back to article Boffins fear we might be running out of ideas

Innovation, fetishized by Silicon Valley companies and celebrated by business boosters, no longer provides the economic jolt it once did. In order to maintain Moore's Law – by which transistor density doubles every two years or so – it now takes 18 times as many scientists as it did in the 1970s. That means each researcher's …

  1. Nick Z

    There is only so much you can do to extend an existing field of knowledge.

    Exponential growth in knowledge happens only when some new field of knowledge is discovered, and almost everything is unknown in there.

    A good example was the discovery of electromagnetic waves. Before their discovery, people didn't even know that such waves existed. And of course, there was a lot to discover, once this field was opened up for research.

    Running out of ideas is inevitable, when you are just trying to extend existing fields of knowledge. The only way to keep ideas going is to discover new fields of knowledge, where almost everything is unknown.

    1. Mark 85

      I believe what you say is true. Perhaps it's time to rescind/remove/ignore Moore's Law.

      1. Mike 137 Silver badge

        rescind Moore's Law?

        you can't rescind, remove or ignore it, as it has never really existed in the first place. Moore made a thought experiment suggestion in the context of much wider and more interesting matters, and as usual everyone jumped on the bit they fancied, canonised it and continues to worry it to death. Reminds me of the Monty Python sketch where the broadcast interviewer of a successful composer wants to discuss nothing except how many sheds he has in his garden.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: rescind Moore's Law?

          There's plenty of room for vast improvements in semiconductors, we just have to become smarter. Someday we'll be able to assemble things precisely atom by atom, which will make current manufacturing techniques based on removal of material via light and chemicals look positively stone age. We may not live to see it though, depending on how hard it actually turns out to be.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      The most interesting advances, and along the lines you are suggesting, seems to be in materials science. Graphene is only one (trite) example of a discovery with broad reach across engineering domains. The problem there seems to be sharing discoveries in new materials and discovering which team is research what materials. I've come across duplications in that research which results in multiple teams discovering the same material applications. Perhaps opening up the information channels might further improve efficiencies.

      Just my $.02.

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Today a Mr Brunel complained that the end of innovation was at hand.

        It now takes 70 engineers to make a steam engine engine go only a little faster while the first engines were able to go twice as fast as a horse with only a couple of Geordies

        1. xXSwolGunzXx

          That's a better example than you think. The fundamentals of railroading--tractive effort and top speed--haven't changed significantly in the last 100 years. Diesels and electrification were around back then, only the economics didn't favor them in general. The only things happening there that wouldn't be easily understood by a GWR engineer of the time are computer-related. Maybe something else will revolutionize everything in the next 100 years, but it won't be semiconductors.

    3. a_yank_lurker

      @Nick Z - Agreed. Until we have a new set of discoveries/theories on par with electromagnetism or quantum mechanics, we will find ourselves trying to find gold in the mine tailings not in a new ore body.

      1. Mage Silver badge

        electromagnetism or quantum mechanics

        Batteries 1799

        Maxwell 1855 (start)

        Quantum Mechanics: Cathode Rays 1838, Boltzmann states energy states can be discrete 1877. Quantum hypothesis of Max Planck in 1900.

        Very Victorian.

        Also Victorian: Fax, telephone, electric hearing aids, typewriter, ballpen, lead acid & Nickel Iron batteries, Diesel, petrol, steam and electric cars competed. Punched cards for data sorting. CRT (though regular valves / tubes from 1905) and Electric light (in early Sherlock Holmes stories). Radio transmission. Plastics (inc Viscose) and Aluminium. Stencil duplicating machines.

      2. Sir Runcible Spoon

        "Across a broad range of case studies ... we find that ideas – and in particular the exponential growth they imply – are getting harder and harder to find"

        I know, how about learning to make better use of the ideas we've already had?

        Ask any of today's games programmers how they would go about writing a chess program that would fit into 1k of memory.

    4. big_D Silver badge

      Basically, all the easy ideas have been dealt with, so now they have to work harder to optimize. It is the same in most fields. After initial breakthroughs, it is refinement, until the next big breakthrough and each subsequent breakthrough is tougher than the previous one.

      1. el kabong

        We've entered a logarithmic growth era, accept that fact and you'll be fine.

        And be glad, because eventually a permanent negative growth era will set in and it will hurt. It will hurt real bad.

        1. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Discovering new fields of knowledge

          Requires basic research, which pretty much no corporation does anymore because CEOs aren't interested in something that won't pay off for 15 to 20 years if it pays off at all. They need to make the next quarter's numbers so they can get their stock bonus.

          With government (at least in the US & UK) reducing funding for basic research as well, due to clueless politicians who are always chasing the hot new industry because all they care about is creating jobs right now, that source has dried up too.

