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Has the ideas machine broken down? (economist.com)
48 points by mindcrime 1692 days ago | hide | past | web | 61 comments | favorite

I assure you, it has not.

Sometimes it's hard to look past TechCrunch and the endless SaaS/CRUD apps, but we're in the middle of a technological revolution right now. Platforms like Kickstarter are driving innovation like never before, pushing forward ideas that would have never seen the light of day otherwise. The new tech coming out of the machine is awe-inspiring.

Even as a tiny, tiny sample of what's happening out there: Google's making self-driving cars, healthcare is advancing by leaps and bounds, and portable electronics have changed the way we live our lives over the course of but 5 years.

Google Glass? Oculus Rift? Leap Motion? MYO? All tech that would simply blow your mind just 10 years ago, but we're practically taking it for granted today. I'm typing this on a thin glass slab, for Christ's sake, this is something out of Star Trek.

If you're struggling to see innovation, you aren't looking hard enough.

There is no inovation in health care. We can't grow organs, we are still dying of hearth diease and diabetes.

Doctors know how important exercise is but keep turning out study after study on the subject instead of figuring out how to get the same effects in a pill. They don't even want to cure cancer, prefering ever more expensive treatments.

You talk Star Trek, at this point I would be impressed with a goddamm hypospray. Tech companies have made it possible to get live video from the other side of the planet, it is about time the rest of the sectors step up.

we are still dying of hearth diease and diabetes. We're dying of everything it's possible to die from. Nevertheless far fewer people are dying of heart disease and diabetes than ever.

Doctors know how important exercise is but keep turning out study after study on the subject instead of figuring out how to get the same effects in a pill. Human biology is not subject to Moore's Law. There will never be a pill which encapsulates the effect of getting some exercise.

They don't even want to cure cancer, prefering ever more expensive treatments. Or maybe cancer is complex and those ever more expensive treatments are as close to a cure as we can come right now, providing the very idea of 'a cure for cancer' isn't a misunderstanding of the nature of the problem.

I certainly do get the sense that medical progress has stalled. Perhaps all the "low hanging fruit" has been picked and future progress will be much harder.

As the article mentions antibiotics were both a lot easier to develop and had a much bigger impact than genomic research - at least so far. It sure seems like we have made very little overall progress even on targeted diseases, such as cancer, despite vastly increased spending. Spending on both healthcare and healthcare research have roughly doubled in nominal dollars since 2000 with little overall impact.

I understand that, at least in the US, healthcare is fundamentally broken - results have little connection to costs. But is this enough to be holding back the entire economy? Is tech's impact really just smaller than we think? And are other sectors, especially government activites, also lagging behind and thus dragging down overall performance?

Perhaps all the "low hanging fruit" had been picked and future progress will be much harder.

I think that might have something to do with it. Maybe there's only so far you can go in reducing the cost or complexity of some of the problems medicine has to solve now, or maybe the money in research goes first to the treatments which turn the biggest profit for hospitals?

Also I wonder whether the progress in the tech sector isn't just more visible than progress in medicine. It's a lot easier to see the way the iPod has iterated over a decade than, say, to see the way genetic screening has. Though of course medicine and tech are inextricably linked, maybe it would be better to say 'medical tech' versus 'consumer tech.'

And of course there's the issues of religion and politics. If we could say, clone ready-made human organs for transplant, just handwaving away the 'growing them' part, how long would the technology be held back by public and political squeamishness about the process itself? If it requires something akin to industrial, mass-production of living human tissues and stem cells? Even if it saved a million lives tomorrow, it might take decades to pass into a level of public tolerance that makes it politically acceptable to fund the research.

>I certainly do get the sense that medical progress has stalled.

I think that's a mistaken impression. There are hundreds of new drugs you've never heard of because you don't need them. I'm on the other end - I'd be dead already but for a drug invented in the '90s.

The fact that we haven't cured cancer is more because cancer is a really, really tough problem than because there's anything fundamentally wrong with the way we're going about attacking it. We understand cancer at the genetic and biochemical level much better than we did even ten years ago. Understand it well enough, that is, to realize we completely underestimated the depth of the problem. But understanding is progress, even if it doesn't mean cures are imminent.

