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Innovation then – and the challenge now

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Innovation: then and now

In 1965 the debating society at my old school held a parents’ evening in which a debate took place on the motion: ‘The spirit of adventure has been lost’. Someone from the audience carried the day against that motion. His argument? ‘Last week, a man walked in space’. He was referring to the Soviet cosmonaut Alexei Leonov.

More than 50 years on, however, matters are not so simple. While acts of innovation and personal heroism still occur, a pervasive sense of foreboding dominates society. Techies may talk blithely of ‘disruption’, always instancing the same tired examples of that phenomenon (Airbnb, Uber). But as a forecaster with no nostalgia for the past, I don’t hesitate to say that the spirit of adventure in technology has significantly diminished.

The period from the launch of Sputnik in 1957 until 1965 provides an instructive comparison. (1) In 1965, for instance, the later co-founder of Intel, Gordon Moore, published his famous ‘Moore’s law’ article, observing that the number of transistors per chip yielding the minimum cost for each had roughly doubled each year from 1962 to 1965. In the piece, a cartoon featured a bow-tied salesman offering, from a kiosk, sale prices on ‘handy home computers’. (2) A sense of possibility was certainly there.

Contrast that with the more recent era – when the end of the Cold War, and the Twin Towers attacks of 11 Sept 2001, dramatically raised public inhibitions about the future, and, with that, about the wisdom of technological advance. The first problem of four reviewed here is that, in their desire to batten down the hatches and play safe, rather than boldly go into the unknown, experts identify spurious risks. Here the Millennium Bug episode was emblematic of the fears that surround IT in the early 21st century.

In IT, the Millennium Bug sets the cautious tone for the new century

In the late 1990s, it was thought there was a major problem around old but still functioning IT systems. Not just computers, but also the IT in general capital equipment was felt not sophisticated enough to recognise the transition from what, primitively, chips would see as ‘99’ through to ‘00’, or, in IT-speak, ‘Y2K’. In 1997 the IT forecasters Gartner Group advised businessmen to put their best people on to solving Y2K – not only to save their organisations, but also to ‘acquire the skills needed to formulate and execute IT strategy for competitive advantage into the next century’. (3) Later, Gartner warned that to Benjamin Franklin’s famous two certainties about the world – death and taxes – Y2K could also be added. Fixing it would cost $300-600 billion. It was not a fake problem, it would not go away, there was no free lunch and no silver bullet would suddenly emerge to save the day. Business failure rates would rise ‘dramatically’, and lawsuits arising from Y2K would likely total $1 trillion in America alone. (4)

The same alarmism infected the normally sober Economist. Frances Cairncross pronounced that Y2K was ‘frightening in the unpredictability of its consequences’. (5) Then, in 1998, the head of the UK government agency set up to tackle Y2K stated that it would be wise, in 1999, to buy two weeks’ of emergency supplies over the week-long millennium holiday. (6)

In the event, no planes fell out of the sky, and, just for once, lawyers did not laugh all the way to the bank. Russia, Italy and China, which many had felt were most vulnerable to Y2K, continued to function.

Did genuine preparations avert some genuine problems? Undoubtedly. Did IT companies make a killing in the process? Of course. Did, however, forecasts of tragedy still prove wildly exaggerated? They did. Did they also subconsciously confirm the public in the view that ‘experts’ frequently get their prognoses wrong? They did that, too.

The panic around The Bug was not an isolated instance of the wrong risks being identified. Thus, in 2006, Wall Street was worrying not about America’s growing economic bubble in housing finance, but about ‘what type of hygienic supplies, such as surgical masks’ it should keep on hand to help employees deal with… bird flu. (7)

All this culture of misplaced caution opened the new century with a zeitgeist of fear. That could only stigmatise adventurous technological innovation. (8)

Inflating risk, demoting innovation

For proof that obsessions with risk obstruct innovation, look at the second problem with today’s loss of nerve: the way the media and others inflate risks.

Take the Fukushima disaster in Japan, in 2011. On the morning of 17 March 2011, the Daily Telegraph, a paper not known for environmentalist sympathies, headlined: ‘Just 48 hours to avoid “another Chernobyl”’. (9) The response of Angela Merkel in Germany was equally risk-averse: she decided to phase out nuclear power altogether. (10) But how many people died as a result of the poor siting of Fukushima in relation to the earthquake and tsunami that struck it? None.

