[Paleopsych] NS: Entering a dark age of innovation

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Entering a dark age of innovation

      * 14:00 02 July 2005
      * Robert Adler

    SURFING the web and making free internet phone calls on your Wi-Fi
    laptop, listening to your iPod on the way home, it often seems that,
    technologically speaking, we are enjoying a golden age. Human
    inventiveness is so finely honed, and the globalised technology
    industries so productive, that there appears to be an invention to
    cater for every modern whim.

    But according to a new analysis, this view couldn't be more wrong: far
    from being in technological nirvana, we are fast approaching a new
    dark age. That, at least, is the conclusion of Jonathan Huebner, a
    physicist working at the Pentagon's Naval Air Warfare Center in China
    Lake, California. He says the rate of technological innovation reached
    a peak a century ago and has been declining ever since. And like the
    lookout on the Titanic who spotted the fateful iceberg, Huebner sees
    the end of innovation looming dead ahead. His study will be published
    in Technological Forecasting and Social Change.

    It's an unfashionable view. Most futurologists say technology is
    developing at exponential rates. Moore's law, for example, foresaw
    chip densities (for which read speed and memory capacity) doubling
    every 18 months. And the chip makers have lived up to its predictions.
    Building on this, the less well-known Kurzweil's law says that these
    faster, smarter chips are leading to even faster growth in the power
    of computers. Developments in genome sequencing and nanoscale
    machinery are racing ahead too, and internet connectivity and
    telecommunications bandwith are growing even faster than computer
    power, catalysing still further waves of innovation.

    But Huebner is confident of his facts. He has long been struck by the
    fact that promised advances were not appearing as quickly as
    predicted. "I wondered if there was a reason for this," he says.
    "Perhaps there is a limit to what technology can achieve."

    In an effort to find out, he plotted major innovations and scientific
    advances over time compared to world population, using the 7200 key
    innovations listed in a recently published book, The History of
    Science and Technology (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). The results surprised

    Rather than growing exponentially, or even keeping pace with
    population growth, they peaked in 1873 and have been declining ever
    since (see Graphs). Next, he examined the number of patents granted in
    the US from 1790 to the present. When he plotted the number of US
    patents granted per decade divided by the country's population, he
    found the graph peaked in 1915.

    The period between 1873 and 1915 was certainly an innovative one. For
    instance, it included the major patent-producing years of America's
    greatest inventor, Thomas Edison (1847-1931). Edison patented more
    than 1000 inventions, including the incandescent bulb, electricity
    generation and distribution grids, movie cameras and the phonograph.

Medieval future

    Huebner draws some stark lessons from his analysis. The global rate of
    innovation today, which is running at seven "important technological
    developments" per billion people per year, matches the rate in 1600.
    Despite far higher standards of education and massive R&D funding "it
    is more difficult now for people to develop new technology", Huebner

    Extrapolating Huebner's global innovation curve just two decades into
    the future, the innovation rate plummets to medieval levels. "We are
    approaching the 'dark ages point', when the rate of innovation is the
    same as it was during the Dark Ages," Huebner says. "We'll reach that
    in 2024."

    But today's much larger population means that the number of
    innovations per year will still be far higher than in medieval times.
    "I'm certainly not predicting that the dark ages will reoccur in 2024,
    if at all," he says. Nevertheless, the point at which an extrapolation
    of his global innovation curve hits zero suggests we have already made
    85 per cent of the technologies that are economically feasible.

    But why does he think this has happened? He likens the way
    technologies develop to a tree. "You have the trunk and major
    branches, covering major fields like transportation or the generation
    of energy," he says. "Right now we are filling out the minor branches
    and twigs and leaves. The major question is, are there any major
    branches left to discover? My feeling is we've discovered most of the
    major branches on the tree of technology."

