Accelerating change or innovation stagnation?

It’s conventional wisdom that the pace of innovation has never been faster. The signs of this seem to be all around us, as we rush to upgrade our smartphones and adopt yet another social media innovation. And yet, there’s another view emerging too, that all the easy gains of technological innovation have happened already and that we’re entering a period, if not of technological stasis, but of maturity and slow growth. This argument has been made most recently by the economist Tyler Cowen, for example in this recent NY Times article, but it’s prefigured in the work of technology historians David Edgerton and Vaclav Smil. Smil, in particular, points to the period 1870 – 1920 as the time of a great technological saltation, in which inventions such as electricity, telephones, internal combustion engines and the Haber-Bosch process transformed the world. Compared to this, he is rather scornful of the relative impact of our current wave of IT-based innovation. Tyler Cowen puts essentially the same argument in an engagingly personal way, asking whether the changes seen in his grandmother’s lifetime were greater than those he has seen in his own.

Put in this personal way, I can see the resonance of this argument. My grandmother was born in the first decade of the 20th century in rural North Wales. The world she was born into has quite disappeared – literally, in the case of the hill-farms she used to walk out to as a child, to do a day’s chores in return for as much buttermilk as she could drink. Many of these are now marked only by heaps of stones and nettle patches. In her childhood, medical care consisted of an itinerant doctor coming one week to the neighbouring village and setting up an impromptu surgery in someone’s front room; she vividly recalled all her village’s children being crammed into the back of a pony trap and taken to that room, where they all had their tonsils taken out, while they had the chance. It was a world without cars or lorries, without telephones, without electricity, without television, without antibiotics, without air travel. My grandmother never in her life flew anywhere, but by the time she died in 1994, she’d come to enjoy and depend on all the other things. Compare this with my own life. In my childhood in the 1960s we did without mobile phones, video games and the internet, and I watched a bit less television than my children do, but there’s nowhere near the discontinuity, the great saltation that my grandmother saw.

How can we square this perspective against the prevailing view that technological innovation is happening at an ever increasing pace? At its limit, this gives us the position of Ray Kurzweil, who identifies exponential or faster growth rates in technology and extrapolates these to predict a technological singularity.

The key mistake here is to think that “Technology” is a single thing, that by itself can have a rate of change, whether that’s fast or slow. There are many technologies, and at any given time some will be advancing fast, some will be in a state of stasis, and some may even be regressing. It’s very common for technologies to have a period of rapid development, with a roughly constant fractional rate of improvement, until physical or economic constraints cause progress to level off. Moore’s “law”, in the semiconductor industry, is a very famous example of a long period of constant fractional growth, but the increase in efficiency of steam engines in the 19th century followed a similar exponential path, until a point of diminishing returns was inevitably reached.

To make sense of the current situation, it’s perhaps helpful to think of three separate realms of innovation. We have the realm of information, the material realm, and the realm of biology. In these three different realms, technological innovation is subject to quite different constraints, and has quite different requirements.

It is in the realm of information that innovation is currently taking place very fast. This innovation is, of course, being driven by a single technology from the material realm – the microprocessor. The characteristics of innovation in the information world is that the infrastructure required to enable it is very small, a few bright people in a loft or garage with a great idea genuinely can build a world-changing business in a few years. But, the apparent weightlessness of this kind of innovation is of course underpinned by the massive capital expenditures and the focused, long-term research and development of the global semiconductor industry.

In the material world, things take longer and cost more. The scale-up of promising ideas from the laboratory needs attention to detail and the continuous, sequential solution of many engineering problems. This is expensive and time-consuming, and demands a degree of institutional scale in the organisations that do it. A few people in a loft might be able to develop a new social media site, but to build a nuclear power station or a solar cell factory needs something a bit bigger. The material world is also subject to some hard constraints, particularly in terms of energy. And the penalties for making mistakes in a chemical plant or a nuclear reactor or a passenger aircraft have consequences of a seriousness rarely seen in the information realm.

Technological innovation in the biological realm, as demanded by biomedicine and biotechnology, presents a new set of problems. The sheer complexity of biology makes a full mechanistic understanding hard to achieve; there’s more trial and error and less rational design than one would like. And living things and living systems are different and fundamentally more difficult to engineer than the non-living world; they have agency of their own and their own priorities. So they can fight back, whether that’s pathogens evolving responses to new antibiotics or organisms reacting to genetic engineering in ways that thwart the designs of their engineers. Technological innovation in the biological realm carries high costs and very substantial risks of failure, and it’s not obvious that we have the right institutions to handle this. One manifestation of these issues is the slowness of new technologies like stem cells and tissue engineering to deliver, and we’re now seeing the economic and business consequences in an unfolding crisis of innovation in the pharmaceutical sector.

Can one transfer the advantages of innovation in the information realm to the material realm and the biological realm? Interestingly, that’s exactly the rhetorical claim made by the new disciplines of nanotechnology and synthetic biology. The claim of nanotechnology is that by achieving atom-by-atom control, we can essentially reduce the material world to the digital. Likewise, the power of synthetic biology is claimed to be that it can reduce biotechnology to software engineering. These are powerful and seductive claims, but wishing it to be so doesn’t make it happen, and as yet the rhetoric has yet to be fully matched by achievement. Instead, we’ve seen some disappointment – some nanotechnology companies have disappointed investors, who hadn’t realised that, in order to materialise the clever nanoscale design of the products, the constraints of the material realm still apply. A nanoparticle may be designed digitally, but it’s still a speciality chemical company that has to make it.

Our problem is that we need innovation in all three realms; we can’t escape the fact that we live in the material world, we depend on our access to energy, for example, and fast progress in one realm can’t fully compensate for slower progress in the other areas. We still need technological innovation in the material and biological realms – we must develop better technologies in areas like energy, because the technologies we have are not sustainable and not good enough. So even if accelerating change does prove to be a mirage, we still can’t afford innovation stagnation.