Or take Coyle’s point about the step change offered by antibiotics. Is there anything in our recent history that even remotely compares to the medical advances of the 20th century? Or the sanitation advances of the late 19th century? If so, it’s certainly not evident in our longevity data: Life expectancy gains have slowed sharply in the IT era. A serious appreciation of step changes suggests that our measures of productivity might have missed more in the 20th century than they have in the 21st.
He does not dismiss the value of laptop computers and GPS and Facebook and Google and iPhones and Teslas. He’s just saying that the stack of them doesn’t amount to electricity plus automobiles plus airplanes plus antibiotics plus indoor plumbing plus skyscrapers plus the Interstate Highway System.
Nothing improves a person’s economic productivity quite like remaining alive.
I still see a HUGE failure of increasing disk space
Today, progress is defined almost entirely by consumer-driven, often banal improvements in information technology.
And yes, we are living longer, but this has disappointingly little to do with any recent breakthroughs. Since 1970, the US Federal Government has spent more than $100 billion in what President Richard Nixon dubbed the ‘War on Cancer’. Far more has been spent globally, with most wealthy nations boasting well-funded cancer‑research bodies. Despite these billions of investment, this war has been a spectacular failure. In the US, the death rates for all kinds of cancer dropped by only 5 per cent in the period 1950-2005, according to the National Center for Health Statistics. Even if you strip out confounding variables such as age (more people are living long enough to get cancer) and better diagnosis, the blunt fact is that, with most kinds of cancer, your chances in 2014 are not much better than they were in 1974. In many cases, your treatment will be pretty much the same.
For the past 20 years, as a science writer, I have covered such extraordinary medical advances as gene therapy, cloned replacement organs, stem-cell therapy, life-extension technologies, the promised spin-offs from genomics and tailored medicine. None of these new treatments is yet routinely available. The paralyzed still cannot walk, the blind still cannot see. The human genome was decoded (one post-Golden Quarter triumph) nearly 15 years ago and we’re still waiting to see the benefits that, at the time, were confidently asserted to be ‘a decade away’. We still have no real idea how to treat chronic addiction or dementia. The recent history of psychiatric medicine is, according to one eminent British psychiatrist I spoke to, ‘the history of ever-better placebos’. And most recent advances in longevity have come about by the simple expedient of getting people to give up smoking, eat better, and take drugs to control blood pressure.
And yet, something doesn’t quite fit. The 1970s recession was temporary: we came out of it soon enough. What’s more, in terms of Gross World Product, the world is between two and three times richer now than it was then. There is more than enough money for a new Apollo, a new Concorde and a new Green Revolution. So if rapid economic growth drove innovation in the 1950s and ’60s, why has it not done so since?
In The Great Stagnation, Cowen argues that progress ground to a halt because the ‘low-hanging fruit’ had been plucked off. These fruits include the cultivation of unused land, mass education, and the capitalisation by technologists of the scientific breakthroughs made in the 19th century. It is possible that the advances we saw in the period 1945-1970 were similarly quick wins, and that further progress is much harder. Going from the prop-airliners of the 1930s to the jets of the 1960s was, perhaps, just easier than going from today’s aircraft to something much better.
Lack of money, then, is not the reason that innovation has stalled. What we do with our money might be, however. Capitalism was once the great engine of progress. It was capitalism in the 18th and 19th centuries that built roads and railways, steam engines and telegraphs (another golden era). Capital drove the industrial revolution.
