This is the first generation in which, in many industrialized nations, people are worse off than their parents were. In USA for example, median income adjusted for inflation has not risen since the 80s. Among the members of this generation, there is frequently talk of disillusionment, since they have not been handed the future that was promised to them, and the economic crisis that we are experiencing only amounts to rubbing salt into their wounds.

But for me, the most serious problem is not that, for the first time, the current generation is on the whole economically worse off than their parents. My worry is that, regarding scientific and technological innovation, the creativity of this generation is slowing down and this slowing down of innovation only makes it less likely that future generations will be able to brake the cycle of stagnation. In the following article I will argue that the future that I and those born in the 60s was promised has not been delivered and what is worse, those of us born in the 60s are not delivering a better future for those as my children born in the 90s and 00s.

When my grandfather, David Varsavsky, was born, Einstein discovered the theory of relativity and the physics revolution was in full swing. When my father, Carlos Manuel Varsavsky, was a boy, antibiotics were discovered, and a giant leap forward in the fight against bacterial infections was made. The transistor, which is the base for all electronics, was invented, and valves gave way to chips, which paved the way for all hardware based computer science. When I was a boy, man landed on the moon for the first time, and supersonic planes were developed for commercial use. Then the cell phone came, and then the Net. But the future that I was promised in college during the 80s has never really come, and contrary to popular belief, I am convinced that progress is slowing down, and that someone born in 1945 witnessed more change during the first thirty years of his or her life than someone born in 1975.

When I studied biology in the 80s, it was believed that in less than twenty years a cure for the most serious diseases, like cancer, and viral infections like AIDS, would be found. But as it turned out, medical advances during that time period were dissapointing. Genetic engineering, recombinant DNA and monoclonal antibodies had already been invented in the 80s, and then we all hoped that in a few years there would be a whole new slew of magic bullets, or extremely targeted cures for cancer that would be based on their ability to take medicine precisely where it needed to go. But, once again, chemotherapy is just as brutal today as it was before and for most a cancer diagnosis is still a death sentence.

In terms of life expectancy, the improvement that has been made has more to do with early diagnosis, our nutritional intake, quitting smoking, and leading a healthier life in general than in medical advances since the 80s. Transplants were already commonplace thirty years ago. For now, the big surprise is that we have been cured of myopia. Sure, it is an uncomfortable condition, but certainly of secondary importance on any list of vital health needs.

On the energy level, in the 60s people were already talking about “controlling the hydrogen bomb” in order to generate inexhaustible energy. But that didn’t happen, and the innovations in the field of alternative energy, such as wind turbines and solar cells, would not seem too innovative to a scientist from thirty years ago. Our energy is generated the same way that it was forty years ago: we are still using nuclear energy and burning carbon based fuels. The only change is that we have spent forty more years destroying the planet, and we are now awarding Nobel prizes to those people that alert us to this phenomenon, and not to those that have actually found a solution to the climate change problem. When it comes to energy, we are like a smoker who has discovered that smoking is bad for your health, but continues to smoke nonetheless.

Cars on our streets are mostly the same. Piston engines continue to operate the same way. Nobody has invented a truly revolutionary engine that a mechanic from the 60s could not understand. This is why there is still a large market for planes that were built in the 80s for example, because with some slight modifications to the instruments they are practically the same as the planes being built today. And some absolutely fantastic planes, like the Concorde, are no longer in service. Supersonic commercial travel, an amazing experience, is gone.

During all of these years the only industry that seems to have truly evolved, that has given us the future that we were dreaming of, and that has been integrated into just about every product, is computer science. Computer science is perhaps the only field in which if someone were educated in it during the 80s and not brought up to speed with current technology, he or she would really not understand 80% of what is going on today. But the foundation of the computer age already existed when I graduated in 1985. PCs were already around in the 80s. They were simple, of course, but the principle was similar. We even had laptops and the first mobile phones. Still if I were to have to cite one area in which things have truly gotten much better since the 80s, it would be the Internet, thanks to the combination of Moore’s and Metcalfe’s laws (the first refers to the incredible speed of the development of chips, and the second one has to do with the network effects of the Internet). I made a career out of creating Internet companies, and I think that the Internet and networking field, also electronics, mobile telecommunications, and video game businesses are the only industries that could seriously challenge the idea that progress in general is slowing down. But in the rest of the fields, I believe that we can come to the conclusion that our creativity – which exploded for much of the 20th century – has been pretty stagnant during the past thirty years.