          You know who isn't pulling back on basic research? China. Say what you want about centrally planned government, it does give them the patience to do things that won't pay off for a few decades. The West has lost its patience, short term is the only outlook anyone here has anymore.

  2. Tim99 Silver badge

    Because

    Most "research" is development. In the past, basic research was often funded by the taxpayer (sometimes indirectly), these days not so much. The quest is now for a short-term financial return, so a basic research project doesn't get past the first step.

    1. Martin Gregorie

      Re: Because

      Yet more proof, if any was needed, that bean-counters kill basic research.

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: Because

        This was my thought. Is it a decline in original ideas, or a decline in support for originality. We no longer value education or research for knowledge's sake. Whether it's about the content of school curricula, arguing that students should have expensive loans and not tax funded grants, because "Why should the people who don't go to university fund those who do..", academics having to show "productivity" in terms of numbers of papers published rather than originality or power of what they do produce or journals accepting only papers that will help them to sell copies and adverts. We've devalued academic study and replaced it with training.

        1. Sir Runcible Spoon

          Re: Because

          ""Why should the people who don't go to university fund those who do..""

          To me the answer is obvious, but then I'm not a crab.

          1. Terry 6 Silver badge

            Re: Because

            It's also one of those weasely disingenuous arguments even taken at the face value. Graduates also pay taxes -if the argument holds any water they pay more than non-graduates because they supposedly earn more. And VAT/Corporation tax etc provide a pretty major part of the tax base too ( though maybe not Google's share).

      2. Brewster's Angle Grinder Silver badge
        Joke

        Re: Because

        "Yet more proof, if any was needed, that bean-counters kill basic research."

        In their defence, have you seen the price of a CERN?

      3. Mark Butler

        Re: Because

        I think there's a few more reasons covered than just that.

    2. K
      Pint

      Research productivity is declining

      The truth is a process can only be optimised so much, and each iteration becomes progressively more difficult. The fact we've got this far with silicon is a testament to the folks who work in the industry.

      Saying that, we really do need a paradigm shift, with a move to light based processing or meta-matetials (troll Face)!

  3. Frumious Bandersnatch

    there's always

    computational chemistry

    space exploration

    biosphere maintenance

    fusion/Thorium power generation

    world peace

    1. Frumious Bandersnatch

      Re: there's always

      Plenty to be getting on with.

    2. Voland's right hand Silver badge

      Re: there's always

      Those are taxpayer funded.

      The examples were areas where research is 90% corporate.

      What the paper shows (with numbers) is that modern corporations suck bricks sidewize through a thin straw in R&D. It is something some of us who have suffered from being Research Detention in a modern corp know all too well.

    3. jmch Silver badge

      Re: there's always

      "Just to sustain constant growth in GDP per person..."

      Not strictly related to innovation and research, but focus on GDP per capita is stupid since (a) it doesn't take inflation into account* and (b) GDP and GDP per capita figures grow even when all teh growth accrues to a small number of people. Median per capita income adjusted for true inflation rate is the rate that should really be tracked (and I suspect that this has not improved much if at all since teh 1960s)

      *Official Real GDP figures are skewed since they use a low estimate for inflation not teh real figure. See for example:

      http://www.businessinsider.com/gdp-adjusted-for-inflation-2011-5?IR=T

      1. jmch Silver badge

        Re: there's always

        And because I piqued my own curiosity...

        https://markbc.net/doomer-economic-commentary/is-the-us-government-really-spending-its-way-to-oblivion/

        The real GDP per capita graph shown in the link is actually that it peaked in teh 1980s and is now back down to where it was in the 1960s. That's for US but probbaly similair in other western countries

  4. Bump in the night
    Joke

    Studies show . .

    there are no answers.

    1. MyffyW Silver badge

      Re: Studies show . .

      No. of sensible questions > No. of sensible answers

  5. Florida1920

    Eight men control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people

    Is this sustainable? Maybe we need some ideas on how to, uh, even things out.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Eight men control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people

      Is this sustainable

      It sustained the Persian Empire, then the Roman empire, then the Byzantine empire, then a succession of Islamic empires, then the Spanish and British empires.

      For most of human history the poorest 3/4 of the planet have owned nothing - generally not even themselves

      1. Florida1920

        Re: Eight men control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people

        It sustained the Persian Empire, then the Roman empire, then the Byzantine empire, then a succession of Islamic empires, then the Spanish and British empires.

        All of which are gone. Sustainable?

        1. DavCrav

          Re: Eight men control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people

          "All of which are gone. Sustainable?"

          How sustainable do you want something to be? If we are looking at more than 500 years into the future then a lot of things are not going to be sustainable. For example, energy production, which will boil the oceans long before then at our current rate of energy consumption expansion.

