"A Possible Declining Trend for Worldwide Innovation,"
June 2, 2005 11:22 PM   Subscribe

Review of "A Possible Declining Trend for Worldwide Innovation," by Jonathan Huebner, who says the rate of human innovation has been steadily declining since the industrial revolution, and is headed toward an "economic limit" of very low apparent innovation that will be reached circa 2038. As one potential explanation, we must consider the possibility that human-initiated innovation, like energy consumption and population growth, is a process that naturally saturates with rising global income levels and technological intelligence--as technological progress increasingly satisfies current human needs, individuals become less concerned with technological development and turn more toward personal growth. More articles from Acceleration Watch.
posted by stbalbach (24 comments total)

 
Interesting article, but not very convincing. As the review says, the methodology is deeply flawed. Patent studies are notoriously bad as a measure of innovation over long periods, and it sounds like his data seemed forced, from the review:

"Looking for more recent data, I went to the same general sources ([1] U.S. PTO data for patents, but using different official US PTO tables at the site, and [2] U.S. Census data for population), and found that patents today, per capita, are back up to 95% of the 1914 peak. I do not know why Huebner's patents graph didn't have data more recent than an average from 1990-1999 as its most recent point."

The other source of data is a listing of important inventions from a single book, one which uses a subjective listing of "important" innovations throughout human history, and that ignores a large amount of modern invention.

The result is some random theorizing, but nothing convincing at all, especially since the economic limit argument seems based on hot air.
posted by blahblahblah at 11:45 PM on June 2, 2005


on the one hand, yes, Huebner is apparently fos. The review by Smart, however, is engaging and includes several interesting contentions about why innovations may get harder to notice, while not actually disappearing or lessening.
posted by beelzbubba at 11:59 PM on June 2, 2005


On the other hand, I was thinking about the revolutionary advances in physics not so long ago, and (after talking with an astrophysicist here at the Uni) came to realize that the Really Big advances haven't really done a whole lot for us.

Relativity - amazingly hyped as it is - hasn't done much for us here in the practical world, except make the GPS workable. Mostly the scale it requires to make a difference is too big, and the math involved in finding geodesics in the relativistic geometry just too damned tough to bother with, most of the time.

String Theory, of course, is even further removed from reality.

And Quantum theory? Well, if we ever get those quantum computers, it will be neat, but in the meantime I'm not holding my breath for anything earthshattering to come out of that part of the world...

So most of our advances in technology are still based on things known to Newton and Edison. We get a few boosts by throwing computation into the mix, but the basic ideas are still the same. In many cases, computers just mean we're employing fewer people to do the number crunching for us.

That said, computers are the new Gutenberg press. If anything comes remotely close to being as influential as the computer in the next hundred years, I'd say we were doing just fine.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:04 AM on June 3, 2005


And another thing!

I think the whole 'technological singularity' is bullshit for the same reason we don't have 22 billion people on earth right now, contrary to certain 1970's estimates. Trends are not destiny: A quickly accelerating technological level in 1997 does not imply a discontinuity when 2050 rolls about. The curve (if one can really make a curve to measure technological 'progress') can level off, and I think it is likely to. I think the singularity theory is drawn from the same assumptions of modern economics, that infinite exponential growth is possible. Things needn't go up forever; ask any stock investor.
posted by kaibutsu at 12:11 AM on June 3, 2005


We just need a nice big war, and that will get everyone inventing stuff again... ;-)
posted by Chunder at 1:08 AM on June 3, 2005


The original Dark Ages lasted 900 years. Given current rates of acceleration I anticipate that the Dark Ages that will visit us in 2038 will last 5, maybe 10, minutes.

An interesting part of the article states that:

". . . we may observe that as the world develops and we all climb higher on Maslow's hierarchy of relatively fixed needs, those who already have sufficient housing, transportation, etc., are now pursuing innovations on the most abstract, virtual, and difficult-to-quantify levels, like social interaction, status, entertainment, and self-esteem."

This suggests a more nuanced age of innovation. For example, once all the inventions for communicating have been exhausted (cell phone, email, etc.) maybe we can begin focusing on what communicating effectively really means.
posted by quadog at 1:55 AM on June 3, 2005


as technological progress increasingly satisfies current human needs

Human beings? Increasingly satisfied? Right...

We'll simply keep inventing new "needs" to keep the ball rolling.
posted by DaShiv at 2:11 AM on June 3, 2005


two zero three eight?

fear the epoch date.

we'll all be too busy bugfixing to innovate.
posted by soi-disant at 3:10 AM on June 3, 2005


Wasn't there a person who honestly believed that the US should close the patent office early in the 20th century because "everything had already been invented"?

Regardless, if this is true then we in the West have really managed to f*ck ourselves, job-wise. The whole "benefits of outsourcing" chestnut rests on the West's ability to come up with a constant stream of innovations and improvements, and in reality works largely by shedding jobs in domains such as manufacturing, which tend to not concentrate on that aspect of things quite so much. So, if there is no more innovation, well...
posted by clevershark at 8:09 AM on June 3, 2005


soi-disant writes "fear the epoch date."

