[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.

Greg

On Mon, Nov 2, 2015 at 5:59 AM, <dan at geer.org> wrote:

> http://www.wsj.com/articles/the-myth-of-basic-science-1445613954
>
> 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
>    off.
>
>    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
>    innovation.
>
>    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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