When I went to college (which in the United States is different than its European counterpart in that you can study many subjects for two years, until you choose a major), I went from one department to the next, studying a little bit of everything: chemistry, analytical math, biology, genetics, history, physics, psychology, anthropology and computer science. My curiosity was inexhaustible. I studied for eight years, (a BA and two MAs) and up until the end I took advantage of my electives to study everything from law to engineering.

Now my daughter studies at the same university, Columbia, and when I go to see her we spend hours looking at books together. She is studying chemistry, biology, analytical math, Eastern European history and the classics. And really, what I studied is no different from what she is studying now. Every now and then something that I have never heard of pops up – and I become fascinated – but this is not so frequent. As for the thirty years that separated my father’s studies at Harvard and my time at Columbia, that’s a different story. I remember my father repeating, fascinated, “when I was a boy we didn’t have television, when I was a boy we didn’t have space travel, when I was a boy we didn’t have jets, when I was a boy we didn’t have air conditioning, when I was studying we didn’t know what the structure of genes was like”. For him, life was a box full of surprises; he got to experience firsthand the era of innovation and discovery. But I did not and nor did my daughter.

When I compare the childhood of my and mine there is only one big difference: the Internet. And sixteen years passed between the birth of my oldest daughter, Alexa and the birth of my youngest son, Leo, who is two, and among them the only differences that I notice is that Alexa watched videos on TV, and Leo watches them on You Tube. Everything else, everything having to do with the inconvenience of babies, continues to be the same. Diapers are the same, children’s medicine is just as inefficient and yes, a new vaccine for hepatitis has come out, but hepatitis B has spread much further and some progress was made in genetic testing but other than abortion there is not much new that you can do with that information. Yes, some revolutionary things occurred between the births of Alexa and Leo, like the decoding of the human genome, but the truth is that although nowadays we are able to compile a list of the genes, the result is like a phone book in which the names are on one side and the numbers on the other. Companies like 23andme (I am an investor) are making a great deal of progress testing and mapping genes but unfortunately most of what we can still learn from genetic testing is a code without a Rosetta Stone. When I was studying, Watson and Crick were already history, and we knew how to combine nucleic acids. We knew that DNA makes RNA, which in turn makes proteins. We now have the human genome decoded, but we do not understand it. The genetic revolution that was talked about during the 80s, the ability to cure with genetics, has still not taken place. And aside from that, when I was at Columbia, it was predicted that in twenty years time we would come to understand something – even if it were just a little bit – about one of the most important problems in neuroscience: the relationship between consciousness and the brain. Yet we continue to conduct primitive experiments in which we treat the brain as if we were auto mechanics; we look at it piece by piece. What we do is we take out a chunk and we see what happens.

And the primordial soup theory that we were going to use in order to test how life arose? Thirty years have passed and scientists are still trying to demonstrate that life can be created from nonliving compounds, and they aren’t succeeding. We have already lowered our expectations, and it’s as if we don’t want to do anything really new in the field of biology. We try to use stem cells when in reality we don’t understand how they work. We use them like beasts of burden, so that they can do our job for us without us really knowing how they manage to do it. And as for heart disease, in the 80s it was thought that in a few years we would discover how to slow the biochemical process in which arteries become clogged at the biochemical level, but after twenty five years we still do not understand anything concrete about cholesterol, and the only advances that we have made have come from the most primitive point of view: the circulatory system’s plumbing. We have many new drugs, statins, but the principles that guide their behavior on a molecular level are uncertain. The end result is that the only thing that we have succeeded in doing is becoming better plumbers for our arteries. The sluggishness of medical advances was one of the reasons that, after founding Medicorp in 1985, I changed fields and moved on to telecommunications and electronics. It frustrated me to no end to watch as it took ten to twenty years before any great idea could finally result in a medically approved product.