          (This is not anything to do with global warming, or hyperbole. Plugging in our increase in energy production, and treating the Earth as a black body, you find that you get a significant increase in temperatures just because of entropy, enough to boil the Earth long before half a millennium's time.)

          1. Michael H.F. Wilkinson
            Coat

            Re: Eight men control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people

            I wouldn't recommend boiling oceans, as it leaves the fish rather dry and tasteless. Poaching is always better, especially for white fish

            Sorry, couldn't resist. Mine's the one with the Keith Floyd cookbook in the pocket

            1. Anonymous Coward
              Anonymous Coward

              Re: Eight men control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people

              It is a fact that these 8 people that owns almost the entire world.

              But this is also a fact:

              Research shows that companies own other companies, which own other companies, etc etc. If you back track you will find that only a few companies own or have a large stake in all other companies, via bulvan companies. These few companies cooperate tightly.

              https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg21228354-500-revealed-the-capitalist-network-that-runs-the-world/

              Could these few companies have the same owners? Why, they cooperate tightly, they have the same will and same orders. These 8 rich men, must have put their money somewhere. On the stock market? Most of a company stocks are not for sale actually. Only some percentage are publicly traded on the market. Most of the stocks are held and not traded. Check how to calculate index calculations to learn more on this.

              These 8 richest people, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, etc have built their wealth in a single mans lifetime. How rich can you become, if you are an entire family striving to build your wealth for centuries? Who are the richest families? We hear about richest men top list, but how about richest families top list? It is reasonable these super rich families, if they exist, are super discrete - they dont want anyone to know how rich they are, right? Dont want to become a target. They gladly let the new billionaires get all the fame and attention, mean while they continue to rule the world.

              Maybe you should google for richest families to learn more about real power. Google a bit, and read what historians say about these rich families. They try to avoid the lime light, but can not. They just shun fame, and despise everyone striving to become famous.

              If you are really powerful and basically own the whole world, you dont want anyone to know that and shun fame. New poor billionaires strive for attention and are despised by the old super rich families. These families are much much much much wealthier than Bill Gates, Buffet, etc. Just google a bit.

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Eight men control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people

      Tim Worstall suggests hyperventilating lefties should relax:

      https://www.forbes.com/forbes/welcome/?toURL=https://www.forbes.com/sites/timworstall/2017/01/16/oxfams-annual-davos-whining-8-people-have-more-wealth-than-the-bottom-50-of-all-humans/&refURL=https://www.google.co.uk/&referrer=https://www.google.co.uk/

      1. jmch Silver badge

        Tim Worstal's article

        Tim Worstal was one of my favourite register writers when he was there, and I often find myself agreeing with him. In this article, he makes the good point that for rich entrpreneurs, their wealth derives from value created to others.

        The basic reasoning is sound but there is some flaw in the detail. For example, just as successful companies generate more value than their income, the company employees generate more wealth than they are paid. There were plenty of successful companies generateing global value even when their CEOs were making 20X the employee average. CEOs making 1000X more than employees do not add value, its just a result of the circle-wank between CEOs, board members, financial analysts and Wall Street. So while I do not begrudge company founders / owners their wealth which does come from added value, there are many high-level executives paid much more than the value they get to the company.

        Secondly, companies do not craete value in a vacuum, they can do so because of surrounding infrastructure, education of employees, rule of law etc many of which are publically funded. When companies do not pay their fair share of tax they are stealing away value by using public services without paying for them.

        Thirdly, many of the richest people in the world aren't rich by providing value, they are rich through family, politics, monoploies and a host of unpleasantries ranging through downright nastiness. Not wanting to tar everytone with the same brush, but how many of the mega-rich oil sheiks, Russian oligarchs and Chinese communist-party-buddies-billionaires are really providing more value than they earn, or that they would earn on a truly open market? And how many of the richest people in the first world are rich because they and/or their ancestors were robber barons, usurers, arms dealers etc?

        Sure, poorer countries are getting less poor, poorer people are getting less poor, inequality between teh bottom and teh median is decreasing. That doesn't mean that Oxfam et al should stop campaigning against gross inequality and injustice

        1. MyffyW Silver badge

          Re: Tim Worstal's article

          You may have got more wealthy in the past few years from promotion, or by a switch from permanent to contract employment, or by realising a capital gain on an investment. But if you're really honest with yourself how certain are you that rate of growth will continue? And for most of the readership salaries are struggling to keep pace with inflation.

          Western economies are increasing inequality. That itself will not be sustainable. Whether through revolution or reaching for "populists" who peddle hatred and fear, the current situation will not endure for even a human lifetime. You poor take courage. You rich take care.

          1. Charles 9

            Re: Tim Worstal's article

            But what if this time the rich simply bring out the Terminators or whatever, kill all the proles, turn over the work to machines, and close off their walled gardens to hash it out amongst themselves?