It is striking that while environmental risks are talked up, innovation to deal with them is often left out of account. Living just near Putney High Street, I’m keen on clean air, for on average, in 2016, that thoroughfare reputedly breached the legal limits for NO2 – 40 micrograms per cubic metre – with a score of 125 micrograms µg/m3. (11) To his credit, London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, has promised to spend £312m making the capital’s 9,300 buses less polluting, as well as £65m on inducing drivers of 10-year-old taxis to switch electric or hydrogen power. (12) But he would also rather take the less-risky option of taxing owners of diesel cars and extending London’s reputed ‘ultra low emissions zone’ than invest in research and development (R&D) into something like air-purifying concrete paving stones, which can cut NO and NO2 concentrations by 25-45 per cent. (13)

It is a similar story with particulate emissions. In the Netherlands, the design firm Studio Roosegarde has developed a tower that can suck up 30,000m3 of air per hour and rid it of 75 per cent of harmful particles. (14)

Where is the spirit of adventure to experiment with these kinds of technologies? It can be found, but only quite rarely. Instead, ‘nudging’ – penalising – allegedly ignorant motorists with price mechanisms is the preferred and much less effectual route to air quality. Alternatively, as in Delhi, Beijing and Paris, attempts are made to make motorists drive every other day – ‘odd-even’ schemes that can only lower the productivity of the urban realm, and give the lie to all the guff we hear about ‘smart’ cities.

Panic ractions vs patience

A third problem with today’s sometimes subconscious but often explicit fear of technological progress is that we frequently, in a panic-stricken manner, bring forward future risks into the present.

Prince Charles has given perhaps the most hilarious example of this practice. In July 2009 he warned that humanity had just 96 months to avert ‘irretrievable climate and ecosystem collapse’. (15) Believing, perhaps, that the End of His Reputation was Nigh, he then revised his forecast in 2015, warning that we now have just 35 years to stop catastrophic climate change. (16)

For Charles and most Greens, immediate gestures in the realm of personal conduct and corporate social responsibility are the main ways to save the planet. Such feel-good signaling of virtue – glibly recast as the ‘no-brainer’ appeal of ‘low hanging fruit’, as if human beings were simply monkeys – are thought to make a real difference now. By contrast, long-term programmes of R&D directed at solving the real problem of climate change are thought too slow and too uncertain in their effects.

As a result of this misplaced politics of urgency, we hear little, say, of new efforts cheaply to capture the CO2 from coal and gas plants. However, at America’s Sandia National Labs, New Mexico, scientists hope to do just that with nano-membranes 2000 times thinner than a human hair, supported and stabilised by silica, and impregnated with the fast-acting enzyme carbonic anhydrase. The CO2 captured by such ‘memzymes’ is 99 per cent pure, allowing it – among many other applications – to be fed to algae, which in turn can make biofuels. (17)

Yes, success in this field requires patience, not panic reactions. But what the example of carbon in memzymes shows is how carbon, despite the bad press it gets, is in fact a miracle element.

When I was at school, many innovations of the day were described as ‘miracles’. That’s much less the case now. Indeed, potential technological ‘miracles’ such as memzymes in the realm of energy, materials and biochemistry are hardly spoken about. Instead, commentators widely urge panic. Meanwhile, they typically reduce innovation to IT, go on to reduce IT to new ‘business models’ (different ways of getting money off people), and finally, in a flip-flop addition of insult to injury, wind up hyping clever software as ‘artificial intelligence’ (AI). (18)

Fearing technology before we even have it: the example of UK driverless cars

The fourth and final way in which today’s obsession with risk impedes the forward movement of technology is that we fear the results of technologies long before those technologies are with us. We see this in the fear of AI and robots taking over the world – when the truth is that we are very, very far from that. But let’s take a sector where innovation is even slower than the pace of change in IT: not energy (although sloth is the rule there), but the related field of transport.

For the Guardian, that ‘we are increasingly entrusting our lives to self-driving cars’ is a ‘fact’. On top of that, though, ‘car hacking is the future – and sooner or later you’ll be hit’. (19) But are we really entrusting our lives to these kinds of vehicles, to the extent that we should be nervous about them being hacked?

Now, Milton Keynes has started trials of driverless vehicles. (20) But let’s have a look at the simple mathematics of mass-market driverless cars – the maths of that moment when we really might be beginning to entrust our lives to them.

Take one reputable statistics firm, Statista. It forecasts that fully automated vehicles, or at least ‘highly’ automated ones (‘Level 4’, not quite the same as driverless, which are Level 5) will reach four per cent of new sales of cars, trucks and pods in 2025 and an astonishing 25 per cent in 2030. (21) I’m not alone in seeing this as very optimistic; but let’s agree with this forecast for the moment.

