Science

Creative Accounting

Taking stock of big ideas.

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Is innovation endangered? An analysis in the journal Technological Forecasting & Social Change suggests it may be. Jonathan Huebner, a physicist working at the Pentagon's Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, takes a look at two measures of technological change: U.S. patents per capita from 1790 to 1999 and a subjective list of 7,200 "significant" innovations since the end of the Dark Ages.According to Huebner's patent data, rates of innovation peaked in 1915, dropping by half by 1985 before rising back to 75 percent of the 1915 rate in 1999. Using data from a recently published book, The History of Science and Technology, Huebner dismally concludes that innovation peaked in 1873 and has been declining ever since. At these rates, he projects that humanity will run into a technological dead end by mid-century.

Meanwhile, techno-gurus such as Ray Kurzweil, author The Age of Spiritual Machines, and John Smart, president of the Acceleration Studies Foundation, think technological progress is not only advancing but moving at exponential rates. As evidence, Kurzweil cites the explosive growth of the Internet and the steeply falling costs of technologies such as DNA sequencing and computing. Kurzweil predicts that by 2050, $1,000 will buy you computing power comparable to the processing power of all the human brains on earth.

Smart points out that had Huebner included the most recent patent data, he would have found that patents per capita have risen to 95 percent of their 1915 peak. He also criticizes Huebner's list of innovations, noting that much progress goes unseen; modern technologies are frequently integrated into the fabric of our lives without fanfare. Automobiles may be a "major" innovation, as Huebner says, but there are very different technologies under the hoods of a Model T and a Toyota Prius.

The turn of the 20th century was an enormously fruitful period for innovation; electricity, automobiles, radios, and airplanes were all taking off. A hundred years later, information technology, biotech, and nanotech are fueling another burst of creativity. Humanity's bag of technological tricks isn't empty just yet.