            1. Naselus

              Re: Tim Worstal's article

              "But what if this time the rich simply bring out the Terminators..."

              he rich don't need the poor to work for them. They need the poor to define themselves against. If everyone has a million dollars, no-one is wealthy.

    3. DavCrav

      Re: Eight men control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people

      It's also not true, unless you are happy counting Harvard graduates with massive college debt as the poorest people in the world. (Which of course Oxfam is, as it gets a bigger number.) And, of course, if you have very narrow definitions of wealth designed to maximize apparent inequality. (Which of course Oxfam is, as it gets a bigger number.)

      1. jmch Silver badge

        Re: Eight men control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people

        From a financial point of view there is quite a difference between balance sheet wealth and P&L wealth. In my book, true wealth is if your P&L is positive ie net cash inflow that is more than enough to cover expenses, and high enough that those expenses can lead to a comfortable lifestyle.

        The lawyer or doctor making half a million a year and spending it all is not so rich since if they stop working their lifestyle comes crashing down, and the more they work the less time they have to enjoy their big house, nice car etc. The Oxford graduates with a mountain of debt are not poor if they can generate much more income than they have expenses including loan repayments.

        1. Naselus

          Re: Eight men control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people

          "From a financial point of view there is quite a difference between balance sheet wealth and P&L wealth."

          There's no such thing as 'p&l wealth vs balance sheet wealth'. Wealth is what you own, minus what you owe, full stop. Profit v loss is income, and is a completely different thing. Conflating the two is not helpful.

    4. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Eight men control as much wealth as the poorest 3.6 billion people

      You're missing the really important thing here. It should be four men and four women.

      When they spend more on shoes than fast cars everything will get better.

  6. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    A resurgence in LSD usage should sort that out.

    People today just aren't doing enough psychedelics.

  7. YourNameHere

    Semiconductors are getting hard to fill

    Its getting harder and harder to fill a semiconductor die and afford one. At 28nm we put a 4 core a57 complex, big GCU and VPU codec, cell phone modem on a 60mm die and sold them for under $10. It got to the point that each generation just had bigger/more CPU, GCU, and VPUs and if you didnt jump nodes every other year you were left behind. 7nm mask sets will be $7-$10 Million contain the same old units. But if you mess up, it gets even more expensive. But there was really nothing "new" during the last 5-8 years. You see the same thing from Intel, AMD and NVIDIA as well as the DDR, NAND and other memories. Just more cores, bigger cores, more memory cells. No really new ideas. Just bigger/better/faster. This is why you see the huge consolidation in the area now.

    1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      Re: Semiconductors are getting hard to fill

      I reckon we are "at saturation" with that . They are small and fast enough - move on to something else.

      Time travel ,

      GM crops

      Animals that want to be eaten

      ebola vaccine

      babel fish

      1. Chris G

        Re: Semiconductors are getting hard to fill

        Babel fish are worth a punt. If everyone understood each other it would improve not only research but a lot of other aspects of commerce. Now, where do we start?

        1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

          Re: Semiconductors are getting hard to fill

          "not only research but a lot of other aspects of commerce"

          Think bigger - world love and peace and harmony for mankind ,the end of war , also maybe we'd find out what the dolphins are going on about.

        2. Sir Runcible Spoon
          Joke

          Re: Semiconductors are getting hard to fill

          Babel fish are worth a punt. If everyone understood each other it would improve not only research but a lot of other aspects of commerce. Now, where do we start?

          1. Design a little fish shaped Bluetooth earpiece with an audio pickup beyond your own voice

          2. Connect it to your phone*

          3. Have phone* listen and interpret incoming audio

          4. Send translated audio to earpiece.

          Et Voila, la BabelFish is born.

          *or more likely a dedicated device that's the size of a small PC, but bound to get smaller when they make smaller chips....oh

          1. TRT Silver badge

            Re: . If everyone understood each other it would improve not only...

            “Meanwhile, the poor Babel fish, by effectively removing all barriers to communication between different races and cultures, has caused more and bloodier wars than anything else in the history of creation.”

        3. LionelB Silver badge

          Re: Semiconductors are getting hard to fill

          Babel fish are worth a punt. If everyone understood each other it would improve not only research but a lot of other aspects of commerce.

          Actually, in research and academia language is hardly an issue; English is already de facto the lingua franca of science.

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: Semiconductors are getting hard to fill

      "No really new ideas."

      I thought multiple cores per die were the new idea once there was little "faster" to be found.

      Maybe the next new idea is to accept that semiconductors are a mature technology and that there are no further gains worth investing in in that direction.

