“A new and disruptive technology that shows great early promise will always take much longer to come to fruition than originally envisioned; but it will have more profound and unforeseen effects than could have been imagined.” – William H. Kent, PhD

Unlike Moore’s Law which predicted the doubling of computer capabilities every two years as a function of the intense development in the field; Kent’s Law addresses the longer term effects of technology development. Brilliant, insightful minds in both science, and science fiction, have foreseen and predicted great inventions – but they were not followed by universal acclaim.

Let us just take two products that have gone from novelties to ubiquitous in a single lifetime: Cellular telephones and unmanned aerial vehicles. Drones and smartphones as they are commonly called. In a 1901 interview Dr. Nikola Tesla predicted that in the 20th Century everyday people would have “A wireless telephone that would fit into your vest pocket.” An old gentleman like myself, who still has three piece suits, can tell you that the smallest pockets in a man’s suit are the vest pockets. When I finally got with the cell phone craze in 1998, the little “flip phone” did indeed fit into my vest pocket.

You might be thinking right now that is a little historical story to go with the remotely piloted vehicle also. You are correct. The very same Dr. Tesla built a radio controlled boat and demonstrated it in a water tank in Madison Square Gardens in 1910. Shortly after that he built, and demonstrated, a radio controlled torpedo for the US Navy – the first “guided missile”.

For the next three decades following Tesla’s demonstrations both wireless hand held communication devices and wireless vehicle control devices were experimented with in many countries. But it was World War II that gave us the first mass produced examples of each of these products. Motorola mass produced the SCR-536 “Handie Talkie” [later called a Walkie Talkie] as the first hand held wireless communication device. (Okay, it was pretty bulky – you needed a big hand – but it was a step in the right direction.)

While the Army and Marine grunts were trying to talk on their toaster sized communicators, the Navy was building and deploying the first “Assault Drones”! Yes, that is what they were called in “Project Option”. Thousands were planned, but just a bit over two hundred were actually built. The twin engined birds were launched off of U.S. aircraft carriers and could carry a one ton torpedo or one ton of bombs. They were radio-controlled by a pilot in another Navy aircraft within ten miles of the drone.

They inflicted some real damage on Japanese targets, but were withdrawn from combat after the American forces gained almost total air superiority and the manned bombers struck targets with near impunity.

In validation of Kent’s Law it is important to note that both of these technologies were set aside after the war and languished in obscurity. Then, slowly in the 1980s these ideas began to emerge again. The expensive, awkward, radiophones became Motorola’s experimental car phones in Chicago with their “pigtail” antennas. Under the press of small budgets and big wars, the Israelis and the Iranians turned old target drones into “spy drones”.

Then came the 1990s and the cell phones shrank and multiplied incredibly across the land (and the world) until it seemed everybody had one and the power of the phone had increased exponentially. In his book “World Order” Henry Kissinger wrote: “Individuals wielding smartphones…now possess information and analytical capabilities beyond the range of many intelligence agencies a generation ago.” Nobody saw that one coming. These little devices are changing peoples’ lives around the world everyday in ways unforeseen last year. Doctor Kent explained that the tumultuous effects can continue for years into the future.

Virginia Senator Mark Warner (who made his fortune as an early cell phone pioneer), was quoted as saying that: “…drones are going to be bigger than cell phones.” As very small drones are now being controlled from their owner’s smartphone – will the confluence of these two technologies make for an even more disruptive ride? I guess we can only watch to see what is coming.




3 Responses to “KENT’S LAW EXPLAINED”

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military dot image Jay Snyder    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Cell phones really took off when they could do more than make a phone call.
Drones have the potential to do a much larger list missions and commercial ventures. Lack of easy capital and open sky rules are holding the industry back. The revolution and rate of expansion was due mostly to vast amounts of capital being put at risk with hundreds of companies, hoping to have a handful really take off. When the capital flows and the FAA gets out of the way; look out!

military dot image Anonymous    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Nice article, Jim. The science of optoelectronics is the key to all this magic. While Tesla provided the foundation and Kent institutionalized his understanding surrounding some of the physics,the technical development path has been marked by numerous great minds and billions of R&D dollars – much of which is a result of NASA’s space programs. We are at a point today where we have reached a threshhold for component circuit minaturization that, under our current understanding of the Law Of Physics, can go no smaller. Finding a way to make integrated circuits even smaller and faster is tomorrow’s true challange. The confluence of technology will only ride rough for those uninformed and for better or worse, they will be left staning on the platform staring down the tracks awaiting another train.

military dot image Christina    Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Another informative article from Mr McDonough

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