Dreams of a Flying Car: Invention and Innovation in the 21st Century

Besides, I had a contempt for the uses of modern natural philosophy. It was very different when the masters of the science sought immortality and power; such views, although futile, were grand; but now the scene was changed. The ambition of the inquirer seemed to limit itself to the annihilation of those visions on which my interest in science was chiefly founded. I was required to exchange chimeras of boundless grandeur for realities of little worth. 

-Frankenstein

The thesis of this article is that we have stopped inventing things and we as a society are merely iterating on existing inventions. However, the rate at which innovation is happening is at an accelerating rate. Using the metaphors used by Thomas S. Kuhn in The Structure of Scientific Revolutions we are patching existing systems of thought but we have not as a whole rejected or thrown out ideas. 

How do I differentiate between Invention and Innovation?

  • Invention is the act of creating something novel. Think of the first iPhone. Even though it built on existing fundamentals of the smartphone it rejected the existing metaphors and created something new.
  • Innovation is what has happened to the iPhone and Android phones since the the first iPhone came out. It has been an act of iteration of fixing and changing and updating the exsting. It hasn’t created something completely new. 

How many true inventions have there been in the latter half of the 20th century and early 21st century? I don’t think there have been many.

Why did the future failed us?

We have failed to progress and create new inventions and we are moving to a system of small improvements and risk aversion. Society’s move to finance as the arbiter of change has caused invention to stall. This has happened at all industries.

City Planning

One of the major downfalls of creating the highway system was that it completely destroyed the notion of public transport and we moved to a car first society. The car became the All American force of the late 20th century. We dismatled and defunded transit systems in favor of highway systems. But further we did not update the cities themselves to coop with the updated realities of cars. And when cars created congestion it was too late to reintroduce good public transit. Further, we struggle to introduce any improvements to existing transit systems.

Skyscrapers have not met the needs of modern day society. Whenever a skyscraper comes in from afar it gives the sense of progress but up close the skyscraper is utilitarian. People don’t want to hang out near skyscrapers. Think of the Misson in SF or Williamsburg in NY. They are far away from the impersonality of skyscrapers at night. Even companies like Facebook and Google have campuses that are more akin to villages than skyscrapers. If we were to live in the future a skyscraper could serve more than the metaphor of office space. 

We should have intelligent self-organizing cities which can route traffic, load balance public transit based on utilization, intelligent and high speed public transit, efficient cleaning of water, efficient long distance travel based on railways (or evolutions of railways i.e Hyperloop), highly efficient and small nuclear reactors, and a complete move away from coal and other dirty technologies to power these cities.

Basic Research

There has been a general defunding of basic research at the federal level which gave us so many of the technologies that we currently take for granted. Microwaves, CAT scanners, modern insulation, smoke detectors, long distance communications all were invented at NASA. But what basic research have we really seen from NASA recently? We have defunded the organization to such an extent that we had to rely on Russia for space trips. Much of the research that we have gotten from Pluto recently was stuff that was planned in the later 90s. 

Corporate Research and Wall St.’s Short Term Focus
We have lost the corporate research labs where many of the ideas and technologies that we take for granted have been invented. Research labs such as Bell Labs and Xerox PARC created such vast amounts of inventions and completely new ways of using computers but they have largely been dismantled. This can be blamed on the short term attitude of Wall Street. After the 60–70s the tenets of society moved from invention to finance which is where we live now. 

In finance the goal is to mitigate risk. Money is moved around and the motive is to be efficient and profit seeking. But in an efficient profit only enterprise there is little room for long term thinking. Why take risks on inventing an unproven technology when a small update to an existing invention could do? We can see this in the Apple II vs Mac debocle. Sometimes the cash cow has to be thrown to the side to introduce a completely new invention but obviously it was obviously fought from the gatekeepers who were also responsible for the money.

This mitigation of risk has lead to why a lot of companies don’t want to go public or until forced because long term thinking goes away and the motive becomes next quarter’s profits. The corporations that are long term thinkers are also those which are closesly held like Google.

But in general most corporations have lost the ability to think long term and build things for 5–10 years in the future. Most business decisions now are no more than one-two years away. Most are a couple of quarters. This short timeframes don’t lead to completely inventions. Who thinks of HP as an invention or even an innovative company anymore? They dismantled long term thinking for short term profits. The same with Yahoo. They used to have an amazing research group which built many of the big data technologies that are in use now such as Hadoop but short term profits dictated and research was gutted.

But beyond corporate profits we as a society have lost the ability to look far. We have grown accustumed to the iterative approach of new technology and expect it in certain areas of our lives such as communication and computers but I believe this is because Robert Moorse give a decree in the creation of Moorse Law which the industry has gotten behind. But that decree is hitting physical limitations and we haven’t come up with an alternate to Silicon based microprocessors. 