      1. Mage Silver badge

        Re: multiple cores per die were the new idea once

        Yes, about 1960s. It was a while before mainframes were miniaturised enough. See also 1980s Transputer and mother boards with up to 4 CPUs.

        Problem is programming multiple cores, unless your OS is a server running many programs for many people. For a single ordinary application, single user and shared memory little improvement past 2 and very little past 4 cores. High performance multiple CPU systems have generous per core/CPU ram.

        Serious bottleneck on ARM and x86-64 multicore cpus.

  8. John Browne 1
    Coat

    We're much more cautious nowadays.

    Decades ago, research into the uses of lead, mercury, cadmium, asbestos, CFCs and the like yielded enormous economic value.

    Today, the real value of much of that research is close to zero, or even negative.

    Present-day researchers must consider not just the product or process itself, but also the health and environmental consequences of its adoption. This all takes time and effort, and is bound to reflect badly in the figures, but is probably an improvement in real terms.

    I don't think the picture is as bleak as a purely economic assessment indicates, and we certainly don't need any more radium watch dials. And we want our ozone layer restored.

    1. Charles 9

      Re: We're much more cautious nowadays.

      "Present-day researchers must consider not just the product or process itself, but also the health and environmental consequences of its adoption. This all takes time and effort, and is bound to reflect badly in the figures, but is probably an improvement in real terms."

      Unless the effects simply CAN'T be seen for like 20 years or so. How long did it take for the first serious cases of asbestosis to appear after its mass adoption. Same with mercury and all that other stuff. Only this time, it could be things like GM crops.

      That's the thing about trailblazing. No one's been down your path before, so no one can predict what could jump out of the boonies.

  9. Heff

    Cruft

    revolutionary ideas can only be provided by peop,e who fulfill the following criteria :

    a) those who understand the current SOA

    b) those who can deviate from the track that the current SOA has laid.

    its no different from railroad days : bar the massively high barrier to entry. You created Strata of engineers based on undertsanding, when maybe look at the undergrads that are yelling "why dipoles?" or "why not tantalum?"

    these recs, of course, are subject to billion-dollar whims, so adventurousness in the marketplace is... oh, wait. a corroborating factor against ingenuity.

  10. Bronek Kozicki
    Coat

    Bullshit patents to blame?

    Imagine you are novice investor into some research. You eventually get your research results, and they appear to provide innovative solution for a problem you paid to research in the first place. You go to patent your solution and then move onto production, happy that your investment will bear fruit, only to discover there are many related patents and there is no way to make a viable product without encroaching in someone else's patent "do it with a computer" or some such.

    So, the next time you in invest your money in a research, you spend more and more money researching patents in the related areas, rather than the science involved. As a result you spent much more money, but at least you get to profit from the science you invested in - so it is money well spent!

    Or perhaps I am entirely wrong about it.

  11. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

    Enough Already!

    "The growing scarcity of ideas means more and more resources have to be put into research to maintain economic growth"

    I'm all for innovation, but *some* things are at an acceptable level and dont need to "grow"

    1. MrXavia

      Re: Enough Already!

      Name one thing that is at an acceptable level?

      I cannot think of anything that couldn't do with an improvement!

      1. Baldrickk

        Re: Enough Already!

        Advertising

  12. volsano

    Doubling

    Doubling from 1 to 2 takes one researcher.

    Doubling from 1 billion to 2 billion takes 18 researchers.

    Each of those 18 are 5.5 million times more effective than the original one.

    1. Prst. V.Jeltz Silver badge

      Re: Doubling

      exactly . Exponential scales are fine for mathematicians to make graphs with, but it cant be sustainable to double processor speed every 2 years just cos we did it when it was easier. Once the numbers get big .... Obvioulsy its impossible and shouldnt be looked at as a failure.

      The graph will level off with a nice curve and flatten out . full speed achieved

  13. Justin Case

    So, what is new?

    All the basic everyday "magic" was sorted by the end of the 20th C. Photography, telephony, radio, television, audio and video recording, computers, internal combustion engines, etc. What we have now are the results of incremental improvements to those.

    It's not surprising that as the "optimum" is approached, the graph of improvement over time starts to level out. All the low hanging fruit gets taken. The law of diminishing returns kicks in.

    Unless something completely new, akin to the discovery of electromagnetic radiation, comes along then I guess it's just shaving a bit off here, adding a bit there and getting marketing to call the result revolutionary for the next few years.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: So, what is new?

      Probs we are reaching the extent of what our brains can handle. Example : a Border Collie. Compared to most life on this rock, real clever, understands shouts and whistles, herds sheep on command. However, there is stuff (complex language, speech, writing, brewing beer, astrophysics) that 'Shep' just aint ever gonna get. If we are not there yet, it's coming (should we all survive). We are probably just running out of ideas and understanding. Not to say that the very clever should quit trying of course, I'm sure there's lots more to understand. But, just like a sheepdog, I think there are limits to what we can discover and invent.