If we move on to other areas, such as entertainment, in the 80s you could watch a movie at home on video; the picture was worse than that of a DVD, but it was for all intents and purposes the same thing. Music sounded much better on a vinyl record or a CD than it does compressed into an MP3 file or on a hard drive. Speakers were of a much higher quality than they are today. Only the screens were significantly worse than they are today, but only those in homes, and not the screens in theaters or of the TV projectors that already existed and were as good as those currently available. The advances are in electronics, not in optics. High quality optics appears to have regressed, and not advanced. Digital photography brought with it convenience, but not quality.

With respect to music itself, genres like House, Hip Hop, ambient, chillout, electronic and techno already existed, albeit with different names sometimes. The music I listen to now, from Ministry of Sound, Coldplay, Gorillaz, Fatboy Slim, Macy Gray, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Thievery Corporation, Eminem and Buddha Bar, is the same music that my children listen to. When I was a boy, my father listened to classical music and jazz, and I listened to Supertramp and Led Zeppelin; my father hated my music. But to me the music of my children doesn’t sound strange or different. I also don’t find the way in which they dress to be strange, and to me the current style does not seem any different from that of the 80s. Tattoos were all the rage when my mother was a little girl. What’s more, I’ve gotten Tom obsessed with the heavy metal of the 70s that I listened to at his age. Maybe the only reason that I envy their music…is because they don’t have to pay for it (yes, they have to do it, but they don’t).

With respect to fads, it seems as though in the 90s we decided to bring back the 60s, later the 70s and now we bring back the 80s which makes my visits to Columbia University even more of a deja vu. The style of wearing hats and ties that are too small is the same as in the 80s. No, broad backs and baggy pants are not in style, but if a person dressed for 2008 were to walk around in the 80s, he or she would not look out of place. Even those asymmetric haircuts have started to come back. And as for fabrics, we’re still using cotton, wool, and acrylics. Gadget clothing never really caught on. The only real novelty in this field that I can think of is GoreTex, which I use in my biking outfits. As for everyday gadgets, in the 80s we used the Walkman; now we use the iPod. My classmates at Columbia walked around just as disconnected from the world around them as Alexa’s do. I remember a friend of mine who was content as she strolled around listening to music on her Walkman, and then proceeded to fall into a pool. The same thing could happen today. Apple’s iPods fly off the shelves as if they were a great novelty, but aside from the way in which they store music, the product is a concept that has existed since the 80s and even Walkman is still a commercial name.

The manned space exploration of today is much less advanced than it was when I was a boy. During my childhood, man traveled to the moon, whereas today it is all about wasting millions orbiting the earth just so a space tourist can get an ego boost. The only real step forward has been made in the area in which my father, who was an astronomer, said it had to happen: unmanned space missions. We have sent spacecraft beyond the solar system, and we have succeeded in exploring areas that are much farther away, but we have also not discovered anything about the chemical composition of stars or the origin of the universe that we did not know in the 70s. During that decade, we were convinced that at this point man would have reached other planets, which is something that has not occurred.

When I was a boy my father built and managed a radio telescope near La Plata in the province of Buenos Aires. With a radio telescope we can “see” the part of the electromagnetic spectrum that, as The Little Prince said, is both “invisible to the eyes” and telescopes. Now we receive and are capable of processing more information due to the power of processors, but we still do not know all of those things that my father believed that we were going to be able to know. What’s more, a book called Life in the Universe, which my father wrote in the 70s, has recently been published again.

I grew up hearing theories like the Big Bang and I’m still hearing theories like the Big Bang. I grew up hearing talk of Super Colliders and I’m still hearing talk of Super Colliders. I grew up hearing about the paradoxes that exist when we talk about enormous distances in the universe, distances that can be traveled through in time; for example, we watched a man land on the moon on television only one second after his foot actually touched the lunar surface. But we have not found anything to improve the paradoxical situation. We live in a universe that began 5.5 billion years ago, and continues to expand, but our life is like a cosmic microsecond, and humanity has only been around for a few minutes. Even if there are others like ourselves in the universe, how are we going to be able to communicate with the rest of the civilizations that are thousands – or dozens of thousands – of light years away if we only live for a few short years?

My father wrote in the 60s that yes, it was probable that there was other life in the universe, but that if it were intelligent life, the slowness of light made it almost impossible for us to be able to communicate with these life forms. That if they said “hello” during the era in which human beings didn’t exist, we would respond as humans, and who knows to whom they would then be responding. That the universe and the evolution of animals are out of sync. And nothing has changed. What he said sounded new back then; now it sounds old and well-known, but there is nothing new.