Well: new UK registrations of cars and vans in 2016 are estimated at 2.6 million, and Statista estimates that the total number of cars on the road in the same year was 31.7 million. (22) So now say, with enormous generosity but for convenient arithmetic, that the penetration of driverless cars in UK showrooms suddenly, despite their price, leaps to Statista’s four per cent of sales in 2017 – nine years before the 2025 date that Statista talks about. Say, too, that the penetration of driverless cars in new car sales stays buoyant at four per cent till 2025. Then 104,000 new driverless cars will be added to UK roads each year, adding up, over the nine years to 2025, to a cumulative total of 0.936 million.

On this most rose-tinted reading, the UK will not even see a three per cent penetration of its installed base of cars till 2026.

Of course Britain’s fleet of cars might contract between now and then, making my modest three per cent penetration easier to achieve (though if recession brought such a contraction, it would doubtless affect sales of expensive driverless cars as well). But you get the picture. A readily observable but still relatively tiny number of driverless cars on Britain’s roads is at least a decade away.

Yet already, in 2017, we’re supposed to worry about driverless cars being hacked.

So should we develop driverless cars at all? And shouldn’t we also worry about the ethics of the decisions that they, like robots, may be forced to make in the event of an impending accident? (23) Indeed, despite their premise of greater safety than conventional cars, shouldn’t we ban the driverless sort now? (24)

Conclusion

Because Donald Trump has made the mistake of attributing America’s economic decline simply to China’s trade practices, his critics now say that automation, not trade, has been the decisive factor in US redundancies. Yet if this is really the case, why has US productivity languished for a long time, and why is US unemployment relatively low? Why do we see the same trends in Britain?

It would be simplistic to put today’s culture of inhibition about technology down simply to economic constraints, or to government attempts to keep us all afraid. These things certainly exist, but the challenge to innovation today runs deeper than that. It certainly encompasses an unwillingness to write off sunk costs and start anew. But it also includes a preference for corporate acquisitions, share buy-backs and the paying of dividends to shareholders over expanding R&D; a preference for owning property, not making new goods and services; a bias toward the commercial, ‘property’ side of intellectual property more than the intellectual side; and a seemingly unstoppable drive toward new forms of pettifogging regulation, even when the rhetoric is of deregulation.

Again, it’s too easy to point to the atmosphere of uncertainty unleashed by the Brexit referendum and the Trump ascendancy. There is always uncertainty in the world, and today’s bears little comparison with that which attended, say, the evacuation of Dunkirk (1940), or the Cuban missile crisis (1962). No, the challenge of innovation is to recover the idea that it is through scientific and technological experiment that we can conquer dark and inchoate uncertainty about the future and, at the very least, shine light on quantifiable risk.

Just after I left my old school, Britain’s School Mathematics Project captured my imagination with a book titled We built our own computers (1966). To build, to err, to learn from error, to experiment – that was the ethos then. Rokeby set its pupils difficult tasks, not ones merely designed to cultivate the unquestioned goals of education today… self-esteem, student satisfaction, safe spaces on campus.

Politically, I do not much approve of President Kennedy. But back in 1962, in the famous speech with which he confirmed America’s Cold War riposte to Soviet efforts in space, he said this:

‘We choose to go to the moon! We choose to go to the moon… [applause]. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organise and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we’re willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one we intend to win’. (25)

The emphasis is Kennedy’s. He speaks of the spirit of adventure, in technology but also in endeavor and ambition – indeed, his examples include climbing the highest mountain, and making the first flight across the Atlantic. .

We need to uphold that spirit if we are to rehabilitate technological innovation and begin to get out of the predicament in which we now find ourselves.

Endnotes and references

1.  For a survey of developments in 1957-8, see Innovation in energy: expressions of a crisis, and some ways forward pp934-5.

2. Gordon Moore, ‘Cramming more components on to integrated circuits’, Electronics, 19 April 1965. For a discussion of Moore’s law, see this article on woudhuysen.com.

3. Bruce H Hall, ‘Year 2000 molds IT leadership for the next millennium’, Gartner Business Issues research report, 19 February 1997. Oddly, this article does not now appear to be available anywhere on the Web.

4. Bill McNee and others, ‘The year 2000 challenge: opportunity or liability?’, Gartner Business Issues research report, 29 July 1997. Again, this article, which was widely referenced at the time of its publication, is strangely not now available on the Web.

