Friday, April 9, 2010

Rate of innovation headed for technological Dark Ages

Here's an interesting article that posits that our true rate of innovation is declining:

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.

... "The number of advances wasn't increasing exponentially, I hadn't seen as many as I had expected — not in any particular area, just generally."

... the rate of innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. In fact, our current rate of innovation — which Huebner puts at seven important technological developments per billion people per year — 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.

Huebner's insight has caused some outrage. The influential scientist Ray Kurzweil has criticised his sample of innovations as "arbitrary"; K Eric Drexler, prophet of nanotechnology, has argued that we should be measuring capabilities, not innovations. Thus we may travel faster or access more information at greater speeds without significant innovations as such.

Huebner has so far successfully responded to all these criticisms. Moreover, he is supported by the work of Ben Jones, a management professor at Northwestern University in Illinois. Jones has found that we are currently in a quandary comparable to that of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass: we have to run faster and faster just to stay in the same place. Basically, two centuries of economic growth in the industrialised world has been driven by scientific and technological innovation. We don't get richer unaided or simply by working harder: we get richer because smart people invent steam engines, antibiotics and the internet. What Jones has discovered is that we have to work harder and harder to sustain growth through innovation. More and more money has to be poured into research and development and we have to deploy more people in these areas just to keep up. "The result is," says Jones, "that the average individual innovator is having a smaller and smaller impact."


I would summarize the problem as that our main focus is to be extremely good at repackaging and repurposing old wine in new bottles.

In my view, we have far too much "fake innovation". Even worse, we place far to great a value on fake over true innovation.

To make my point: Here we are a whole decade into the 21st century and NOBODY is knocking on my door or accosting me on the street and demanding that I should do some true innovation. Nobody. Oh, sure, some people want to cure cancer or prevent climate change and such, but nobody wants to pursue, for example, ... "progress of the human mind" (Kurzweil seems to want to eliminate it as if it were a form of cancer.)

-- Jack Krupansky

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