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PayPal CEO asks, is technological progress slowly winding down?

File:Peter Thiel.jpg

Peter Thiel/David Orban

Maybe. Consider: In “The End of the Future” (National Review,October 11, 2011), PayPal CEO Peter Thiel reflects:

When tracked against the admittedly lofty hopes of the 1950s and 1960s, technological progress has fallen short in many domains. Consider the most literal instance of non-acceleration: We are no longer moving faster. The centuries-long acceleration of travel speeds — from ever-faster sailing ships in the 16th through 18th centuries, to the advent of ever-faster railroads in the 19th century, and ever-faster cars and airplanes in the 20th century — reversed with the decommissioning of the Concorde in 2003, to say nothing of the nightmarish delays caused by strikingly low-tech post-9/11 airport-security systems. Today’s advocates of space jets, lunar vacations, and the manned exploration of the solar system appear to hail from another planet. A faded 1964 Popular Science cover story — “Who’ll Fly You at 2,000 m.p.h.?” — barely recalls the dreams of a bygone age.

The official explanation is the high cost of fuel.

While innovation in medicine and biotechnology has not stalled completely, here too signs of slowed progress and reduced expectations abound. In 1970, Congress promised victory over cancer in six years’ time; four decades later, we may be 41 years closer, but victory remains elusive and appears much farther away. Today’s politicians would find it much harder to persuade a more skeptical public to start a comparably serious war on Alzheimer’s disease — even though nearly a third of America’s 85-year-olds suffer from some form of dementia. The cruder measure of U.S. life expectancy continues to rise, but with some deceleration, from 67.1 years for men in 1970 to 71.8 years in 1990 to 75.6 years in 2010. Looking forward, we see far fewer blockbuster drugs in the pipeline — perhaps because of the intransigence of the FDA, perhaps because of the fecklessness of today’s biological scientists, and perhaps because of the incredible complexity of human biology. In the next three years, the large pharmaceutical companies will lose approximately one-third of their current revenue stream as patents expire, so, in a perverse yet understandable response, they have begun the wholesale liquidation of the research departments that have borne so little fruit in the last decade and a half.

Actually shutting done research departments? If so, this is another area in which legacy media are simply putting on street theatre for us, about great new advances to come.

Obviously, with computers, it’s different; surging, astonishing growth prevails. But the question Thiel raises is, is growth in computing power associated with greater prosperity?

The single most important economic development in recent times has been the broad stagnation of real wages and incomes since 1973, the year when oil prices quadrupled. To a first approximation, the progress in computers and the failure in energy appear to have roughly canceled each other out. Like Alice in the Red Queen’s race, we (and our computers) have been forced to run faster and faster to stay in the same place.

Thiel is onto something here. One travels the subway with carloads of young people who cannot get jobs that would allow them to buy a modest house in the city they’ve lived in all their lives, who increasingly just live with their folks – young people who have toys their folks would never have dreamed of in the days when a modestly gifted couple, or even single, could in fact own a home.

Taken at face value, the economic numbers suggest that the notion of breathtaking and across-the-board progress is far from the mark. If one believes the economic data, then one must reject the optimism of the scientific establishment

The scientific establishment has no choice but to broadcast optimism; one must look at the scene and think for oneself.

The technology slowdown threatens not just our financial markets, but the entire modern political order, which is predicated on easy and relentless growth. The give-and-take of Western democracies depends on the idea that we can craft political solutions that enable most people to win most of the time. But in a world without growth, we can expect a loser for every winner. Many will suspect that the winners are involved in some sort of racket, so we can expect an increasingly nasty edge to our politics. We may be witnessing the beginnings of such a zero-sum system in politics in the U.S. and Western Europe, as the risks shift from winning less to losing more, and as our leaders desperately cast about for macroeconomic solutions to problems that have not been primarily about economics for a long time.

Definitely worth reading. If only for,

Today a letter from Einstein would get lost in the White House mail room, and the Manhattan Project would not even get started; it certainly could never be completed in three years.

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2 Responses to PayPal CEO asks, is technological progress slowly winding down?

  1. There is much truth in these observations, and yet they are wide of the mark, like the 5 metn and the elephant. It is true that the extrapolation form the 1960′s has not come about. This is because the advances of the 20th century came in a great rush from the foundations established from the 14th through the 19th century. Materialism brought with it enormous power over nature, but in the end, Nature turned out to be more than materialism expected.
    For example, a baby grows at a phenomenal rate in its first 6 months, then it slows down to almost zero, when at puberty there is another spurt, and then nothing. No one says “what’s happened to your son, he turned 18 and stopped growing?” This is because we know intuitively that maturation takes more than bones and muscle. In fact, the disease of acromegaly occurs if he doesn’t stop growing.

    Take speed. The air resistance has a linear and a quadratic term in it. Depending on streamlining, the quadratic term dominates above 30 or 40 mph. To go faster takes a quadratically increasing power source. Or one goes higher to get to thinner air. But thinner air provides less lift on the wings. So there is a practical maximum to speed, occasioned by living in an ocean of air. The next breakthrough will be suborbital rocket flight. But that requires even more power, and rockets have not proved to be all that reliable. Hence, the linear extrapolation to 2000 mph is clearly wrong.

    Each one of these 60′s technologies is hitting this non-linear limit, this saturation of the approach. Unfortunately, many of the innovators today are funded by government money. This means they have to convince a large segment of society that their use of the money is worthwhile. (Unlike, say, commercial sector that need only find one investor.) This has led to overestimation of abilities, or the use of 2nd order extrapolations (e.g. the rate of innovation will increase) which like Medicare, grows faster than the entire world can support. It has become so prevalent that no one even notices that the Emperor has no clothes.

    Steve Jobs, R.I.P, finally figured this out. He said, don’t ask what people want, tell them. Don’t extrapolate current technologies, invent new ones. The future may not have 2000mph suborbital transport, but it might have virtual teleconferencing at 186,000 miles per second that eliminates the need to move matter.

    The future, after all, is information, not in busshels of wheat, not in concrete & steel, not in aerospace and computing, but in information. Figure that one out, and you will be a wealthy man.

  2. Good thoughts, Rob. Just think, if the US government had bought the cash-strapped Woz an Altair 8800, he needn’t have bothered to build Apple 1. That just shows what government support can do for innovation.

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