(p. C5) Nothing has affected, and warped, modern thinking about the pace of technological invention more than the rapid exponential advances of solid-state electronics. The conviction that we have left the age of gradual growth behind began with our ability to crowd ever more components onto a silicon wafer, a process captured by Gordon Moore’s now-famous law that initially ordained a doubling every 18 months, later adjusted to about two years.
. . .
Bestselling tech prophets like Ray Kurzweil and Yuval Noah Harari argue that exponential growth will allow us to disrupt our way into a future devoid of disease and misery and abounding in material riches.
. . .
The problem is that the post-1970 ascent of electronic architecture and performance has no counterpart in other aspects of our lives. Exponential growth has not taken place in the fundamental economic activities on which modern civilization depends for its survival—agriculture, energy production, transportation and large engineering projects. Nor do we see rapid improvements in areas that directly affect health and quality of life, such as new drug discoveries and gains in longevity.
. . .
The conclusion that progress is not accelerating in the most fundamental human activities is supported by a paper published in 2020 by the National Bureau of Economic Research. The authors, four American economists led by Bryan Kelly of the Yale School of Management, studied innovation across American industries from 1840 to 2010, using textual analysis of patent documents to construct indexes of long-term change. They found that the wave of breakthrough patents in furniture, textiles, apparel, transportation, metal, wood, paper, printing and construction all peaked before 1900. Mining, coal, petroleum, electrical equipment, rubber and plastics had their innovative peaks before 1950. The only industrial sectors with post-1970 peaks have been agriculture (dominated by genetically modified organisms), medical equipment and, of course, computers and electronics.
For the full essay, see:
(Note: ellipses added.)
(Note: the online version of the essay has the date February 16, 2023, and has the same title as the print version.)
The essay quoted above is adapted from Smil’s book:
Smil, Vaclav. Invention and Innovation: A Brief History of Hype and Failure. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2023.