Tuesday, December 13, 2016

A Time for Invention

Has the world seen the last of life-changing inventions? Are we out of big ideas, breakthroughs that impact society?

Several science historians and not a few journalists have worried about this in a panoply of distraught columns, the latest a piece by Greg Ip in the Wall Street Journal that claims science hasn't delivered much lately to improve our standard of living.

Ip cites a measure called "total factor productivity" that is said to capture the contribution of innovation to growth. That peaked at 3.4% in the 1950s as breakthroughs like electricity, aviation and antibiotics reached their maximal impact. It currently stands at 0.5%.

The invention worriers say there are reasons for this: Higher capital and regulatory hurdles. Fewer easy targets. A more risk-adverse economy. And so on.

There's no question we have benefited from a golden age of innovation. Basic research has provided a palette of drugs that prolong life. The digital revolution has changed the way the world communicates. New materials have transformed everything from spacecraft to underwear.

But here's the thing. These life-changing inventions are not big bangs. They don't come from a single epiphany. They come from evolutionary, step-wise advances -- incremental gains that over time can make an impact.

  • It took Thomas Edison hundreds of tries, painful trial and error, to invent a practical incandescent bulb. And then it took even longer to transport electricity and light a neighborhood, then a city.
  • George Mitchell didn't crack open shale one day and usher in the fracking age. He and his engineers built on years of experience, mostly failure, to find the right combination of chemicals, sand particles and hydrolytic pressure. Then it took horizontal drilling, another incremental advance, to give us the cheap natural gas that's transformed the 21st century.
  • Enrico Fermi didn't spawn the atomic age with one revelation. He built in stair-step fashion, drawing on the work of Einstein, Bohr, Pauli, Heisenberg and many others.
  • The Wright brothers didn't just happen upon flight one day on a North Carolina beach. As wonderfully told in David McCullough's book, Wilbur and Orville tried and failed and tried again until they overcame gravity. Then they and others spent years making it reliable and launching commercial aviation. There was no one, single eureka.
Science moves in increments. Breakthroughs are the result of building on what came before. Forget about big bangs.

In my working life, I saw remarkable scientists make remarkable advances, virtually all the result of bootstrapping on what came before. Groundbreaking antibiotics, light-curable paints, calorie-free cooking oils. An effective viscosifier to help coax oil out of depleted fields resulted from a simple process change. Sexy? Not at all. But enabling. And impactful.

We're not out of these incremental advances. Far from it. There will be many more, and they will benefit society big time.
  • Artificial intelligence holds promise for everything from real-time control of manufacturing to future modeling of thought.
  • Gene editing will dramatically increase crop yields, adapting agriculture to the stresses of climate change.
  • Offshoots of environmental research will trigger breakthroughs in green chemistry, leading to things like low-cost solar desalination of seawater and conversion of greenhouse gases to building materials. 
  • Gene therapy, long in development, is poised to launch personalized medicine and provide enabling tools for fighting cancer.
So there's no need to agonize about innovation decline. In 1899, Charles Duell, commissioner of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, said, "Everything that can be invented has been invented."

He was wrong then and the invention worriers are wrong now. American ingenuity is alive and well.

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