Meh. THAT's a bug that's actually much easier to fix than the Y2K bug -- all you have to do is cast an int into a double. No "time window" calculation needed or anything.
posted by clevershark at 8:14 AM on June 3, 2005


"Everything that can be invented has been invented." Charles H. Duell, Director of US Patent Office, 1899.
posted by caddis at 8:24 AM on June 3, 2005


as technological progress increasingly satisfies current human needs, individuals become less concerned with technological development

No, this is not the problem. I agree that technological innovation is slowing, but for a very different reason.

The problem is that the level of sophistication and education necessary to get to the "next level" -- in whatever field that may be, becomes more and more specialized, and requires more group processing. The days of the lone genius are, me thinks, rapidly coming to an end.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 8:32 AM on June 3, 2005


kaibutsu: transistors, LEDs, integrated circuits, almost every modern digital logic device relies on quantum theory to function. Lasers are quantum devices. MRI scanners. Quantum theory is responsible for more revolutionary technological inventions than anything else out there--and that's just been done by manipulating the quantum motions of electrons in electric fields. Once we can directly manipulate electron spin, well, hold on to your quantum space-hats my friends.
posted by freedryk at 8:36 AM on June 3, 2005


"Everything that can be invented has been invented." Charles H. Duell, Director of US Patent Office, 1899.

It seems he didn't say that.
posted by gubo at 9:42 AM on June 3, 2005


Once every 100 years there is a movement to close the patent office since know everything there is to know.

Read some good futuristic science-fiction and you'll realize just how little we do really know. We don't know how to create life, we don't know how to extend it indefinitely, we don't know what creates consciousness, we don't know...

All of those discoveries will lead to totally unexpected results that we can't even imagine now. Think about the discovery of electromagnetic radiation... who would have known in advance that it would lead to the radio and TV?

In other words, this guy has figured out a good way to get published and in 50 years when he's proven wrong he'll long since be retired.
posted by thedevildancedlightly at 9:42 AM on June 3, 2005


stbalbach posted "and is headed toward an 'economic limit' of very low apparent innovation that will be reached circa 2038"

To be more specific, it will be reached in Jan 19, 2038 at 03:14:07 am GMT. Call it "The end of an epoch"...
posted by nkyad at 9:50 AM on June 3, 2005


How about "An Unmistakable Declining Trend Towards Preposterous Theorizing in Academic Journals" ??
posted by MaxVonCretin at 10:04 AM on June 3, 2005


um, yeah...the fields of biology and computer science alone kinda trump this, don't they?
posted by es_de_bah at 10:06 AM on June 3, 2005


Let's get nanotechnology working, then sustainable fusion, then economical transmutation of the elements, and then human progress can justifiably slack off for a bit.
posted by alumshubby at 10:10 AM on June 3, 2005


Yes, innovation will be different in the future. I don't trust his measurement data, however. "Innovation" as a grand concept seems impossible to quantify.

*grabs quantum space-hat excitedly*
posted by mrgrimm at 11:15 AM on June 3, 2005


The original Dark Ages lasted 900 years.

There was no Dark Age(s) it's a pejorative term created by Italian Humanists as propaganda for their cause and further propagated by anti-papal Enlightenment thinkers and humanist university agendas. If you study the period it is not dark at all and is only really used in popular culture and undergraduate text books as endcaps to classical and modern history, a convenient way to skip over 1000 years of history.
posted by stbalbach at 12:02 PM on June 3, 2005


thedevildancedlightly writes "Once every 100 years there is a movement to close the patent office since know everything there is to know."

Well, this time around the claims are more that "science is teh sinful!"
posted by clevershark at 12:32 PM on June 3, 2005


On one hand, it is important to point out that there is plenty of innovation left to be done. On the other, the barriers to entry are vastly lower than ever before. A few hundred dollars will buy you the books you need to learn about computer programming, and a few hundred more will buy you an actual computer.

Compare this with the cost of getting into the steel production business, or metal machining. Not only can one (highly skilled) software person initiate significant innovation alone, they don't really need to mortgage anything to do so.

There are plenty of parallels between the industrial revolution and the current era of tech innovation, but it is laughable to even think that there was more innovation per person-hour during the industrial revolution.

As an example, I'm involved in a fast-moving technology startup. One of our engineers develops great technology for us during the day, then takes his paycheck and spends it leasing time at a university research facility where he does further groundbreaking work in a radically different technology.

Anyone who thinks that technological progress is slowing down is living a sadly sheltered life.

all you have to do is cast an int into a double. No "time window" calculation needed or anything.

You have exactly the same time window problem with time_t as you did with two-digit years. Also, you'd want to cast the int into a 64-bit integer, not a floating point value. But you still need to translate that 64bit number back into a 32-bit value for funcitons that expect a 32-bit time.
posted by b1tr0t at 12:50 PM on June 3, 2005


nothing wrong with a little time out to catch up on managing the technology already created, though.
posted by 3.2.3 at 2:53 PM on June 3, 2005


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