That is why this Friday, as I sit next to my son Tom, watching a movie called Next, in which Nicholas Cage can see the immediate future, and all the while writing this article (multitasking, multitasking), I find myself disillusioned with a future that was never handed to me, and I wonder: could it be true that the rate at which we are discovering new things is slowing down? Or could it be that there are many more new discoveries, but they have not yet surfaced? I really don’t know. The rate of innovation is difficult to measure.

Yes, there are certain things that appear to evolve rapidly, but for me it is clear that in the 80s I could sit with a computer, listen to music, watch a movie, go out to listen to music, or go to a bar, or to a club that, by the way, was called Pachá when I first came to Madrid, just as it is now. And 25 years have passed, and nothing has really changed. I had the most boring video game in the world, Tennis, and my son has World of Warcraft. But I didn’t think that Tennis was the most boring video game in the world. And if virtual reality is the great discovery that we were waiting for, I’m going to keep on waiting for the future that was promised to me.

Maybe the problem is that in the 60s, 70s and 80s the idea of the future gave us an incredible rush. We were drunk on incredible optimism because we lived in a century during which it seemed everything that we used had been invented. But in this century it appears that the rate of innovation has slowed down quite a bit. Or maybe the problem is precisely that the generation responsible for the deceleration of progress is my own generation, that my father’s generation handed us a better world, and our generation is handing over one that is not only worse in social terms, given that the number of poor people on the planet is at a record level, but is also worse because it is not progressing at the speed that it used to.

Five years into the 20th century, Einstein was living his Annus Miarbilis. Where is our patent office today? Who is our Einstein? Are we the first generation in many years incapable of true innovation? And let’s not just talk about things as complicated as the theory of relativity. I remember complaining about the drill when I was young, and my dentist telling me that when I was grown up he would have to find another job because we would have a vaccine against cavities. Where is this vaccine against cavities? Where are the cures for catarrh and AIDS? Where is that future devoid of poverty in which robots were going to do everything for people and we were going to dedicate ourselves to art and culture?

Unfortunately, when I look around me today, during the end of 2008, I see humanity leading an unsustainable life based on technology that should already be obsolete. I believe that it is time for us to engage in some serious self-criticism and start to invest in science again, because the list of unsolved problems grows longer every day. If we continue on like this, not only are we not going to have a future, but we are going to end up without a present.

Follow Martin Varsavsky on Twitter: twitter.com/martinvars

No Comments

LeonardoF on November 11, 2008  · 

I absolutely agree.

Maybe the promesses where too optimistic? :-/

Andy on November 11, 2008  · 

I must admit to thinking the same thing myself from time to time. Ignoring the internet/comms, we just don’t seem to be moving at the same pace we once were. I do have a theory as to why though: war, or the lack of it.

Where would we be today if there hadn’t been the first or second world wars? Or even the cold war with it’s technological one-up-manship? It’s a sad truth, but some of our best creations seem to have arisen from times when we’re concentrating on destroying each other.

Terry Jones on November 11, 2008  · 

It’s not easy to write a long reply in this tiny box. But, here a few thoughts:

Do you know the work of John Horgan, in particular “The End of Science” http://www.amazon.com/End-Science-Knowledge-Twilight-Scientific/dp/0553061747 ? (Sorry, your blog’s preview system isn’t letting me turn that into a working link for some reason.)

Horgan was a very unpopular figure in the early/mid 90s, and thought to be taking a controversial line just to get attention. I was not at SFI the day he came through there to interview people – I’m sure I’d have said something politically incorrect. Many people were upset that he quoted them out of context. But his overall point was very similar to yours (as I recall).

Some might argue that you’re just getting older and wiser and seeing there’s actually nothing new under the sun. I wouldn’t argue that, though.

You would encounter stiff resistance from specialists in various fields. E.g., you mention virology several times. I know multiple virologists who I am sure would claim progress in the last decades has been amazing. I was closely involved in some very new virology/vaccine work, Antigenic Cartography, that has high potential to shake up how we design vaccines (and other aspects of virology). Also, if you read immunology texts, you’ll see an extraordinary level of stuff they explicitly acknowledge as completely unknown.

