Ideas for a tech McGuffin in a realistic game used for teaching MBAs?
February 6, 2015 5:02 PM   Subscribe

I am a business school professor, and I have designed a bunch of games for teaching entrepreneurship (my subject area). I am building a really ambitious one now, somewhere between Ender's Game and a ARG - a long-running, semi-realistic simulation in which the players will be challenged to make many business decisions over the course of several months in an evolving scenario. Without going into too much detail, the premise is that the students have been hired by a genius inventor who has created an exciting breakthrough technology and is interested in commercializing it. Please, scientists and engineers, help me come up with the technology!

The idea is that it should be a feasible-ish technology, rather than an entirely science fictional one - many of my students have expertise in STEM, and I don't want something laughable. It also needs to have obvious commercial applications as-is, rather than a basic breakthrough that has no immediate use. Finally, it also needs to be something that I could get some engineering PhDs to develop fake documentation about, and one in which the applications would be reasonably clear to non-scientists.

The best idea I have so far is a software-configurable sensor that could be "programmed" to detect any one of a number of organic or inorganic compounds, with obvious industrial, defense, and health uses.

I need help coming up with something better! And especially ideas that would support a whole bunch of fake documents, specifications, CAD files, and other ARG-ish accessories. Probably something that is a dream in your STEM subfield, but not achievable quite yet.
posted by blahblahblah to Education (25 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
homomorphic encryption.
posted by bfranklin at 5:10 PM on February 6, 2015

Could you use the real idea of the Hyperloop? There are some real folks working on the idea, but it's still theoretical enough to be a futuristic technology with no present commercial plans.

Self-driving cars would be an interesting one from the perspective of exploring the intersection of society, law, and business. Suppose your company has a reliable self-driving car tomorrow. What do you do with it?

As an aside, your sensor idea reminds me of Vessyl, a cup that supposedly detects what you put into it and keeps track of how much you drink, or the SCiO, a handheld spectroscopic sensor that measures the composition of various materials. That's the problem with coming up with futuristic technology; it's always either closer than you think or a lot farther away.
posted by zachlipton at 5:11 PM on February 6, 2015

The world needs a better form of rechargeable battery, with a much greater energy density than lithium batteries. Such a battery technology would be extremely valuable to lots of companies.

The most obvious immediate customers would be manufacturers of mobile phones, but it could open up a lot of new industries like powered prosthetics (e.g. artificial arms and legs with active components) or even powered exoskeletons for paralytics. It could make certain kinds of mobile robots practical. The Military would have loads of uses for such batteries. And I could list a lot of other applications, but you get the point.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 5:23 PM on February 6, 2015

Mega cheap whole genome sequencing that's usable directly by health practitioners and even prosumers. Illumina recently announced $1,000 but if it got down to the point where people could do it for their dog even, that would be pretty interesting.

Making use of sequencing requires lots of file formats for data, lots of equipment to manufacture and maintain, chemicals to produce, lots of computing programs and software.
posted by foxfirefey at 5:24 PM on February 6, 2015

Wireless power transfer. It has both academic interest and commercial applications, however both are currently fairly limited in marketability and net power delivered. This is particularly relevant to you, because there are engineering PhDs working on these problems that can demonstrate partial (but not complete) solutions, and the applications are obvious for non-STEM types.
posted by saeculorum at 5:28 PM on February 6, 2015

A fusion electric power generator small enough for home use. On the order of 5-15kW. Like Mr. Fusion from Back To The Future.
posted by frontmn23 at 5:34 PM on February 6, 2015

Cold fusion, small or large scale.
posted by alms at 5:38 PM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

These are great, please keep them coming. I think it is best if the technology is amazing (and could be credibly invented by one genius) but doesn't fundamentally change life on earth, like fusion. It won't be interesting to analyze the markets if anyone who develops it instantly just becomes the richest person on the planet without any potential competition. At the least, there needs to be trade offs (better for this, worse for that).
posted by blahblahblah at 5:46 PM on February 6, 2015

Deep learning in AI provided significant increases in voice and image recognition over the last few years. It's conceivable that one person could drive similar progress again, though likely that person would need access to Google/Amazon/Microsoft levels of processing power. Perhaps your lone genius could have previously sold a startup and thus have enough money to buy large amounts of cloud-based computation time? If you go down the AI route you need to make sure you define it as something large enough to be important but not some kind of 'general AI' as that takes us straight to fiction/post-apocalypse.

Alternatively a breakthrough in brain-computer interfaces would be interesting. Everyone one would appear to be staring into space on the subway instead of staring at their phones.
posted by StephenF at 6:09 PM on February 6, 2015

Some sort of nanotechnology that digests plastic garbage or discarded tires, and then converts it into useful compounds, like diesel fuel or lubricating oil.

Similarly, some sort of nanotechnology that digests discarded electronic equipment, and spits out neat little ingots of silicon, solder, and so on.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 6:09 PM on February 6, 2015

People have been trying to develop a device to measure blood glucose (for diabetics) that doesn't involve a needle for a long time. There are various theoretical ways to do this (capillary action through the skin, detecting changes in the light passing through the fingertip) but none have really been successful so far.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 6:10 PM on February 6, 2015

Easy, working formal verification methods for code. Alternatively, easy methods for program synthesis.

