Don’t Let Innovation Languish

The world’s economy depends on innovation rates that are faster than they were for most of human history—and faster than they are today

Photo: Dave Bradley/Getty Images

There's a theory making the rounds that technological innovation is slowing down and thus can no longer support the economic growth we've come to expect. It's not normally the sort of thing IEEE Spectrum would cover—we write about innovation rather than its absence. And indeed, as we cast about for examples of promising tech developments that will make news in 2012, the only problem we faced was in deciding which ideas not to include in the issue.

But the possibility of a tech slowdown that rattles the global economy can't be dismissed. Look, for instance, at the dearth of fundamentally new drugs coming down the development pipeline. Or consider that the speeds at which we travel are no better, and are in some cases worse, than they were in the 1960s.

graphic link to special report

The basic argument was set out two years ago in an e-book called The Great Stagnation, by Tyler Cowen, an economist at George Mason University, in Fairfax, Va. He contends that our innovations increasingly consist of refinements to established technologies, most of them hatched decades or even lifetimes ago: electric power, radio, automobiles, airplanes, rockets, hybrid crops, antibiotics. In Cowen's phrase, we have plucked the "low-hanging fruit" and must strain ever harder to get anything delectable from the aging tree.

Interestingly, Cowen makes a grudging exception for electronics and information technology, which continue to barrel ahead. And as we assembled this issue, we found support for the idea that not only is electronics robust but that it continues to nurture innovation in plenty of other fields. In the pages that follow, you'll learn how 4G LTE is pushing the fusion of computing and communications to new heights and how efficient electric-drive cars are going mainstream; you'll read about improvements in LED lamps, medical applications of robotics, and the realization of one-off manufacturing via 3-D printing. We also note that researchers seem to be closing in on one of the most awe-inspiring goals in all of science: finding an extrasolar "Goldilocks" planet—one that's not too hot and not too cold to support life.

But even in electronics there are unsettling developments. The evidence, too, is in this issue. Moore's Law—the backbone of the IT revolution—now faces by far the most onerous obstacles in its long history, and measures to keep it going are getting ever more heroic. This month, we cover two measures—3-D chips and extreme ultraviolet lithography—that had long been resisted because of their great expense. Now the industry is betting heavily on them, mostly because other options smack more of desperation than of heroism.

So taken for granted is technical innovation that any interruption in its progress is treated as an aberration. But breakneck progress is hardly the norm. As the economic historian Gregory Clark pointed out in his 2007 book A Farewell to Alms, the average standard of living in the world was the same in 1790 as in the Neolithic Age. When he looked past the lace-and-velvet portraits of the long-dead rich to examine the food consumption of the average peon, he found that it hadn't risen from Adam to Adam Smith.

Clark argues that although technology did advance in every age, the advances came too slowly to stop people from breeding themselves back into poverty. For eons, he says, we dangled at that level of subsistence that ecologists call the Malthusian limit. The Industrial Revolution broke through that limit with a string of technologies of such power that any one of them would be big news today. Together they fell on our forebears like an avalanche, increasing their productivity so fast that, try as they might (and try they did), they couldn't make babies fast enough to stay poor.

Just why that revolution came where and when it did is still not clearly understood. Whether it can go on forever is by no means assured. True, nobody now speaks of actually going backward. For one thing, population growth appears to be slowing; for another, countries long outside the circle of progress are at last catching up. For them, the low-hanging fruit still lies within reach.

But if we don't get innovation back to what we would like to regard as normal levels, we will have to change our way of thinking. If our prosperity depends on rapid technical progress and such progress does not come, then all our economic calculations must be revised downward. "We are not as rich as we thought we were," concludes Cowen.

It is the challenge of the entire research community to change the trend line and prove him wrong.

This article originally appeared in print as "Taking Innovation for Granted."

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