Recently, a friend gave me a lift in his car. When we reached our destination, he opened the boot, pulled out a cord and plugged it in. I’d never actually seen anyone charge a vehicle before — only about 2 per cent of existing cars are electric — and it was a glimpse of a better future. At last, after 50 years of disappointment, innovation might again start improving our lives, chiefly through reduced emissions and better medicine. That’s partly because today’s polycrisis has sparked poly-innovation.
The golden age for life-enhancing innovation, argued the economist Robert Gordon, was the period 1920-1970. That’s when most people in developed countries acquired electric lights, telephones, fridges, clean water at home, vaccines, antibiotics and perhaps the most important invention, flush toilets. In that half-century, life expectancy in the most technologically advanced country, the US, jumped from 53 to 70.
But after 1970, even as tech became the dominant industry, it delivered much less. Look at the contributions of today’s behemoth companies: social media and a delivery company that did to high streets what the iPhone has done to attention spans. These innovations haven’t benefited humanity, but then why would we expect them to? The purpose of new tech is typically to enrich innovators or to build deadlier weapons. Any human progress is an accidental side-effect. Far from innovation combating climate change, most CO₂ emissions in history were generated after 1990. In fact, the next technological frontier for several garlanded innovators involves leaving behind our damaged planet and heading for space.
Progress has been rare lately. American lifespans are now about the same as in 1996, largely because of opioids, processed foods and mismanagement of Covid-19. Poor countries did gain many years of life expectancy, but mostly by getting access to things like pre-1970 vaccines.
In finance, remarked former Fed chair Paul Volcker in 2009, the best modern innovation was “the automatic teller machine. That really helps people.” Other novelties, most recently cryptocurrencies, not so much. More generally, self-reported human happiness has slumped this century, according to Gallup’s annual survey of more than 140 countries.
To be fair, innovation keeps getting harder. Scientists need years of study just to absorb past discoveries. Most then work on small-bore, specialised problems. And there’s always a balance between innovation and the regulation of, for instance, medicines. As societies get richer, they tend to swing towards regulation. One measure of this is the stock of lawyers: up more than fourfold in the US since 1970, and by 148 per cent in China in a decade.
But crises accelerate innovation. When Covid struck, regulators waved through new mRNA vaccines that stimulate the immune system. Now these vaccines are being trialled against cancer. Meanwhile, medical research occasionally produces step changes, and the first effective vaccines against the ancient scourge of malaria could reach tens of millions of infants this year.
The Ukrainian crisis may prove equally productive. Vladimir Putin, by provoking sanctions against Russian fossil fuels, achieved what democratic politicians never could: he created the first serious de facto carbon tax. That spurred the EU and the US to invest fortunes in innovative green energy. Last year’s breakthrough in zero-carbon nuclear fusion, by scientists at an American government lab, will attract more funds. Fusion is getting an additional hand from artificial intelligence. The climate crisis was caused by technological innovation, but might just be solved by technological innovation.
AI is also discovering drugs, notes Steve Crossan of venture capital firm DCVC. AI is now so easy to use, he says, that an academic chemist can get up to speed with a few hours of study. Add on the gene-editing drugs currently in clinical trials, and we’re speeding towards personalised medicine. One person’s liver cancer, say, will increasingly get different treatment from another’s.
Innovation will solve some of today’s problems. But it will create new ones. AI is advancing too fast even for specialists to keep track, one leading entrepreneur in the field told me. “There is literally a breakthrough every week or two.” The neural networks being created are so vast, he says, that “there seem to be emerging capabilities that we don’t understand”. Worryingly for the west, the leading innovators in AI appear to be Chinese. If even James Watt’s humble steam engine set us on the road to climate crisis, what’s coming is unimaginable, for better and worse.
Follow @FTMag on Twitter to find out about our latest stories first
Yes, there’s a polycrisis. Could there be poly-innovation too? Republished from Source https://www.ft.com/content/1c33c6b5-810e-4141-bdb9-0d6b5ebd77f9 via https://www.ft.com/companies/technology?format=rss