Patents

Peter Cochrane's Blog: Are we heading towards a new dark age?

I wouldn't bet on it...
Written from the BA lounge with free Wi-Fi, Miami Airport, Florida

I have just picked up on a series of articles and projections that suggest we are heading toward a new technological dark age. The basic thesis appears to be that the rate of discovery, invention and innovation is rapidly slowing. According to the theory's proponents, this seems to be especially true when normalised to the growing population of the planet. For some specific numbers, check out this site.

Some see the peak of human innovation around 100 years ago with a predicted plunge back to 1400 levels within the next 40 years. Could this possibly be true? I think not, at least not for the reasons cited! It appears the authors simply add up the number of inventions without any attempt to weight by efficacy. For example, the invention of the steam engine, telegraph and electric light were truly phenomenal in their day. They not only contributed to the industrial revolution, they continue to underpin everything we take for granted today.

Now consider the transistor and the integrated circuit. I would suggest the impact of this strain of innovation has done more for mankind than the collective impact of the steam engine, telegraph and electric light combined. In short, much of our past inventory of innovation and invention has been crude compared to what we see today. At this point I would highlight the resources and cumulative ingenuity necessary to realise today's major innovations and inventions. Inside the integrated circuit are thousands of step innovations that are far and away more complex and powerful than anything seen before 1950.

If we look to the military we can see a useful analogy. Simply comparing armies on the basis of the number of troops would not be a good idea. It is necessary to take account of the effectiveness of their training, past battlefield experience, plus additional weightings for all the weapons, platforms and systems. The same is true of innovation, where we have to look at things like return on investment (ROI) as opposed to the kill rate, or indeed the number of deaths per dollars spent.

It seems to me we are on an exponential riser when it comes to scientific knowledge and understanding, and technological advance and innovation. Each new strain of technology has given us thousands of times more return than the parent subset. And whilst certain technologies - such as online news - may run out of steam in the next couple of decades, there is infinitely more technology waiting in the wings than was the case in 1946 when the transistor was invented.

As each phase of technology has passed we have simply climbed up to a new level of understanding and ability. This is not like some tree of success that sees the branches getting thinner as we go further out, more an inverted pyramid that gets bigger layer on layer.

So will there be another dark age? I hope not for all our sakes - without our technology billions would die! But if there is to be a dark age it will most likely be engendered by religious fundamentalism and political correctness. Come to think of it, that's exactly what happened last time. We were simply overcome by a tsunami of ignorance founded on accepted beliefs such as the sun rotates around the earth, which happens to be flat by the way!

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.