A Writer’s Guide to Creating SciFi Technology — Part 4

Scifi authors trying to get a handle on future technologies — particularly technologies in the near future (i.e. 20 to 25 years out) — can find it challenging to portray them in a plausible manner.

In my two decades of studying technological change, it is clear that those forecasting future technologies will often underestimate:

  • The amount of time it takes to develop and commercialize a technology
  • The overall impact of the technology once it does enter mainstream use

We often see stories (both fiction and non-fiction) that breathlessly announce “revolutionary technology X” is just around the corner. If it is truly a revolutionary technology, we ultimately find that it takes far longer than expected to enter the mainstream. We often find that once the technology does arrive, the initial impacts may be relatively small but as its use becomes ingrained in society the impacts become increasingly significant.

The introduction of the IBM 360 computer in the early 1960s had an impact on government agencies and commercial businesses. The average citizen, however, was not really aware of computer technology and many people never had a direct interaction with a computer. Even in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the introduction of microcomputers touched a relatively small number of people. Fast forward to 2016 and we see that computer technology is almost ubiquitous in western society and common even in the developing world. Smart phones pack far more computing power than microcomputers and mainframes from a few decades ago.

Using the technology life cycle may be overkill for some science fiction stories but if you are into writing “hard scifi” in which technical accuracy is important, understanding how technology moves from stage to stage can give you important insights into your storyworld.

A detailed explanation of each stage of the technology life cycle follows. A series of short video clips gives examples of each stage that aviation technology went through.

Technology Life Cycle

All technological innovations follow a common sequence of 10 steps as they move from the initial idea to the end of their life cycle. This technology life cycle is divided into two separate periods – the pre-commercial or pre-operational period and the commercial or operational period. The terms “pre-operational” and “operational” are typically used when describing military technologies. “Pre-commercial” and “commercial” are typically used when describing civilian technologies.

Pre-Commercial/Pre-Operational Period

The pre-commercial or pre-operational period consists of five stages. This period begins with the initial conception of an idea and ultimately ends with field trials designed to demonstrate the viability of the technology.

A technology may take decades or even centuries to progress from the emergence of the initial idea to the demonstration of its technological viability.

A technology can remain stalled for years, decades, or longer at any stage of this period and many simply fail to make it through the pre-commercial/pre-operational period.

Commercial/Operational Period

The commercial or operational period of a technology’s life cycle also consists of five stages, beginning with the commercial/operational introduction of the technology and culminating with its eventual integration or substitution.

While it may take many years or decades for a technology to progress through the commercial/operation period, this typically happens much more rapidly than the pre-commercial/pre-operational period.

As with the pre-commercial/pre-operational period, a technology may stall at any of these stages or fail completely to make it through the full technology life cycle.

Stages of the Technology Life Cycle

Stage 1: Origin of Idea

Every technological innovation begins with the emergence of a new idea. Breakthrough technologies rarely spring full-grown from the imagination of an individual inventor. Rather, the development of an original idea typically occurs in one of three ways:

  • Recognition of a need or opportunity,
  • By scientific suggestions based on speculation, hypotheses and inferences made by scientists or engineers, or
  • Deliberate or accidental discovery of a new phenomenon or concept.

The conception of the idea is only the first step in a long process that ultimately brings the idea to fruition.

Stage 2: Proposal of Concept

The development of a theory or design concept that outlines a workable technology is the second stage of the technology life cycle.

Much trial and error is often needed to develop a theory or design concept. Sometimes earlier concepts are refined or entirely new concepts emerge, replacing older concepts that did not work as well.

Stage 3: Verification of Concept

The basic validity of the proposed theory or design concept is tested during the third stage of the technology life cycle.

The verification stage is characterized by one or more experiments that confirms the validity theory or design concept, but a useful technology is not yet developed at this point.

Stage 4: Laboratory Demonstration

The first primitive models of the technology are developed during the fourth stage of the technology life cycle.

Numerous alternative configurations of the technology may be developed during the laboratory demonstration stage as alternative configurations, materials, and variations in scale are tested.

Prototypes of the technology may be developed, but they are not yet ready for commercial or operational use.

Stage 5: Field Trials

Prototypes of an innovation are tested in real-world settings during the fifth stage of the technology life cycle.

Numerous refinements to the technology are likely to occur during the field trials and many technologies fail at this point.

Demonstration of Technological Viability

At some point during the field trials, the technological feasibility of an innovation may be demonstrated, enabling it to move from the pre-commercial/pre-operation period of its development to the commercial/ operational period.

However, just because an innovation is technologically feasible does not mean it is commercially or operational viable.

Stage 6: Commercial/ Operational Introduction

The first commercial sale or (for military technologies) operational use marks the sixth stage of the technology life cycle.

The commercial/operational introduction marks the acceptance of the technology as a valid commercial or operational system. The technology, however, is very likely to continue to evolve as a result of its use in real-world applications and in the face of competitive pressures.

Stage 7: Era of Ferment

Shortly after entering operational or commercial use, a new technology will enter the seventh stage of the technology life cycle. The “era of ferment” is a stage during which the technology goes through a turbulent period of rapid evolution.

While it may be clear the new technology offers significant breakthrough capabilities, there is often little agreement about what the major subsystems of the technology should be, how they should be configured, or how they should work together. As a result, the technology can change rapidly and dramatically.

At this stage in the technology’s life cycle, competition is based primarily on new designs with enhanced capabilities.

Stage 8: Emergence of Dominant Design

The eight stage of the technology life cycle occurs when a dominant design emerges. A dominant design is a single technology or product category that is adopted by the majority of users. The development of a dominant design provides a level of standardization that helps speed the adoption of the technology.

It enables producers of the technology to shift their research and development efforts from a search for the appropriate set of characteristics and functionality to incremental improvements in the technology and the processes for producing it, helping drive down product costs and increasing its availability even as the technology’s performance improves.

Stage 9: Era of Incremental Improvement

The ninth stage of the technology life cycle is characterized a period of more gradual change. During this “era of incremental improvement”, changes to the dominant design typically focus on improving the efficiency and increasing the level of adoption of the technology.

During this period, numerous small improvements account for most of the technological progress in an industry.

Stage 10: Substitution

The last stage of the technology life cycle is the point at which the current dominant technology begins to be replaced by a new technology. During this phase of a technology’s life cycle, the threat posed by a new technology may at first appear to be relatively insignificant. Cost, performance, or other issues may keep the new technology from immediately dominating the market. Sometimes, however, the new technology may clearly present significant benefits and immediately threaten the dominance of the existing technology

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