According to an article in the New Scientist, physicist Jonathan Huebner, a physicist at the Pentagon’s Naval Air Warfare Center in China Lake, California, says “the rate of technological innovation reached a peak a century ago and has been declining ever since. And like the lookout on the Titanic who spotted the fateful iceberg, Huebner sees the end of innovation looming dead ahead.”
he plotted major innovations and scientific advances over time compared to world population, using the 7200 key innovations listed in a recently published book, The History of Science and Technology (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). The results surprised him.
Rather than growing exponentially, or even keeping pace with population growth, they peaked in 1873 and have been declining ever since (see Graphs). Next, he examined the number of patents granted in the US from 1790 to the present. When he plotted the number of US patents granted per decade divided by the country’s population, he found the graph peaked in 1915.
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He likens the way technologies develop to a tree. “You have the trunk and major branches, covering major fields like transportation or the generation of energy,” he says. “Right now we are filling out the minor branches and twigs and leaves. The major question is, are there any major branches left to discover? My feeling is we’ve discovered most of the major branches on the tree of technology.”
I have major reservations with this theory. First is the connection between population and technological advance. I’m not sure the two are related. We could plot technological advances against number of Star Wars DVD sales per year and, clearly, the year 1900 would have a much better ratio than today. The second is that time and time again over the course of history, we’ve heard people suggest we’ve “discovered it all.” That’s usually right before a major technological explosion takes place. (Kind of like you should stuff your money under the mattress when you hear someone talking about how we’ve tamed the cyclical market.)