In other areas of life people have come to except no such innovation. When was the last time you felt glad that BART still goes the same speed as it did when it was introduced in the 60s?

However, we have a few titans who are long term thinkers. Elon Musk, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Tim Cook who hold their companies to high levels of invention and not to the descretion of shareholders. But think of Tesla and the beating it takes whenever even a minor problem is discovered. The amount of uphill battles that must be faced with an industry that is still stuck on a hundred year old technology of the combustion engine, the oil companies that don’t want electric cars to become the norm, the truck drivers who carry gasoline all over. Or the beating Google takes when even a cent of profit is missed with shareholders calling for cuts on everything. Or the shareholder complains that Apple is being too eco-friendly.

Destruction of the Climate
In an attempt to catch up to the West the Third World countries have heavily polluted, poisoned and destroyed massive amounts of the environment. Further, with out want of cheap consumer goods the West has just exported the pollution to the East where these things are produced cheaply. But we also give them the majority of the blame whenever climate change issues come into the picture. The Chinese have largely produced stuff to sell to the West. They have produced it because we are addicted to our gadgets and we expect rapid iteration. The idea of longivity in consumer goods that we purchase is gone. We hope to keep our gadgets for no more than 2 years and it almost seems as if the gadgets themselves start deteriorating after 2 years. 

Inequality

We have created a society with massive inequality where the rich 1% own most of the wealth in the world. The poor though the standard of living has improved are still poor. The socio-economic factors of poverty lead to all sorts of bad things for society such as violence and perputation of racism. The middle class is becoming a dying institution. We are more of an early-20th century robber baron society where the wealth is concentrated in the hands of a few. 

Furthermore, the technologies that Silicon Valley is introducing is going to marginalize even more people into the realms of the poor. If the end product of Uber is a self driving car or a self driving truck then nearly 4 million people will lose their jobs. But the wealth that is generated from moving to the automated system will be move held in the hands of a few. Furthermore, this innovation in self driving cars is nothing new and the research has been done a while ago. We have just been waiting for massive amounts of available computation to become available.

Racism
Inequality as pertains to race also becomes an issue of poverty. When everyone is losing we want to still rank ourselves above some other loser. It is human nature to do so. The propogation of American slavery in the South was not because every white person in the South owned a black slave. In fact a few people owned the majority of slaves in the south. But slavery was kept up because a poor white man was treated as above a black slave.

For a short while in America there was an attempt to do integration in schools. Integration is one of the true ways of mitigating enduring racism and ensure that people from poverty can escape their poverty. One of the reasons that people in poverty remain in poverty is that they are not given the education to escape. Putting knowledge into someone’s head is the best way to pull them out of the realities of their lack of money in their bank account.

Where are some grey areas?

Medicine

We have used up all the easy wins for medicine. And most of the medicine that we have used is based off of trying different compounds to see if there is a desired effect. Many of the big pharamasuctical companies have spent billions of dollars on the next breakthrough but there is little to show for it. I believe that we are finally reaching a point where medicine is going through a cycle with computers taking more at hand.

It’s Cheap to Start a Company

We have lots of startups which has created a Darwinian way of innovation. We can have 5 startups try different things and see which one succeeds. Even though this just leads to patches on existing innovations this does lead to slow improvement of existing technology. But with startups dealing with infrastructure eventually the improvements become comodotized and available to everyone.

Even though it is cheap to start a company VC money is still in favor of rapid growth and flip instead of long term invention. I also think this is why some of the most inventive companies come out of grad schools. The research can incubate for a while away from profits and eventually be brought to the market.

So a lot of the companies that we value as unicorns are not focused on long term creation of inventions. Now VCs timeframe is only a matter of years. This does not mean that there haven’t been massively useful companies and innovations but they have been the natural evolution of existing inventions.

Uber was an innovation of connecting people with cars which was built off of the invention that the iPhone created. Snapchat is probably someone realizing that MongoDB lost photos and thinking that was a feature. Facebook was a way to connect people under one site but I just think it’s a revival of AOL. Twitter is well I don’t know what Twitter is trying to be and I don’t think most people do and they haven’t grown in ages. Evernote is a glorified Notepad. The point is that most of these companies which are darlings of the VCs are not doing anything really inventive as a product. But I will not ever go back to the days before Uber…

The Sharing Economy

When ownership becomes a loose term in the digital age where everything is a rental property being able to take that metaphor into the real world is quite useful. Being able to rent out our empty room without having to setup a whole business around it, or driving people around to earn some extra cash, or even rent out your car when you are not using it is pretty awesome.

But there is a danger that we are creating new oligarchs who own the marketplace. We are taking power away from existing forces but in the end we are consolidating power into even fewer entities. And with prices being dictated from the top and the sharers having few and few powers I think these companies will essentially become the new utilities and become heavily regulated. And that is likely why Uber is racing to get self driving cars on the road: the people drivers are a MVP and it doesn’t want to get regulated. AirBnB on the other hand will probably eventually become regulated.