One might also argue that as we (slowly) converge on the Truth about the physical world, the rate of breath-taking discoveries necessarily goes down. I don’t think I’d argue that either, though. In fact I think much of what we think we know must be wrong. See Everything you think you know is wrong.

You could also argue from history that there are always ebbs and flows in the tide of scientific and intellectual advancement (apologies if I sound too much like a humanist), and that we’re simply in a slower period. I’m certain there’s tons of fundamental science still to be done – ask any physicist whether they have any grip at all on reality (not just including personally :-)). You’ll agree I guess, having pointed out that there are so many things we were promised that haven’t been delivered.

I do think there’s some fundamental fall-off in educational standards, but I’m not sure how important it is. We used to study stuff that was damned hard, and it seems very few young people actually do that anymore (at least in the so-called “civilized” Western countries), perhaps to their strong long-term disadvantage. I’m inclined to think that’s true, and that it’s also part of the gradual decay of the US empire. But, OTOH, you could argue that knowledge is being encapsulated and that this process of seemingly knowing less (especially from the perspective of the more mature) is normal and even desirable. See Embracing Encapsulation.

OK, those are just some thoughts. On the whole I’m inclined to agree with you, but I’m far from convinced. Something’s going on, that’s for sure. But then that’s always the case.

Let’s have a coffee in Barcelona one day, and I’ll show you what I’m working on now.

Apologies for rambling. Sign o’ the times.

Terry

Terry Jones on November 11, 2008  · 

Also, see the interesting comments from Tim O’Reilly on this post and one by JP Rangaswami over at the O’Reilly Radar.

Martin Varsavsky on November 11, 2008  · 

@ Terry Jones:

Just went to your blog. I liked your article on Embracing Encapsulation. What you say about medicine is common now. People say they are working on amazing developments, but as one who invested in these amazing developments in the late 80s with modest results (Medicorp is profitable and a survivor in the biotech field but not a big success) I can tell you that then people were promising more or less the same. And they mostly having delivered. Of all the sciences I think medicine is the most overpromised and underdelivered field. Partly because of lack of imagination, partly because of lawyers.

Terry Jones on November 11, 2008  · 

Hi back. My pet peeve in computer science is with researchers and companies who take millions, even hundreds of millions, to chase after abstract words like “intelligence” and “understanding” and “meaning”. Talk about over-promising and under-delivering. Not to mention the spotlight of attention as yet another (heavily funded) fearless investigator selflessly gears up for battle.

Here’s another post, touching on that, Powerset hampered by limited resources? Oh please. One day i’ll write a full criticism :-)

Terry Jones on November 11, 2008  · 

Another related blog posting: The Young Are Different.

Matteo on November 12, 2008  · 

Hi Martin,

very interesting post! ^_^

Although I do agree with the fact that the technological improvement slowed down in the last two decades, I simply don’t understand why this should be something negative for man.
To me, you sound like the CEO of a company that holds 90% of the market shares and states: “Our company is in a crisis: we are not growing.”

That’s true, in the period between 1920s and 1960s the world experienced the fastest technology improvement that man have ever seen. But you’re forgetting the main reasons of this incredible speed. They’re called World War I and II. And I think that everybody would be happy to know that his sons won’t experience WWIII, even if the price to pay is his sons not having a better cellphone than his one.

I think the main misleading thing of your post is that you focus too much on technology. Think about it: there’s almost no difference in everyday’s life of a greek noble of Homer’s time and a noble born under Solon. But in those few centuries greeks developed, without any significant technological revolution, the basics of what we call now democracy.
Not all the big changes are driven by thechnology.

In man’s history the gap between father and son has always been quite small, except for those few generations of people born after WWI. They are the exception, not us.
I’m happy that the world seems finally slowing down to its right speed. Maybe we’ll find some time for improving what haven’t been improved for the last 3 centuries: our social system.

Matteo (Italy)

George Tuvell on November 12, 2008  · 

The most moving post I’ve ever read. This is a topic for the holidays with my family.

Marc Arza on November 12, 2008  · 

I agree. Where is my fliying backpack?

Martin Varsavsky on November 12, 2008  · 

@ Matteo,

I don’t believe in the tight correlation that you make between wars and innovation.

