The Future of Innovation

Despite what many believe, a new iPhone released every year is not true innovation. True innovation (also called disruptive innovation) changes the way society behaves and functions, shattering the status quo. It reduces our strain on resources and creates enormous value. When was the last time you witnessed a true innovation? Or have we mostly been witnessing clones and iterations upon iterations?

People have been dreaming about flying cars for the past century, yet we still use the combustion engine developed over a hundred years ago. Why have the dreams and hopes born out of science fiction not materialized? Our planet is in desperate need of life-changing innovation to solve our greatest challenges such as war, famine, and overpopulation.

What does the reasearch tell us?

It has been found that the rate of new U.S. patents registered annually has been steadily decreasing, backing an argument that a peak has already been reached and innovation is slowing. Furthermore, research has shown that the time required to make new scientific discoveries is growing, along with the size of the collaborating team. We continue to need more time and more people to innovate effectively. Further research has also demonstrated that this is the case despite increased public and private economic investment.

Source: Bloom et al. (2019).

Moore’s Law

Moore’s Law states that the number of transistors on a computer chip doubles every 2 years. Phrased differently, the growth of microprocessors can be described as exponential. If we relate this law to innovation, it seems that the team and time required for innovations may also have to increase exponentially. If this is true, we will soon reach a resource limit that prevents us from developing any further ground-breaking innovations. All the low-hanging innovation fruit may have already been plucked and we are awaiting an inevitable halt in progress.

However, this scenario is only possible due to the limitations of human intellect. Artificial Intelligence (AI), which is the intelligence demonstrated by machines and computers, may provide a solution. AI is already present in our everyday lives in the form of Google searches, plane auto-pilots, and email management. In recent years, AI built by IBM and/or Google has successfully beaten world champion Chess, Go and StarCraft II players, demonstrating that humans can be outsmarted by computers provided that the AI has been created for that task. Of course, there is still a significant way to go before there could be an AI with proficiency in multiple tasks and the capability to make breakthrough innovations.

Taking this into consideration, a paradox appears. How can humans with limited intelligence and resources build an AI with unlimited intelligence and resources?

The Technological Singularity

This is answered by something hypothesized for some time, called the technological singularity. The singularity is a hypothetical point in time at which technological growth becomes uncontrollable and irreversible, resulting in unforeseeable changes to human civilization. The catalyst to this change would be the creation of an AI that is capable of making upgrades and improvements to its own systems. Once this occurs, there will be a snowball effect or a runaway reaction resulting in an Omni intelligent being. This new God AI would be able to solve all our innovation needs and any other problems… if this God AI doesn’t decide to annihilate humanity first.

This superintelligence could just as easily usher in a new dystopia as it could a utopia. Many global technology leaders have issued warnings about the dangers of AI if its development goes unchecked. We just don’t know how humans will be perceived and how it’s final equation will determine our fate. Just as science fiction paints a picture of what the future could be with flying cars as an example, we should not forget the darker realms of science fiction where villainous entities such as Skynet from the Terminator series reside.

The Future

Alas, it seems in my opinion that we will soon reach a fork in the road determining the destiny of mankind. The right road leads to a stagnation of innovation, where our planet will meet its inevitable doom thanks to our own hands… but at least we’ll get a new iPhone every year! The left road leads us to gamble with AI to solve our innovation needs, however, the outcome could be the same as the right road or it could deliver us into a new golden age instead.

What are your thoughts on the challenges of true innovation and how we could overcome them? Is AI our savior or our destroyer?