[FoRK] technology as a life form
Gregory Alan Bolcer
greg at bolcer.org
Mon Nov 2 09:26:55 PST 2015
That's called the theory of DARPA moon shots.
On Mon, Nov 2, 2015 at 5:59 AM, <dan at geer.org> wrote:
> 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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greg at bolcer.org, http://bolcer.org, c: +1.714.928.5476
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