Terry Jones on November 12, 2008  · 

Of interest might be a NYT article Now: The Rest of the Genome from Monday.

I know I’m drifting slightly from Martin’s overall theme (and this article backs up what he was saying about not really understanding the genome). But I think this is relevant because it makes it very clear that there is tons to be done on the genomics front, and in this case the results – when/if they come – are likely (my opinion) to really disrupt or even overthrow conventional wisdom about what’s going on.

Humans love to look for pat explanations of things. Simple explanations that are psychologically comforting. Complex systems of course have no regard for our preferences :-)

It seems clear that what we learned about genetics in school and at university is a highly superficial overview of what’s going on, and in many cases was hopelessly over-simplistic. One generation of research has been enough to show us that the discrepancies are in fact highly important. Significantly revising our understanding is going to take a long time. Another generation or two perhaps until we again arrive at a point where we think we’ve got things covered. And that will likely be wrong again.

The The Structure of Scientific Revolutions makes for good reading if you’re interested in all this. It’s part of the reason I wrote the “Everything you think you know is wrong” article linked above.

Jose Miguel Cansado on November 12, 2008  · 

Hi Martin

My admiration for your work and thanks for sharing your thoughts on your blog daily.

This time I am surprised for your view of the glass half-empty. As usual, you bring very good points, like listening to the same music as your children (I agree music has not evolved much) or the unfulfilled promises of cancer and AIDS cures. Still, in the developed world the chances to survive cancer or AIDS are today tremendously higher than in the 80s.

Between the 1945 and 1975, TV was a big change as an example, but after 1975, we have had color-TV, VCRs, DVDs, HD-TV, Video-on-Demand, affordable Plasma, LCD or projectors, and it is only less than two years ago that Internet TV went mainstream. MobileTV can not even be considered mainstream yet.

Before the 90s, commercial flights were only for an elite. Today, everyone can fly with low cost airlines such as AirAsia. The number of commercial flights and of people that can afford flying is now is overwhelming. True, that we have seen no big disruption in aeronautics, except for avionics, but innovative business models have transformed how people fly.

It is true that cheap oil stopped the incentive for renewable energies for many years after the 70-80s, but this time with the climate change story, the push for green energy might be definitive. Manned space exploration stopped after the Challenger tragedy, and after a society concern on the value to spend huge amounts of money for perceived useless space adventures. But technologically we can put a man in Mars, if the will to invest in that venture existed. For private investors, the business case might not fly (yet).

Where I agree we are in much worse situation than our parents is in the access to a proper housing. Before the 70s, only the father worked and was able to raise 3 children, buy a house, and another one by the sea or in a home village. Now, both the father and the mother have to work to raise one kid, and invest 70% of the combined salary to pay the mortgage for a 2 bedrooms poor quality apartment in a new PAU in Madrid.

Adam on November 13, 2008  · 

I’d be less worried about the future and more about the past, specifically the two hours you should get back for watching that horrible Nicholas Cage movie!

On a more serious note, perhaps the period of the early to mid 20th century was actually an aberration, an example of punctuated equilibrium, where massive change and newness were happening in multiple areas simultaneously. That made people living during that time think this was the norm, when in fact it was an outlier.

nicolas on November 13, 2008  · 

Interesting topic, that’s something we will try to discuss as the main theme of the Lift 09 conference in Geneva.

The point of the whole keynote presentation would be to show the following angle. We were told that the Future would be about mechanization and computerization, complete with 3D virtual assistants, 1984-like nightmares and Asimov-inspired robots. We now realize that long-praised vision of the 21st Century may not materialize. Videophones didn’t really take off, flying cars are still sci-fi, and we’ve yet to start jacking directly into our nervous system.

But at the same time, change happened not necessarily where we thought it would. Innovation is not always shiny and visible, and things as fundamental as solidarity, collective action, or how we inhabit our physical environment have evolved dramatically, calling for new approaches to designing meaningful new interactions.

Perhaps the situation is that we are in an incremental phase of innovation, waiting for other disruptions (which generally go hand-in-hand with a big crisis such as a war or a financial turmoil….)

