The Innovation Stagnation
“We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters”
In intellectual circles of today, Artificial Intelligence & Machine Learning are generously discussed. While I myself am curious and hopeful about them, it feels strange to witness the world of bits and bytes basking in glory while other areas such as genetics, nano-materials, space travel etc. lying barren, waiting for the public’s attention. Is the public not aware of breakthrough innovations from here? Or have these fields stagnated?
This is a serious allegation and perhaps no one in this world can do justice to this question. The world has become too complicated to be comprehensively understood by one single person. However, just because a question can’t be answered doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be asked. Before we answer, we should be mindful of the word stagnant. In this context, stagnant doesn’t mean zero growth. It just means that compared to the past, we might be innovating lesser. Needless to say, the spillover effects of AI & ML have percolated into multiple businesses.
A paper by Tyler Cowen & Ben Southwood tries to provide a quantitative explanation for why this might indeed be the case. However, they use macroeconomic factors such as GDP, productivity etc. that are themselves debated for their prowess at assessing innovation or growth. However, qualitative contemplation too seems to agree with the stagnation hypothesis.
Humans entered an era of rapid progress in the 1700s. The first industrial revolution (from 1700 to mid-1800s) gave us mechanization and the steam engine. Factories evolved and locomotives started harnessing the power of steam. These revolutionized the manufacturing, agriculture, energy & transport industry.
The second industrial revolution (from the mid-1800s to mid-1900s) was characterized by rapid advances in science. Chemistry gave us nylon, plastic, fertilizers & oil refining. The oil boom lead to the development of the Internal Combustion Engine (ICE).
Physics gave us lamps, generators, motors & electronic communication devices like the telephone, television, telegraph, radios etc. Biology gave birth to the germ theory. Mortality because of diseases plummeted as sanitation practices improved, vaccines were rolled out and antibiotics started getting developed.
The third industrial revolution starting from the mid-1900s has had developments only in one area — electronic computing & communication. Of course, these developments have had their cascading effects on every other industry. So other industries can’t be said to have not progressed at all. But nothing comparable to the Internet or AI has happened in other industries.
While these innovations are indeed revolutionary, even growth across all domains won’t harm us. We seem to have missed out on quite a few possible revolutions. A nuclear future was a forthcoming dream in the 1950s. It turns out that it provides less than 10% of the global energy today. We reached the moon in 1969. However, just 3 years later, the Apollo Missions were abandoned.
Concorde, the supersonic passenger plane, took its first flight in 1969. It however remained a luxury for the elite, only to get decommissioned in 2003.
We have tackled several infectious diseases but even today, cancer and heart diseases cause the greatest number of deaths. Genetic engineering in the form of CRISPR has displayed some exciting possibilities but is nowhere near transforming the medical industry. In manufacturing, nano-materials and tubes still remain research projects.
I wonder if this hyper concentration of innovations in the digital world is because innovations here in a broad sense satiate our most primal needs.
“As with our colleges, so with a hundred “modern improvements”; there is an illusion about them; there is not always a positive advance. The devil goes on exacting compound interest to the last for his early share and numerous succeeding investments in them. Our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end, an end which it was already but too easy to arrive at; as railroads lead to Boston or New York. We are in great haste to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate.”
Walden, Henry David Thoreau
Let’s not forget that many innovations in the tech industry were spearheaded by the porn industry. Today, data scientists are working for Amazon & Zomato, to ensure that we get our food and other purchases as soon as possible. The benefits from nuclear energy or genetic engineering are harder to grasp intuitively. This could be one reason why these fields seldom make it into conversations.
Or perhaps, coming up with new ideas is getting difficult with each passing day, because of the increasing complexity of the world. There is evidence to show that despite increased research efforts, the research productivity (degree of research per person) is dropping. A good example to substantiate this is the case of Moor’s law that states that the number of transistors on a microchip double every year, a prediction that has stayed true since 1965. However, the number of researchers required to achieve this is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s.
Or maybe it’s because we have stopped pursuing knowledge for the sake of knowledge. Today, knowledge is simply a means to progress our careers. Knowledge with no entrepreneurial and economic value is chucked away.
This discussion is not to discourage or trivialize any innovation or innovator. Rather, it is a call to broaden our horizons. We need growth across all frontiers. We need innovations not just in bits and bytes, but also in atoms, cells & joules.
Originally published at http://meditationsofavoyager.wordpress.com on September 12, 2021.