Accidental tech innovations

The law of unintended consequences is possibly the only useful prediction tool in technology. Given the complexity of information systems and human behaviour, any significant innovation is bound to have ramifications that its inventors could never have foreseen.

Those consequences might be negative, but they can be positive too. As the following examples show, a technological breakthrough devised in pursuit of one objective can quite easily serve other, unexpected, purposes.

From a mediocre chess-playing machine that led to a cancer-fighting superbrain to a knowledge management system that can spot genetic similarities, they show how potentially world-changing innovations can emerge from unexpected sources.

The examples all derive from the technology industry, but there is a lesson for IT leaders too: if an organisation wants to innovate, it must have room to experiment.

Of course, not every CIO can introduce something along the lines of Google’s 20% rule – allowing employees to spend 20% of their time on whatever project takes their interest. But it is still useful to remember that giving technologists permission to pursue tangential projects can give rise to beneficial, albeit unintended, consequences.


The video game interface helping children recover

Children’s hospital Alex’s Place uses Microsoft’s Kinect controller to put kids at ease


The knowledge management system that can spot genetic patterns

A system developed by Accenture to spot similarities in projects is now being used by pharmaceutical companies to analyse genetic sequences


A science fiction-inspired information interface

An attempt to recreate the Minority Report user interface led business applications vendor IFS to invent a new way of visualising data


The junk supercomputer that led to the memristor

A project to build a supercomputer out of faulty equipment helped to make the fourth fundamental electrical component a reality


From mediocre chess player to Jeopardy! master

How a student’s bid to make a chess playing machine led to IBM’s natural language processing system Watson

Henry Catchpole

Henry Catchpole runs Inform Direct, a company records management software company which simplifies the process of dealing with Companies House. The business was set up in 2013.

Related Topics

Technological Innovation