Big tech has a track record of dismissing and discrediting technologies that they either don’t have the ability to create or missed the boat on.
IBM’s famous one-word slogan was “Think,” an appeal for people to take all things into consideration before making judgements. But do IBM and other tech giants really value independent thinking when it comes to technology choices? Well, that’s up for debate.
The truth is, big tech companies have been stifling innovation for decades, and it’s time to have a candid conversation about what exactly is happening, as well as the implications of this phenomenon.
Tech behemoths are smothering innovation in three main ways:
DELEGITIMIZING PROVEN TECHNOLOGIES THAT DON’T ALIGN WITH THEIR NARRATIVE
Big tech has a track record of dismissing and/or discrediting technologies that they either don’t have the ability to create or missed the boat on. In many cases, the capabilities of these companies dictate their sentiment rather than a genuine drive for innovation.
One example of this is how IBM repudiates quantum annealing—a technology that’s been definitively proven to use quantum mechanics to deliver a significant speed-up over classical computing for an intractable class of optimization problems; evidence for which was most recently published in Nature, a leading multidisciplinary and peer-reviewed science journal. Regarding the findings, Gabriel Aeppli, professor of physics at ETH Zurich and EPF Lausanne and head of the Photon Science Division of the Paul Scherrer Institut said, “This paper gives evidence that the quantum dynamics of a dedicated hardware platform are faster than for known classical algorithms…and so promises to continue to fuel the further development of quantum annealers for dealing with practical problems.”
Despite this, IBM’s website incorrectly states that, “The consensus of the scientific community is that quantum annealing will not offer a meaningful speed-up over classical computing,” and, “quantum annealers are not on the development path that leads to fault-tolerant universal quantum machines. As a result, quantum annealers cannot be considered true quantum computers.”
We’ve already addressed that quantum annealing is true quantum and delivers meaningful speed-up over classical computing, as evidenced by a slew of research, including the aforementioned Nature paper. It’s also important to address IBM’s misleading use of the word “universal.” As it relates to quantum computing, “universal” defines the computations that a gate -model quantum computer must be able to perform.
This concept, however, is unrelated to quantum annealing, and the use of the term “universal” also incorrectly implies that a universal gate system can deliver a speed-up on any problem, which it cannot (both gate model and annealing have their limitations). Aside from being inapplicable to annealing, this language causes further confusion by suggesting that annealing should be able to solve any problem if it is indeed true (i.e., “universal”) quantum. For the record, quantum annealing has actually been proven to be more effective than noisy intermediate‑scale quantum (NISQ) computers—which includes gate-model systems—at solving optimization problems, so using the word “universal” is nonsensical within this context. IBM’s use of ambiguous language is incorrect, disingenuous, and a tactic to interject uncertainty into the market regarding quantum annealing.
Why would IBM publicly disparage a legitimate technology that’s been validated by reputable experts from world-class institutions? Perhaps because (a) it doesn’t align with their core focus of gate-model quantum computing or (b) they can’t build the technology themselves quickly enough this late in the game.
By discrediting other companies’ capabilities and using misleading language, giants like IBM are attempting to silence smaller technology players and establish themselves as the only solution. And we all know that fewer solutions in the market means less competition and less opportunity for innovation.
NEUTRALIZING ‘THREATS’ BY PLAYING ON UNCERTAINTY
Should smaller companies emerge with competitive offerings, big tech tends to communicate to the market that there’s no need to take a chance on small, “risky,” companies, because their own tried-and-true tech will get you there eventually.
This pattern discourages organizations from purchasing from smaller technology companies, which in turn quells innovation. Why take a chance on smaller players when these big-name companies will eventually be able to offer you similar capabilities?
Then, tech giants often end up building these technologies themselves. One example of this is speech recognition company Nuance. Long before products like Siri and Alexa existed, Nuance built a powerful speech-processing software. Google, Amazon, and Microsoft became its customers and soon recognized the huge promise of speech-recognition technology. They rapidly invested massive amounts of money into developing the technology themselves and essentially raided Nuance’s talent pool. Unable to keep up, Nuance’s sales plummeted, and it was acquired by Microsoft in 2021.
When big tech companies dominate entire categories in this way, it leaves very little to no room for progress or innovation by smaller companies.
HEAVILY INFLUENCING ACADEMIA AND GOVERNMENT
It’s no secret that big tech has significant influence over academia: a number of companies, including AWS, IBM, Google, and Microsoft, have contributed to the use of “research funding” for direct product development.
Funding from large tech companies is certainly beneficial when it allows researchers to explore interesting new projects. However, it becomes problematic when it forces academics to narrow the scope of their work to align with big tech’s objectives, biases, and areas of interest. The entire point of academic research is to be open-minded and explore different ideas, not to lock smart people into building products to the benefit of those organizations funding them.
The presence of big tech in the academic world inevitably means that some of academia’s brightest minds will be absorbed. One study noted that, “talent is slowly leaching from the public to the private sphere,” as researchers increasingly leave academia to work for tech companies.
Big tech further exerts its influence by spending massive amounts of money on lobbying. Last year, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft combined spent nearly $70 million on lobbying—far more than industries like pharmaceuticals and oil and gas. This makes it difficult for smaller companies to have a voice within the government.
WHERE DO WE GO FROM HERE?
What can be done about big tech’s propensity for squashing innovation? It’s hard to say, but we all need to be thinking about how to create an environment that prioritizes inclusivity. When all companies have a seat at the table—from startups to household names—innovation can flourish.
Additionally, most of us could do a better job at thinking critically and not blindly buying into the hype and promises of these large companies. In order to make informed decisions, it’s essential that we gather information from different sources—that represent different viewpoints—to validate products and their claims.
Stay open to different possibilities: Don’t be afraid to engage with new technologies, pursue different proofs of concept, and deploy solutions once their value has been proven. This is where true innovation happens.
It’s easy to listen to what big tech says and take it as fact—it’s a lot harder to gather, analyze, and validate data, and ask important questions. To use the words of IBM, we need to “Think.”
This article first appeared on www.fastcompany.com
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