You can't take what was probably the most productive period in medical history and say "See, everything is broken because the hits aren't coming as fast as they did when sulphas and antibiotics were discovered."

> Perhaps all the "low hanging fruit" had been picked and future progress will be much harder.

Yes, it will be, but "much harder" doesn't have to mean that it will "take more time". Most problems in medicine are starting to look like engineering problems, though at the nano-scale. This is bad, because you can't just "pick fruits", ie. make serendipitous discoveries that have great impact, but it's also good, because in an "engineering field", once you get past a certain point, let's call it the "transistor point", things can start moving very fast result-wise. Unfortunately medicine is very much somewhere at the "steam-engine point", maybe even below it, in a grey zone of slow progress and we don't really know how much this "grey zone" will last. Maybe it's just waiting for the physicists and chemists to come up with cool nanothech, maybe not...

> There will never be a pill which encapsulates the effect of getting some exercise.

Barring nanotech. Or some offshoot of future muscle regeneration methods. I know it's a nitpick, but I'd personally avoid saying never with regard to technology, especially if we can already imagine how it might work and it doesn't seem to break any laws of physics.

Fair enough.

> They don't even want to cure cancer

Spread this fud somewhere else, please! Yes, the "cure for cancer" will most likely come in the form of treatments that will more or less "tame" it and manage it like a chronical disease, so you will be able to live decades with it just like you could live with heart disease - and yeas, this will mean shitloads of money for pharmaceutical companies that will sell tons of expensive drugs, but they work better and better and they will keep you alive some day.

And trust me, everyone wants a cure for cancer (I mean a "real" cure, not just something that for 70% of cancers will prolong your life enough so you can still die at 70).

That's because solving the cancer problem is not only about cancer itself! It's actually a door, that once we open we'll be able to stare at the road to "the fountain of life" itself - yeah, it might take a few generations after opening the door to actually reach there, but it will be within reach. Le me explain you: cancer is one big thing, the biggest imho, that prevents advances in areas like genetic therapies and lots of areas of what we call regenerative medicine (because, to put it in simpler terms, nobody will research a therapy that will make you live longer but has 10% chances of giving you a killer cancer - that will mean that statistically, the therapy will not make you live longer). At the same time, understanding cellular regulation at the level needed to actually solve cancer is the same type of understanding needed to slow aging, regenerate organs etc.. Imagine cancer as the dragon guarding the "fountain of youth": once you kill it, sooner or later someone will figure out a way to get to it and use it's water. Everyone wants it killed! After solving cancer, with heart disease remaining the main killer in the developing world, all resources could be dedicated to "growing hearts" for example, or "repairing clogged vessels" and these problems will be solved sooner or later because, at a level, they are actually engineering problems, they don't really require that much new science to solve, just tons of data about cellular regulatory pathways and such - and we'll already have lots of it from the cancer research.

Yeah, the medical professionals or researchers like to keep their feet on the ground and not talk about such "lofty" scify-like ideas - but everybody with some understanding of science and medicine knows things are along these lines...

TL;DR "Solving cancer" is not only about cancer - it's about immor-fucking-tality! (and everyone wants this!)

I don't want immortality. And I'd suggest that anyone that does has not properly considered the consequences.

That's a pretty "square headed" way to put it :) Ok, some do, some don't. The "has not properly considered the consequences" is a bad argument for anything. You can say that people shouldn't have developed the atom bomb or chemical or bio warfare agents because "they haven't properly considered the consequences". I for one am glad that the atom bomb and other "horrible things" have been invented, weird as this may seem. Your perspective on life and everything really changes when you stop thinking in terms of "right" or "wrong" or of there being a difference between them, and just think in terms of "going further, no matter where this takes you" - I think that even the darkest corners of whatever "hell" you imagine are worth exploring. Just try thinking like this and see what you can see from this pov. - you'll never be the same again, trust me :) Death just limits the possibility of what one can explore and I believe all limits should be destroyed - but if you want the limit, you can have it for yourself, nobody will force you to live forever. The argument would be that one should have a choice of when it happens.