Anthony on November 15, 2008  · 

An interesting book was by Herman Kahn, In the year 2000″, a look forward to the year 2000 written in 1965. It is instrumental to see what happened and what didn’t. Amazingly he got all the major trends right. Forecasting cell phones, satelite tv, the internet, home PCs, dropping birth rates, the rise of Japan, aging society, and the information society etc..

It turns out that 80% of the forecasts in computers and communication were accurate. Paul Krugman estimates, however, that only about a third of all the forecasts materialized: “If you go down the list, you will recognize such things as cell phones, the Internet and faxes. But Mr. Kahn’s list contains all kinds of things that haven’t materialized. Radical new building materials. Undersea cities. Medical cures for cancer and overweight. Only about a third of what he thought were surefire things have come to pass.”

A nice review is here.

There are three reasons why many of the technologies do not progress. There are legal reasons, technical reasons and human organizational scale reasons.

One of the main reasons we have no flying cars is legal. As exhibited by 9/11 airplanes are dangerous and thus need to be severely regulated. A stream of flying cars similar to the LA freeway and 20 car pile-ups are legal chaos.

Some things are extremely technically difficult because they contain so many interrelated systems. Biotechnology is a perfect example of this. We have organisms that very similar to humans for testing (rats) and the tools are not particularly expensive. However, it still often takes 10 years of sustained research for a new biotech drug to appear. Our ignorance is best illustrated by Mad Cow disease (BSE) – how can a protein (a prion) cause other proteins to malform? Cross species – through the digestive system!? Medicine receives more research money than any other field but the returns are slow because the systems are so complex.

Finally most innovations that occur can be undertaken by less than 200 people for Logistic reasons. Technologies that require more than that seem only to be created under war effort (Nuclear weapons, Moon Rocket) or totalitarian states (German V1 Rocket, Pyramids). Edison only had 75 people working in his lab to produce light bulbs. Once you exceed the 200 people mark management becomes unwieldy and slows innovation. For example ITER, the international fusion consortium has spent years simply fighting over a location. There are multiple examples of this – the Darpa Great Challenge will likely produce more output than hundreds of millions given to one company. Mapping the human genome was another example of how decentralized innovation is better than centralized.

Examples:

Legal:
69. Individual flying platforms
27. The use of nuclear explosives for excavation and mining, generation of power, creation of high-temperature-pressure environments, or as a source of neutrons or other radiation

Technical – overly complex systems
19. Human hibernation for short periods (hours or days)
35. Human hibernation for relatively extensive periods (months to years)
87. Stimulated, planned, and perhaps programmed dreams
48. Physically nonharmful methods of overindulging

Logistic
94. Inexpensive road-free (and facility-free) transportation
99. Artificial moons and other methods for illuminating large areas at night

Martin Varsavsky on November 15, 2008  · 

@ Anthony:

If I had to write about what the world will be like when my 2 year old is 30 I would be very cautious as to what the fundamental changes will be. The flying cars is a funny example cause when subsequent generations have the same idea of what the future will look like…the future is not happening.

turn.self.off on November 15, 2008  · 

“If we move on to other areas, such as entertainment, in the 80s you could watch a movie at home on video; the picture was worse than that of a DVD, but it was for all intents and purposes the same thing. Music sounded much better on a vinyl record or a CD than it does compressed into an MP3 file or on a hard drive. Speakers were of a much higher quality than they are today. Only the screens were significantly worse than they are today, but only those in homes, and not the screens in theaters or of the TV projectors that already existed and were as good as those currently available. The advances are in electronics, not in optics. High quality optics appears to have regressed, and not advanced. Digital photography brought with it convenience, but not quality.”

yawn…

Martin Varsavsky on November 16, 2008  · 

Whatever

balachandar on November 17, 2008  · 

yeah. i still feel the same. i am not innovating. i still see the things which i study are even studied by my nephews.

i agree with. you know, in india, we just landed on moon which was done few decades back from US, russia, japan. we are still way ahead in this race.

K Satyanarayan on November 17, 2008  · 

How about changes in the world of finance, for better or worse?

Would someone from an earlier generation have known of microfinance a la Grameen Bank, or have believed that it would be possible for the ultra poor to raise loans that they can pay back and for the lenders to the poor to do so humanely yet profitably?