5. Frances Cairncross, ‘Time runs out’, Survey on the Millennium Bug, The Economist, 17 September 1998.

6. Gwynneth Flower, head of Action 2000, quoted in ‘Government will advise people to buy extra food for millennium’, front page lead in The Observer, 13 December 1998. Flower added: ‘Anyone sensible would plan for this. Because we don’t want to see panic buying in the weeks leading up to next Christmas, consumers should think about this in advance’.

7. Statement of Gregory J Ferris, managing director of global business continuity planning at US investment bankers Morgan Stanley, on behalf of the Bond Market Association and Securities Industry Association, House of Representatives Financial Services Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations, Hearing on pandemic influenza preparedness in the financial services sector, 29 June 2006.

8. For a further treatment of the Y2K episode, and a sharp exploration of today’s culture of fear, see Frank Furedi, ‘Precautionary culture and the rise of possibilistic risk assessment’, Erasmus Law Review, Vol 02, Issue 02, 2009.

9. Japan nuclear plant: Just 48 hours to avoid ‘another Chernobyl’, by Gordon Rayner and Martin Evans, The Telegraph 16 Mar 2011.

10. As a result, and despite massive investment in renewable energy, German emissions of CO2 rose in both 2014 and 2015. See ‘German emissions increase in 2016 due to nuclear plant closure’, Environmental Progress, 13 January 2017.

11. Damian Carrington, ‘London breaches annual air pollution limit for 2017 in just five days’, The Guardian, 6 January 2017.

12. Adam Vaughan, ‘London mayor to double funding to tackle air pollution’, The Guardian, 7 December 2016.

13. Anthony Watts, ‘Road surface purifies air by removing nitrogen oxides (NOx)’, What’s up with that?, 7 July 2010.

14. David Cox, ‘How a giant air freshener could save our polluted cities’, The Guardian, 9 May 2016.

15. Robert Verkaik, ‘Just 96 months to save world, says Prince Charles’, The Independent, 8 July 2009.

16. Philip Bowern, ‘Prince Charles exclusive: We must tackle climate change’, Western Morning News, 18 July 2015.

17. Mollie Rappe, ‘Sandia, UNM develop bio-inspired liquid membrane that could make clean coal a reality’, Sandia National Laboratories, 1 September 2016.

18. Is Silicon Valley as adventurous as it would have us believe? True, Apple has plans for driverless or electric cars. Yet Apple also has about $238bn of cash sitting in overseas banks – not earning interest, but not being invested in laboratories, either. Likewise, Fortune magazine, basing itself on a survey of 4000 consumers, has recently lavished praise on 10 ‘breakthrough brands’ – rivals of Apple, Coca-Cola and Disney, eight of them less than a decade old. It turns out, however, that no fewer than nine of these companies operate in the virtual, not the real world (and yes, they included Airbnb and Uber). The single exception was Tesla, maker of electric cars. See ‘Breakthrough brands 2017’, Fortune, 22 December 2016.

19. Alex Hern, ‘Car hacking is the future – and sooner or later you’ll be hit’, The Guardian, 28 August 2016.

20. Tom Cheshire, ‘Public trial for driverless cars beginning in Milton Keynes’, SkyNews, 11 October 2016.

21. Statista, ‘Projected market penetration of autonomous vehicles (including cars, trucks, and pods) in the United Kingdom (UK) from 2015 to 2030, by level of automation’ (subscription required).

22. The discrepancies in the categories – covering cars, trucks, vans and pods – need not concern us, although it is reasonably obvious that driverless tractors and, perhaps, taxis or pods will precede self-driving lorries, which in turn will precede self-driving cars. Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, ‘SMMT forecasts: UK new car and LCV registrations 2016 and 2017’, 1 November 2016, and Statista, ‘Number of cars on the road in the United Kingdom (UK) between 2000 and 2016 (in millions)’.

23. Two seminal articles here are Patrick Lin, ‘The ethics of autonomous cars’, The Atlantic, 8 October 2013, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2013/10/the-ethics-of-autonomous-cars/280360/ and Noah J Goodall, ‘Ethical decision making during automated vehicle crashes’, Transportation Research Record, Vol 2424, 2014, http://people.virginia.edu/~njg2q/ethics.pdf

24. It is instructive to consider other technologies that important sections of bien-pensant opinion in Britain would like to ban. On top of nuclear power, fossil fuels and diesel cars, they include HS2, new roads, new runways, antibiotics, nanotechnologies and genetically modified food.

25. The speech is available at We choose to go to the moon on YouTube (8 minutes and 40 seconds into the full speech.

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