Now, wealth is concentrated in the hands of a tiny elite. A report by Credit Suisse this October found that the richest 1 per cent of humans own half the world’s assets. That has consequences. Firstly, there is a lot more for the hyper-rich to spend their money on today than there was in the golden age of philanthropy in the 19th century. The superyachts, fast cars, private jets and other gewgaws of Planet Rich simply did not exist when people such as Andrew Carnegie walked the earth and, though they are no doubt nice to have, these fripperies don’t much advance the frontiers of knowledge. Furthermore, as the French economist Thomas Piketty pointed out in Capital (2014), money now begets money more than at any time in recent history. When wealth accumulates so spectacularly by doing nothing, there is less impetus to invest in genuine innovation.
the new ideal is to render your own products obsolete as fast as possible
All in, 2013 was an embarrassment for the entire tech industry and the engine that powers it—Silicon Valley. Innovation was replaced by financial engineering, mergers and acquisitions, and evasion of regulations. Not a single breakthrough product was unveiled—and for reasons outlined below, Google Glass doesn’t count. If it’s in the nature of progress to move in leaps, there are necessarily lulls in between. Here are all the reasons 2013 was a great big dud for technology as a whole.
Google killed its much-vaunted 20% time—the policy of allowing engineers to spend a portion of their working time on their own projects—while insisting it hadn’t, leading to a furious (and public) debate among its employees about whether or not the company is still friendly to bottom-up innovation.
While there isn’t much manufacturing left in rich countries to automate, it appears that robot baristas could threaten jobs in the service sector as well. Some in Silicon Valley even made explicit their goal of eliminating workers and their labor protections.
…if one starts down the road of comparing changes in life expectancy, the yearly rate of increase in life expectancy at birth during 1900–50, resulting in substantial part from the inventions of the Second Industrial Revolution, was 0.72 percent per year, the 0.24 percent annual rate during 1950–95.
In addition to the inevitable problems with government taxation and interference in science, we are beginning to face something else entirely: we are moving from simple physics and chemistry to complex biology and other kinds of networks. We should not be surprised that simple science gave rise to a lot of technology rather quickly; but neither should we be surprised that complex science is slower to give rise to complex technology. Even the biotech we have succeeded with have been based on the simple science model — the one gene, one product model that is inapplicable for over 99% of the genes.
Robinson makes no apology for the 21st-century tech of his 26th-century explorers, arguing that progress in science and technology will asymptotically approach “limits we can’t get past”.
“It’s always wrong to extrapolate by straightforwardly following a curve up,” he explains, “because it tends off towards infinity and physical impossibility. So it’s much better to use the logistic curve, which is basically an S curve.”
Like the adoption of mobile phones, or rabbit populations on an island, things tend to start slowly, work up a head of steam and then reach some kind of saturation point, a natural limit to the system. According to Robinson, science and technology themselves are no exception, making this gradual increase and decrease in the speed of change the “likeliest way to predict the future”
The Law of Accelerating Returns
March 7, 2001 by Ray Kurzweil
In 2001 you write that “we will be adding more than a year every year within ten years” (So 2011). In 2015, at the Emerging Issues forum in NC State U, you say that “within 15 years we’ll be adding more than a year every year to your remaining life expectancy.” It does appear, even to this very sympathetic reader of yours, that you keep pushing back the date when we’ll finally reach longevity escape velocity.
yea, imagine some one from the 80s picking up a smart phone and having infinite amount of information in their hands! they would be so unimpressed… u mad bro that life didn’t turn out like movies from the 70′s and 80′s….
Moore’s law is just one of millions of positive feedback loops that occur in the world (in biology, sociology, economics, chemistry etc). Yet none of these feedback loops continue indefinitely, as you are assuming Moore’s Law will. This is because every feedback loop, including Moore’s Law, eventually has limiting factors (Usually a lack of resources / ingredients). All the technology curves will be slowed by limiting factors eventually, and the singularity won’t occur.
I have two problems with this theory. The first is physical, the second metaphysical. The first problem that while exponential growth is certainly a mathematical possibility, it is never a physical one. In mathematics, all exponential growth results in asymptotes. There are, however, no physical asymptotes – they simply do not exist. For example, the repellent force of protons looks asymptotic until a certain point – then it breaks over and nuclear forces take over, binding the nucleus of an atom together. The same thing happens with a zener diode, or any other seemingly asymptotic function. There is always a breakover point. (Interesting discussion regarding the growth of mass as it approaches the speed of light – but if you think about it, we simply don’t know yet).