By: Arnav Agarwal


Technology has revolutionized the way we live our lives to such an extent that it’s often the most awaited element of our day, and sometimes the most disappointing as well. Let’s take a closer look at some of the largest technological failures and disappointments of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.

1)     Artificial intelligence (AI): Can human intelligence really be mirrored in the form of a machine? In the 1950s, we were convinced the achievement was only ten years away. Over four decades later, AI finally made its way to the headlines in 1997. ‘Deep Blue,’ a chess-playing computer developed by IBM, won a match against Garry Kasparov, who was the world’s best chess-player at the time. While robots have made their way into numerous industries and AI has become common-place in even the simplest of word-processing applications used on a daily basis, AI tests indicate the technology hasn’t come close to fulfilling its foretold potential despite developments in recent years. While tic-tac-toe and the Rubik’s Cube are ranked as “optimal” on the test, indicating AI robots perform at the best level for the skills, optical character recognition, speech and handwriting recognition, word-sense ambiguity ability, object recognition and several other daily tasks performed by humans are ranked as “sub-human,” indicating AI machines perform worse than most humans at the majority of tasks relevant to humans on a regular basis. Even after forty years, the untapped potential of AI remains to be explored for this technological breakthrough to leave its mark in a societal framework.

2)     Nokia’s gaming platform-cum-cell phone? What could possibly be better for the average traveller, student, worker or just about anyone, than a gaming platform with cell-phone functionality? The answer for Nokia, unfortunately, was lots of things. Upon its introduction in 2003, the Nokia N-Gage experienced several design and pricing modifications over subsequent years, which led to a more affordable and better-designed, but far less functional, device. Nokia’s frontline product was crushed under the competition of the Nintendo DS and Sony PlayStation Portable consoles in 2005, which provided a far higher-quality gaming experience. What had begun as an all-in-one entertainment device strategy spiralled down to becoming the world’s biggest mobile phone producer’s biggest mistake.

3)     Windows Vista: upgrade or downgrade? Twenty million sales of Vista within the first month of its release would appear to be nothing less than a success for Microsoft. But a closer look at consumer responses to Windows Vista as an upgrade from Windows XP, indicates a massive sense of disappointment. A quick search on Google yields 2,790,000 hits to the search terms “how to downgrade vista to xp.” A survey conducted by Harry McCracken, editor at TIME magazine, on sentiments towards Microsoft’s plans to discontinue most sales of Windows XP several years ago received over 3,500 responses, 83 per cent of which expressed dissatisfaction with Microsoft’s move. While some admitted Vista is slightly more advanced but for an exorbitant price, others outright dismissed it as a far less secure, convenient, efficient, streamlined, resource-effective, reliable and user-friendly system.

4)     Fall of the humanoid robot: ASIMO (Advanced Step in Innovative Mobility), Honda’s very own humanoid robot, was designed to be a helper for people, but certainly did its innovators no favours in 2006. Performing a demo in the presence of a packed auditorium of people, the robot took a few steps towards the stairs and began its ascent before stopping and turning swiftly, teetering backward and falling over. The presenters were swift in turning the lights off and taking the robot away. Despite the incident, ASIMO has made a presence on a global scale. Having the ability to recognize moving objects, gestures, faces and sounds, the robot is able to interact with humans to a certain degree, and paved the way for later research in walking assist devices.

5)     Ford Edsel, A Cautionary Tale: Now synonymous in the marketing world as how one should not pursue selling a product, the Ford Edsel was released in 1957, much to the embarrassment of Ford. An investment of $400,000,000 in the development of an innovation is never to be taken lightly, but Ford was only asking for trouble by pricing this car in the range of the most expensive and far more lavish Ford and Mercury vehicles, that too, during an economic recession. A strange name, mechanical flaws, and controversies over its “toilet seat” grille didn’t help its cause. While Ford would like to forget about their innovation as quickly as possible, the 1950s failure continues to haunt the modern business realm.

6)     Outdone by VHS: And it wasn’t just once either. Sony’s release of Betamax in 1975 preceded the release of JVC’s VHS alternative the following year. Betamax was outdone as JVC developed their product to allow four hours of content-holding capability, while Sony allowed only one with its upscale but significantly more expensive product. Pioneer followed suit in taking on the dominant storage medium in 1983 with LaserDisc, possibly the first commercial optical disc format, only to be shot down by poor consumer response to high pricing and inconvenient sizing despite superior image quality.

7)     Nintendo’s only failed system: Released in 1995, the Nintendo Virtual Boy was a portable game console which was designed to use a monochromatic visor to simulate a 3-D view on its games. A rushed job by the designing team, which was hurried forward to work on the upcoming Nintendo 64, resulted in significant eye-strain and a nauseating experience for gamers. A hefty price and a lack of multiplayer functionality didn’t help raise the popularity or acceptance of the product amongst the consumer market either. Eventually being discontinued by the company, only 770,000 units were sold worldwide, a measly quantity next to the three million anticipated sales.

8)     UPCOMING – Avatars from fiction to fact: If someone were to tell you immortality will be a possibility within your lifetime, would you be interested? Maybe. But if someone were to tell you they would like to transplant your brain and its personality into a robot which will eventually be developed into a hologram-like body who resembles a real human being closely, would you be interested? Questionable. As Dmitry Itskov and his team play with the ideas of eternal life and transplanting the human experience into non-human dimensions, they not only place human life in the balance in standing on the edge of a revolutionary discovery, but bring into question numerous ethical and other considerations. Does our overpopulated world have space for this solution, and is the move from real to robotic a step in the right direction or the wrong one? (Search “immortality” on to read more about cyborg-you.)

9)     UPCOMING – Self-driving cars: Google cofounder Sergey Brin announced the release of autonomous, self-driving cars for the general public within fie years. California, Nevada and Florida are already on-board to allow licensed drivers to test the car. Google itself has already put in over 300,000 miles of testing, and is well on its way to addressing hardware failure support and sensor capabilities. How safe would you feel crossing the street or driving beside a car that drives itself? Would you trust it to drive you to your destinations? The new innovation contains as many elements of risk as it possesses potential to transform the roads of countries across the world within a few years.

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