Our times: more nano-innovation, less 'big innovation'

Are we less innovative and imaginative than 50 years ago? Or is amazing innovation just now so commonplace it has become routine?
Written by Joe McKendrick, Contributing Writer

Think about it. To travel, we board jetliners that are fairly similar in speed and look like the ones our parents and grandparents boarded 50 years ago. The vast majority of us drive gasoline-powered, four-wheeled vehicles on asphalt roads, just as our parents and grandparents drove back in 1962. We stare at color screens, which were around back in the day. And, while our parents and grandparents were preparing to send people to the moon, we still barely make low-earth orbit.

To put things in perspective, 50 years prior to 1962, in the year 1912, airplanes were still sputtering novelties that lifted one brave pilot at a time a few hundred feet in the air. Automobiles were sputtering horseless carriages for the wealthy to tool around on dirt roads (and to be hand-cranked to start). Public radio didn't even exist yet -- never mind television.

A time traveler going from 1912 to 1962 would have looked around at all the progress and have in been in a state of shock and awe. But a time traveler arriving from 1962 will likely feel quite comfortable in our time -- other than wondering where all the payphones went.

Justin Fox of the Harvard Business Review, echoing the views of Neal Stephenson, argues that innovation has been just plain flat in recent times. "Compared with the staggering changes in everyday life in the first half of the 20th century wrought by electricity, cars, and electronic communication, the digital age has brought relatively minor alterations to how we live," he observes. Along with a deadbeat economy, technological innovation has been less than thrilling in recent years, compared to the first half of the 20th century:

"Electricity is still electricity, and still generated mostly with fossil fuels; cars are better but not all that much better, and still propelled almost entirely by fossil fuels. Only communication has been truly transformed, but is the transformation really as profound as the advent of telegraphs, radio, and TV?  We have no colonies on Mars, we still can't get by without prehistoric fuel, the dishwasher still doesn't get all the dishes clean, and very few of us have personal jetpacks. You call this progress?"

From a social standpoint, there actually has been great progress during this time in terms of equality and civil rights. But from a technology point of view, anyone who grew up watching the Jetsons cartoon on television can instinctively feel the disappointment Fox is discussing.  The sleek future portrayed in the cartoon series (which, incidentally, commenced in 1962) showed travel via flying cars, meals rendered at the push of a button, picture phones and personal robots catering to one's every whim.

Perhaps, we're seeing less "big Innovation," supplanted by more pervasive everyday innovation. Greg Satell, for one, begs to differ with the notion that the last few decades have been dull or unimaginative in terms of innovation and progress. In a new post at Innovation Excellence, he outlines just four areas in which our lives, businesses and well-being have been dramatically changed:

Computers: Since they were first developed in 1948, "we’ve learned how to squeeze billions of transistors onto a single chip creating devices that, although they fit comfortably in our pockets, have more computing power than the entire Apollo program," Satell writes. "It’s not unusual for a family today to own a few laptops, a bunch of smartphones and maybe a tablet or two.  That’s an enormous amount of computing power and far more than we really need.  In ten years, the power of our technology will multiply 100 times; in 15 years, a 1,000 times."

Nanotechnology: In 1959, a scientist named Richard Feynman asked "why we could not print the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin... Half a century later it’s just getting started," Satell relates.  "With nanocomputing, we are well on the way to creating devices out of microscopic components and developing computers as small as a grain of sand." Nanotech is also now being deployed "to build the next generation of solar panels.  New materials such as super-strong carbon structures called fullerenes are revolutionizing materials science and may also provide the key to unlocking superconductivity, while self-replicating nanorobots will change manufacturing forever."

Genomics: "While moon landing captured the world’s imagination, this generation’s great achievement, the mapping of the human genome, which took 13 years and $3 billion, is probably more significant. Since then, scientists have cut the cost to less than $1,000 and the price will fall to under $100 in another decade.... From using personal genomes to better diagnosing illnesses to using gene therapies for diseases like cancer and Alzheimer’s, this new field will revolutionize medicine as we know it." In addition, there are applications in engineering, like "converting microorganisms such as algae and bacteria into organic factories that will produce 17% of our fuel by 2022."

Artificial intelligence: First conceived in 1956, AI came into the spotlight in 1997, with IBM Deep Blue’s "defeat of reigning world chess champion Gary Kasparov in a highly publicized match," Santill points out. (IBM Watson's triumph on Jeopardy in 2011 was the latest visible example of the power of AI.)  But now AI is an everyday technology. "Artificial intelligence methods such as Markov chains, genetic algorithms and neural nets have become widely deployed for purposes such as facial recognition, natural language processing, logistics and, of course, video games.....  Probably the best indication of the impact of artificial intelligence is how many tasks we used to consider uniquely human for which we now routinely use computers.  We think nothing of having Expedia calculate a multi-flight itinerary or Amazon and Netflix recommending media choices." Many people now carry an AI device around in their pockets -- such as Apple iPhone's Siri personal assistant.

Anyone reading the various posts here at SmartPlanet is aware that there is a whole world of entrepreneurs, scientists, and way-out-of-the-box thinkers working on the next generation of new innovations that will change the way we work and live. 3D printers are here, and are proliferating rapidly. "Smart cities" are finding new ways to collect and analyze data to reduce traffic congestion, pollution, energy consumption and crime. Self-driving cars are starting to hit the road. And, yes, there are flying cars now actually being developed for the mass market.

Are we less innovative and imaginative than a hundred years ago?  Or is amazing innovation just now so commonplace its become routine?

(Photo: Joe McKendrick.)

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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