    But artificial intelligence expert Ray Kurzweil - who formulated the
    aforementioned law - thinks Huebner has got it all wrong. "He uses an
    arbitrary list of about 7000 events that have no basis as a measure of
    innovation. If one uses arbitrary measures, the results will not be

    Eric Drexler, who dreamed up some of the key ideas underlying
    nanotechnology, agrees. "A more direct and detailed way to quantify
    technology history is to track various capabilities, such as speed of
    transport, data-channel bandwidth, cost of computation," he says.
    "Some have followed exponential trends, some have not."

    Drexler says nanotechnology alone will smash the barriers Huebner
    foresees, never mind other branches of technology. It's only a matter
    of time, he says, before nanoengineers will surpass what cells do,
    making possible atom-by-atom desktop manufacturing. "Although this
    result will require many years of research and development, no
    physical or economic obstacle blocks its achievement," he says. "The
    resulting advances seem well above the curve that Dr Huebner

    At the Acceleration Studies Foundation, a non-profit think tank in San
    Pedro, California, John Smart examines why technological change is
    progressing so fast. Looking at the growth of nanotechnology and
    artificial intelligence, Smart agrees with Kurzweil that we are
    rocketing toward a technological "singularity" - a point sometime
    between 2040 and 2080 where change is so blindingly fast that we just
    can't predict where it will go.

    Smart also accepts Huebner's findings, but with a reservation.
    Innovation may seem to be slowing even as its real pace accelerates,
    he says, because it's slipping from human hands and so fading from
    human view. More and more, he says, progress takes place "under the
    hood" in the form of abstract computing processes. Huebner's analysis
    misses this entirely.

    Take a modern car. "Think of the amount of computation - design,
    supply chain and process automation - that went into building it,"
    Smart says. "Computations have become so incremental and abstract that
    we no longer see them as innovations. People are heading for a
    comfortable cocoon where the machines are doing the work and the
    innovating," he says. "But we're not measuring that very well."

    Huebner disagrees. "It doesn't matter if it is humans or machines that
    are the source of innovation. If it isn't noticeable to the people who
    chronicle technological history then it is probably a minor event."

    A middle path between Huebner's warning of an imminent end to tech
    progress, and Kurzweil and Smart's equally imminent encounter with a
    silicon singularity, has been staked out by Ted Modis, a Swiss
    physicist and futurologist.

    Modis agrees with Huebner that an exponential rate of change cannot be
    sustained and his findings, like Huebner's, suggest that technological
    change will not increase forever. But rather than expecting innovation
    to plummet, Modis foresees a long, slow decline that mirrors
    technology's climb.

At the peak

    "I see the world being presently at the peak of its rate of change and
    that there is ahead of us as much change as there is behind us," Modis
    says. "I don't subscribe to the continually exponential rate of
    growth, nor to an imminent drying up of innovation."

    So who is right? The high-tech gurus who predict exponentially
    increasing change up to and through a blinding event horizon? Huebner,
    who foresees a looming collision with technology's limits? Or Modis,
    who expects a long, slow decline?

    The impasse has parallels with cosmology during much of the 20th
    century, when theorists debated endlessly whether the universe would
    keep expanding, creep toward a steady state, or collapse. It took new
    and better measurements to break the log jam, leading to the
    surprising discovery that the rate of expansion is actually

    Perhaps it is significant that all the mutually exclusive
    techno-projections focus on exponential technological growth.
    Innovation theorist Ilkka Tuomi at the Institute for Prospective
    Technological Studies in Seville, Spain, says: "Exponential growth is
    very uncommon in the real world. It usually ends when it starts to
    matter." And it looks like it is starting to matter.

Related Articles

Taking a trip down memory-chip lane
19 June 2005

Whatever happened to machines that think?
23 April 2005

Developing countries work around the 'technology divide'
15 January 2005


Naval Air Warfare Centre

Technological Forecasting and Social Change

Ray Kurzweil

Eric Drexler

Acceleration Studies Foundation

Institute for Prospective Technological Studies

E-mail me if you have problems getting the referenced articles.

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