03
May
12

What’s real and what’s not

My May column in Mechanical Engineering magazine.

Maybe it was meant as an early observance of April Fools’ Day, but a few weeks ago a Dutch filmmaker created quite a stir among those of us who follow the latest technology news when he posted online an amazing video clip of himself soaring like a bird, flapping carbon-reinforced fabric wings strapped to his arms. He complemented the hoax by touting this magnificent feat on a website, along with an equally fabricated set of data.

 

The exploit was splendid indeed—in terms of film illusion—but technologists and others who dream big sulked when they found out the accomplishment wasn’t true.

A few weeks later, something just as astonishing went viral: MIT and the University of Pittsburgh developed an oscillating gel that could give robots the potential ability to feel. Haptics on steroids, I immediately thought. This has nothing to do with haptics technology, however, but with the development of an oscillating gel that when it is mechanically compressed has far-reaching potential. This breakthrough paves the way for numerous applications and, like the birdman, stimulates our imagination. Developing a robot that can “feel” has been the Holy Grail in robotics. (Here’s an interesting video of the MIT work.)

It’s remarkable to see how much we, even as adults, want to believe that anything is possible—Walt Disney must be smiling. Apparently the last few years have taught us that nothing is out of the realm of possibility. Steve Jobs helped make us think differently about how we read a book and a newspaper, how we listen to music and how to conduct business; Mark Zuckerberg showed us a new way to socialize with friends, family, even business associates.

More than ever, we’re open-minded about accepting the possibilities of sensational innovations. We want to believe that we can fly like a bird, even when the facts are sketchy; and we believe that robots will be able to feel gentle touches—and now we have hard proof that it could really happen.

“The life of every successful innovation—whether it is an idea or a technology—has a remarkably similar trajectory,” say Adrian Bejan and Sylvie Lorente, the authors of “The S-Curves Are Everywhere,” in this issue. “In the beginning, when familiarity is confined to a few, acceptance spreads slowly to a wider population. At some later point, the spread of the innovation reaches critical mass and begins a sharp rise in the rate of new adopters. Finally, there is a saturation point, and the rate of spreading tails off when the total number of adopters appears to have hit a ceiling.”

The point that Bejan and Lorente are making is similar to what author Malcolm Gladwell referred to as “epidemics.” In his popular book, The Tipping Point, published a few years ago, Gladwell described as epidemics the ideas and products and messages and behaviors that spread, just as viruses do.

There is a lot to the responsibility of verifying what’s possible and what’s not. The ability to handle the tension between creative thinking and pragmatic development is one of the things that sets engineering and engineers apart. Here’s to the pragmatists, who have the creative foresight to dream the impossible dream.


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The Editor

John G. Falcioni is Editor-in-Chief of Mechanical Engineering magazine, the flagship publication of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers.

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