I like Nitzsche's take on immortality: "One has to pay dearly for immortality; one has to die several times while one is still alive." - I would actually love to be able to have this experience, no matter how terrible it seems to some (think about it: your self now is no longer your self from 20 years ago, this older self of you has, in a way, already died... If I'd live to be 1000 years old, an infinity of my older selfs would be already dead and maybe I won't really have any "real memory" of them anymore, except in an "archive" stored somewhere, that I could choose to "browse" if I ever wished to do so. In a way it would be like dying forever, but I would choose this over anything else, at least over "anything" that I've thought of so far.) ...I can't believe I've bothered to answer to this ...no back to work, back to trying to blow up some other "limits" :)

If people's lifespan was no longer determined by their body succumbing to the ageing process, they would still be able to die by other means. The population would explode (even more than it currently is) because far fewer people were dying and most people were still having sex and creating more immortals. At some future point (probably not too far away) there would not be enough food on the planet to sustain the lives of all the people living on it. This would lead to mass starvation and/or world wars over land to grow food.

Unless our research into creating immortals also throws up a way for us to photosynthesize, it's really not worth it. Far better, I think, to accept that our time on this earth is limited, and to make the most of what time we have. :-)

Tackle one problem at a time. For one, we may be able to photosynthetise, we just need to create tools for that, and that's what humanity is good at. If not, there are other venues for dealing with overpopulation: population control, out of planet migration... Sci Fi novels have approached this problem for ages.

Even assuming infinite ingenuity in humankind, our lifespan will still be limited by the lifespan of the universe. The second law of thermodynamics is not going to be broken no matter how clever we are. :-)

...not resisting the temptation (deleted my other com because it pushed things in a whole wrong direction...): second law of thermodynamics applies to a finite closed system. We know incredibly little about the universe, it may very well be infinite (not just as "time and space" but also as matter and also as complexity of matter - yep I even accept the fact that there may be no fundamental particles, just infinite complexity somehow "simulating" order at our level, and this leads to the fact that we don't really know how little energy do you need to sustain human-type intelligence and it may be very, very little actually) and the "universe" may very well contain "gateways" that inject or subtract energy from our own to other infinite or finite universes - our primitive astronomy neither proves nor disproves anything. Oh, then there's the complicated problem with mathematics and logic - you can't really use the latter as a sound base to explain all of the former according to some so you might have all sorts of interesting consequences like "infinity of logic" or "mathematics" itself - the kind of problems that you can't even dream to tackle when limited to a human lifespan and a human body or brain... The fact is we are incredibly small and stupid at the scale of the universe! The point in living more is the pleasure of discovering more, always more - the pure and beautiful greed and hunger for more and more life, knowledge and power, the hunger that fuels everything.

And the second law of thermodynamics itself... well, we don't have "general" definitions for neither lifer nor consciousness so the truth is we have no freaking idea how something like the second law connects to anything about us. Then again the universe is so big that by the time we think our offspring will have to ask themselves these question in order to survive, they will probably even laugh at our primitive minds and the stupid questions they asked.

EDIT: some intellectual hard drugs for those that find it hard to "believe in the future": http://thisisjasonsilva.com/ - nobody expresses my view better than this kid.

But then the timescale and physical extent of the universe are conditions of such magnitude that tackling the problem is the poster child of premature optimization.


Here you are again! These "barbarians", "they" don't get that choice? Again, have you ever traveled?

From my vantage point, you look like the barbarian.

What's your end game? Feeling powerful?

Your reasoning is quite weird to me. First you mention the atom bomb as something good, that you are happy with. Then you say that you "should" have a choice of when to die, almost like that's a moral imperative?

Who says you should be able to choose when to die, while not wanting to extend that choice to the inhabitants of Hiroshima?

I'm guessing that you haven't experienced much of a hell. Have you even traveled to places outside of the Western world? I've met Hiroshima survivors, let them tell you about hell.

Yeah, I tried to see things from your POV. I didn't like it -- I felt too much like a Sith lord.

The atom bomb had large positive effects on world conflicts. Suddenly, the threat of mutual annihilation made large wars unattractive. You may thank the atom bomb for the absence of world War III.

If WW3 comes to pass, then WW4 will be fought with sticks and stones (Einstein said it, in different words)

That's definitely one side of it. There are also enormous amounts of bombs which were not too sure what to do with, which worries me.

Btw, I don't interpret Einstein's quote as support of the atom bomb (I'm not saying that you are. Just wanted to make that clear).

