[Paleopsych] NS: Entering a dark age of innovation
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Mon Jul 4 01:28:26 UTC 2005
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.
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
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
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.
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
Acceleration Studies Foundation
Institute for Prospective Technological Studies
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