This is an excerpt from a very long and very informative article, I thought the portion about the scientific studies on innovation were relevant to this forum. If you have the chance to read the whole thing I recommend it. If you’re like me and you read a shitload of news and scientific material then you know that a great deal of this is true. Of course everything is open to opinions and discussion. I hope some of you will take the time to at least read part of it.
One of the strangest portents of the end of progress is the recent discovery that humans are losing their ability to come up with new ideas.
Jonathan Huebner is an amiable, very polite and very correct physicist who works at the Pentagon’s Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California. He took the job in 1985, when he was 26. An older scientist told him how lucky he was. In the course of his career, he could expect to see huge scientific and technological advances. But by 1990, Huebner had begun to suspect the old man was wrong. “The number of advances wasn’t increasing exponentially, I hadn’t seen as many as I had expected â€” not in any particular area, just generally.”
Puzzled, he undertook some research of his own. He began to study the rate of significant innovations as catalogued in a standard work entitled The History of Science and Technology. After some elaborate mathematics, he came to a conclusion that raised serious questions about our continued ability to sustain progress. What he found was that the rate of innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. In fact, our current rate of innovation â€” which Huebner puts at seven important technological developments per billion people per year â€” is about the same as it was in 1600. By 2024 it will have slumped to the same level as it was in the Dark Ages, the period between the end of the Roman empire and the start of the Middle Ages.
The calculations are based on innovations per person, so if we could keep growing the human population we could, in theory, keep up the absolute rate of innovation. But in practice, to do that, we’d have to swamp the world with billions more people almost at once. That being neither possible nor desirable, it seems we’ll just have to accept that progress, at least on the scientific and technological front, is slowing very rapidly indeed.
Huebner offers two possible explanations: economics and the size of the human brain. Either it’s just not worth pursuing certain innovations since they won’t pay off â€” one reason why space exploration has all but ground to a halt â€” or we already know most of what we can know, and so discovering new things is becoming increasingly difficult. We have, for example, known for over 20 years how cancer works and what needs to be done to prevent or cure it. But in most cases, we still have no idea how to do it, and there is no likelihood that we will in the foreseeable future.
The full article is here and covers a ton more than just this:
I would recommend the book “the singularity is near” - which I’ve read multiple excerpts from - in it the author (brilliant guy) predicts the next 14-20 years of this century will see as much advancement as 1900-1999, and will continue to accelerate.
he also estimates the first computer/machine to become smarter than a human will come about in 2045 roughly, based on lots of solid evidence.
Interesting, but this single sentence calls the whole aruguement into question:
“We have, for example, known for over 20 years how cancer works and what needs to be done to prevent or cure it.”
If only cancer were that simple. What have all those dumbass cancer researchers been doing all this time?
Also, I’m not sure about basing it on the world’s population. Most of the people on this planet are in no position to innovate anything. I wonder if the number of scientists and engineers as a percentage of the world’s population has increased or decreased since the 18th century?
The other obvious arguement is that we have already done all the easy stuff. Figuring out that disease is caused by germs is a fair bit easier than figuring out that electrons are made from quarks (or whatever).
Finally, the whole thing is very dependent on this “History of Science and Technology” book. I wonder how many entries are devoted to, say, web technologies? If you had told me even 10 years ago that I would be able to answer almost literally any question I could pose in less than a minute just by walking over to the corner of the room and typing on the computer, I wouldn’t have believed you. You used to have to spend hours at a big library to answer obscure questions. It’s hard to judge the true scope of progress until you get some distance on it. If this book is biased toward innovations that occured in the distant past, it throws these results off.
The one point with some potential validity is idea that we don’t rigorously pursue knowledge that presents little hope of a payoff. Nobody is going to get rich calculating the age of the universe. Discovering a cure for erectile dysfunction on the other hand…
The cancer question doesn’t really call the whole thing into question because its saying that we have a lot of general knowledge about how things work but lack the tools to truly be able to unlock the secrets and manipulate things like we want to. A perfect example of this was in an NPR story the other day about the human genome project. Scientists who thought that certain portions were junk are now finding that it contains the most important sections. They understand what genes do and what causes them to mutate but they are powerless to really get in there and flip switches that result in pinpoint changes.