The Einstein reference was actually to preserve the notion that atom bombs have a hugely negative side, even if they had positive effects so far.

Thanks for the clarification. Yeah, the thing is that it's seventy years since the last time, but there is so much longer time left.

We need to change our ways.

If it is about immortalitiy then it is even more important that the pharmacutical companies start getting their asses together and start to produce things.

They don't even want to cure cancer, prefering ever more expensive treatments.

CEOs and doctors die of cancer each year. You want to tell me that they don't want to cure cancer?

Stop being so pessimistic about cancer. Death rates are dropping across the board. Even truly nasty things like lung cancer are improving:

http://seer.cancer.gov/csr/1975_2009_pops09/browse_csr.php?s... (statistics for all cancers are here)

The way people tell it these days, you'd think we weren't making any progress. But we are -- every year. The path forward looks less like penicillin and more like imatinib.

There is good progress into growing organs at least:


They don't even want to cure cancer

If it's so easy to cure cancer, why haven't you done it yet?

Certainly information technology products are advancing faster than some others.

But in terms of health care, life expectancy is still increasing.

For diabetes, I think that blood glucose monitors are more easily available than they were in the past, and I suspect that an implant that regulates glucose better can't be far away.

2 members of my family both had cancer and don't have it anymore due to medical intervention.

I think transport is the one to pick on more.

The biggest innovation health care needs is not technology. It's psychology - persuading people to incorporate vastly healthier diet and exercise habits into their daily lives.

The first 'innovator' to beat the junk food industrial complex at its own marketing game will change the world.

No CRUD or SAAS app for health care can manipulate people's psychology. What health care really needs is a habit-changing algorithm.

I'm typing this on a thin glass slab, for Christ's sake

It is certainly futuristic. You couldn't have done that twenty years ago. But the point of the article is, as whiz-bangy as posting to the internet from a thin glass slab is, it doesn't appear to have driven real growth (at least not yet).

I would be very surprised if portable access to online anywhere you go hasn't driven growth. At very least we now have the app economy.

Not just innovation, things like kickstarter are a part of a fundamental sea change in our economy. Away from the model of the "worker" manning an assembly line in a factory for life and towards a model of individual artists, craftsmen, makers, developers, etc. working independently as freelancers and in very small "indie" outfits. I think that the model of mega-corporations serving as the backbone of the economy is going to transition increasingly toward smaller, more autonomous organizations and individuals which typically work in a cooperative / collaborative fashion on major projects. We're already seeing that pattern play out in the arts, with more and more musicians, comedians, graphic artists, game makers, etc. working on their own.

Mentioning "endless SaaS/CRUD" apps in a derogatory fashion and then singing the praises of Kickstarter a sentence later seems a bit hypocritical given that, aside from its large audience, Kickstarter is just a slightly more advanced CRUD app.

If it enables a new class of innovation and investment who cares how simple or complicated it is.

I think that was the point.

We're still in the early days of taking full advantage of basic internet technologies, at a whole population/full economy scale. Smartphones and tablets are still a novelty. Major media industries like TV, Cinema and big publishing are still locked up in business models that are becoming painfully outmoded, and have barely begun the painful process of reform that the music industry is only now emerging from.

If simple technologies like basic web apps that have been around for well over a decade are still enabling revolutionary businesses that would previously have been impossible, how can anyone claim that innovation is dead?

I'm struggling to see much innovation that directly addresses fundamental problems. Mostly I see gadgets. Your examples are mostly gadgets.

This is actually the reverse effect, I think, disruption blindness. Disruption has become so commonplace that we've started to call it complete even when it's in its early stages (such as the current PC revolution). And we've become used to a rapid pace of massive disruption. So even while we're in the midst of several big transformative changes to the world wrought by technology, we get impatient. Why isn't the entire world being revolutionized EVERY year? Has the pace of development slowed down?

Just calm down and readjust your perspective.

Consider even just the tablet revolution, which has only just started. The low parts count of tablets makes them ideal low cost computers. The long battery life makes them perfect for use in areas without ubiquitous electrical power. And the intuitive touch based interfaces make them perfect for use even by people who aren't literate. Over the next 20-30 years we're going to see a massive acceleration in the diffusion of computing technology into the developing world. Which will have a huge impact on education, communication, economics, and industry. This will be one of the most profound things to happen in the history of humanity, but nobody's paying enough attention because everyone in tech journalism has the IQ and attention span of a gnat.

