Bitcoin and Flying Taxis and Hyperloop, Oh My!

We seem to be living in an age filled with wildly hyped technologies that have nearly zero chance of succeeding in any meaningful way.

I'll be the first to admit that my record of picking technology winners and losers is spotty at best. I've gotten some things right (solar power), and some things wrong (I was skeptical about WiFi for a long time). But the current crop of technology hype seems to have an unusually rich streak of fundamentally flawed ideas which, nevertheless, are attracting substantial amounts of money and attention.


When I last wrote about Bitcoin I cheekily began my description of Bitcoin with, "for anyone reading this years in the future when Bitcoin has disappeared." Well, it's now years in the future and it's safe to say that Bitcoin is still very much around. My thesis then was that Bitcoin would never achieve success as a replacement for actual money because it solves the wrong problem.

Looking back, I think I can call that an accurate prediction: very few people are still claiming that Bitcoin will ever take the place of dollars or Euros anymore. Instead, thoughtful Bitcoin enthusiasts have moved on to talking about blockchain, the technology underlying bitcoin, as the thing that will change the world. I think there's some merit to this, since blockchain solves some interesting and tricky problems, but so far most of the real world applications I've seen for blockchain don't seem to have many advantages over traditional solutions.

But it's still Bitcoin that gets most of the hype and attention, especially after its spectacular 10x runup in value in 2017. And Bitcoin has proven to be insanely unscalable (one estimate claims that the energy to process a single Bitcoin transaction would power a typical American house for days or weeks) at the same time it doesn't seem to have many advantages over more traditional financial instruments.

Flying Taxis

Flying cars have been a staple of science fiction for almost as long as there's been science fiction, but every attempt to build one has been a massive commercial failure. For good reason: it turns out that a flying car is neither a very good airplane nor a very good car. But the idea keeps coming back, and the 2018 version is the fully autonomous flying drone-taxi. I've read articles about several such projects, but the one Airbus is working on is perhaps the most credible given Airbus' experience making actual airplanes.

The concept is that we can use autonomous flying drones to get above the street level congestion in big cities. But if you think about this for even a moment it's obvious that it's not practical to have large numbers of aircraft like this in the air at any moment in a given downtown area. Aside from the obvious safety considerations--drones will need to have hundreds of feet of vertical and horizontal separation to avoid wake turbulence, and flying between buildings is just a dumb idea--there's the fact that these thing are loud. Inevitably, intolerably loud. Nobody has ever built a powered heavier-than-air aircraft that could be called anything close to quiet, and multirotor VTOL drones are among the worst.

You've probably experienced the noise from someone flying a toy drone around a park. Now imagine a similar drone that's a thousand times heavier and probably a thousand times louder (at least). Now imagine a sky filled with hundreds of them. Now you know why it will never happen. At most there might be a handful of flying drone-taxis to carry the top 1% of the top 1% above the common folk. But that's hardly a revolution.


Hyperloop is the transportation concept so wacky that even Elon Musk originally took a pass on actually building it. But it's still around, and more than one company is still trying to develop the idea. Tellingly, after many years there's still no meaningful prototype, and no reason to believe that the costs will be even remotely competitive to existing technology.

And yet...the hype marches on. The latest, according to a February 2018 article in Wired, is that Musk is back in the game and wants to have the first working Hyperloop line in service by 2020. At least we won't have to wait long to see whether than target will be met.

Oh My

There's lots of other examples. Fusion energy is back in the news (it's only 20 years away, and always will be). Robocars have made great technical strides in the past few years even as the business case seems as murky as ever. And who can forget Theranos, the massively hyped medical testing company which raised the better part of a billion dollars and turned out to be a straight-up fraud.

Having lived through the dot-com bubble, this moment feels very different to me. The Internet was obviously a big deal, and while there was a lot of silliness in the air, it was also clear that big changes were coming even if we didn't yet know exactly what would change.

Today it seems more like there's lots of very speculative money chasing a wide range of crazy ideas with no underlying theme other than the desire to find the Next Big Thing. And it could well be that there is no Next Big Thing on the near-term horizon: one Internet revolution is all we get for a while. Not that there won't be new ideas and big companies, but I'm skeptical that robocars, blockchain, and the rest of the current crop of "revolutions" will have the same impact on our daily lives as the Internet. Even ridesharing, arguably the most impactful recent development, isn't much more than a better way to deliver the same taxi services we had before.