Anticipating and Leveraging the Future:Surfing the Sigmoid Curve

Raman Kannan

Software Engineering Department

Monmouth University,

West Long Branch, NJ 07764, USA


In late 19th century --as the world economy (and power) shifted from agricultural base to industrial base--nations that did not anticipate these discontinuities were left behind. Falling behind in global leadership is a spiral. Once begun the fall only accelerates. But there is hope for those who missed the onset of industrial age because it is not the last of radical changes to come. There are several more to come. And that is in the future--where most of us will spend the rest of our lives--. In this paper the author presents a convincing argument to anticipate (discontinuities), attack (with innovation), and plausible innovations.


Just as we speak the world separated by vast oceans has been reduced to a global digital village by the onset of Information Revolution. While I am no authority to discuss the right and wrong surrounding "Desert Storm-Iraq War(1991)" I can declare --with certainty-- the victory of digital bits (product of information age) over bullets (product of the industrial age). Those who anticipated and leveraged the power of --zeros and ones-- accomplished their mission. Those who did not anticipate did not accomplish. Most importantly, just as Japan leveraged the fruits of industrial revolution, so too can any nation (society, group or an individual) anticipate the implications of the looming information age and leverage the fruits of the digital revolution. In other words history has no bearing. There are no pre-requisites to leverage the benefits of discontinuities. Any one can start afresh and reap the very best. Such is the power of discontinuity in technology.

Section 1

In Section 1 we introduce key concepts technology limits, discontinuity, sigmoid curves, paradigm shift, and a strategy to identify and pioneer a paradigm shift.

Limits and Discontinuities

Numerous social scientists and philosophers have reasoned about the discontinuities that we undergo. In "Attackers Advantage" Richard Foster [2] explains that one must understand: (1) S-Curve; (2) Discontinuities and Limits and (3) the importance of innovation. There are limits to everything we do or make. When we are at the limits the need for improvement still persists and a radically different process or product is essential to rise above the limiting factors. Thus a discontinuity occurs and revolutionary changes are in order. Those who resist the change disappear and those who champion (or those who embrace like Japan) the change reap the benefits. As an illustration Foster [2] cites the demise of NCR Mechanical Cash Registers to electronic cash registers in 1971 and the success of first synthetic laundry detergent by Procter & Gamble (1947). We can add to this list such famous companies like Cray (network computing vs. supercomputers), IBM (Workstation vs. mainframe) and there are many more.

Limits, SIGMOID(S) Curves and Paradigm Shifts

Limits define the point of diminishing return as well as the duration of maximal return for any technology, process or product. And the S Curve is a is a powerful tool to understand and visualize technology evolution and limits. Foster [2] defines S Curve as "a graph of the relationship between the effort put into improving a product or process and the results one gets back for that investment" as shown in Figure 2. If we plot the performance of a product through conception, production and obsolescence the resulting curve will be the S Curve. S Curve is sometimes referred to as the Sigmoid curve[3]. Just as a sigmoid curve waxes and wanes so also does the performance of technologies, processes and products. To be successful or to be competitive or to break out of obscurity or even to achieve quantum improvements, one must understand: (1) limits; (2) technology evolution (S-Curves); and (3) the underlying forces, rules and regulations also known as "paradigm". Paradigm is defined to be "the most fundamental set of assumptions adopted by a professional community that allows its members to share similar perceptions and engage in commonly shared practices" [4]. Once we understand these three factors it is then possible to escape from the forces of the current paradigm and effect a paradigm shift. In other words the birth of a new paradigm is accompanied by a whole new set of rules, regulations and beliefs. Thus a paradigm shift fundamentally alters our original way of thinking, as did quantum mechanics which was enunciated to explain physical phenomena that Newtonian mechanics could not.

Curvilinear Logic

Joel Arthur Barker [5] claims that our ability to discover the future depends on our ability to: (1) understand the limitations of current forces or "paradigms"; (2) anticipate future needs; and (3) innovate to fulfill that need. By anticipating future needs and the limiting factors of known technologies one can pioneer revolutionary technologies and reap the benefits. In the case of watch industry those who championed quartz watch (Casio/Citizen) now dominate the world market. Swiss watch industry who resisted the impending shift continued to improve upon the mechanical watch beyond the point of diminishing return. Swiss watch market share is now a paltry 5% of the world market share down from 90%. Chrysler pioneered passenger vans and has a significant larger market share over all other automobile manufactures in the world (including Japanese companies). This process of venturing into uncharted territories or starting afresh is what is known as curvilinear logic [3].

