The Singularity, sometimes called "the Rapture of the Nerds," predicts that the exponential curve of technological development will continue until we reach that point where the graph most resembles a straight, vertical line, and technological innovation comes at a pace too great for anyone to predict.
The problem with this scenario is that it only looks at a small part of the graph. If we see it in its whole, we see that technological invention is not following a graph of exponential growth at all--but a curve of diminishing marginal returns. ... Facile excitement about "the Singularity" is engendered by such ideas as "Moore's Law" ("computer chip performance doubles roughly every 18 months"), which remains "true" only because computer technology is younger than most other forms, and so is one of the very few areas of technological innovaton still seeing significant activity--because computer technology, unlike technology in general, has not yet reached the point of diminishing returns. However, even here, Moore's Law is beginning to fail.
[P]atents have been declining in respect to population and number of technical workers since about 1920, well before the R&D effort of World War II and thereafter. Even more significantly, patenting relative to numbers of scientists and engineers has declined continuously since 1900. Jacob Schmookler has compiled figures showing that, excluding government-financed projects, the number of industrial research personnel increased 5.6 times from 1930 to 1954, while the numbers of corporate patents rose between 1936-40 and 1956-60 by only 23 percent.
There are, morevoer, other data suggesting declining productivity of inventing activity in the industrial world. Hornell Hart has demonstrated consistent patterns of increasing and then declining rates of patenting (logistic curves) in many fields that are partially or wholly unrelated to military R&D. These include airplanes, automobiles, cotton machinery, electric meters, radios, sewing machines, spinning machinery, sulky plows, telegraphy, telephony, typewriters, and weaving machinery. He also noticed that the same patterns are evident in the major inventions and discoveries of the Western world, and in patents sealed in Great Britain between 1751 and 1820, and between 1821 and 1938.
Thus, it seems that military R&D cannot account for more than a small part of the decline in patents. Furthermore, the decline is so widespread in so many fields, over such a long time, that declining propensity to patent can hardly account for it either. Recent research shows that there is in fact a strong positive relationship between R&D and patenting. Thus the patent statistics appear to be a reliable indicator of inventing accomplishment.
It would appear that there has indded been a genuine drop in the inventive productivity of research and development, and that as investments in R&D have increased (from 0.1 percent of gross national product in 1920 to 2.6 percent in 1960), the marginal product of these investments has declined. Although there are some demurrals, many economists recognize this trend.
Most of the people who were fortunate enough to live in that age misconstrued their good fortune. Characteristics of their world and their lives, due to a "limitlessness" that had to be of limited duration, were imagined to be permanent. The people of the Age of Exuberance looked back on the dismal lives of their forebears and pitied them for their "unrealistic" notions about the world, themselves, and the way human beings were meant to live. Instead of recognizing that reality itself had actually changed—and would eventually change again—they congratulated themselves for outgrowing the "superstitions" of ancestors who had seen a different world so differently. While they rejected the old premise of changelessness, they failed to see that their own belief in the permanence of limitlessness was also an overbelief, a superstition.
During the Age of Exuberance, Utopian thinking was adaptive, to use ecologists' jargon: it encouraged people to think big at a time when imperial expansion, technological progress, and soaring availability of fossil fuel energy made explosive growth pay off. As the Age of Exuberance ends around us, the equation is reversing. In a world of political and economic regionalization, technological stasis or regression, and dwindling supplies of all nonrenewable resources, those who move with the curve of industrial decline will be just as successful in the future as those who rode the waves of industrial growth were in the past. It's time, and past time, to learn again how to think small—and that process will be much easier if we say farewell to Utopia and focus on the things we can actually achieve in the stark limits of time and resources that we still have left.[source]
With increasing time spent in education and greater specialization, the learning that occurs yields decreased general benefits for greater costs. The greatest quantities of learning are accomplished in infancy; learning that occurs earlier in life tends to be more generalized. Later, specialized learning is dependent upon this earlier, generalized knowledge, so that the benefits of generalized learning include all derivative specialized knowledge. Axiomatically, therefore, generalized learning is of overall greater value than specialized.
Moreover, this early, generalized learning is accomplished at substantially lower cost. Malchup has compiled figures showing that, in 1957-8, education of pre-school children in the home cost the United States $4,432,000,000 (in income foregone by mothers), which yields $886,400,000 per year for ages 0 through 5. Elementary and secondary education cost $33,339,000,000, or $2,564,538,462 per year for ages 6 through 18. Higher education cost $12,757,000,000, or $2,514,000,000 per year for far fewer students, assuming an average of five years spent in higher education. In other words, the monetary cost to the nation of a year of education between pre-school, when the most generalized, highly useful education takes place, and college, when the most specialized learning is accomplished, increases by about 284 percent. And this increase would be even more dramatic if these figures took into account the fact that college enrollment is but a fraction of the available population.
Similarly ... the overall production of investment in higher education for the development of specialized expertise has declined substantially since 1900. D. Price has demonstrated, in regard to the education of scientists, that educating more scientists causes those of average ability to increase in number faster than those who are most productive. Thus, increasing investments in specialized education yield declines in both marginal and average returns.
In 1924, S.G. Strumilin collected in the Soviet Union a set of educational data that reveal a corroborative pattern. He showed that the marginal return on investment in education declines with increasing education. The first two years of education, according to Strumilin, raise a Soviet worker's production skills an average of 14.5 percent per year. Yet the third year of education yields an increase of only an additional 8 percent, while the fourth through sixth years raise skills only a further 4.5 percent per year.
In most situations, a new product or service has to interoperate with others. This severely limits what can be done, and in particular limits potential profits for the inventor. A new coding scheme that leads to higher speed modems has to be accepted as an industry standard before consumers will buy it. Similarly, most control schemes for ATM networks have to be adopted by the whole industry before they can be used. Therefore the company that comes up with even a great invention can usually only obtain profits from licensing the patents and from a slight lead in marketing a new product.
Neither unfettered research nor any other kind has been producing the kinds of striking results that truly impress the public. Jonas Salk's recent death led to recollections of the dramatic impact his vaccine had in defeating polio 40 years ago. Today, in spite of tens of billions of dollars spent on the "War on Cancer" over the last two decades, we have yet to see any treatment for cancer that can compare in its definitiveness to that of the Salk vaccine. Our knowledge of cancer has advanced tremendously, and current techniques are far more sophisticated than anything that Salk had at his disposal, but no "Magic Bullet" has been produced. The nice easy solutions have largely been found already. The problems we are facing are much harder. Therefore the payoff from investment in research is lower.
Medical research and application provide a good example of a declining marginal return for increased investment in a scientific field. While it is less easy to measure the benefits of medicine than its costs, one sure indicator is life expectancy. Unfortunately, ever larger investments in health care do not yield proportionate increases in longevity. In 1930 the United States expended 3.3 percent of its gross national product (GNP) to produce an average life expectancy of 59.7 years. By 1982, 10.5 percent of GNP was producing a life expectancy of 74.5 years. ... [F]rom 1930 to 1982 the productivity of the U.S. national health care system (measured thus) declined by 57 percent. (In fact, it is likely that the decline in the productivity of medicine has been even greater, for the effects of improved nutrition and sanitation on increasing life expectancy have not been included.)
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