Will humans continue innovation at the same rate as the last 100 years?
- Some game-changing inventions of the past 100+ years include, but are not limited to: the vacuum cleaner, air conditioning, plastic, radar, radio broadcasting, coffee filters, assembly-line production, interlocking zippers, SONAR, insulin medicine, vacuum-tube hearing aids, TV, pop-up toaster, canned aerosol sprays, “Talkies” (movies with sound), penicillin, jet engines, mechanical toothbrushes, scotch tape, electric razors, folding wheelchairs, electric guitar, electric blanket, photocopying, helicopters, microwaves, Tupperware, transistors, holograms, mobile phones, velcro, plastic and disposable contact lenses, credit cards, electric calculators, transistor radio, hovercraft, polio vaccine, antibiotics, videotape recorder, satellites, video games, baby car seats, computers, the internet, LEDs, genetic engineering, barcodes, personal computers, personal stereos, photoshop, the Hubble telescope, portable GPS, caller ID, cloning, email and text messaging, hybrid cars, flat-screen displays, MP3 players, CDs, DVDs, the Apple iPhone, and social media.
- Time Magazine lists 50 of the “worst inventions.” They include the Segway, New Coke, Agent Orange, hydrogenated oils, the Ford Pinto, and Asbestos.
- A July 2020 Pew Research poll records 64% of Americans say social media has “ a mostly negative effect on the way things are going in the country today.”
In the past 100 years, our world has experienced immense innovation in many fields, including technology, medicine, arts, and media. Many new and improved inventions have impacted our lives, in big ways, and small. But this has many wondering if this means we've reached our peak in our pattern of innovation? The prospect, however, is it's not likely.
Continued innovation requires widespread literacy across various sectors of the population. Sadly, literacy rates are not keeping pace, and this decline will curtail the number of breakthroughs produced around the globe. According to UNESCO, 'Illiteracy also remains a persistent problem in developed countries,' and if our world doesn't improve, the basis for innovation will falter. Additionally, although many Western children represent as 'digital natives,' they really don't have solid computer literacy, and that contributes to a poor foundation for greater innovation.
The degree of innovation in the performing arts is questionable. Pop and rock 'n roll are constantly criticized for their degree of being rehashed. Critics debate this with articles such as 'Who Can Save Pop in this Era of Music?' and discussions about 'Rock is Dead.' Modern music is so segmented and compartmentalized, which hasn't helped to spark innovation.
There are also pervasive viewpoints in society that impede innovation. 'Anti-science attitudes are killing Americans' is sadly true, and a slap in the face of progress. When many adults harbor doubts about science and experimentation, when politicians and talking heads shout this, it inhibits innovation and the messy process of experimentation. Additionally, it's arguable universities aren't teaching innovative thinking processes. There will be some innovation, but not at the eye-popping pace of the recent past.
Human innovation will continue to improve exponentially in the future, far surpassing what we've seen in the past 100 years. Famed inventor, and Director of Engineering at Google, Ray Kurzweil has predicted as much and has the data to prove it. Kurzweil calls this exponential progress the Law of Accelerating Returns. It's why today's smartphone packs more computing power than the guidance computers NASA used to put men on the moon.
Moore's Law, which explains how the speed and capability of chip technology increasing every two years, will end simply because we can't get the chips any smaller nor pack more transistors onto them. Kurzweil disagrees, postulating we'll soon replace silicon with biological chips and quantum processing, ushering in computing's second era and further driving human innovation forward. Technology has always been disruptive—for example, Uber shook the taxi business and autonomous vehicles are taking stage as the next innovation.
For example, according to McKinsey, half of today's jobs could be automated in the next 30 years. While many fear this leads to mass unemployment or a future idle workforce, the opposite may happen. Maurice Conti sees a future where humans, currently augmented by handheld computers (smartphones), continue to make and work alongside machines instead of being replaced by a tool of our own invention. At the BCG Henderson Institute, Conti concludes, 'We're heading for a future where our natural human capabilities are going to be radically augmented in three ways: Computational systems will help us think. Robotic systems will help us make. And a digital nervous system will connect us to the world far beyond what our natural nervous system can offer.' What a world for us to look forward to with high expectations.