Continuos Improvement - Kaizen

It is simply not enough to innovate once and do nothing more. Lest, predictably one becomes a prisoner of their own "new" paradigm they helped create. Barker [5] cites several revealing and most unlikely prisoners of paradigm: (1) In 1880, Thomas Edison is said to have remarked that the phonograph is not of any commercial value; (2) "flight by machines heavier than air is impractical and insignificant, if not utterly impossible." so claimed a famous astronomer Simon Newcomb in 1902; and (3) "it is an idle dream to imagine that .. automobiles will take the place of railways for mass transit" -- American Road Congress (1913). And there are countless more. Notice that most of these observers were pioneers by any standard but inexplicably allowed themselves to be prisoners of their own limited understanding. In other words the effect of paradigm is powerful enough to paralyze even the genius amongst us. So it is all too important to start life all over again with a perpetual curiosity and never give room to complacency. Furthermore, interestingly enough, the next paradigm (or the new set of rules) appears while the current paradigm is still in the "Maximum Return Phase" as shown in Figure 3. Chrysler Corporation, introduces incremental but useful improvements and maintains a comfortable lead in the minivan market. Improvements over Walkman (Sony Corporation) and tire material (cotton, rayon, nylon and polyester) are other well known examples. Incidentally "kaizen" is a Japanese term for continuos/incremental improvement.


Fundamental changes are usually brought about by outsiders who are not restricted to the boundaries of an existing paradigm. So anyone in interested in a better future must challenge the present (or your current paradigm) on a regular basis. Barker [5] calls this paradigm pliancy and in which you ask the paradigm shift question:

"What do I believe is impossible to do in my field, but, if it could be done, would fundamentally change my business?"

The next phase is to find the "outsiders" and listen to their opinions "right" or "wrong". Being flexible and open eventually pays off.

Section 2

We have experienced tremendous changes in the last 100 years. Change begets change and hence the rate of change has accelerated during this period. And it is fair to say that Science and Technology has witnessed the most change. In this section we review some of the most promising and imminent technologies that will fundamentally change our lives.

Energy Generating Satellites [6]

Solar powered satellites will collect solar energy and power will be delivered to earthlings below using sparse microwave beams through which birds can fly unaffected. In other words side-effects will be eliminated. Batteries need not be included if one can regulate and deliver the satellite generated power to portable devices with special antennas. Paradigm shift again and gone will be the batteries and major industries associated with batteries.

Machines Like Us [7]

Using sophisticated techniques such as genetic programming, neural networks, fuzzy logic and fractal programming, first generation machines that can learn to walk from first principles and learn to dance have been constructed. Another such system is being used to predict and forecast stock prices.

Computer Human Interaction

Systems that interact with people and other systems using multiple input modalities (vision, tactile and speech (multilingual) ) will become common. Here again limits of conventional technology has brought about such revolutionary innovation. Imagine a keyboard to support 5000 or more Chinese characters. Keyboard just does not help. That is the limit.

Global Communication Infrastructures

Today we have numerous devices(phone, fax, email and other modes of communication) and numerous identifiers (phone numbers, fax numbers, email address, HTTP address). Within a few years anyone can access or communicate with anyone else around the world using one identifier in any of these modes. Computing device, networks, television and telephones will merge. And do so without being wired. The Motorola Iridium Project is aimed at connecting the entire world using several geostationary satellites.

Digital Economy

Initially it was barter. Then it was gold bullion and now it is paper currency. Inevitably paper currency will be replaced with digital currencies.

Space Industry

Initial prototypes of extra-terrestrial colonies will be implemented. New materials and machinery will be fabricated in space.

Interaction over Distance and Virtual Reality

Forward looking corporations (such as Bellcore) have already implemented flexible work schedules leveraging their telecommuting technologies. Distance Software Engineering will be common. Teleradiology is in use today but will soon be generalized to telemedicine including many other clinical services.

Distance Education

Students can enroll and attend any school any where in the world. No longer would students have to migrate from one place to another just to attend a place of learning. Anyone can visit any university that bits and bytes can reach. The International University College in Englewood, Colorado and Western Government University on the Internet are here to stay. The world can tap into the great minds of the faculty at Indian Statistical Institutes and Indian Institute of Science. International Scholars visiting India is nothing new, only now, these are virtual visits to contemporary "Virtual Nalanda University".

