By Chris Cannon

 

The potential innovations to come out of the A.I. revolution are simply too vast to comprehend. Within the next few years, every tool for every task could potentially be at your fingertips, offering lift to your creative whims and giving you the ability to pursue potential business models with a fraction of the resources it takes today.

What current basement startups will become the next corporate behemoths because they figured out how to ride the wave of a radical technological shakeup? What A.I. innovations might become the next Google or Amazon?

Let’s take a look at a few technological tipping points that reshaped society in unforeseen ways, and how innovators saw opportunity in the unknown.

A.I., Innovation, and Technological Tipping Points

The Printing Press

The invention of the printing press by Johannes Gutenberg in 1440 was a watershed moment in human history. Increasing printing capacity from 40 pages a day to 3,600 pages a day, the machine promised far more books at far cheaper prices.

Among the early innovators who capitalized on this technology was William Caxton, England’s first printer. Caxton saw the potential of the printing press to make books accessible to a broader audience, not just the small market of elites who read their Aesop in the original Greek. He ultimately printed more than 80 classics in English – translating many of them himself from Italian, French, and Latin – opening an entirely new market for inexpensive books written in a language the majority of new readers could understand.

Innovators such as Caxton used the printing press to scale their products to a much larger audience, opening a new, sustainable market. Plentiful books printed in broadly spoken languages led to a surge in literacy rates, transforming education and fostering a culture of informed public discourse. Even though the printing press is lauded as one of history’s most important inventions, the real change came about from innovators like Caxton who used the technology to bring his product to a new class of customers.

The Steam Engine

Just as the printing press powered the literacy revolution, the steam engine powered the industrial revolution, transforming every aspect of trade – from manufacturing to transportation to how workers were organized. It shifted the world from agrarian economies to industrial powerhouses. It altered labor dynamics and led to the rise of urban centers. This mechanical marvel reshaped global trade, creating a connected world and laying the groundwork for modern capitalism.

But just like the printing press, it wasn’t the invention that changed the world, it was the innovations that capitalized on it. Steam power was in use on a small scale hundreds of years before James Watt made improvements to existing technology in the 18th century. Watt is often – and inaccurately – credited with the invention of the steam engine, but by the time he patented a more efficient and versatile version of the device, steam was already being used to create vacuums, power turbines, and drive pistons, mostly to pump water out of flooded areas.

It was Watt’s innovative use of steam to expand pressure in a chamber rather than create a vacuum – which resulted in a massive savings in fuel – that tipped the scales of the Industrial Revolution. The Watt engine was quickly adapted for use in factories, transportation, and beyond, bringing a boost to industrial productivity and supercharging the workforce.

Watt can rightly be called an inventor, but it was his desire for continual improvement that made his innovations so noteworthy. The Watt engine was constantly redesigned with minor improvements to increase efficiency. The more essential elements of the engine design could even be fitted to existing steam engines and installed on-site, so Watt and his financial partners adapted their business model to license improvements to operators instead of building them entirely new machines.

From Watt’s story, we learn the importance of continual improvement and adaptation. Watt didn’t invent the steam engine; he improved it, making it practical for widespread industrial use. His work exemplifies how innovation can be about refining and adapting existing technologies for broader applications.

The Internet

The emergence of the internet brought about an era of unprecedented connectivity, transforming business models, disrupting traditional industries, and giving birth to new ones. The internet’s impact on global connectivity has been profound, reshaping everything from daily communication to international politics.

Pierre Omidyar, founder of eBay, saw opportunity in applying this new digital connectivity to mimic an existing physical marketplace. Starting as a simple site for auctioning collectible items, eBay quickly grew into a vast online marketplace, demonstrating the internet’s power to create digital communities that can conduct physical commerce.

Omidyar’s approach was not about exploiting the internet for rapid gains but about using it to bring people together in a new medium. One of the great fears in the early days of the internet was that people would disappear into virtual worlds and threaten the social cohesion of communities that didn’t interact in the real world anymore. Omidyar turned that obstacle into an opportunity, using the social potential of the digital universe to connect people in an online marketplace. By focusing on the social aspect of online transactions, eBay fostered a sense of trust and community among its users, laying down the principles of online commerce that many platforms follow today.

Lessons for A.I. Innovation

The means by which innovators took advantage of these historical shifts should come as no surprise – creating a new market, improving an existing product, moving something old into a new domain. These rather basic innovation principles were the real engines of change. To torture a metaphor, the boat was a pretty neat invention, but adding a sail is what made it take off.

AI, like the major technological innovations before it, is more than just a new set of tools – it’s a catalyst for societal transformation. Finding insight from pivotal moments in innovation history and recognizing the patterns of past technological disruptions shows us that the most profound impacts arise not from the technology itself, but from its application to fulfill unmet societal needs, open new markets, and unlock new forms of value.

The first use of a technology is rarely its most impactful. AI innovators should be identifying nascent needs that AI can meet in unprecedented ways. Click To Tweet

For those innovating at the AI frontier, this means aggressively seeking out where AI can not only automate tasks but fundamentally redefine them. The first use of a technology is rarely its most impactful, so AI innovators should be identifying nascent needs that AI can meet in unprecedented ways.

 

Lessons Learned

  • We are living through a major revolution in AI technology
  • It’s not the invention that changes our lives, it’s the way the inventions are adapted to real use cases
  • AI is going to change our lives once it is harnessed to create new solutions and unlock new forms of value

Special thanks to Megan Kennedy for reviewing and giving feedback on this post.

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