While this may not qualify as change in a positive sense, would someone from an earlier generation have known of or been able to understand, let alone justify as viable, products like a CDO, a CDS, or even just a NINA loan?

Mads Buchter on November 18, 2008  · 

I simply don’t agree with this view of the world as intellectually arrested. New knowledge and new technologies are crashing in on us at a completely unprecedented level. As I see it, there are many levels of knowledge: There are things you know, things you think you know, things you know you don’t know and things you don’t know you don’t know. The problem here is that many of the advances generated in our time are so specialized that for most people, they fall into this last category. Never-the-less they are constantly changing the world we live in, as the original breakthroughs in technology or understanding did not. No one was cured by the discovery of DNA. People are cured every day with the knowledge we are still accumulating.
Yes I have a basic understanding of Big Bang Theory but can I truly claim, that I understand what’s going on at Cern? And that it is really nothing compared to Einstein’s partially faulty ideas. I don’t think so.
Cars are still cars, like the were 30 years ago – only faster, safer and cheaper. And there are a hell of a lot more of them. They don’t light your cigarette anymore, but they do tell you exactly, where you are, show you where to go, tell you when you’ll be there and if your passenger forgot his seatbelt.
A tank is still at tank like it were 30 years ago. It just gives you night vision, can turn invisible, turns away grenades with reactive armour, aims itself and doesn’t miss at 2 miles.
Of course a one ounce MP3-player doesn’t do anything, that a one pound walkman couldn’t and maybe it even does it worse. But the same thing could be said about grammophone players and symphony orchestras.
Mybe humanoid robots aren’t all that common. And while were bitching about that on the internet, the unhumanoid ones are doing most of the work.
The furture has a nasty habit of sneaking up on you. If you don’t pay attention you won’t notice that it’s right there in your living room in the form of a movie with enough CGI to knock the socks off Cecil B. DeMille.

Paul Renault on January 23, 2009  · 

I finally had a second to read this essay last night – on my iLiad which permitted me to write comments as I read it, which I came here to post, but as it turns out Nature magazine beat me to the punch!

“Patents versus patenting: implications of intellectual property protection for biological research – Zhen Lei1, Rakhi Juneja2 & Brian D Wright1

Abstract
A new survey shows scientists consider the proliferation of intellectual property protection to have a strongly negative effect on research.”

Suppose that Banting and Best had patented insulin – how many people would have died until the patent expired? Or that Einstein while we’re at it, had had crippling patents and copyright on their research (or DRM!). Where would we be now?

DaveO on April 10, 2009  · 

In many ways I think we’re even worse off than the ’80s. So many things that I loved back then are now gone or are going away. There’s the Concorde (which is already mentioned in the article), with no new supersonic travel available to the public to replace it. There’s the fact that we don’t build awesome super-tall buildings anymore (like the WTC and Sears tower). A lot of the long (1000′+) fishing piers on the atlantic coast are going away (either by not fixing them when a hurricane comes or by dismantling them to make way to build houses or other boring stuff). They don’t build new waterslides or much in the way of water parks anymore (I mean like in local municipalities, not the corporate ones like Six Flags), and a lot of the existing ones are being taken down. Public swimming pools are hardly being built anymore, and when they are, they don’t have diving boards or even deep ends anymore. Even worse, they’re taking the diving boards away from the existing pools. Arcades seem to be going away too. We can’t buy any car that I like in the US with a manual transmission anymore. There are many other examples that I can’t think of right now but I think I got my point across.

BTW, it’ll be funny to watch Back to the Future part II in 2015 to see how basically all the futuristic elements that are supposed to happen in 2015 haven’t happened at all.

DaveO on April 10, 2009  · 

I forgot to add that we also can’t buy an inexpensive yet practial car (like the Geo Metro) that gets like 60 mpg in the US anymore. I mean, look at the new “Smart” (my wife and I call them “Dumb”) car. It’s much tinier inside than even the tiny Geo Metro, yet it only gets something like 40 mpg. What the hell? This is how we’ve advanced in the last 20 years? There’s hybrids too, but they are much more expensive than a Metro even in today’s dollars, and can only at best get the Metro’s fuel economy but only by incorporating an electric engine and expensive battery. Why is it that we used to be able to achieve the same thing without having to go through the extra cost and complexity?

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