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NASA Space Science Technology

Neal Stephenson On 'Innovation Starvation' 437

Posted by timothy
from the hitler-did-a-lot-of-stuff dept.
Geoffrey.landis writes "In an essay discussing the space program, author Neal Stephenson suggests that the decline of the space program 'might be symptomatic of a general failure of our society to get big things done.' He suggests that we may be suffering from innovation starvation: 'Innovation can't happen without accepting the risk that it might fail. The vast and radical innovations of the mid-20th century took place in a world that, in retrospect, looks insanely dangerous and unstable.'" Though the context is different, this reminds me of economist Tyler Cowen's premise that the U.S. has for decades been in a Great Stagnation.
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Neal Stephenson On 'Innovation Starvation'

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  • by pieterh (196118) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:37PM (#37613862) Homepage

    Actually I'd conclude that patents are a main cause that innovation has stagnated in the last 20 years. Innovation depends on sharing knowledge.

    What I really wonder is whether the strangulation of research will put our survival at risk at a time in history when we need to be smarter than ever about how we use energy, land, water, and raw materials? Why patents are evil. [ipocracy.org]

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:37PM (#37613864)

    The cold war was great for this. Massive amounts of money were dumped into stuff with the only goal being "get it done before the other guys". Some stuff needs a tonne of money and time sunk into basic research with only a thin vision of the end goal to happen.

    These days, we are very good at the standard cycle of:
    a) release product
    b) collect feedback
    c) update product based on feedback
    d) release updated product

    A business man can understand "if we spend 2 years an $xx researching hard drive technology, it will probably give us something that we can sell in the end". This is why we see continuous advances in the stuff we already have.

    We are less good at "hey you smart guys! here's a few billion dollars and a huge lab... give us something cool".

  • by Anrego (830717) * on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:42PM (#37613946)

    So what is the solution?

    Not snarky, I'm serious. I totally agree, patents have created a world where unless you are a huge company, it's pretty damn hard to invent something new. All the patent nonsense has raised the bar way above the head of the garage tinkerer, and given that this is where a lot of earlier innovation came from, that seems like a really bad thing.

    But at the same time, I don't like the idea that if I spend a year of my time developing something, someone else can spend 2 weeks making a slight improvement and start selling it.

    How do we let people invent stuff while at the same time preventing blatant rip-offs and ensuring inventors get paid for their work.

  • Markets do not work (Score:5, Interesting)

    by damburger (981828) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:42PM (#37613956)

    The period that Stephenson identifies with a decline in the ability to get 'big' things done coincidence near perfectly with the rise of neoliberalism in the west. The more markets are deregulated, the less ability we have to actually get things done, because corporations will break up anything large scale for profit - with the full cooperation of sleazy, dishonest politicians who are in their pockets.

    But a whole bunch of us are ingrained with a kind of market fundamentalism, that the 'invisible hand' will make things right if you just deregulate some more, that you simply cannot see any way to stave off this decline.

    It isn't just technology. This deregulated, global market lets 25,000 people starve to death each year, despite global agriculture producing enough food for each person get 3000 calories per day.

    Now cue the stream of /.ers defending their dead ideology because they can't face up to the fact that something they support, both with their ideas and their everyday activities, is so corrosive and destructive to our prospects for survival, happiness, and development.

  • by 0123456 (636235) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @12:55PM (#37614152)

    Patents aren't evil. Only in a perfect utopian world could somebody develop an idea and not have to fear it being ripped off for the profit of others.

    I've worked in a patent-heavy industry. There was no 'innovation' being protected, because every company had to cross-license their patents with every other company in order to remain in business. The only things the patents did were keep more efficient competitors out of the market and keep patent lawyers well paid.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:05PM (#37614296)

    Not trying to steal the thread, and these are not perfect solutions but I suspect they would have a huge impact on bogus litigation and create an ongoing boom innovation investment...

    * 5 year legal monopoly beginning the day you file the patent.
    This will force patent holders to put up or shut up. You invest in your patent now or forfeit your monopoly.

    * A producer requirement rule, you automatically lose in infringement litigation if you do not produce a product or service based on your patent.
    I witnessed first hand an engineer who was paid per technical drawing to develop "innovative" patentable designs based on the work of others he found on the internet. He and the patent troll that paid him never invested time, money or effort into creating prototypes or marketable products. The product was a stream of patents that the troll marketed to patent holding ventures to use in future lawsuits against actual producers which may even include the original developers who posted pictures and video of their work online.

    A producer rule would not stop lone engineers developing ideas and selling them but they would end up in the hands of producers who would have a limited amount of time (see the 5 year rule) to invest in actually producing the product or service based on the patent.

  • by ideonexus (1257332) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:08PM (#37614328) Homepage Journal

    I appreciate the second link's take on things, with the "Low-Hanging Fruit" metaphor, but I think the author misses some key elements in how it applies to modern society. Fifty years ago, discovery and innovation was much easier and the things invented were just lying around (like oil) to be simply picked up and applied. Just as the Enlightenment 200 years ago resulted in an explosion of discoveries about the natural world because the realm of scientific knowledge was so small at the time... You couldn't investigate any natural phenomena without discovering a new element or species.

    It's getting harder and harder to push the frontiers of knowledge, and nearly impossible for and individual acting alone to do. In America we have this mythos of the "Great Man" a single inventor like Zuckerberg, Jobs, or Edison, but in reality these people are the exception while the rule is that it takes large teams and incredible financial investment to innovate today, but our mythos of innovation downplays the collaborative side of invention.

