Patents

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Wave of innovation

Advancements are just around the corner

Written on a train from Bristol to London and dispatched to silicon.com via a free wi-fi service in Woodbridge near my home a day later

As a technologist engaged in R&D activities, a part-time academic and investor, I get to see new developments at a really early stage, and sometimes it has been 20 to 30 years between my first sighting and full commercialisation of a particular product or technology.

Technologies often mature far too early for the market, or fail to gain traction for other reasons such as cheaper and alternative solutions. Whatever the reason it is not good news - and timing is everything!

Today we are living off a line of R&D and inventions extending back 10 to 30 years, and the big question is: will the recent reductions in R&D funding by industry and governments impact on our ability to innovate and create new products 10 to 30 years down the line?

The pessimists say yes with some urgency and slight panic in their voice, but I suspect we are witnessing some funding wave function. What do I mean? Well, technological advancements are not a smooth process at all. We actually go forward on the basis of a series of lurches with one raft of innovation powering one economic wave after another.

A key feature of each successive wave is the realisation of more technology, progress and advantage for less material and energy, benefiting a larger proportion of our species. I reckon we are about to see a new wave as the planet powers out of the banking crisis and economic recession.

Today we see a new component in the equation of progress and it is the collapse of the artificial silos of physics, chemistry, biology and mathematics. All are being bridged by technology and computational power. Add this to the web 2.0, 3.0 and 4.0 worlds of the semantic web powered by artificial intelligence and I think innovation itself takes a leg up.

This represents a radical change with man and machine discovering and innovating in unison - something that never happened before.

It goes like this:

  1. Man innovates and creates tools
  2. Tools magnify human muscle power
  3. Tools are used by man to create machines
  4. Machines are refined by man to become a new class of tool
  5. Machines magnify human brain power
  6. Machines manufacture machines
  7. Networked humans and machines achieve new levels of knowledge
  8. Networked machines assume intelligence and start evolving
  9. Machines design and manufacture machines
  10. Man becomes the QA, legal and ethics department

Many futurologists see the next stage as the singularity - the point at which the machines take over and sideline us.

So should we be worried? Concerned perhaps but worried, no. Looking back over history people have always worried about technology but it is hard to see a better time to be alive than now. If you are not sure take a look at a car, TV, mobile phone, PC and medical treatments from 20 years ago.

About

Peter Cochrane is an engineer, scientist, entrepreneur, futurist and consultant. He is the former CTO and head of research at BT, with a career in telecoms and IT spanning more than 40 years.