The Great Stagnation of Innovation

There was much talk at the Singularity Summit this year of the Great Stagnation.  The basic idea is that contrary to popular belief (among transhumanists), innovation is actually in decline.  Here is an excellent blog post about the Huebner study that showed a reduction in per capita patents since 1870.  I guess John Smart takes issue with the data sampling, etc.  I have my own doubts that patents are a good metric for innovation, but it’s an intriguing idea.  Sure you have the internet, but where are the flying cars?  If per capita innovation is going down, maybe Homer was right all along and we are a bunch of degenerates.

Peter Thiel has been talking about this for a while now.  He points to high energy costs as a failure to innovate in the energy space.  He mentions that median real wages are unchanged since the 70’s and that this suppresses innovation.  He sees the space program in shambles.  Libertarian Thiel even actually (sort of) attributes the Apollo launch to the higher marginal tax rate of the 60’s.  Well he concedes that the government had more macroeconmic control but exercised less microeconomic control.  (i.e. the Polio vaccine wouldn’t have made it past the FDA)

In a debate at Stanford between Thiel and George Gilder, Thiel expands on his ideas that innovation in the real world of matter has been outlawed driving all innovation into the virtual world of bits such as information technology and finance.  Gilder on the other hand takes a view that all fields will become subject to information technology and will soon start to see progress similar to that seen in the world of bits.  Kurzweil commonly makes  similar arguments when he says that biology is becoming an IT field.  As an aside, I know some folks in bioinformatics and the fact is that this field is quite rocky.  Job growth isn’t very impressive.  It’s one thing to crunch the numbers, it’s another thing to deliver tangible results.

So Thiel focuses on the real world and talks about how food production isn’t outpacing population by much.  And he loves to bring up the theory that food cost triggered the Arab spring.  I’m sympathetic to this, I see him coming from an embodiment angle with that.  He also takes some issue with the views of optimistic experts like Gilder and contrasts that with the views of average people.  The percentage of people who think the next generation will be better off than the last generation has steadily gone down over the past 40 years.  I like that angle too, it reminds me of Wisdom of the Crowds.

But I am always wary about these over-regulation stories.  First, improvement in communication technology must be providing a huge decrease in the pressure to innovate on the transportation side.  On the other hand I wonder how much easier it is to move goods around.  I know most shipping cost is tied to fuel prices which supports Thiels energy narrative.   But, we do see logistics operations like Apple, Amazon, and even Walmart that simply could not exist without IT.  Sure, personal air travel might not be faster today than in the 1960’s, but my MacBook air arrived at my doorstep from Shenzhen 4 days after I ordered it.

A lot of the huge progress on the physical side might just have been low hanging fruit and we may just be in the area of diminishing returns.  Gasoline’s energy density is hard to match.  The information theory folks like Gilder and Kurzweil seem to do some handwaving on the energy story.

Fracking might be a thing, but we have to see how it actually pans out.  I don’t blame people for getting pissed when it turns their tap water flamable.  These energy companies love to skimp on costly safety measures (Valdez, Deep Water Horizon, even pipeline monitoring. ) Those Yankees whose drinking water gets hosed by cheap concrete lining in the fracking wells will probably shut it down.  Yankees are feisty like that.

Another problem with the over-regulation theory of innovation decline is that we would expect to see better innovation rates in places with less regulation.  So why don’t we see Texas taking the national lead in innovation?  Europe is pretty heavily regulated and we still see plenty of patents coming out of there.  So I don’t really disagree with most of Thiel’s observations (on this innovation thing only, not the other crazy shit).   I more question the causal mechanisms.  I look forward to his forthcoming book on this topic, coauthored with Max Levchin and chess great Garry Kasparav.  But I am skeptical about any grand plans to change the tides.

I talked with a bunch of Singularity Institute folks about this at the Less Wrong pre-party and the Summit itself and opinions varied.  Some say the innovation slump isn’t actually a thing.  Some say that it’s a thing but it doesn’t matter.  Some suggested that it might buy more time to  develop friendly AI.

But what about the long, long term.  Say there is no Singularity and that innovation was merely a  function of population growth.  If we have population stabilization or even a population crash, will we see innovation follow suit?  In Incandescence by Greg Egan, the survivors of innovation crash are “mining” wire to make crude tools.  This is a common thread in SciFi.  In A Canticle for Leibowitz survivors create illuminated manuscripts of circuit boards.

Oh, but those are more technology crashes than innovation crashes…hmm…

Kevin Kelly makes a compelling argument about the nature of technology in What Technology Wants. This is a cool book that deserves much more discussion, but the basic idea is that new technology sort of springs from the existing framework of old technology.  He points out many inventions that were independently arrived at.  In some sense technological change becomes inevitable but also highly constrained.  Innovation is dependent on the underlying framework of enabling technologies.

So how are you really going to change that?

UPDATE 12/27/2012:  A DOE scientist I met a few months ago actually pointed out that energy efficiency does represent real innovation in the energy space in spite of price increases:

For one example: See figure 1.3 of:

You will see that the real price of lighting services has dropped by a factor of ~1000 over the last two centuries: the lighting equivalent of Moore’s law.