    Space Exploration is an important example of this. We emphasize Capitalism as the best engine for innovation, but it was Socialism that took man to the Moon. Capitalism is only just now reaching space, 40 years later. Teamwork accomplishes great things, but in America we emphasize individualism and personal profit, which are great motivators, but create silos of productivity that are disadvantaged for lacking the cross-pollination of ideas that comes with collaboration.

    Queue the "Marxist" ad hominem attack in 3... 2... 1...

  • by Anrego (830717) * on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:16PM (#37614434)

    I spent all that time and now you're saying I can't use my own invention just because you finished a few days earlier?

    Hold on there, I didn't say that anywhere. In fact, I agree that this is a big problem with the current system. The whole point of my post was that the current system is flawed (but that simply having no system wouldn't work either).

    If your idea is so simple that someone else can copy it and improve it in two weeks, why should you have the armed might of the state preventing them from doing so?

    Both time figures were somewhat unrealistic, but the point is copying something is usually a lot cheaper and quicker than developing something from scratch. Certainly I think something could be ripped off after release long before an inventor would see his profit.

    That, and some "simple" things come out of long periods of trying to solve a problem. The end solution might be a simple widget, but coming up with that widget as a solution to the problem may have involved significant resources. If someone can then just start producting that widget with no money going to the people who came up with it, you'll see people a lot less willing to spend money inventing.

  • by pieterh (196118) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:21PM (#37614486) Homepage

    Yes, it's quite simple. Take existing models that work, copy those. Use science, not philosophy. Fashion, food, open source. Industries that are incredibly innovative and where ideas are properly treated as worthless. It's execution that counts, not ideas. Here's an idea: "send a man to the moon". Now execute that.

    To suggest that innovation needs patents is like suggesting reproduction needs divorce lawyers.

  • by Chris Burke (6130) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:38PM (#37614700) Homepage

    I've worked in a patent-heavy industry. There was no 'innovation' being protected, because every company had to cross-license their patents with every other company in order to remain in business. The only things the patents did were keep more efficient competitors out of the market and keep patent lawyers well paid.

    .

    Same here. And I've been told directly by corporate patent lawyers not to see if anything I'm inventing might infringe on someone else's patents, because 1) something involved in what I'm making almost certainly does and 2) if you do a patent search that can show willful violation which is treble damages and screws up the "we both infringe each other so let's create a sharing agreement based on the relative value of our portfolios" negotiations.

    As you say, the main real effect is to create an artificial barrier to entry into an industry when it's a minefield of patents.

    The other real effect is to give patent trolls free reign to ruin the real innovation that these patent-holding corporations are engaging in because they're immune to the "well you're infringing too so let's just strike a deal and get on with business" tactic, having no products of their own.

  • by smellsofbikes (890263) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @01:52PM (#37614914) Journal

    Both time figures were somewhat unrealistic, but the point is copying something is usually a lot cheaper and quicker than developing something from scratch. Certainly I think something could be ripped off after release long before an inventor would see his profit.

    That, and some "simple" things come out of long periods of trying to solve a problem. The end solution might be a simple widget, but coming up with that widget as a solution to the problem may have involved significant resources. If someone can then just start producting that widget with no money going to the people who came up with it, you'll see people a lot less willing to spend money inventing.

    I'm not sure this answers your question: I work in an area -- integrated circuit design for consumer markets -- where we can patent things until we're blue in the face, and someone else can still come up with another implementation that does the same thing we do, and get it to market. (Despite what so many people claim, the US patent office *does* reject things for being too obvious, like, oh, say, building an LED driver that can work with wall dimmers, so if you want to build those you have to build a specific implementation of a dimmer driver, and patent that, and then someone else will just find another clever way of doing it.) So we do the research, build a product, and everyone else copies it. But we still make money, and the way we do that is by choosing markets where we know it'll take long enough for the copies to hit the market that we'll have already repaid our investment and made a profit. I'm not saying that's the best way of doing things, but one nice side-benefit is that instead of just one solution to the problem, there are a half-dozen, and that's a huge amount of information being dumped into the public pool for future inventors to use. We almost don't need patents at all, because they don't actually help us -- but they do help the world, by requiring people to publish their implementations to problems. We keep investing on innovation because we make money, and the world gets a lot of value from that, as a very nice side-effect.

    Now where that doesn't work is, say, drugs. It costs us like I dunno let's say a million dollars to bring a new IC to market. We can recoup that in six months. It takes more like a billion dollars to get a new drug on the market, so you either need to find something that is going to sell a billion dollars in six months or you need long-term patent protection. Maybe that means we should have variable patent lengths, maybe patents should expire in 5 years unless you reapply for continued protection. I don't know. But patents have some obvious and huge benefits over trade secrets. We have trade secrets we've kept for 30 years, and some of them appear to me to be exactly the sort of stuff that'd really help a lot of other designers. I don't think that's a great idea either.

  • by GospelHead821 (466923) on Wednesday October 05, 2011 @02:11PM (#37615168)

    Openness works because ideas can be made abundant at practically no cost. The economy of ideas right now is illustrative of the characteristics of a system in which artificial scarcity is applied to abundant resources. This is important because so many of the big things that we could be building would serve to eliminate or at least reduce scarcity even with regard to material resources. A quote that I read earlier regarding the Occupy Wall Street movement touches upon the same idea: "They mean to show that there is an inappropriate and correctable disconnect between the abundance America produces and the scarcity its markets manufacture." More generally, I am interested in any philosophy that endorses the pursuit of shareable abundance over profitable scarcity.

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