Higher Order Information Processing

Content based information processing and retrieval will be the norm. Face recognition and voice recognition will be used to secure property and resource. No more keys and locks. When you approach the door the sensor will open the door if you are expected and authorized. Automated Teller Machines will sense who you are --by your looks and voice-- dispense money at your asking.

Miniaturization [8]

Nano-technology will be pervasive. Pocket size computers will replace desktops we know. Micro Electro Mechanical Systems (MEMS -- ultra-small robots) will help us fight deadly disease. These drugs programmed to find and neutralize offending virus/cancerous cells will become available. For example a nanosyringe that fits through a cell wall will deliver drugs and other treatments [12].

Wireless Circuits [9]

Lent and Porod of Notre Dame have proposed a wireless scheme to carry signal over a distance --but without moving electrons--. Electric current will not be required as per this scheme and information exchange will be accomplished by sub-atomic/molecular electron rearrangement.

Intelligent Highway System

As we speak there are smart high way patrol systems in the USA that monitor and update subscribers. CMU has fabricated a self-driven vehicle that successfully traveled across the continental USA using vision equipment and on board computers.

Global Positioning Systems (GPS)

In the next 5 years numerous tracking and navigational aids will be deployed using the recently deployed GPS . Civilians may use this to navigate within large cities. Track stolen automobiles and children. Popular Science [12] reports the use of GPS to avoid mines in Bosnia by the US Army.

Collaborative Computing

Group of people will be able to interact and compute as a team. Devices that cater to an individual will be replaced by devices that allow group of people to work together.

Smart Drugs [6]

As our understanding of the brain and intelligence increases drugs to develop and increase our mental performance will become available. Memory improvement and increased thinking abilities are some target capabilities. Over 140 types of smart pills are being developed by the American pharmaceutical industry.

Artificial Body Parts [10]

Popular Science [10] reports that "hemoglobin solutions" are now being tested and may be used as a blood substitute. While hearing-aids, artificial limbs and pace makers have been known for years, IEEE Spectrum [11] reports on the tremendous progress made toward artificial eye.


If the recent astronomical increase in real estate prices in --good old nostalgic-- Bombay and Bangalore are any indication, one cannot but reminisce history lessons. The entire world thronged to India for various reasons ever since the ancient Mauryan Empire. Is India at crossroads again? It is then particularly important to understand current limitations and to contemplate outside of our current belief system. Even "chance" favors the prepared mind, Louis Pasteur once said. So it is important for us to think about what lies ahead. Those who are established and in charge must encourage and support those who are beginning. Those who are beginning must accept responsibility and must not assume that those in charge are responsible to alter the course. While there are limits to individual technologies let us not forget that there are no limits in our dream or in our ability to be creative and imaginative. No less than Einstein observed that being able to imagine is the most powerful asset we posses.


Author is indebted to Professor and IEEE Fellow L. M. Patnaik and CSI 96 Committee for extending this opportunity. It is indeed a great honor to share what I have learned. Furthermore these ideas and opinions are obviously not mine but the result of countless other authors acknowledged in the references.


1. Alvin Teffler, "The Third Wave", Bantam Books, New York, 1981.

2. Richard Foster, "Innovation:The Attacker's Advantage", SUMMIT Books, New York, 1986.

3. Charles Handy, "The Age of Paradox", Harvard Business School Press, 1995.

4. CACM Vol. 32 10, 1202, 1989.

5. Joel Arthur Barker, "Paradigms: The Business of Discovering the Future", Harper Collins Publishers Inc. New York, 1992

6. Barry H. Minkin, "Future in Sight", Macmillan, New York, 1995.

7. Machines Like Us, "ABC Nightline - Friday August 24, 1996", ABC News.

8. URL: University of North Carolina, "The Nanomanipulator".

9. Lent, C. S., Tougaw, P.D., Porod, W., and Bernstein, G. H., "Quantum Cellular Automata," Nanotechnology, Vol. 4, p. 49, 1993.

10. Artificial Blood, Popular Science, 18, September 1996.

11. Special Report: Bioelectronic vision, IEEE Spectrum, May 1996.

12. Timely Warning, Popular Science, 42-43, July 1996.