I'm an Engineer and I wanted to know this, am I the only one worried that our society has not seen true innovation in past decade? Maybe I'm wrong but ever since the recession, all we've created is a bunch of iPhone apps and websites. How do we get our brilliant minds to work on things meaningful?
If you base your opinion on anecdotal evidence, you get fooled by the fact that consumer apps by their nature are more likely to have come to your attention.
If you really want to measure rates of technical progress, you have to be rigorous and do it bottom up. I.e. decide in advance what you consider to be important, then go look at the trend. Cancer survival rates might be a good place to start.
Progress is usually evolutionary, rather than revolutionary, in nature. Hindsight allows us to identify specific developments that we glorify and put in textbooks. But in the moment, it can be less obvious what those developments will be.
I, for one, am not worried; especially b/c "true innovation" is an entirely subjective quality, and even if
we could agree on a comprehensive definition agreeable to all camps, the effect of innovation is not necessarily salutary. I think it's important to point out that
creativity, 'constructive' engineering endeavors included, is literally destructive. You understand probably better than I that nothing that gets designed today by a reputable engineer is done so w/o giving consideration
to its ecological impact. From my perspective, this is where true innovation needs to start, in cultivating a deep understanding of how we fit into the earth's ECOSYSTEM and cultivating technologically appropriate responses to the same.
On a side note, I also think you highly underestimate the technological advances that continue to be made under the infrastructural hood of the internet, b/c it's almost completely transparent. iPhone apps and websites in and of themselves may not be a big deal, but the growing scale of digital distribution channels and the level and scope of our interconnectedness certainly is. Not to mention, managing this growth in a way that is environmentally sustainable? Not a trivial engineering problem, and, in my estimation one of pressing concern...
I think there are four key places where we've truly innovated over the last decade or so:
1) Solar power is vastly improved today and on a trend that follows Moore's Law
2) Cell phones can be found all over the globe (all thanks to innovations in tech)
3) Rechargeable batteries are lasting longer and making it easier to take complex machines into difficult areas
4) The ability to talk, tap, and rotate our phones/screens is a big innovation
It's pretty impressive to me. Some of these are incremental pieces that are built on top of decades of research. However that does not diminish the true innovation that led to Lithium-Ion batteries being so dominant today vs. 10 years ago.
Genomics and bioinformatics for one. Identifying specific cancer tumor-specific gene mutations on a per-patient basis is happening today in small batches.
This is a direct result of hard-core hacking in sequence alignment software, advances in sequencing hardware, and piles of normal data management tasks being focused on helping flow the necessary information back to pathologists and doctors who make actual treatment decisions on this data.
I also think this is a "ground-floor" area in medical treatment. There is just a deluge of previously unknown results and even analysis techniques. This work just wasn't possible before . . .
We need to de-commercialize our society. Right now, far too much time and energy is being wasted on going after the quick buck. And, no, I am not talking about communism. I am talking about creating a system that rewards long term efforts and true innovation, and most importantly gets the disenfranchised back into the game.
But this requires major reform and a new way of thinking about society. And unfortunately, at the moment, right-wing ideologues are busy pushing an agenda that move us in the wrong direction and misses the real problem. (Most of the left-wing, btw, mean well, they just don't have much of clue either).
I wouldn't go as far to say crowdfunding is indeed true innovation. As a society, we've been using this method for a long time, again, we've just created a website to make the access to cash flow a lot easier. However, with the advent of crowdfunding, I do see more creative projects being worked. But are these projects innovative? Granted, most innovation requires time and extensive research. I'm just worried that we have not spent the time to invent meaningful things. We are obsessed with the word "Entrepreneur" and the quick buck that comes along. The link you've provided is a great example of how crowdfunding should be used to fund real innovation.
This post would be more meaningful if you defined meaningful.
Certainly, engineers at large have a disgraceful record for enabling horrible technologies that are a detriment to society: surveillance, censorship, stacked financial systems, weaponry.
On the whole though, engineers are logical beasts. Perhaps you would have greater success convincing the HN community to spend their time on positive impact projects by researching and presenting compelling evidence that one or more areas they support are ultimately trivial and/or have a negative social impact.