What is amazing about our time?

All the inventions and basic research is now commoditized leading to the wave of innovation that we have right now. These have lead to some great things but keep in mind that most of the underlying inventions such as the internet and what not were research that happened in the 70s.

Availability of Knowledge and Technology

More technology is available to more people, more knowledge is available to more people. There has never been a point in history where so much is information is available so quickly to so many people. Further, the cost of communication is next to nothing.

Increase in Women’s and LGBT rights

Enough said.

Open Source

A great deal of our greatest minds are working on the ability to deliver ads that much faster. But this has also lead to innovative solutions with commodity hardware. A lot of this research is being open sourced leading to innovation in other fields. Further, the amount of scientific libraries available for use in so many scientific fields in incredible. The Linux kernel powers so much of computing that it is amazing that such a thing even exists. The ability for someone to create 100 servers for under $500 bucks and run this open source code to release to the world is quite an achievement in of itself.

Further, the creation of BitCoin and the blockchain will likely create quite a few innovations.

Third World is Catching Up on Existing Innovations
Third world countries are playing catch up with existing technologies available from the West. This has lead to rapid increases in standards of living and reduction of poverty levels. Further, these countries can innovate to suit their own particular area of the world and can avoid some of the early mistakes of new inventions.

But this can only last until the countries have caught up. Once China catches up to the US then what? What inventions do they have planned for the future?

Hipster syndrome

We have perfected digital photos so much that people want pictures that look like pictures from a bygone era. I call this the retrosexual complex or where the old is new again. Though people may argue about the Hipster’s concern with Taft and Bismarckian mustaches I do think that there is a return to quality that was missing for so long. A return to producing a quality product.

What are you talking about lots of countries are awesome and inventing new things and you are just wrong!

Japan

Japan whose military was dismantled following WWII had a huge spike in economic activity which lead to the idea that it was going to overtake the US. Unfortunately, it has slowly lost it role from the 2nd biggest economy to the third.

It can be argued that Japan is the birthplace of modern day innovation. Management ideas like kaizan which are coming back to America in the lean startup movements are actually American management ideas which didn’t take hold in American but became important influences in the development of the post-WWII economy of Japan. Japan has taken existing Western ideas and have drastically improved upon them: the car, whisky, trains, optics, etc. 

Japan has also done really great inventions in the areas of robotics and technologies with many large scale machines being invented there. But a lot of the ideas that we think about in terms of when we think of Japan are innovations not inventions.

But I also believe that this is a product of Japan being so homogenous. Japanese tend to be exceedingly xenopobic as a society and their brutal treatment of the people of the Pacific Rim during WWII still seems to have significant undertones to their relationships with their neighbors.

Furthermore, the Japanese are aging at a rapid rate and their population growth rate is negative with people working so much on the next innovation that they seem to be creating a dystopian utopia.

China

China is a country where the Communist government is enamored with societal stability. And it is for good reason. In the last two century it has had to deal with the Taiping Rebellion which killed nearly 20–30 million people, the drugging of the population with Opium due to Western economic influence, Japanese control during WWII which killed 17–22 million people, and Mao’s Great Leap Forward which caused 15–30 millions deaths China doesn’t want to take any chances with its society nor with western influence. 

This is why economic growth is such a big thing for the Communist government. As long as there is economic growth the Communist government fells that societal stability can be had but as soon as that falls it can have troubling consequences. It is also why China is taking whatever steps to improve its economic stature. i.e why the Chinese government tries so hard to steal Western Intellectual Property. 

It can build those things cheaper and faster and with its large population can literally throw people at the problem of scaling industry. But when there is nothing else to steal and new innovaton has to come from invention that is where I forsee problems arising.

China needs to build out universities to create new inventions, but as the Soviets learned when working on their Space program, to create invention you have to give a bunch of smart people room to do their own thing and can’t dictate from the top how to teach and what to teach. I also think this is why America has such a huge population of Chinese who come to study abroad. The freedom to think and learn available in the university and colleges here is pretty unsurpased anywhere in the world.

Further, China is an export based economy. What happens when China has economically caught up and it becomes too expensive of a place to produce things cheaply? But the rapidity at which China has been able to economically develop has been nothing short of amazing and with China’s millenia long top down approach to doing things I don’t think their model can really be emulated anywhere else.

Conclusion

My argument has been that we have gone as a society to one that values innovation from from one that valued invention and to show that a lot of what we consider invention is just an iteration of an invention from an earlier era.

Notes: I understand the irony of using a quote from Frankenstein to support invention when the invention of Frankenstein’s monster caused its creator so much misery. So in closing…

“Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust? God, in pity, made man beautiful and alluring, after his own image; but my form is a filthy type of yours, more horrid even from the very resemblance. Satan had his companions, fellow devils, to admire and encourage him, but I am solitary and abhorred.”