Technology’s Trajectory

The last two centuries or so have seen an amazing upsurge in technological invention. Will this last? Or might it be transitory?

One possibility is that the takeoff of tech will continue its upward climb. But, the climb is likely to become harder because having grasped the low-hanging fruit, the rest become more tricky to reach.

Another possibility is that the upsurge is just one big wave. Is it a spurt which will peter out? A long but transitory era of invention? We have had the steam engine, electrical generation, indoor plumbing, the computer. Maybe these are the big inventions.

The Economist ponders the state of technological innovation and cites Robert Gordon as a proponent of this transitory view.

Mr Gordon muses that the past two centuries of economic growth might actually amount to just “one big wave” of dramatic change rather than a new era of uninterrupted progress. Mr Gordon sees it as possible that there were only a few truly fundamental innovations—the ability to use power on a large scale, to keep houses comfortable regardless of outside temperature, to get from any A to any B, to talk to anyone you need to—and that they have mostly been made. There will be more innovation—but it will not change the way the world works in the way electricity, internal-combustion engines, plumbing, petrochemicals and the telephone have.

A third possibility, in between 1 and 2, is that there may be a slowdown, a pause, but invention will continue. New inventions on the horizon could involve genetics or computing power, including moves towards AI. Maybe one or more of driverless cars, voice recognition, gesture recognition, three-dimensional printing, pattern-recognition software, robotics will continue the trajectory.

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