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.

10 thoughts on “Accelerating change or innovation stagnation?”

  1. Really interesting post, was thinking about this myself recently when reading various articles and getting fed up with the over-hyping of how innovative the ‘information realm’ is.

    Saw this blog yesterday on ‘What’s your Velocity Regime’, not as easy to understand as yours, but interesting too in relations to running a business that can keep up with speed of change.

  2. I think I might be more optimistic about some aspects of the biological realm than you, precisely because many of the developments in information and material realms have been successful. For instance, I think biomedicine will soon be able to make a large jump when we can test individuals genetic code (based on clever developments already in hand of technologies and informatics) cheaply enought that new drugs can be appropriately targetted. This is already happening, for instance, with different treatment regimes for breast cancer. When novel drugs are tested on the population as a whole, one ends up with average success rates which may be deeply misleading and lead to a trial being disbanded. If we can separate populations appropriately according to whether a specific mutation etc is present, it may be easier to evaluate drugs for success. This may also enable developments costs to come down. However, I agree with you about stem cell therapies etc being slow to mature, and strategies like this will necessarily also rely on developments from the material realm eg in making appropriate scaffolds which interact with the stem cells in a controlled and desired way.

    On the other hand I feel much of the information realm successes are rather ephemeral, however attractive in the here and now. Mobile communications – based on the material realm – will be here to stay, but will a social media site like Twitter? I rather doubt it.

  3. Athene, I’m not suggesting that progress isn’t possible in the material or biological realms, or indeed that the information world can’t facilitate some kinds of progress in those realms that wouldn’t otherwise be possible. Your example of stratified medicine is a good one. My point here really is simply that the need for materiality imposes constraints that people whose experience has come from the realms of pure information don’t appreciate. So, the fact that lots of venture capitalists moved out of IT and looked for new opportunities in nanotech and cleantech, and now synbio, has probably already led to some disappointment. Hilary’s link I think makes this point in a slightly different way.

  4. Hi!

    I thought that this blog had been put to bed! Great to see it back and congratulation on making it to year Six and a Half! Now, I believe that the real reason for the slowness of the Biotech / BioNano / SynBio etc is the lack of ways of getting people with different skill sets to work together. Hopefully, Tech Networking sites will emerge which will encourage this (Just like in Social Media).

    Optimistically yours Zelah!

    (By the way, are there any news regarding cutbacks in British Nanotech by the Coalition?)

  5. Richard, if you were born in China in 1960 you would have seen a lot more change in your life than your grandparents.

    And I also think that a kind of first world centrism can blind us in in the 1st world to the effects that cell phones are having on 2nd and 3rd world countries.

    So I think the argument ” how much change have I seen in my life?” isn’t a valid way of determining how fast a civilization’s technological capabilities are changing.

    For some things (example: how fast can we make something go, how cold can we make something, how high in tensile strength can we make something) we have pretty close to the natural limit. But for other related things ( how big and fast can we make something go? How cheaply can we make something cool down to close to 0 Kelvin? How reliably and precisely can we make carbon nano-tube objects?) we still have a long way we can go.
    I guess for every year we could graph the number of areas we have gone though consistent progress then topped out along the x axis and the number of areas we are making consistent progress along the y axis. If the line is sloping down the rate of change is slowing. If the line is sloping up the rate of change is going up.

  6. Great post!

    I realize that some of my questions are answered in your book, so feel free to refer to it (Just ordered it, looking forward to read it).

    One thing that I’ve realized as well (which you probably thought about a great deal) is that fact that even though information technology in the realm of computers might be growing exponentially so dose the problems. Take for example protein folding software, the are great tools for getting sketchy picture of how a specific protein fold under specific surcumstnces, but as the as you try to model larger proteins, it requires exponentially more computer power. And as you try to model protein interaction you have another factor and so on. Long story short sometimes I don’t know if Kurzweil and the likes realize this or if they just chose to ignore it.

    And I was wondering if the “assembler” and “grey goo”, are really feasible? I mean isn’t bacteria really “assemblers”? If one E. Coli got to divide under perfect conditions indefinitely the culture would in a few days time have the same mass as earth, but since the conditions are not perfect everywhere this never happens, wouldn’t the same go for an “assembler” even if one could construct one.

  7. Zelah, it’s undoubtedly true that progress needs more people to work outside their own traditional disciplines, and we’ve certainly seen more of that under the banners of nanotechnology, and now synthetic biology. But I suppose what I’m saying is that these are fundamentally harder problems than pure software, say, so they’ll take longer. (As to how nano will do over the next few years of austerity, there will certainly be some slowing down in the UK).

