy yes. Impossible? Not even close.
Over the last six or seven months, the insane hypothesis that makes autonomous vehicles look like building a LEGO spaceship has been showing signs of life. And last week, on the hyperloop evolutionary timeline, bacteria may have just appeared.
One of the companies leading the charge, Hyperloop Transportation Technologies (with a team spread across the US), announced it had reached an agreement with the government of Slovakia to pursue development of the futuristic transportation.
It should also be noted that at least one old tech ‘dinosaur’ is quite interested in hyperloop, with Cisco President Rob Lloyd becoming the CEO of Hyperloop Technologies Inc. in September 2015.
The idea was first conceptualised by Elon Musk in a white paper written in August 2013. He claimed that it could reduce the roughly six-hour drive from San Francisco to Los Angeles to a 35 minute commute.
In its most basic ideation, the technology builds above-ground tunnels and lowers the air pressure within the infrastructure to near-zero. People board a ‘pod’ which will then be flung through the tunnels at break-neck speed because it is free from the infrastructural restrictions of friction (such as the pod tearing apart).
In the plans approved for the Slovakia experiment, hyperloop would allow commuters to travel the 50 miles from Bratislava to Vienna in eight minutes.
Now, even mainstream media is starting to perk up to his new technology. Channel News Asia reported both American hyperloop companies are looking into the viability of developing the technology in Asia in the next five years.
And while it would be cool to put those Japanese high-speed trains to shame, Asia is once again falling into the same-old trap that has bedeviled the tech scene for decades.
Execution but no innovation.
When Alphabet talks about ‘moonshot’ investments, hyperloop fits the definition to a tee.
The term does not refer to ‘revolutionising the banking system in Thailand’ or ‘disrupting the insurance industry in Singapore’. It means investigating — and investing in — an idea that has a one per cent chance of working.
Examples of successful moonshots include Amazon in 1994 or PayPal in 1998. To their contemporaries, the idea of e-commerce or digital currency transactions was a radical departure from reality and strayed into science fiction. Facebook in 2004 is not a moonshot because it took what MySpace and Friendster were doing and improved on the product.
When those moonshot companies took the fancies of imagination and successfully built it into a business, it did not ‘disrupt’ an industry; they built entirely new economies. Today, we ‘disrupt’ e-commerce. In 1994, Amazon built the damn thing.
Hyperloop technology very well might fail (we’ve been ‘building’ flying cars since the 1950s and nothing has stuck), but if a company can actually pull it off, they will revolutionise the entire global transportation system.
Very few companies in history can claim to have done that, and doing so would make the CEO one of the most powerful men in the world.
But this is not to say Asia is incapable of moonshotting. Take for example China.
As financially reckless as it might seem, the country is currently building a gigantic telescope with the goal of contacting aliens. And the logic is the same as what should be the motivation behind the pursuit of hyperloop technologies.
If China does discover aliens, the people will forever be praised as the country behind the most important development in the history of mankind. Every childhood education, from the US to Zimbabwe, would be taught the Chinese discovered extraterrestrial life. It is hard to put a price on that.
However, if aliens crash-land in Uruguay, then it was all a waste.
It is not too late
Actually far from it, all takes is one eccentric wealthy businessman (Lei Jun, anyone?) who can dream like Elon Musk (SpaceX) or Jeff Bezos (Blue Origin).
The other option is to follow the model laid down by Hyperloop Technologies Inc. — a group of dozens scientists, with day jobs, that participate in the project because of romantic ideals like intellectual stimulation and an opportunity to change the world. (Not exaggerating, the employees do not get salaries and work for stock options. Thus, the requirement of having another job).
Unfortunately, there really is no argument to justify government support for hyperloop technology at this point. It is still far more likely to fail than succeed, and any government programme would clearly fall under the ‘white-elephant’ category of a fiscal budget.
If Asia is serious about competing with Silicon Valley, private companies, veteran investors and individual engineers need to investigate the feasibility of these types of futuristic technologies.
Hyperloop is moving forward, and it is upon us to decide whether or not Asia will participate. The time is now, not in a few years, to ask ourselves:
In 2030, do we want to be ‘disrupting hyperloop transportation with our fancy apps’? Or do we want to be the ones being disrupted?’
My vote is for the second.
The post Asia has the chance to hit moonshot. But will it even swing? appeared first on e27.
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