    2. Mage Silver badge

      Re: basic everyday "magic" was sorted by the end of the 20th C

      And all envisaged by 1906!

      Electronic TV proposal was then. It took nearly 30 years to figure out how to have a decent electronic camera. Overnight, Baird's Victorian Era mechanical image scanner was dead.

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon

        Re: basic everyday "magic" was sorted by the end of the 20th C

        "Not to say that the very clever should quit trying of course"

        Don't forget that the vast majority of people who use technology haven't the faintest idea of how it works or is made.

        Lightbulbs = Magic.

        The people who really understand this stuff are vanishingly small compared to the overall population count.

        Just imagine going back in time 500 years, then try and list all the things you actually understand well enough that you could introduce to that time period. As far as I'm concerned I'd be better off with ideas than actual technology (since a lot of tech requires other tech to make it possible) - and in the past those kind of ideas got you a ringside seat at a bonfire made for one.

  14. rmason

    Another factor

    There's another factor to consider too.

    Each decade/year/whatever I'd wager the percentage of (lets use the phrase) "scientists" who are engaged in work that is actually counter productive to progress and knowledge.

    Like the studies funded by tobacco companies to show smoking was safe, like the scientists taking their paychecks from people only interested in data that can be made to show global warming isn't a thing. They're basically doing reverse science. It's not supposed to advance us, it's supposed to help specific people push a specific agenda for a specific purpose.

    Like when the UK government keeps sacking researchers who keep having to say "most illicit drugs aren't as bad as you want us to say they are". They're all people who, in past times, would have been doing something more useful.

    Every person involved in such research, who takes such a job, is also chipping away at that "progress made" figure in the wrong direction.

    1. Pascal Monett Silver badge

      Re: "They're all people who, in past times, would have been doing something more useful."

      I basically agree with what you say, but for two things.

      First, I'm not sure that the people who arrange studies to get a specific result are actually scientists. There may be some gravitating around the group, but those doing the "work" are likely just busybodies.

      Second, in past times, Thomas Edison is known for having electrocuted elephants in an effort to discredit Tesla and alternative current. I don't see that as being very productive either. Personal rivalries have likely done more to prevent science from advancing than probably all other reasons combined.

      1. Dave 126

        Re: "They're all people who, in past times, would have been doing something more useful."

        > Second, in past times, Thomas Edison is known for having electrocuted elephants in an effort to discredit Tesla and alternative current. I don't see that as being very productive either.

        I'm not sure that it helps to be so reductionist about something as complicated as a human. Edison was incredibly driven to bring products to market, and that consisted of hard work, dubious morals and yes, marketing. Success was part of his motivation. I'm not sure that we can use a basic arithmetic such as Less Time Electrocuting Elephants = More Time Inventing.

        Edison knew that both AC and DC can kill people. What he was doing was grappling with the fears of the wider public. Perhaps not in ways we approve of, but at least he knew that public acceptance was as essential to a product's success as more technical concerns.

      2. LionelB Silver badge

        Re: "They're all people who, in past times, would have been doing something more useful."

        ... Thomas Edison is known for having electrocuted elephants ...

        How is that not useful?

    2. Terry 6 Silver badge
      Angel

      Re: Another factor

      Ah yes, I'd forgotten that. The Sainted M.Thatcher, who's early career was working out how to get more air into ice-cream! (No irony icon).

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Jposeph Tainter offered no prophylactyics...

    ...when he wrote 'The Collapse of Complex Societies'

    ( https://www.amazon.co.uk/Collapse-Complex-Societies-Studies-Archaeology/dp/052138673X ) .

    Today we would understand this as a n understanding of how a complex non linear system with feedback evolves.

    The cycle is broadly

    1/. New ecological/technical/whatever niche is discovered that allows population growth.

    2/. New population is initially involved directly in its exploitation to produce wealth.

    3/. As time goes by more and more bureaucracy evolves to deal with the distribution of said wealth.

    4/. Eventually the society is all bureaucracy and no productivity.

    5/. Finally, a society in which all the bureaucrats and large sectors of the population have been removed, allows a better standard of living for the survivors, and a steady state at a much lower population density and without the 'bureaucratic civilisation', evolves.

    I.e wealth breeds bureaucratic complexity,and bureaucratic complexity in the end stifles production of wealth, usually triggered by running into any one of a million potential 'limits to growth'. A vicious positive feedback process then returns society to a new level of barbarism.

    E.g. The Maya who built Chichen Itza did not vanish. They will serve you a beer and tortillas happily. It was the priests who sacrificed them to make the rains come, and the bureaucrats that took food from the peons to give to the priest class, that have vanished. [Presumably the rains didn't come, so they sacrificed the priests].