Meanwhile, over the same time frame increases in computing power are going to be a key element in the rise of fully configurable and fully automated manufacturing, as well as automated long-distance transportation (not just driverless cars), and a strong transition away from mass production as we've known it. All of which will transform the economy and society in ways we can scarcely imagine today. That's not even to mention the rise in space exploration, exploitation, and colonization that is in the midst even as we speak. The world of 2050 will be more futuristic and unfamiliar to the people of 2013 than the fictional futures of Star Trek or Blade Runner.

"everyone in tech journalism has the IQ and attention span of a gnat"

I take great offense and strongly object to your unwarranted, unjustified, uninformed, misinformed, just plain wrong insult of good and innocent gnats!!!!

As others are saying, there is a lot of innovation going on. However, I propose that the "digital economy" is quite different from anything we are used to.

The productivity gains are not necessarily such that they contribute to growth -- at least, not they way we are used to measure it.

It seems that two of the big effects of the Internet is removing rentiers and middlemen, and lowering costs across the board, the first because, well, connecting people, the second because of multiplicative efficiency increases.

This enables smaller organizations to capture a bigger part of a smaller pie. This is most visible in strictly informational sectors, such as free software, music and publishing, but I don't think it's constrained to that but rather the effect of adding "intelligence". The end game of a company like AirBnB for instance, is to replace (all) hotels, for a fraction of the turnover (but higher profit margin). The same could be true of self driving cars -- we believe it will let us make do with fewer cars, because they are easier to share. Indeed, Google is perhaps the foremost example, incessantly cutting away at the advertising sector (along with related industries), filling the same purpose but better and an order of magnitude cheaper.

This is not growth, but degrowth. The thing is, it is still good and valuable -- it's just that it's not reflected in GDP.

I would say that this has been going on for a few decades, which is why we've seen the rise of the financial sector, which seems, to me, to be a kind of "manufactured growth" -- all of our politics and policies expect, indeed, demands growth in order to work. So when it slows, or rather changes it's nature if you will, we invent fake growth.

In summary, I agree with some of the "pessimists" in the article, but I'm optimistic and hopeful about it. I think we can really live abundant.

No, what you have just described is the epitome of increased productivity and therefore increased GDP. In fact, productivity gains are the primary contributor to rising standards of living (higher GDP per capita).

Take self-driving cars. Sure, one might fixate on the fact that car manufacturers will lay off workers and that cab/truck drivers will lose their jobs. But that's a very narrow way of viewing things. If self-driving cars save 20 minutes in each American's day (commute, going out, filling up the tank), we're looking at more than 11,900 human years saved each day, just in the US. This figure doesn't even include the fact that when you are in the car you can do work or read while the car is driving itself. And we haven't even looked at: 1) health benefits from lower air pollution, 2) cheaper and more efficient transport of goods everywhere (lower costs for every type of good), 3) more efficient allocation of real-estate (no parking garages in the middle of the city), and 4) numerous other effects I am probably leaving out.

You mention improvements such as lower air pollution. We don't measure that in GDP today. That's kind of my point. If we internalize externalities, then all of the effects I am talking about will also contribute to GDP.

But the way we measure GDP today, it looks like growth is slowing. Indeed, some people, even in this community, feel we are working too many hours for little reason. If we are to make truth of that, and work less with more meaningful things, then that too would decrease GDP. But it would presumably increase well-being.

So what I propose is that we start measuring external costs, add them to the price of goods (so the price better reflects the real cost), and we won't need to fill every space with advertising to keep up consumption.

If you want to read more about these ideas, and others perhaps more radical, I can recommend this book of all my heart: http://sacred-economics.com/

Edit: Perhaps the self driving cars were my weakest example. In my mind, the most clear example is that of the free software movement. It's just a massive gain for everybody, built collaboratively. And it took off just as Bill Gates became the world's richest man off software. In a free software economy, that kind of market capture is radically different.

Again, things are not as clear as you try to paint them. Better health leads to more productivity and higher GDP because instead of sitting in a hospital, being miserable at home due to disability, or dying prematurely, you are productive, working, and consuming.

