[FoRK] technology as a life form

dan at geer.org dan at geer.org
Mon Nov 2 05:59:01 PST 2015


The Myth of Basic Science
   By Matt Ridley Updated Oct. 23, 2015 8:10 p.m. ET

Does scientific research drive innovation? Not very often, argues
Matt Ridley: Technological evolution has a momentum of its own, and
it has little to do with the abstractions of the lab.

   Innovation is a mysteriously difficult thing to dictate. Technology
   seems to change by a sort of inexorable, evolutionary progress,
   which we probably cannot stop--or speed up much either. And it's
   not much the product of science. Most technological breakthroughs
   come from technologists tinkering, not from researchers chasing
   hypotheses.  Heretical as it may sound, "basic science" isn't
   nearly as productive of new inventions as we tend to think.

   Suppose Thomas Edison had died of an electric shock before
   thinking up the light bulb. Would history have been radically
   different? Of course not. No fewer than 23 people deserve the
   credit for inventing some version of the incandescent bulb before
   Edison, according to a history of the invention written by Robert
   Friedel, Paul Israel and Bernard Finn.

   The same is true of other inventions. Elisha Gray and Alexander
   Graham Bell filed for a patent on the telephone on the very same
   day. By the time Google came along in 1996, there were already
   scores of search engines. As Kevin Kelly documents in his book
   "What Technology Wants," we know of six different inventors of
   the thermometer, three of the hypodermic needle, four of
   vaccination, five of the electric telegraph, four of photography,
   five of the steamboat, six of the electric railroad. The history
   of inventions, writes the historian Alfred Kroeber, is "one
   endless chain of parallel instances."

   It is just as true in science as in technology. Boyle's law in
   English-speaking countries is the same thing as Mariotte's Law
   in French-speaking countries. Isaac Newton vented paroxysms of
   fury at Gottfried Leibniz for claiming, correctly, to have
   invented the calculus independently. Charles Darwin was prodded
   into publishing his theory at last by Alfred Russel Wallace, who
   had precisely the same idea after reading precisely the same
   book, Malthus's "Essay on Population."

   Increasingly, technology is developing the kind of autonomy that
   hitherto characterized biological entities. The Stanford economist
   Brian Arthur argues that technology is self-organizing and can,
   in effect, reproduce and adapt to its environment. It thus
   qualifies as a living organism, at least in the sense that a
   coral reef is a living thing. Sure, it could not exist without
   animals (that is, people) to build and maintain it, but then
   that is true of a coral reef, too.

   And who knows when this will no longer be true of technology,
   and it will build and maintain itself? To the science writer
   Kevin Kelly, the "technium"--his name for the evolving organism
   that our collective machinery comprises--is already "a very
   complex organism that often follows its own urges." It "wants
   what every living system wants: to perpetuate itself."

   By 2010, the Internet had roughly as many hyperlinks as the brain
   has synapses. Today, a significant proportion of the whispering
   in the cybersphere originates in programs--for monitoring,
   algorithmic financial trading and other purposes--rather than
   in people. It is already virtually impossible to turn the Internet

   The implications of this new way of seeing technology--as an
   autonomous, evolving entity that continues to progress whoever
   is in charge--are startling. People are pawns in a process. We
   ride rather than drive the innovation wave. Technology will find
   its inventors, rather than vice versa. Short of bumping off half
   the population, there is little that we can do to stop it from
   happening, and even that might not work.

   Indeed, the history of technological prohibitions is revealing.
   The Ming Chinese prohibited large ships; the Shogun Japanese,
   firearms; the medieval Italians, silk-spinning; Americans in the
   1920s, alcohol. Such prohibitions can last a long time--three
   centuries in the case of the Chinese and Japanese examples--but
   eventually they come to an end, so long as there is competition.
   Meanwhile, elsewhere in the world, these technologies continued
   to grow.

   Today it is impossible to imagine software development coming
   to a halt. Somewhere in the world, a nation will harbor programmers,
   however strongly, say, the U.N. tries to enforce a ban on software
   development.  The idea is absurd, which makes my point.

