On May 15, 2008, in Acceleration

Beating Expectations

Pessimists said 2020. Optimists (that would be us) said 2010. Well, it’s only 2008, and here it is: a hydrogen fuel cell car you can lease today. It is true that the June rollout of Honda’s “FCX Clarity” is very limited, but given: the competitive pressure it puts on other automakers, accelerating advances in fuel cell technology, and the inevitable continued rise in the price of gasoline, we would expect 2010 to be the year when the rollout of fuel cell vehicles passes critical mass.

The lack of a hydrogen filling station infrastructure won’t be too great an obstacle, because home refueling systems that use natural gas to produce hydrogen are also on the market. They not only refuel your car’s hydrogen tank but also power your home. As of March this year, 2,200 households in Japan were powered by a US$9,500 suitcase-sized fuel cell from Matsushita Electric.

Also beating expectations this year was the number of deaths from heart disease, at least in the US. By January, the number had fallen below the American Heart Association’s prevention goal for 2010.

Everyone, including even us, seems to be too timid in predicting the acceleration of innovations, whether in fuel cells or healthcare or anything else. To begin to understand why, consider the following list of health-related stories published on within a four-hour period on October 29 last year:

  • 2 hours ago – Researchers show evidence of ‘memory’ in cells and molecules
  • 2 hours ago – Scientists unveil structure of molecular target of many drugs3 hours ago – Powerful Molecular Motor Permits Speedy Assembly of Viruses3 hours ago – Transparent Zebrafish Help Researchers Track Breast Cancer4 hours ago – New system would use rotating magnetic field to detect pathogens2 hours ago – Doctors Test Hot Sauce for Pain Relief2 hours ago – Odd protein interaction guides development of olfactory system

This list represents just four hours’ worth of discoveries and advances in health and medicine — and they are only the ones prominently reported and in English. Consider that this goes on all day, every day, and that these reports are instantly available to almost any researcher on the planet who can read some English.

Without a methodology for continually tracking these developments and plotting the acceleration curve, we will probably continue to underestimate the curve after the point where it disappears over the visible, near-term, horizon.

Recent Breakthroughs

It is easier to predict on the basis of that visible curve; that is to say, on the basis of breakthroughs already made. That probably explains why in 2008 we can read Prevention magazine’s Top Medical Breakthroughs of 2007 but not its list of breakthroughs for 2009 or beyond. The 2007 list included: The discovery that certain compounds used in some existing drugs are able to fight drug-resistant bacteria; an over-the-counter probiotic pill that appears to cure most vaginal bacterial infections; and a flexible artificial disk implant enabling people with cervical degenerative disk disease to bend their necks normally after surgery.

The Cleveland Clinic was a bit more daring in making predictions for 2008 when the year had barely begun, though it too was staying on this side of the horizon. Top spot went to a new generation of flexible catheters that allow precise remote navigation and manipulations within blood vessels, followed in second place by a technique to deliver a replacement aortic heart valve via catheter, and in third by an RNA interference (RNAi) therapy for patients unable to reach targeted cholesterol levels using statins alone, or who cannot tolerate anti-cholesterol drugs.

There is no empirical methodology for pinpointing the acceleration curve at points beyond the horizon, though we think one is possible. In the meantime, Health Futures Digest continues to rely on a semi-intuitive, anecdotal, extrapolation of the post-horizon curve from the pre-horizon curve.


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