Working less does not necessarily drop GDP if it is offset by an increase in productivity. If I work 8 hours with 1 unit of GDP/hour, that is the same as working 4 hours with 2 units of GDP/hour.

Are you saying that free software lowers GDP? That connection is by no means clear cut. Again, we can potentially see productivity gains in terms of lower costs across the board.

I do not (and never did) disagree with you that GDP doesn't cover every metric that ought to be measured (i.e. happiness). I'm correcting you because I think your economic reasoning is flawed for most of your examples. And as it stands, trying to measure "well-being" and quantify that value in terms of prices is so utterly nebulous as a concept as to be nearly impractical. Who would set and enforce the price? How would you even begin to convert happiness to money?

EDIT (reply to below):

First, there is no question that premature death will negatively impact GDP. Furthermore, health problems that don't lead to a hospital stay but lead to general disability will drag down productivity. Furthermore, while in the short term a hospital stay in of itself (lets say, a $100,000 bill for lung cancer) will increase GDP by the bill ($100,000), that money partly comes out of savings that would be spent anyway in the long term. And the ability for someone to create value as a productive worker/consumer is still severely curtailed as a result. And while I'll concede that reducing hospital stays in of itself has a negative effect to GDP, improvements in health end up being net positive for GDP.

As for the larger philosophical question of GDP. Who is "we"? The economy will optimize for itself (higher GDP) because that is how a market economy is set up. And a market economy is not set up to optimize for anything other than growth/money (money representing economic value). As for "people," people, society, and governments routinely already optimize for other things.

Again, things are not as clear as you try to paint them.

I might say the same thing to you. Your miserable person in a hospital might actually count towards GDP, for instance. I'm sure you're familiar with the broken window fallacy, and to me, it still seems to run wild.

Regarding your last paragraph, I think we are getting to the crux of the problem. What is the purpose of optimizing for GDP if it can't encompass what's important? It might not even be correlated. So I propose we change the incentives and optimize for something else than "growth", as it were.

Saving time does not equal an increase in productivity. Self-driving cars might save 20 minutes, but this translates into an increase in actual worker productivity (causing an increase in GDP) only if those 20 minutes can then be spent doing additional work that would otherwise not have happened. This requires "work that may be done" to be elastic. Elastic in this context would mean that any free 20-minute interval can be turned into profitable work output. In my experience, workload does not scale this way.

Don't miss the other end of the transaction. If the 20min are used spending money (consuming) this also increases GDP.

This is really insightful.

Productivity is usually a relative measure to gauge the profit margin of a nation / company ie. hours worked against earnings. But as you say, a relative measure will not catch any across the board increase.

The corollary of this is that almost the entirety of the worth is ascribed to the comparatively minor differences which produce relative gains. Anything which does not produce relative gains, but which 'simply' helps the human race at large is ignored or disparaged by the market. ie. if it don't make dollars, it don't make sense.

While I can kind of see the thinking behind your argument about the rise of the financial sector being driven by demands of growth from politics and policies.. i think this is very much the wrong way of looking at it. The rise of the financial sector was a power grab.. a con, pure and simple. They bought up all our debt, devalued it and then sold us more. That is to say, they bought all our shares in the future and with a bit of hocus-pocus, pulled a bunch more out of thin air and diluted our stake.

This seems to contradict the feeling of great progress in technology over the last few years. Perhaps it is just an illusion that when "software is eating the world" it is actually making the world better. Perhaps it is being negated by lower productivity in the rest of the economy or government. Just seems at odds with my recent experience.

We're just spoiled. We want something as disruptive as the internet every year.

This. And we want it as an app.

For free.

Available now.

and that works offline

Innovation is, and rightly should be, followed by a phase of enjoying its benefits. We are enjoying the fruits of the Internet. Its opened up more options and improved quality of life. My own life has changed drastically since I was introduced to computers twelve years ago. Today I work across continents - not a choice I had in the 90s. My mother can video chat with my nephew and niece everyday. My grandmother can see places across the world in vivid detail without leaving her chair. I can get away by being less knowledgeable. The much reviled 140 characters is a symptom of us enjoying the benefits.