    Jim, of course the personal stories are a rhetorical illustration of an argument rather than a proof. And technology advances have taken place at different rates at different times across the globe. It’s arguable that in 1700 China was the most technologically sophisticated place in the world – who knows where will hold that crown in 2100? But here I’m talking about a specific package of technological advances which did, for all sorts of interesting reasons, take place in Europe in the late 19th century. It’s interesting to ask how much of the change seen in China since 1960 is a result of the dissemination of essentially late 19th c/early 20th c technologies – like cars, trains, coal-fired power stations, and how much of it depends on the newer technologies; it remains to be seen is whether the current batch of technological advances, which may well be initiated outside Europe and North America, will prove as significant. I think your last paragraph really is agreeing with me, that we should take technologies individually rather than collectively.

    Viktor, I agree with you in the sense that the more we seem to find out about biology, the more complex it becomes. And this causes us trouble, not just because the amount of computer power we need to simulate it becomes larger, but also because the amount of data we need to gather in order to have a meaningful model grows too. As for assemblers and grey goo, I think the analogy between them and bacteria is very instructive, though the right lessons to learn are not the ones drawn by Drexler’s followers. But this is indeed something I talk about in the book.

  8. Richard, I saw a reference to your blog from comments made at Drexler’s blog. I agree entirely with you that nanotechnology is an extremely seductive idea – atomically precise manufacturing, assuming that the equipment to perform the manufacturing was itself not too large or complex – would in fact allow you to decompile and recompile chilled, solid matter as if it were software code.

    I understand that you suspect that physical laws might prevent machinery like this from actually working, and so I am reading your blog to find out what your objections are.

    However, I think you are forgetting a fundamental detail in your post. The reason why technological progress is slow in most fields is because the machines making the progress – homo sapiens – have very poor and limited brain performance. This puts a cap on what we can accomplish. In the field of computers, faster computers help design computers that are faster still, and the consequences of failure are slight so there’s almost no regulatory burden, and so we see exponetial growth.

    When and if we find a technological means to make ourselves truly smarter (or build entities like us that are smarter than us) progress will accelerate explosively to the limits of physical laws.

  9. Another key way that you are flatly wrong is in your view of ‘soft’ cellular machinery. You assume that the enormous complexity of current cellular machinery is a necessary prerequisite to self-replication and production of arbitrary protein chains.

    Thus, we could not make artificial machinery that did not have the stupendous complexity of cells, nor could we make artificial machinery that could produce any arbitrary product and thus cause the explosive growth that molecular manufacturing would allow otherwise.

    However, what you are forgetting is that
    A. Most of the complexity is a result of the very narrow solution space that earth life occupies. Legacy decisions – the fact that all life depends on the same triplet codon sequences to specify anything, as well as the same (with slight modifications) amino acids means that earth life is extremely constrained. This is why it all operates in water, and why it NEEDS such enormous complexity to work well.
    B. Most of the complexity of current life is unnecessary. If the environment were artificial, sterile, and free of competitors much simpler life would be possible.
    C. Many of the complex interactions you mention sum to zero or are extremely noisy. In the example of creating life from a synthetic genome – in the long run, ALL of the daughter cells are going to be exclusively composed of biological components specified by the DNA of the synthetic genome. None of the inert starting material matters at all in terms of the properties of the final cells.

    So the construction of high speed machinery to recompile matter, as it were, is not constrained by most of your arguments. Spontaneous rearrangments in diamond at low temperatures? Maybe – I’m going to look in to that.

    Also, keep in mind that 99.9999% of all “nanotechnology” research is not in fact work towards developing machinery that is self replicating and can produce any arbitrary configuration of atoms in a cold solid in a sterile contaminant free environment.

  10. Gerald, welcome to my blog. You make some familiar arguments; you might find it helpful, both for understanding what my position actually is, and for how I would respond to some of these arguments, to read some of the pieces and discussions that have gone before. My book is a good place to start:
    Soft Machines: nanotechnology and life.

    Then I’d suggest these previous posts and articles (the comment threads are helpful too):
    Six challenges for molecular nanotechnology

    Article in IEEE Spectrum:
    Rupturing the nanotech rapture

    This article produced some interesting reactions.
    Roundup of initial reactions.

    My response to Michael Anissimov.

    My response to Freitas and Merkle.

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