Innovation: A Finite Resource?
There are many things that will eventually run out in this world. Oil, natural gas, coal… and innovation?
We have gone through many life-changing inventions over our history – cars, phones, airplanes, computers, the Internet. However, today we are mostly refining current ideas. Tesla’s Model S is still a car, Microsoft’s Surface Studio is still a computer, and Apple’s iPhone is still a phone (although some might argue that modern smartphones can be considered separate from regular old phones).
In his 2004 paper, A possible declining trend for worldwide innovation, physicist Jonathan Huebner concluded that “Innovation is a finite resource”. In it, he discusses the possibility that we are running out of the potential for meaningful technological innovations. He measured humanity’s progress of innovation using historical patent data and found that we’ve been on a sharp decline in number of patents filed per year ever since 1873.
One of the biggest challenges of truly impactful innovation is that you have to solve a problem that people didn’t even know they had. Before we invented the computer, did people even dream of a word processing encyclopedia that was also capable of serving as a communicative medium? Probably not.
That’s not how computers came to be all of a sudden, though. Computers started out as complex mathematical problem solvers. As time went on, computers went through thousands, if not millions of marginal changes that eventually made them what they are today. Computers are still computers, but they evolved as humanity’s needs grew.
Most of today’s gripes are about the shortcomings of existing technology. My computer is too slow. My phone doesn’t have enough memory. Gas costs too much. In response to these gripes, we get faster processors, more spacious memory cards, and electric cars. These are all things that already exist – we’ve just been improving them bit by bit.
The topic of finite innovation was briefly mentioned in Elon Musk’s biography written by Ashlee Vance. Vance says that Jonathan Huebner made some good points, but upon seeing what she calls “Muskland”, she changed her mind. In Vance’s words, Musk was “chasing things that had the potential to be the real breakthroughs we’ve been missing.” Based on what Musk has accomplished so far, we shouldn’t be surprised if we see something new coming our way. The HyperLoop and Mars colonization are right around the corner, after all.
So I pose this question to Huebner and to you, the reader: Are we running out of innovative capability or are we running out of significant needs to fulfill? What do you think?
Written By: Juan Juy