    Today's society is built on just two things: machines and artificial energy. And we have plucked much of the low hanging fruit.

    More and more complexity for less and less actual advantage. And finally the barbarians at the gate come in and smash everything, because they dont need it and they don't understand it, and you and your I-phone are just another piece of archaeology to be puzzled over 1000 years from now.

    "WE think they had something to do with the 'windmill cult' whereby pointless three bladed devices were erected everywhere to stop the world getting hotter, or so the priests said, in some sort of religious ritual, designed that allowed these prayer devices to be operated on windy days"

    "Of course the enlightened people came in and smashed the windmills, and killed all the priests, and the world got colder instead, but that's religions for you in the dark ages of the 21st century"

    (excerpt from 'the archaeology of the 21st century: "Do you want fries with that" by Adolf Mohammed el Schloctermeier, may God bless Adolf, his Prophet and martyr to the cause )

  16. Mage Silver badge

    Moore's law

    It was an observation. Originally 12 months, then 18 months. In real terms in 2D devices per square millimetre it's not as much 2 years except maybe a few devices. It also says little about function or speed.

    Really it was simply an Intel process technology goal and very little to do with new idea or research, just fairly obvious incremental improvements in process technology.

    It's important not to confuse actual science with implementation, product development and refining application of technology. Babbage improved machine tools, using newer ones to make better ones. That wasn't where his real genius lay. He also did a good book on Economics. While his "engines" were ambitious for the time, the machine tools gave the UK a massive world lead and made a lot of money for some other people.

    There has been little new SCIENCE in Electronics since 1950s. More in Biology. ICs, LASER, single chip CPU etc are later implementations of known science and ideas. Even the 1948 transistor was a Victorian idea with 1930s maths and physics. The real problem was getting pure enough Germanium. Bell labs had no wartime stockpiles (used by the other labs working on transistors) and only ordered small batches which got purer each time.

    Silicon transistors were delayed by figuring out a process to purify it.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    I don't know what to suggest.

    1. TRT Silver badge

      I suggest an immediate...

      research programme to study research programmes. Yes, my bright idea is to research ideas, how we get them, how many we have, what we do with them.

      1. Terry 6 Silver badge

        Re: I suggest an immediate...

        It is being done. It's called philosophy and Universities are full of people doing it. But maybe not as full as they used to be, since that requires funding. And within the field there's even History of Ideas, which tells us how we got where we are in our approach to science etc.

  18. 0laf

    It's the law of diminishing returns.

    All the big easy stuff has pretty much been discovered, analysed and documented.

    What's left is the small difficult complex stuff.

    So it's not really a surprise that it's getting harder.

    Once upon a time most scientists were polymaths.

    Then they specialised to being chemists or biologists

    Then they specialisled into being organic chemists or biochemists

    Now we're getting into super niches - quantum neuropsychopharmacology

    1. illuminatus

      "All the big easy stuff has pretty much been discovered, analysed and documented."

      Oddly enough, there were people saying that at the end of the 19th Century. Science was a finished, decided thing, and we knew all there was, aside from a couple of details. Hardly even important things like black body spectra and the photoelectric effect in physics, for example, were just minor trifles to be tidied up.

      Well, llook how that went.

      If the history of science teaches us nothing else, it's that such statements are usually most common just before something massive happens, and everything changes.

      1. Sir Runcible Spoon

        "Oddly enough, there were people saying that at the end of the 19th Century."

        Are you saying they were wrong? Most of the stuff we have today was envisaged in the 19th Century (give or take a decade)

        1. illuminatus

          Apart from quite a lot of electromagnetism, ALL of quantum mechanics (and by extension anything that uses it, like, you know, the thing you wrote your comment on, because of semiconductor physics), not to mention pretty much all of modern astrophysics, quite a lot of modern genetics, biochemistry and pharmacology. And apart from Babbage, pretty much all of modern computing (Alonzo Church, a major influence on Turing, didn't really start publishing until at least the 1920s). And particle physics, which may be ready for a major shift soon

          Oh, and relativity of course.

          They weren't "wrong" in the sense I think you mean, but like Isaac Asimov's beautiful essay The Relativity of Wrong says, it's just that we are a little less wrong than they were. And presumably, people will keep getting slightly less wrong than we are now, as time goes on. That's how science is supposed to work.

    2. jmch Silver badge

      "Now we're getting into super niches - quantum neuropsychopharmacology"

      which is great for refining existing knowledge, but to really push boundaries and create / discover new branches of science requires polymaths... or at least cross-collaboration by ultra-specialists

  19. el kabong

    I suppose we've got to settle for logarithmic growth then, now that the exponential one is not longer available.

