Sometimes it is too good to be true: Magic Leap and Theranos are the latest tech truth-stretchers to be found out.
A version of this essay was originally published at Tech.pinions, a website dedicated to informed opinions, insight and perspective on the tech industry.
There’s fake news, fake science, and now, “fake tech.” Fake tech is a term that came to mind while reading about the augmented-reality startup Magic Leap. The company has raised $1.4 billion based on videos created to demo its technology. But new information has surfaced that indicates these videos were created using special effects, simulated by a New Zealand company that specializes in such things. While it’s not clear how real the company’s technology is, you could describe these simulated presentations as fake.
Then there’s Theranos, the health technology company that raised hundreds of millions of dollars for its fingerstick and microfluidics technologies that promised to revolutionize blood testing. The company’s value was as high as $9 billion before it was discovered that much of its technology was more wishful thinking than real. Apparently, its charismatic leader was able to persuade a number of luminaries to serve on its board, while others — including Walgreens — made huge investments based on fake evidence or no evidence at all.
Because technology is often complicated and overwhelming to those without science or engineering training, potential customers and investors are not equipped to make knowledgeable assessments, and therefore follow the crowd of believers, not wanting to be left behind.
But, as many of us working in Silicon Valley know, there’s a propensity for entrepreneurs to take on tasks that may seem insurmountable, or even impossible, that can lead to real innovation and breakthroughs. Along the way, with the need to attract investment, employees and customers, it’s easy for the promises to get ahead of the reality. People want to believe and can easily fall prey to those leaders who may be better at promoting than the actual science.
In the case of Theranos and Magic Leap, there were early warning signs, such as the companies’ refusal to provide real demos. In both cases, the truth came out when former employees came forward with their stories. In the case of Theranos, an intensive investigation by the Wall Street Journal did much to undermine the company’s credibility.
I’ve also experienced fake tech on Indiegogo and Kickstarter. There are products described with seemingly impossible claims that can’t be verified by the host sites. So, anyone with a clever idea and a simulated video can raise money proposing an idea that’s impossible to do. Some may know it’s impossible, but many don’t know what they don’t know, and believe it can be accomplished with enough money.
In addition to these, there are more nuanced examples of fake tech practiced by major companies that rely on exaggerated claims to garner publicity and boost their stock. While perhaps not completely fake, they are a lot less than what they seem to be.
Uber claimed that it was beginning to use driverless cars in Pittsburgh when, in fact, it was starting to test the cars with a professional driver at the wheel. Amazon announced last year they were going to begin delivery of packages using drones, yet it will be years away.
In these cases, the press jumped on these stories, encouraged by the companies’ professional PR people, skilled at creating headlines out of bits of truth, and playing to the strengths and weakness of gullible reporters. While perhaps not factually inaccurate, the results were closer to almost-fake tech.
What fuels fake tech is what fuels fake news — the need to create headlines that result in clicks, eyeballs and hence, dollars. The need to get above the noise and stand out in some way. Too often, reporters who are not trained in science or technology fall for these stories without a critical eye. They, too, want to believe and, as a result, promote a story without understanding the nuances behind it.
What’s the solution? Good reporting by trained journalists that understand basic science. Reporters who have a skeptical eye, and who understand they can’t accept all they are told. The need to assess claims using industry experts without financial ties to the company or its investors. Reliance on industry analysts who have seen and heard it all before, and are not taken in by unsubstantiated claims.
Phil Baker is a product development expert, author and journalist covering consumer technology. He has developed scores of products for companies, including Apple, Seiko, Polaroid, Barnes & Noble, Polycom, Proxima, ThinkOutside and Pono Music. Baker is the author of “From Concept to Consumer,” a former columnist for the San Diego Transcript and founder of Techsperts, Inc. Follow him at Baker on Tech, and reach him @pbaker.