Innovation said to be in decline:
It has been suggested that innovation is decreasing.  This has been challenged. (The Great Innovation Decline ECONOMOST vol. 406. no. 8818 January 12, 2013 page 11 and Has the Idea Machine Broken Down? page 21 in the same issue)  The debate centers on the distinction between “extensive” economic growth and “intensive” economic growth.  For instance if the population increases and everybody has the same productivity, then the gross domestic product of the population increases or if more land is farmed or more minerals are mined then again there is economic growth.  This is “extensive growth.  On the other hand, if somebody invents the automobile so people can get around and do more, then it is intensive growth.  It is expected that the developing world will continue to grow faster because they can use things already invented by the rich world to improve their own lot.  The developed world can only increase its wealth by more inventions.

It is not that I think eternal economic growth is all that big a deal.  There comes a point where more money does not produce more happiness.  So I am fairly happy with extensive only growth.  If innovation simply means less consumption of resources and less impact on the environment, that ought to be plenty.  But we still will need a lot of innovation along such lines.  Our present resource consumption and environmental impact do not appear to be sustainable. 

And it is easy to take issue with the notion that there are no new ideas.  Fracking, the injection of fluid into shale formations to extract hydrocarbons, is fairly recent and the resulting increase in the production in the United States has yet to work its way through the economy.  Then there is manufacturing-by-printer.  A printer lays down one of a few layers of ink to build up an image.  If instead of ink it is material of some thickness, then a three dimensional object can be made.  You will not have to buy an eggbeater.  You can print one up at home or get it done by a local service.  The impact of that will be overwhelming.  Rumor has it that they are already able to print houses.  Take a long look at any houses you like.  They may be replaced very cheaply in the near future.  And then there are batteries.  (A Boost for Lithium-Sulfur Batteries SCIENCE vol. 339 no. 6115 January 4, 2013 page 20) Lithium batteries already compete with gasoline for powering automobiles.  They now speak of a battery that will have sixty times the energy density.  I’m not sure that’s even a good idea.  A catastrophic failure of such a battery might produce an explosion. 

So the ideas seem to keep coming down the pike.  If were not, then I should revert to type and say, “Of course.  The best innovators are going to be the children of bright and productive people, who are exactly the people not having the children.” 

It doesn’t take that many people to come up with an idea.  I would suspect that amazing new things will continue to appear for some time to come. 

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