   It is easier to prohibit technological development in larger-scale
   technologies that require big investments and national regulations.
   So, for example, Europe has fairly successfully maintained a de
   facto ban on genetic modification of crops for two decades in
   the name of the "precautionary principle"--the idea that any
   possibility of harm, however remote, should scuttle new
   technology--and it looks as if it may do the same for shale gas.
   But even here, there is no hope of stopping these technologies
   globally.  Elisha Gray and Alexander Graham Bell, pictured, filed
   for a patent on the telephone on the very same day.

   And if there is no stopping technology, perhaps there is no
   steering it either. In Mr. Kelly's words, "the technium wants
   what evolution began." Technological change is a far more
   spontaneous phenomenon than we realize. Out with the heroic,
   revolutionary story of the inventor, in with the inexorable,
   incremental, inevitable creep of innovation.

   Simultaneous discovery and invention mean that both patents and
   Nobel Prizes are fundamentally unfair things. And indeed, it is
   rare for a Nobel Prize not to leave in its wake a train of
   bitterly disappointed individuals with very good cause to be
   bitterly disappointed.

   Patents and copyright laws grant too much credit and reward to
   individuals and imply that technology evolves by jerks. Recall
   that the original rationale for granting patents was not to
   reward inventors with monopoly profits but to encourage them to
   share their inventions.  A certain amount of intellectual property
   law is plainly necessary to achieve this. But it has gone too
   far. Most patents are now as much about defending monopoly and
   deterring rivals as about sharing ideas.  And that discourages

   Even the most explicit paper or patent application fails to
   reveal nearly enough to help another to retrace the steps through
   the maze of possible experiments. One study of lasers found that
   blueprints and written reports were quite inadequate to help
   others copy a laser design: You had to go and talk to the people
   who had done it. So a patent often does not achieve the openness
   that it is supposed to but instead hinders progress.

   The economist Edwin Mansfield of the University of Pennsylvania
   studied the development of 48 chemical, pharmaceutical, electronic
   and machine goods in New England in the 1970s. He found that,
   on average, it cost 65% as much money and 70% as much time to
   copy products as to invent them. And this was among specialists
   with technical expertise. So even with full freedom to copy,
   firms would still want to break new ground.  Commercial companies
   do basic research because they know it enables them to acquire
   the tacit knowledge that assists further innovation.

   Politicians believe that innovation can be turned on and off
   like a tap: You start with pure scientific insights, which then
   get translated into applied science, which in turn become useful
   technology. So what you must do, as a patriotic legislator, is
   to ensure that there is a ready supply of money to scientists
   on the top floor of their ivory towers, and lo and behold,
   technology will come clanking out of the pipe at the bottom of
   the tower.

   This linear model of how science drives innovation and prosperity
   goes right back to Francis Bacon, the early 17th-century philosopher
   and statesman who urged England to catch up with the Portuguese
   in their use of science to drive discovery and commercial gain.
   Supposedly Prince Henry the Navigator in the 15th century had
   invested heavily in mapmaking, nautical skills and navigation,
   which resulted in the exploration of Africa and great gains from
   trade. That is what Bacon wanted to copy.

   Yet recent scholarship has exposed this tale as a myth, or rather
   a piece of Prince Henry's propaganda. Like most innovation,
   Portugal's navigational advances came about by trial and error
   among sailors, not by speculation among astronomers and
   cartographers. If anything, the scientists were driven by the
   needs of the explorers rather than the other way around.

   Terence Kealey, a biochemist turned economist, tells this story
   to illustrate how the linear dogma so prevalent in the world of
   science and politics--that science drives innovation, which
   drives commerce--is mostly wrong. It misunderstands where
   innovation comes from. Indeed, it generally gets it backward.

   When you examine the history of innovation, you find, again and
   again, that scientific breakthroughs are the effect, not the
   cause, of technological change. It is no accident that astronomy
   blossomed in the wake of the age of exploration. The steam engine
   owed almost nothing to the science of thermodynamics, but the
   science of thermodynamics owed almost everything to the steam
   engine. The discovery of the structure of DNA depended heavily
   on X-ray crystallography of biological molecules, a technique
   developed in the wool industry to try to improve textiles.

