There’s fake news, fake science, and now, “fake tech”. Fake tech is a term that came to mind while reading about the augmented reality startup Magic Leap. The company has raised $1.4 billion based on videos created to demo its technology. But new information has surfaced that indicates these videos were created using special effects, simulated by a New Zealand company that specializes in such things. While it’s not clear how real the company’s technology is, you could describe these simulated presentations as fake.
Then there’s Theranos, the health technology company that raised hundreds of millions of dollars for its fingerstick and microfluidics technologies that promised to revolutionize blood testing. The company’s value was as high as $9 billion before it was discovered that much of its technology was more wishful thinking than real. Apparently, its charismatic leader was able to persuade a number of luminaries to serve on its board while others, including Walgreen’s, made huge investments based on fake evidence or no evidence at all.
Because technology is often complicated and overwhelming to those without science or engineering training, potential customers and investors are not equipped to make knowledgeable assessments and therefore follow the crowd of believers, not wanting to be left behind.
But as many of us working in Silicon Valley know, there’s a propensity for entrepreneurs to take on tasks that may seem insurmountable, or even impossible, that can lead to real innovation and breakthroughs. Along the way, with the need to attract investment, employees and customers, it’s easy for the promises to get ahead of the reality. People want to believe and can easily fall prey to those leaders who may be better at promoting than the actual science.
In the case of Theranos and Magic Leap, there were early warning signs, such as the companies’ refusal to provide real demos. In both cases, the truth came out when former employees came forward with their stories. In the case of Theranos, an intensive investigation by the WSJ did much to undermine the company’s credibility.
I’ve also experienced fake tech on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. There are products described with seemingly impossible claims that can’t be verified by the host sites. So, anyone with a clever idea and a simulated video can raise money proposing an idea that’s impossible to do. Some may know it’s impossible but many don’t know what they don’t know and believe it can be accomplished with enough money.
In addition to these, there are more nuanced examples of fake tech practiced by major companies that rely on exaggerated claims to garner publicity and boost their stock. While perhaps not completely fake, they are a lot less than what they seem to be.
Uber claimed they were beginning to use driverless cars in Pittsburgh when, in fact, they were starting to test the cars with a professional driver at the wheel. Amazon announced last year they were going to begin delivery of packages using drones, yet it will be years away.
In these cases, the press jumped on these stories, encouraged by the companies’ professional PR people, skilled at creating headlines out of bits of truth, and playing to the strengths and weakness of gullible reporters. While perhaps not factually inaccurate, the results were closer to almost-fake tech.
What fuels fake tech is what fuels fake news — the need to create headlines that result in clicks, eyeballs and hence, dollars. The need to get above the noise and stand out in some way. Too often, there are reporters not trained in science or technology that fall for these stories without a critical eye. They too want to believe and, as a result, promote a story without understanding the nuances behind it.
What’s the solution? Good reporting by trained journalists that understand basic science. Reporters that have a skeptical eye who understand they can’t accept all they are told. The need to assess claims using industry experts without financial ties to the company or its investors. Reliance on industry analysts who have seen and heard it all before and are not taken in by unsubstantiated claims.
14 thoughts on “Fake Tech”
“What’s the solution?”
You offered the solutions yourself. Do your own work, your own research, and do not depend on analysts, journalists, celebrities, marketers, and fortune tellers to fill that function for you.
“One born every minute…” – It’s as old as investing.
I would think that a surefire cure for fake tech would be real jail terms. But nowadays a tech swindler is about as likely to do time as a bankster.
I’m not ready to write off Magic Leap yet. Too many credible people have claimed to see demos that were mind blowing. Of course, shrinking the tech in both size and cost may be something that a startup can’t accomplish before running out of cash.
“Investors are not equipped to make knowledgeable assessments”
Any investor who puts his money into something, without consulting those who do have science or engineering training, is a dumb investor.
Theranos shows that a young, pretty, and clever woman can deceive a lot of older men. It’s an old story.
I agree, but doesn’t tech in particular have a certain history with such things? How is this substantively different from vaporware?
The difference is that vaporware was often (though certainly not exclusively) used by established companies to stifle demand for competing products.
> There’s fake news, fake science, and now, “fake tech”.
Fake tech has been around for decades. It is also called vaporware, so I don’t know why you’re treating it like it is a new concept.
As a matter of fact, it’s been around for centuries:
I think the difference here between today’s fake tech and traditional vaporware is that the latter generally does not attract hundreds of millions of dollars in blind investments. Both get plenty of press attention and hype, but vaporware tends to vanish pretty quickly, whereas companies like Theranos and Magic Leap seem to almost cross the line into fraud by taking in so much investment capital and can do so for years.
It’s very hard to find independent experts. VC (or just plain Corp) money dwarfs what’s available in academia, journalism and government. So not only are there few people with a reason to burst bubbles (what millions are there to be made by debunking lies ?), but these few are hard-pressed to find objective sources a 20k grant to buy a scientist is a drop in the sea for well-funded firms, there are only that many scientists).
One level up from tech is science, and even there, consensus theories are being defeated by interest groups with an agenda.
“what millions are there to be made by debunking lies ?”
They should gamify debunking a fake tech experience. If you discovered a tech lie – receive a fake , strikethrough, money. Worst comes to worst – they’ll make a sci-fi movie out of fake tech.
There’s no question there are politics, agenda’s, and yes, priesthoods in the sciences. Fortunately it’s self correcting. Science is driven by truth. The reward system ultimately destroys bad science and rewards good science. The arbiter? Experimental facts. You can’t oppose nature and win.
The unfortunate thing is that it takes time. Aristotle and Pythagoras, great as they were, did not only advance the human condition, but unfortunately, held it back due to their followers zealous defense of their mistakes.
Hey, today’s xkcd is almost topical: