Innovation’s low-hanging fruits: on the demand or supply sides?

Cross-posted at Less Wrong.

This is an addendum to a previous post, which argued that we may be underestimating the impact of innovation because we have so much of it. I noted that we underestimated the innovative aspect of the CD because many other technologies partially overlapped with it, such as television, radio, cinema, ipod, walkman, landline phone, mobile phone, laptop, VCR and Tivo’s. Without these overlapping technologies, we could see the CD’s true potential and estimate it higher as an innovation. Many different technologies could substitute for each other.

But this argument brings out a salient point: if so many innovations overlap or potentially overlap, then there must be many more innovations that purposes for innovations. Tyler Cowen made the interesting point that the internet isn’t as innovative as the flushing toilet (or indeed the television). He certainly has a point here: imagine society without toilets or youtube, which would be most tolerable (or most survivable)?

But the flush toilet can only be invented once. We might have access to talking super toilets with multi-coloured fountains – but all the bells and whistles are less useful that the original flushing toilet aspect. That’s because flush toilets responded effectively to a real human need: how to dispose of human waste in urban areas. Once that problem is solved, further innovation is mainly wasted.

This suggests that while we may indeed be plucking the innovation low-hanging fruits, it might not be because we lack a supply of innovation, but because we’re exhausting the easy demand for innovation. What current needs do we have that we’re waiting for innovation to solve? What’s problems are we facing that are as important as removing human waste from urban areas?

There seem to be very few. Maybe solving death and disease: and we can make a very strong case that medical innovation is indeed slowing. Poverty is another one; but it’s not like we know of a specific technological innovation that would solve poverty, if only someone would develop it. We might want easy access to space, or effective alternative energies: but the way people and governments spend their money confirms that this is not a top priority for many. Even if we had teleporters, would future Tyler Cowens be writing that they’re not as innovative as the car – and would they be correct, in that a teleporter is just a more efficient way of solving a problem that cars and airplanes had already partially solved?

In summary, outside of the medical field, I don’t see any conceivable realistic technological innovation that would be as transformative as the flush toilet, vaccinations, birth control, telephones, cars and airplanes. We might have exhausted the low-hanging fruits in our desires.

EDIT: some have suggested “high-throughput atomically precise manufacturing” as a general solution to material poverty, which would be an interesting counterexample.

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9 Responses to Innovation’s low-hanging fruits: on the demand or supply sides?

  • Anthony Drinkwater says:

    How about a new type of ultra-light battery that could store masses of electricity in a very small space? Wouldn’t this revolutionise the ways in which we produce, distribute and use energy and change greatly many of the things that need it ? Transport, waste treatment, supplying clean water to every person on the planet …..
    (A new form of generating energy wouldn’t be bad either)

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      We are developing better batteries all the time, but its a relatively slow process. Better batteries would surely be an improvement, but I’m not sure they’d be revolutionary. And we already have enough technology/aid money to to supply clean water; it’s just that these are not enough, so I’m not sure that adding great batteries would suddenly make it enough…

  • Peter says:

    Thank you Mr. Stuart Armstrong for a strong thoughtful argument.
    I feel that this is an issue because many feel that there needs to be an innovation to fuel economic growth which many do not feel is occurring right now.
    I really feel, as I am not able/willing to take the time to produce the citations at this moment, as if this philosophical discussion happens because of the industrial/mechanical revolution of the early century, the space age technology, and then the computer/internet activity. Many have made the argument that these are historically misconceived. It is observed that the industrial/mechanical wave was really not such a quick wave and occurred from approximately the 1840s to the 1940s. Some say that the space age was concentrated in two countries using wealth acquired from the world to fuel a fight between the two dominate nations. As for the computer and internet many economists feel that computing technology can be pointed back to the forties and that the internet economic boon was simply due to many hoping for more than was there.
    The example of a car can seem to be very substantial at first blush. Then consider that the first version of a car (which is under some debate) was available in some form for 10 years before it could over take a horse. After that consider that it was 20 years before it could go twice as fast as a horse. Then realize that it took another 15-20 years before a large amount of people could take advantage of it. Then it 15 years for roads to be built that would allow us to use the cars to their full capability and you end up with 60-65 years of progressively small steps for the car to become the high impact innovation that it was. And what was that impact? Primarily that we could live in a larger area and travel across the country for vacations. Compare that to the teleporter impact. A teleporter would, primarily, allow us to depopulate the cities and for everyone to have space (given the present population) to live in the country, below the ground, in orbit around the planet, and build a bridge/supply chain to live on the moon.
    One could go through a similar drill with the flush toilet/city plumbing/waste treatment and compare it the decentralization of clean and small energy sources.
    Many believe that the pace of innovation that mirrors the pace of population growth in the past, present, and future. They believe that is simply a matter of geography to feel that dynamic in the present moment of history. In countries where the population is not growing there is the observation of a stifled effect on innovation and that there simply may be no more innovation to be had. In parts of the world with larger growth, such as China and Southeast Asia there is much a different feeling and observation on innovation. In Africa, many feel, that there is a sense that it will be next wave after Asia. Why don’t we hear about it that much? Ah ha! That is a whole other question.

    • Stuart Armstrong says:

      > In countries where the population is not growing there is the observation of a stifled effect on innovation and that there simply may be no more innovation to be had. In parts of the world with larger growth, such as China and Southeast Asia there is much a different feeling and observation on innovation.

      Countries with large population growth are poor countries, which messes up the comparison as they have a lot to catch up. And China has controlled its population growth much more than other poor countries, and doesn’t seem to have suffered from this on the innovation front.

  • Peter says:

    Thanks for the very good distinction on population growth. Perhaps you have identified a key thought, poor countries have a lot to catch up on. What are your thoughts on the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention?”

  • Owen Schaefer says:

    Hi Stuart,

    Interesting post. I believe, though, it’s important to clarify what exactly makes something especially innovative or a great invention. In this vein, we could distinguish two types of innovation: ones of efficiency, and ones of novelty. By design, we’re going to run out of significant inventions much more quickly with novelty innovations than efficiency innovations.

    Efficiency innovations improve on things we could do before – cars improve on horses/walking, the internet improves on newspapers/talking, calculators improve on human calculation. I think there’s a lot more room for significant innovation there than you suggest; teleportation could indeed be a *massive* efficiency improvement over cars/planes, just as cars/planes were a *massive* efficiency improvement over walking/horses. Or, to use the toilet example – a device that could cleanly and at low cost completely disintegrate and recycle waste matter in one’s home would be a *massive* efficiency improvement over current plumbing and waste-disposal systems, and for my money a great innovation.

    But I think you’re exactly right when it comes to novelty innovations – innovations that let you do something that more or less couldn’t be done before. Audio recording, for instance, doesn’t make listening to people more efficient; it lets you do something (listen to people who aren’t there) that was impossible before. It’s a difference of kind, not just degree. Similarly, airplanes are a novel innovation (unlike cars) because they allow us to do something significant that was impossible before – fly. But, of course, there’s only so many significant novelties out there. Many significant ones (clothing, tools, construction, writing) were initially developed in ancient times and we’ve just been improving on them since. Future novelties are likely to be less significant because we’ve already figured out (by necessity or desire) the most significant ones. But some are possible! I think synthetic meat (actual meat not harvested from an animal) counts as one such significant novel innovation.

  • Phil H says:

    There are a couple of contenders, I think, for inventions that will change things bigly.

    One is cheap solar energy. That would remove the last remaining material constraints on population and material prosperity.

    Another is accurate manipulation of mood and mental states, either through more advanced drugs or clever electrostim helmets. If we could dial up our focus and concentration whenever we wanted, efficiency could shoot up.

    Life recorders – little video cameras on or in our bodies – could help get rid of the remaining crime. It might also further change children’s development, as parents gain access to literally every second of their development.

    Increasingly sophisticated knowledge devices might also help to increase efficiency. At some point, you will be able to hold up your Siri phone during a political speech, and Siri will flash up “true” or “false” for each claim made. Certain kinds of falsehood will be driven out of more areas of public discourse.

    And perhaps you’ll think this is far fetched, but life extension may not be that far off. We know some of the mechanisms that cause aging. In 20 years’ time, might we find a way to switch some of them off? That would certainly change how the world looks!

    Also on the medical front: improvements in cosmetic surgery and body modifications. When those photoshopped pictures of models turn into pictures of photochopped models. I think that will represent a major shift, when we’re routinely chopping into our own bodies.

    So there are a few possibilities out there.

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