   Technological advances are driven by practical men who tinkered
   until they had better machines; abstract scientific rumination
   is the last thing they do. As Adam Smith, looking around the
   factories of 18th-century Scotland, reported in "The Wealth of
   Nations": "A great part of the machines made use in manufactures...were
   originally the inventions of common workmen," and many improvements
   had been made "by the ingenuity of the makers of the machines."

   It follows that there is less need for government to fund science:
   Industry will do this itself. Having made innovations, it will
   then pay for research into the principles behind them. Having
   invented the steam engine, it will pay for thermodynamics. This
   conclusion of Mr. Kealey's is so heretical as to be incomprehensible
   to most economists, to say nothing of scientists themselves.

   For more than a half century, it has been an article of faith
   that science would not get funded if government did not do it,
   and economic growth would not happen if science did not get
   funded by the taxpayer.  It was the economist Robert Solow who
   demonstrated in 1957 that innovation in technology was the source
   of most economic growth--at least in societies that were not
   expanding their territory or growing their populations. It was
   his colleagues Richard Nelson and Kenneth Arrow who explained
   in 1959 and 1962, respectively, that government funding of science
   was necessary, because it is cheaper to copy others than to do
   original research.

   "The problem with the papers of Nelson and Arrow," writes Mr.
   Kealey, "was that they were theoretical, and one or two troublesome
   souls, on peering out of their economists' aeries, noted that
   in the real world, there did seem to be some privately funded
   research happening." He argues that there is still no empirical
   demonstration of the need for public funding of research and
   that the historical record suggests the opposite.

   After all, in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the U.S.
   and Britain made huge contributions to science with negligible
   public funding, while Germany and France, with hefty public
   funding, achieved no greater results either in science or in
   economics. After World War II, the U.S. and Britain began to
   fund science heavily from the public purse. With the success of
   war science and of Soviet state funding that led to Sputnik, it
   seemed obvious that state funding must make a difference.

   The true lesson--that Sputnik relied heavily on Robert Goddard's
   work, which had been funded by the Guggenheims--could have gone
   the other way. Yet there was no growth dividend for Britain and
   America from this science-funding rush. Their economies grew no
   faster than they had before.

   In 2003, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development
   published a paper on the "sources of economic growth in OECD
   countries" between 1971 and 1998 and found, to its surprise,
   that whereas privately funded research and development stimulated
   economic growth, publicly funded research had no economic impact
   whatsoever.  None. This earthshaking result has never been
   challenged or debunked.  It is so inconvenient to the argument
   that science needs public funding that it is ignored.

   In 2007, the economist Leo Sveikauskas of the U.S. Bureau of
   Labor Statistics concluded that returns from many forms of
   publicly financed R&D are near zero and that "many elements of
   university and government research have very low returns,
   overwhelmingly contribute to economic growth only indirectly,
   if at all."

   As the economist Walter Park of American University in Washington,
   D.C., concluded, the explanation for this discrepancy is that
   public funding of research almost certainly crowds out private
   funding. That is to say, if the government spends money on the
   wrong kind of science, it tends to stop researchers from working
   on the right kind of science.

   To most people, the argument for public funding of science rests
   on a list of the discoveries made with public funds, from the
   Internet (defense science in the U.S.) to the Higgs boson (particle
   physics at CERN in Switzerland). But that is highly misleading.
   Given that government has funded science munificently from its
   huge tax take, it would be odd if it had not found out something.
   This tells us nothing about what would have been discovered by
   alternative funding arrangements.

   And we can never know what discoveries were not made because
   government funding crowded out philanthropic and commercial
   funding, which might have had different priorities. In such an
   alternative world, it is highly unlikely that the great questions
   about life, the universe and the mind would have been neglected
   in favor of, say, how to clone rich people's pets.

   The perpetual-innovation machine that feeds economic growth and
   generates prosperity is not the result of deliberate policy at
   all, except in a negative sense. Governments cannot dictate
   either discovery or invention; they can only make sure that they
   don't hinder it.  Innovation emerges unbidden from the way that
   human beings freely interact if allowed. Deep scientific insights
   are the fruits that fall from the tree of technological change.

Mr. Ridley is the author of "The Evolution of Everything: How New
Ideas Emerge," to be published next week by Harper (which, like The
Wall Street Journal, is owned by News Corp). He is a member of the
British House of Lords.

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