Technology is facing similar issues. Besides petroleum running out, we have been facing a problem for some time now in energy production and storage from our biggest industries to the smallest electronic devices. Battery technology has been stalled out for some time now. People can create hype around hydrogen fuel cells all they want but it isn’t practical for most devices and requires more power to produce the cell than you get back out of it.
Likewise computers have stalled out in recent years as we have hit a barrier of power and performance. New processors like dual core aren’t true innovations because they are just boosting existing technology. We’re just adding another barrel to the shotgun when we need a laser cannon. We have also reached the point where the physical materials used to create computers need to jump forward before we can really make any additional breakthroughs. If you’ve seen any of the articles about diamond wafer technology you know what I’m talking about.
In order for our current system to continue we need to make some giant giant leaps in the field of physics. Fusion reactors or other similar systems need to be created and made sustainable if we really hope to move forward.
…even in 1873 poeple were pretty much on thier own…if they needed a toothbrush they didn’t hop into the escalade, drive to walgreens and grab a green medium oral-b…they picked up a stick and made one…neccessity is a mother.
Thanks for posting an interesting article mmjohns.
I read another paper that was questioning the pace of development. The naysayers should note that they are talking about per capita innovation, as indeed, there are many more patents and innovations created today, but fewer per person.
There was a boom in patents during the '90’s digital boom. The previous article I read only credited this as an anomoly.
I think another problem is that people today often call things innovations when in reality they are more like convergences.
While innovation is pretty broadly defined as the act of introducing something new, I think there are only a few modern inventions that really qualify. I personally don’t consider it an innovation to put an lcd tv on the front of a refridgerator or a camera inside a wireless phone.
No but it’s an innovation to sequence the human gene, or to clone a mammal, or to invent a worldwide network of interconnected computers. The more I think about this article, the more I think that it’s got a lot to do with innovations being more difficult to come by. The really impressive innovations we come up with now are extraordinarily complex, and require huge teams of people working together. In the past it was possible for a single person working alone to invent the cotton gin, or to discover an element, but all that “easy” stuff has already been done now.
If the number of innovators per capita has remained roughly constant throughout history, it could just be that the remaining innovations require the work of more innovators than was the case in the past. A couple guys could invent a car, but it takes a couple hundred to invent a spacecraft. And does the spacecraft count as one innovation? Or do all the hundreds of smaller innovations that made the whole possible get counted individually? Does anyone even know about some of the impressive little innovations that went into the craft? I really think this author’s whole premise has serious flaws.
I’d be interested in reading the full story behind this, this was just an excerpt placed within another article to prove a totally different point. Mostly that the world is too complacent and hasn’t been seriously facing the energy issues.
The article this came from was more of a challenge to get people talking and working on solutions, not a statement that we have already invented everything we possibly can. Necessity will always drive us to come up with new things.
Perhaps someone can tell me why people don’t understand that corporations arn’t even coming up with innovation anymore. They are so disfunctional and slow – they continually take credit for true innovation even when it’s not theirs. The general public is too stupid to know any better.
At least their is the normal checks and balances of the press inform the public correctly.
Yes, very true. Do you ever wonder why a whole group of designers think they are responsible for a particular success even when they had nothing to do with it.
The company brainwashes its employees into thinking they did something substantial. I know people who are senior level Industrial Designers at major international companies who never even learned how to sketch or communicate their ideas so that an intellectual exchange can properly occur. Yet they continue to go to functions and “pose” as the innovators of a particular brand. These posers then offer advice on how to be successful ect… and they never did a single thing to progress or innovate. The people who innovate need to be the leaders, not the posers.