Saturday 17 May 2014

Victorians: A note on innovation


Now that Woodley is back in the ring, interesting questions are coming in about innovation rates, and how we can determine whether they have fallen since Victorian times.

I think we can be clear, looking at the historical record from our current standpoint, that there have been notable innovations which changed civilization. Fire, plough, compass, printing press, steam engine and gas turbine are some examples. As we come to the last  few centuries the judgement becomes a little harder, because we do not yet have the distant perspective as to what constitutes an innovation as opposed to a re-tweaking or variant of an old idea. Woodley has said that the iPhone is not an innovation per se, but merely the putting together of other innovations into an easily useable device. I agree, which is why when people were raving about Steve Jobs I asked them how he compared to William Shockley. Who he? He got the Physics Nobel with Bardeen and Brattain in 1956  for inventing the transistor, in my view one of the most significant innovations of the 20th Century. Of course, that view could be wrong, but how do we decide that? It needs a some agreed metrics, and that is hard to achieve for innovation when, by definition, it is something new which we cannot yet fully evaluate.

We have high hopes of the nanomaterial graphene at the moment, but we had high hopes of high-temperature super-conductivity (which was in fact not-so-expensively-low temperature super-conductivity) 20 years ago, and it came to nothing, or almost nothing so far. Jim Flynn has given examples of bright thinkers working now on theories which may turn out to be correct, in which case the present age will be seen as a flowering of innovation. To add complexity, one could also argue that the iPhone was an innovation in that it brought together disparate technologies into a form which actually suited the human hand, whereas previous clunky efforts had failed. What fits the hand fits the mind: just point, lightly touch and enjoy. It took a long time to learn how to bridle and saddle a horse. The wheel has been re-invented many times, to great advantage. The last re-invention by the Japanese car industry meant that car wheels no longer had to have grease injected: a great reduction in maintenance costs.

Some of the first researchers of inventiveness used patent applications as a measure, but it soon turned out that nations differed in what sort of thing merited patent protection, and that many patents contained little in the way of innovation, and were merely protecting “me too” drug variants.

Another problem in judging innovation is that, with the benefit of hindsight, some of the first discoveries in any field of enquiry were just there for the taking. They constitute low hanging fruit: things you can harvest without too much effort. I am not sure about this, because chemistry did not enjoy great leaps forwards for centuries. The periodic table certainly helped. After that and a good flowering in the 2oth Century it could be argued that chemistry dried up, because it could be shown to be explicable by physics. In that sense, innovation in chemistry research got very much harder. The periodic table could only be discovered once.

So, we might now be at the stage that the easy work has been done in many subjects, and from now on the steps will be small and painful. For example, understanding the genetics of behaviour may take a very long time. The easy stuff fell into our laps, and now breaking the code had turned from a 3 wheel Enigma problem to a 30,000 wheel Enigma  problem. Even Turing might have felt the need for more coffee in his chained up mug.

A further problem is that we do not yet know what the relevant measures are. For example, one of the apparently strong arguments from “innovation is drying up” proponents is that by 1958 a Boeing 707 could fly at 590 miles per hour and now a brand new Boeing 787 Dreamliner can fly at… 590 miles per hour. This seems like a lack of progress. In fact, one cannot innovate away some basic laws of physics. Pushing the air away from an airframe becomes very much more expensive at higher speeds, so about 590 miles per hour is a sweet spot: reasonable speed and bearable fuel costs. What has changed is the far better miles per gallon, the quietness, and the even better safety and comfort of modern planes.

Equally, there is disparagement of such useless innovations as Facebook and Twitter, the apotheosis of superficiality. However, if you were to measure these in terms of the costs of finding like-minded people with which to cooperate on shared interests, then that cost has plummeted, and ease of association has sky-rocketed. Thought can travel through a multitude of minds faster than ever before. Of itself that does not guarantee invention, but it certainly allows us to test the “wisdom of crowds” hypothesis, and to organise the rapid testing of ideas.

So, I am in two minds about our current capacity to innovate. I regret the slow progress in treating age related disorders, in finding new sources of energy, and in solving many social problems. At the same time, at almost zero cost through the medium of this new-fangled blog I am improving your mind, and you are shortly about to improve mine. Comments please.


  1. There are about 5x more people alive today than in 1900. Even if they were smarter than us, should our larger size mean more geniuses absolutely. Additionally it maybe that we picked a bunch of low hanging fruit in the last 200 years, now things are absolutely harder. Imagine scientists do their best work in your 20s but our knowledge is so vast, its hard to get to the frontiers so early in your life, that could lead to a slow down too.

  2. Technology is an economic as well as an intellectual phenomenon. You seem to realise that the stagnation in the speed of commercial jets is a function of cost. That is, it's not so much that we can't achieve faster passenger jets, as that the marginal increase in speed is prohibitively expensive. In an indirect way there is no difference in principle between that and the iPhone. The iPhone may derivatively assemble numerous existing technologies but surely the social value comes in that assemblage. How can it be otherwise. Look what one can do with a smartphone. I'm sure a smartphone was technically possible 20 years ago, but cellular & data costs were prohibitively expensive -- not to mention that a smartphone was not nearly as useful without a well developed Internet with millions of users. (we call the last bit "network externalities"). incentives matter : people keep complaining that alternative fuels technologies aren't evolving very fast but that's because the price of carbon fuels is too cheap and therefore the relative price of alternates is high.

  3. Yes, that was my point. Deciding what constitutes an innovation, and what allowances to make for other historical adventitious advantages is not trivial. Yes, windmills are not worth while while there is still coal to burn.

  4. Have a look at a recent article on overproduction at the link below.

    I think that article shows that our economic philosophy is so dysfunctional, psychotic, and self-destructive that no amount of high tech can save it.

  5. I'm sure a lot of it depends on how you deploy your best people.

    If the best brains in the West are flipping money back and forward or attempting to remedy illusory social ills you get what we have today.

    If we had set the target in 1970, and directed the money, otherwise wasted, and brainpower on task we could have had cities on Mars right now.

    Instead our own cities... well fill in the rest yourselves.


  6. I think the blank slate ideology and the academic climate needed to enforce it has probably had a hugely negative effect on innovation - or maybe not if innovation would have been in decline anyway for other reasons - but then again without the blank slate maybe some of those other reasons would have been put right already.

    I also agree with the financialization point above and i'd say it's effect has been a lot worse than just the total and complete waste of brains inside finance itself but also numerous knock-on effects for example easier hostile takeovers pushed companies into prioritizing short-term profits to keep stock price high as a protection form corporate raiders which cut into more long-term aims like research.