Imagine having computer-checked proofs of the correctness of all of your code. (Unsurprisingly, this is something heavily funded by the military.) Here's a case study from Amazon.
posted by glass origami robot at 6:20 PM on February 6, 2015

A pacemaker battery that recharges itself using glucose extracted from the bloodstream. This would also enable many other medical implants like insulin pumps.
posted by monotreme at 6:22 PM on February 6, 2015

Lessee ... the recent HBO series Silicon Valley did something very similar with a new, more efficient compression technology.

Some kind of breakthrough in encryption would work, too. Maybe a cheap, reliable version of quantum encryption?

Kinda far out, but how about an ansible (that doesn't violate causality)? It'd be a breakthrough and stuff, but offhand I don't think it would re-tool society the way Star Trek Teleporters or Replicators would.

"Princess Leia"-style 3D holograms?

Heh ... how about a weight-loss technology (ie, a diet or diet drug) that is safe and provably effective?

"Vat-grown" meat?
posted by doctor tough love at 7:04 PM on February 6, 2015

Some lightly-fictionalized examples from folks I've worked with:

Implantable biomedical detector. Could be detecting cancer cells to see how chemotherapy is progressing, detecting exposure to biological weapons for the Army, or blood alcohol levels or drugs for someone arrested for DUI. The device sends a text to the relevant person when it hits a certain level. FDA approval on devices are usually faster than drugs, or else I'd also say the Pill for men.

Agricultural work is a big thing, and I know lots of people working in relative obscurity that could make big bucks if their ideas pan out, although it's not headline news. A fail safe antidote for the honeybee colony collapse problem. Tasty lab grown meat. A treatment that improves chicken egg-laying efficiency by 5%. Some modern day equivalent to producing vitamin D enriched milk by exposing it to UV light (a patent that made the University of Wisconsin so. much. money.) A failsafe way of inducing or detecting pig ovulation.

Fashion! Color changing tattoos or hair dye, an LCD that's wearably thin and flexible.
posted by tchemgrrl at 7:29 PM on February 6, 2015

Solar electric or Thermo-acousic sterling engine that provides a higher energy capture than existing photovoltaics.

Non-invasive re-useable glucose monitor for diabetics.

Building cement that is cheaper / less carbon-dioxide involved than existing portland cement

Device when tapping a tree or plant produces electricity from the sap.
posted by nickggully at 7:31 PM on February 6, 2015

Choose an invasive species with commercial implications, and say you've found a way of targetedly killing that species only. For example stinkbugs on the US east coast have become a huge problem for commercial orchards in recent years... people would pay big bucks for a food-safe stinkbug killer. You could have documentation for applicator devices, dosing, MSDS, etc.

A new better way of irradiating (or fumigating or some treatment) cargo containers for (disease, contamination, invasive species, etc) that will meet customs import/export requirements. Current treatments have drawbacks (that reduce the price/safety/etc of the goods), maybe your inventor has figured out a way to use a different form of radiation or whatever to remove those drawbacks.

A successor to the Cavendish banana (the dominant commercial strain of bananas which is inexorably being destroyed by a fungal blight; scientists are working on a blight-resistant strain).

A tickproof/mosquitoproof fabric.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:50 PM on February 6, 2015

OT: Hey, the non invasive glucose meter I could deliver in the real world if you deliver funding. Peer reviewed publications and prototype is available.
posted by yoyo_nyc at 9:05 PM on February 6, 2015 [2 favorites]

Lessee ... the recent HBO series Silicon Valley did something very similar with a new, more efficient compression technology.

Regrettably, this is mathematically impossible. Existing compression technologies (such as Huffman coding) are within a few percent of the theoretical limit.

That may not matter for purposes of this class, but he specified "feasible" and this isn't.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 10:55 PM on February 6, 2015

Definitely a truly autonomous self driving car would be interesting for this because there's soooo much hype but so little clarity on what'll hit the market in the next few years. So the competitive landscape is complicated to characterize, lots of political implications, lots of scope for fake documentation...
posted by town of cats at 10:56 PM on February 6, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's not impossible that a lone tinkerer could come up with an entirely new polymer, whose characteristics would be "plastic" (you should forgive the pun). This leaves you (the teacher) wide open to specifying the characteristics of this polymer to give it advantages and disadvantages.

(Historically speaking, the first practical artificial polymer was invented by exactly such a lone tinkerer.)
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:10 PM on February 6, 2015

Another thing the world needs is a decent refrigerant. There just aren't any as good as Freon, which we aren't permitted to use any longer for environmental reasons.

Since we aren't permitted to use DDT any longer, the world desperately needs a more effective weapon against the Anopheles Mosquito. Insects like that find each other to mate by the females releasing pheromones to attract the males. If a lone tinkerer figured out a way to produce such pheromones in quantity for cheap, you could build the mother of all mosquito traps to attract and kill all the males in a given area, leading to a population collapse.

More likely, you'd have to build a bunch of them and place them all around a given area spaced maybe 100 meters apart, and recharge them with pheromone every few weeks, so it isn't a trivial implementation problem.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:21 PM on February 6, 2015

Flywheel energy storage technology for automobiles, trucks, trains?
posted by jazh at 4:26 AM on February 7, 2015

Seconding autonomous car/driving vehicle. The underlying tech could be a good case, too. A breakthrough in machine vision, for instance, that yes would make for great self-driving cars but would have lots of other interesting applications as well.
posted by wemayfreeze at 3:07 PM on February 7, 2015

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