  20. illuminatus

    Or is it becasue...

    Lots of research is now dictated by committee, and funded according to "impact", both fomr funding organisations and within companies and institutions like universities. In trying to make research more effective, the exact opposite has happened.

    1. Terry 6 Silver badge
      Unhappy

      Re: Or is it becasue...

      Which is a bit like saying that we will only fund our top sports talent in sports that already have medal winners. And we wouldn't do that, would we?

      1. illuminatus

        Re: Or is it becasue...

        Isn't it great when funding gets doled out subject to confirmation bias?

        Wasn't it Pascal who first pointed that one out, and how long has that dude been dead? ;)

  21. Jtom

    Crop yields have fallen 5% per year? They lost all credibility with that statement, alone.

    https://ourworldindata.org/yields-and-land-use-in-agriculture/

    The soaring INCREASES in crop yields may be slowing down a little, depending on the crop, but yields are breaking records almost yearly. A five percent decrease would be headlines throughout the world, and put strong inflationary pressure on food prices.

    One of the positive attributes of additional atmospheric CO2 is the effect on plants. When levels were in the 280 ppm range, wheat and other C3 crops would actually stop growing in the afternoon of high-growing days in the UK (large fields of wheat 'gulping' down CO2 would cause CO2 levels to fall below that necessary for photosynthesis). Now growth continues. Further, since CO2 is easier for plants to get, plants can reduce the size of their stoma openings, reducing transpiration which reduces water requirements. The Earth hasn't been as green as it is for many, many centuries.

  22. Anonymous Coward
    Facepalm

    An end to exponential growth? Who'da thought it!

    While I admit I do tend to the pessimistic side, and some of the anecdotes in the article ring true... I think this is way too pessimistic.

    The basic argument is that we're no longer achieving exponential growth in a number of key (and now very mature) technology areas...

    ... Well no. If you've ever thought about the grains of rice on a chessboard thing, it's patently obvious that exponential growth of anything is not sustainable in the long term.

    No-one except for fools and *economists* believe in the sustainability of exponential growth!

    Hang on, who published this work?

    "...paper published on Monday through the National Bureau of Economic Research, ..., economics professors Nicholas ...".

    Ah. So "Economists realize fallacy of exponential growth" might be more apt.

    1. Swarthy

      Re: An end to exponential growth? Who'da thought it!

      Ah. So "Economists realize fallacy of exponential growth" might be more apt.

      And more news-worthy.

  23. Speltier

    Hogwash

    There is no shortage of ideas. There isn't even a shortage of viable ideas that could be realistically developed.

    What seems to be happening is that

    -- the dismal scientists are failing to recognize that as industries mature the cost of advances increases

    -- we seem to be on the epicyclic where each new idea that is developed, doesn't achieve as much economic return compounded by an increasing diversion of energy into increasingly useless endeavors such as following vast numbers of legal rules.

    This last can be for several reasons, ranging from the surfeit of maturing research and development paths-- bullet 1 plus the "my pa did it this way, and his pa, so I'll do it the same way!"-- to the increasing atherosclerosis of the bureaucracy in the world (insufficient burning out of dead useless brush in the human environment, as by say a nice non-nuclear world war). The latter includes vast pools of stored labor in the form of cash which sits useless under the fatty cellulite riddled rumps of the filthy rich. [it has not escaped notice that a small number of such parasites have arisen from incestuous plutocratic sewage to assay useful application of said stored labor, a notable example is SpaceX; these instances are the exception however.]

    This isn't a multiple hundred years stultifying dark age, just a pause until a paradigm change occurs, or perhaps a world war. At least a world war that doesn't obliterate everyone...

    1. Charles 9

      Re: Hogwash

      Part of the concern is that the next world war won't be survivable since no we KNOW we can basically cook practically everyone. But I will agree with you on the idea that new ideas in existing fiends are getting thin and it's going to take something completely out of nowhere (like a way to bypass an existing physical limitation like the speed of light, perhaps a way to bypass Turing's Halting Problem proof, or finally prove P = or != NP) to spur another innovation rush. Thing is, since such innovations DO come from out of nowhere, we have no way to predict when they'll occur.

  24. allthecoolshortnamesweretaken

    Please...

    do not refer to economists as boffins.

    Neither group deserves that.

  25. Gobhicks
    Boffin

    Hysteresis

    I've said it before, I'll say it again. This exponential curve we seem to be on will turn out to be the upslope of a hysteresis loop.

  26. kburgoyne

    Just in time...

    Since the AIs are getting ready to take over anyway...

POST COMMENT House rules

Not a member of The Register? Create a new account here.

  • Enter your comment

  • Add an icon

Anonymous cowards cannot choose their icon

Other stories you might like