Science: Wanna be an inventor? Don't bother
It's a feeling all too common to anyone who has ever dreamed of being a great innovator: All the really good stuff has already been invented. Pressing on regardless, surely, is what separates the Benjamin Franklins and Thomas Edisons from the rest of us. Or is it?
Sitting there reading this on a computer screen, listening to your iPod, and taking calls on your cellphone, it's hard to believe that we're not living in the golden age of invention. But a pair of new reports suggests that coming up with new ideas is getting harder every year.
In an analysis to be published in Technological Forecasting and Social Change, Jonathan Huebner, a physicist working at the Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, Calif., tracks the rate of innovation through history. Plotting a timeline of 7,200 major technological advances dating to the Renaissance against world population, he found that the number of key inventions per person actually peaked in 1873 and has been on the decline ever since. In a similar analysis of U.S. patent records dating back to 1790, Huebner found that Americans reached their peak inventiveness in 1915. Despite ever greater education and research funding, Huebner told the British science magazine New Scientist, he expects per capita technological advance to hit medieval rates by 2024 ["Entering a dark age of innovation"].
In an upcoming report for the National Bureau of Economic Research, Kellogg School of Management Prof. Ben Jones suggests why this might be ["The Burden of Knowledge and the 'Death of the Renaissance Man': Is Innovation Getting Harder?"]. Proposing a "knowledge burden mechanism"the idea that the more we know, the more any one person has to learn before he or she can make the next inventive leapJones shows that ever increasing education, specialization, and teamwork are needed to keep the march of innovation alive. The model explains recent trends such as increased academic collaboration and more years spent pursuing doctorates, he writes, but such compensatory efforts have natural limits.
Taken together, Huebner's and Jones's reports suggest, quite depressingly, that we may in fact be running out of things we can invent and ways to keep inventing them. But then again, scientists and inventors have been here before. In the late 1800s, for example, physicists thought they had the natural laws pretty much worked out. Then came Einstein, with a brilliant insight or two, and the cavalcade of modern inventions that have followed ever since. Even if all the easy advances are off the drawing tablea pretty decent innovation itself, come to think of itthere's no way to really know what the future holds, until it's been invented.