What's the fascination with flying cars? Why is it a poster child of 'innovation'? Innovation is bursty, uncontrolled and usually cross disciplinary. Innovation just happens. For true innovation, pay attention to the Nobel prizes in science, to cutting edge research in science and not just industry. Its also weird to put up known checkpoints like 'flying-cars' to measure innovation.

Does anyone else find it strange that the title is 'idea machine' but content is tangible innovation that reaches the masses?

From the article: >>"Mr Jones says that, from 1985 to 1997 alone, the typical “age at first innovation” rose by about one year." Hmmm .... we are in 2013. Why curate and quote a period from 1985 to 1997??

Put the patent trolls to work the fields and the situation will surely improve.

It's worth being careful with the provocative title. You should consider that innovation can involve in recycling existing businesses, and the point here is whether they are either generating growth or productivity.

So what this means is that there can be a whole load of innovation occurring, but when it comes down to it, it may not be generating a lot of new growth.

I read it a little differently: 1920-1940, just 20 years, including 12 years of The Great Depression, saw just explosive growth in telephones, electric power, electric motors, electric lighting, radio, autos, oil, steamships, chemical engineering, and airplanes with continued growth in railroads and, thus, steel, Great Lakes shipping, and more. Then could go to college and study 'industrial arts' with chemistry, strength of materials, metal working, wood working, printing, etc. with excitement much like studying computer science in college today. My explanation: Small gumment, meager regulation, big bucks left over from the Gay 90s available for investment.

Then 1940-1970 the US DoD kept giving high technology many really big kicks in the back side to move much faster each year. That's what built Silicon Valley, much of Boston, several labs around the country, and many labs around DC.

But, the war in Viet Nam and the subsequent mess of the inflated economy, e.g., the 22% prime rate and the S&L crisis, and the oil shock of 1973-4 slowed things down through at least 1980.

But in 1980, IBM retreated from their grand 'future systems' direction and did another turn on the 370 architecture and started selling 370s again. They were shipping from their plant in Kingston, NY. The 18 wheel trucks that came to pick up the boxes got in a queue starting a the plant and continued out of Kingston and onto the NY State Thruway and formed a queue there. There was a blip in the GDP. So, things were starting to grow again.

By 1990, IBM was starting to hurt; microprocessors were taking a big toll on IBM's revenue. In three years near 1994, IBM lost $16 billion and went from 407,000 employees down to 209,000 and cleared out rush hour traffic jams in several counties north of NYC.

Since then we've had the dot-com bubble, 9/11, two wars of 10 years each, the housing bubble and The Great Recession, the end of the Cold War, the end of much of the Space Race, and, thus, no longer big Federal bucks for 'aerospace'. So, some things slowed down.

This should be a time of explosive growth, especially exploiting the price/performance of current computing and optical fiber along with the infrastructure software. To do what? Sure, to automate as much as possible of everything there is to do -- computers managed by computers ... managed by computers several levels deep managed by humans.

But there is a big financing problem: The big, old companies don't like to innovate, are not being pushed by DoD and NASA, and don't see the big profits that IBM long did. So, innovation is up to small companies. Alas, the way the financing works, really there is essentially no funding for the research and early development anything like what gave us everything from the electric light bulb through the electric typewriter, the nuclear power reactors, the Xerox machine, System 360, the SR-71, Multics, DEC VAX, AT&T Unix, and more.

So, now the IT R&D is from 1-3 guys funded by personal checkbooks. The 'professional' money doesn't want to get involved until all the R&D is done, the product has launched, and there is significant 'traction' growing rapidly. That's a long way from, as I recall, Rockefeller writing checks to get Edison and/or GE going so that we could have electric lighting instead of gas lighting. And if Rockefeller asked Edison how the bulb was going, Edison could only say that he knew 1000 things that wouldn't work.

And the ability to raise money on the stock market is much less good: 100 years or so ago, could form a company on Monday, print stock on Tuesday, sell it to the public on Wednesday, and then by Friday be building the new steamship, railroad, hotel, coal mine, or whatever.

Currently Apple, Google, Cisco, Microsoft and more are sitting big piles of cash and should be able to fund a next big thing like Rockefeller funded electric lighting.


Everything's Amazing and Nobody's Happy:


The Economist, is the maintainer of the current world order, reassures us again and again then all is fine, or getting better.

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