Sunday, 15 April 2012

We were promised jetpacks

Garry Kasparov has joined the ranks of the pessimists who think the rate of technological innovation has slowed, with baleful consequences. He's co-author of an upcoming book, so you'd expect him to lard it on for publicity's sake, but some of the examples he gave in support of his thesis recently had me scratching my head.

One of the main issues he cites is the slow rate of application of new technologies. It takes years from the experimental breakthrough to deliver something useful. The pessimists assume that this is a relatively recent thing, forgetting that it took over a century for the steam engine of Newcomen to evolve into the steam locomotive of Stephenson. This impatience leads them to further assume that major inventions dried-up sometime in the 1970s. Thus the first mobile comms call was made in 1973, so the iPhone is no big deal, and the last major breakthrough in computing was the Apple II in 1977. "After that, it is hard to find innovation of this level. Everything that followed were modifications that made them smaller, but the principle remains the same". Indeed, and the principle of steam power was first identified 2,000 years ago.

Kasparov explains this lack of innovation as the product of risk-aversion: "For example, in the last 60 years our planes have grown more comfortable, but they now fly more slowly since the decommissioning of the Concord. It's an unusual fact: over the past 40 years the first time in human history we have begun to move slowly."

Back in the 1950s and 60s, air travel was largely concerned with quickly relocating small numbers of rich people, plus sacks of air-mail, across and between continents. The expansion of air travel in this period was driven by business users, which reflected the needs of post-war reconstruction (this particularly stimulated flights between the USA and Europe) and general economic growth. For these customers speed was of the essence, hence the development of planes such as the De Havilland Comet and later Concorde. From the 60s onward, there was a massive expansion in air travel, facilitated by the arrival of the Boeing 727 and its successors, which was driven both by the continued growth in business travel and the rise of the foreign holiday as a mass commodity.

The technological breakthroughs in computing and communications that Kasparov notes would eventually change this environment to one in which tourists and non-business travellers would dominate. This was because business discovered the joys of remote meetings and email as a substitute for costly travel. I remember the hassle of trying to hold a telephone conversation with someone in California in the mid-80s. It was normal to have to ring back two or three times until you managed to get a "fast" line across the Atlantic that didn't suffer latency. It was also normal to travel there for face-to-face meetings, as phone conferences were frustrating and email in its infancy (no attachments). In my time we invested in a private phone network, video-conferencing, SMTP/MIME email and Intranets, all to facilitate communication without having to leave the office. Outside of jollies and tours of inspection, executives tend to only travel these days when they need to deliver a face-to-face bollocking.

The consequence of this was that it was no longer necessary for air travel to get any faster, as there wasn't a premium on speed of physical relocation and air-mail was killed-off by email. You don't need Concorde when you have video-conferencing. There are still business travellers of course, however they tend to be short-haul where costs are modest. Flight speed is less of an issue as you spend more time in taxis and checking in at the airport than you do in the air, so shaving 20 minutes off a 2-hour flight is not worth the technological investment.

In the circumstances, it is no surprise that air travel hasn't gotten any quicker. Instead, the main changes over the last 25 years have focused on increasing capacity and extending range, so you can get more holiday-bound passengers to more places without the need for stopovers and changes. This is not risk-aversion, simply a different economic imperative. What matters in travel these days is predictability. The simplistic view that travel times, i.e. average times for a particular route, have got faster over the course of history ignores the wide variability in earlier days when ships were dependent on unpredictable winds and land travel dependent on roads that might be washed away by storms. We have lost the cultural acceptance of delays, hence the rage over roadworks that add 30 minutes to a journey and the panic over fuel-stockpiling.

Kasparov's techno-pessimism is the flip-side of his techno-optimism, the belief that in the future everything will be faster, slicker and just more fun. You can hear the crushing of youthful dreams in this lament: "In the 1960s young boys dreamed of becoming aerospace engineers, now they want to be financial engineers, working in investment companies, which are the most attractive spheres for talent. This naturally affects the quality of the total scientific potential, because financial engineering creates nothing." There is much to be said for his criticism that too much talent has been diverted to sectors that aren't socially beneficial, however it is naive to believe that with more aerospace engineers we'd have delivered on personal jetpacks by now.

In reality, some seriously radical shit was invented in the last few years, we just don't know what it is yet, or even how it will be applied in ways that will transform our lives. Maybe 3D printers will morph into transporters. Maybe graphene will replace steel, as well as produce better vodka. Nobody foresaw that a lasting legacy of the Apollo space programme would be non-stick frying pans.


  1. David, I agree with the general thrust of your argument, and the reasoning about air travel is good.

    A couple of nit-picks, though.

    Teflon was invented before WWII and was combined with the wonder material of the 1930s, aluminium, by a French company called (strangely enough) Tefal, who sold frypans and electric irons. NASA had nothing to do with it. (See Wikipedia.)

    NASA has generated valuable knowledge about the management of large projects, but very little in the way of new and useful materials science apart from the adhesives used on the ceramic tiles for the Space Shuttle.

    The internet isn't all it's cracked up to be, either. There's a much over-looked two-way communications technology that has about 3.5 billion active users and rising - approximately three times the internet's reach.

    It is SMS.

    Mobile phones belie Kasparov's "increasing delay" assertion. They have gone from effectively nil to 60% *global* penetration in under two decades. Once you subtract those too young to use a mobile and the disabled and senile, that's about 80% of the possible market. No invention in history can approach that, and the potential for social transformation arising from this roll-out is not even dimly grasped yet.

    If we're looking for an investment shortfall (as opposed to an innovation shortfall) it lies here: mobile phones provide better service than land lines at one-twentieth to one two-hundredth the cost per user. In India and Bangladesh, they've cut the need for new hospitals. In India and Pakistan, they're reducing the need for schools and teachers, and circumventing corrupt bureaucracies. In advanced countries, they've improved the productivity of services such as construction and logistics quite dramatically, and probably increased the productivity of middle managers also. As a result of all this, they've reduced the need for new investment of traditional kinds. Mobile phones are somehow invisible, though: people speculating about a cause of the investment "shortfall" never mention them.

    3D printers will never amount to much more than they do now - very useful for accelerating product design, but far too expensive for mass production - even "individual mass production". Graphene will never replace steel in general application, because steel is strong enough, cheap and easily worked, and its failure modes are well-understood and graceful.

    If you're looking for life-changing inventions, the possibilities of which have only just started to be discovered, look in your pocket. Mobile phones (and digital radio in general) are the future.

  2. Greg,

    Thanks for your comments. I plead guilty to perpetuating the Teflon myth (I was an impressionable child), though I wasn't entirely serious about the Star Trek potential of 3d-printers. Ironically, the pre-war origins of Teflon rather reinforce the wider point about the long duration between primary research and application, not to mention serendipity.

    I completely agree with your point about the impact of mobile phones and SMS. As well as the examples you cite, mobile networks have transformed comms in Africa, where the land-line infrastructure was minimal. They are even transforming banking, again due to the lack of prior infrastructure. If we can just combine them with 3D-printers, we might be onto something really big.