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Science Technology

Boffins Fear We Might Be Running Out of Ideas (theregister.co.uk) 356

Innovation, fetishized by Silicon Valley companies and celebrated by business boosters, no longer provides the economic jolt it once did. From a report: 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 output today is 18 times less effective in terms of generating economic value than it was several decades ago. On an annual basis, research productivity is declining at a rate of about 6.8 percent per year in the semiconductor industry. In other words, we're running out of ideas. That's the conclusion of economic researchers from Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In a paper published this week through the National Bureau of Economic Research, "Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find?", economics professors Nicholas Bloom, Charles Jones, and John Van Reenen, and PhD candidate Michael Webb, defy Betteridge's Law of Headlines by concluding that an idea drought has indeed taken hold. "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," the authors declare in their paper.

Boffins Fear We Might Be Running Out of Ideas

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  • Visionary (Score:2, Informative)

    "Everything that can be invented has been invented."
    ~ Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of US patent office (1899)

    •         When we have found how the nucleus of atoms is built up we shall have found the greatest secret of all — except life. We shall have found the basis of everything — of the earth we walk on, of the air we breathe, of the sunshine, of our physical body itself, of everything in the world, however great or however small — except life.

      • by tsa ( 15680 )

        I think self-consciousness is even more mysterious than life. It will take a while before we understand how that comes about.

        • I think self-consciousness is even more mysterious than life.

          "Self-consciousness" is not a scientific concept. There is no falsifiable test. You may "feel" that you are self-conscious, but there is no objective reason for me to believe that you are.

    • Re:Visionary (Score:5, Informative)

      by ShanghaiBill ( 739463 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @04:22PM (#55183475)

      "Everything that can be invented has been invented."
      ~ Charles H. Duell, Commissioner of US patent office (1899)

      Not true. Commissioner Duell never said that, and what he actually said was pretty much the exact opposite:

      In my opinion, all previous advances in the various lines of invention will appear totally insignificant when compared with those which the present century will witness. I almost wish that I might live my life over again to see the wonders which are at the threshold. -- Charles H. Duell 1902

  • Nah... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by K. S. Kyosuke ( 729550 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @03:26PM (#55182887)

    Apple Announces iPhone X With Edge-To-Edge Display, Wireless Charging and No Home Button

    Nah, see? We still have plenty of ideas. Oh, wait, you may have meant good ones... OK, that might be a problem. The low-hanging fruit has been already eaten.

  • by Altrag ( 195300 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @03:26PM (#55182889)

    The low hanging fruit was easiest to pick? What a shocking new revelatory cliche that we've totally never seen before in any other aspect of life and therefore would have had no reason to believe would apply here!

    • Re:Oh no! (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Oswald McWeany ( 2428506 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @04:28PM (#55183545)

      History of progress within any given industry has always been boom then trickle, boom then trickle.

      When the Microprocessor first was made it was boom then slowed. We came out with multi-cores, it was boom then slowed.

      Look at manufacturing. Boom during industrial revolution then growth slowed. Boom with the assembly line then it slowed. Boom after robotics then growth slowed.

      Look at agriculture. Boom when farming first developed then slowed. Boomed when automation was pioneered then slowed. Boomed again with modern chemistry then slowed.

      The boom normally happens when a new technology or idea is pioneered, and then, you're right, the low hanging fruit associated with that technology is picked first and growth slows.

      The next boom in computer chips might come with economic quantum computing is developed, and then people will pick up the low hanging fruit until progress is a trickle again.

      Just because innovation may be slow now, the next boom could happen at any time.

      • Just because innovation may be slow now, the next boom could happen at any time.

        At which time, the new processors are likely to be a quantum leap ahead.

  • Worse engineers (Score:5, Insightful)

    by tjansen ( 2845 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @03:27PM (#55182897) Homepage
    I wonder whether it's really a lack of ideas, and or worse engineering staff. I think engineers are, on average, less passionate than they used to be. For many people in the industry it's just a career now, and not a passion. Especially in large companies like Intel.
    • Re: (Score:2, Insightful)

      I have hundreds of fine ideas - many of them could be enormously profitable for someone - some have been. However, it is my experience that no one wants new ideas. I have been explicitly told by large corporations - including Ford Motor Company, General Motors, TRW, Xerox Corp, to name but a few "We don't want any more ideas - we are fine with the ones we already have.

      Some of my ideas have made large sums of money for others, but not for me. I suspect many engineers are pissed at having been ripped off - p

    • by Junta ( 36770 )

      On average, I'll believe that, simply because the profession is more prolific.

      The curse of a career path becoming more prolific is that only the most passionate would previously be in the field now has money seekers.

    • Ideas and good engineers are not appreciated like they used to be. CEO pay has exploded, engineer pay has mostly plateaued. Many of the better minds have followed the money to software and to Wall Street. Why work harder for relatively much less pay?

      Open offices combined with onerous approval/funding models also create stifling work places with high barriers for new ideas. You can't get any real funding without months of proposals, meetings, etc. It is far easier to sit back and turn the crank rather o

    • by eth1 ( 94901 )

      I wonder whether it's really a lack of ideas, and or worse engineering staff. I think engineers are, on average, less passionate than they used to be. For many people in the industry it's just a career now, and not a passion. Especially in large companies like Intel.

      Perhaps not *worse* engineering staff, just human? It would seem that the more knowledge we create, the more someone has to learn about the state of their art before they can start making useful contributions. At some point, we'll run into the problem that humans only live so long.

  • by layabout ( 1576461 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @03:27PM (#55182899)
    We are running out of ideas because we stoped funding the sources of ideas like Xerox Park or Bell Labs. Innovation takes money and when all of the money chases development, not research, you run out of ideas to develop.
    • by rsilvergun ( 571051 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @04:02PM (#55183287)
      I just see it accumulating at the top. You make a good point, but don't forget all the gov't research we used to do and stopped (gotta cut all that pork, after all). Folks like to forget how much basic research was done on the public dime.
      • by hord ( 5016115 )

        A lot of physics and math programs are publicly funded or receive grant monies from government agencies. Government research just got pushed further into academia rather than pulling academia into "think tanks".

        • Since it means our best physicists are basically doing two jobs. It also means less physicists at work, since they now have to fight for a teaching position to get funding for their research...
      • The ideas are certainly out there, they just aren't here.

        Toy with this alternate history for a moment. How would life be different if we had finished the superconducting supercollider in Texas, instead of scrapping it and ceding a big chunk of a generation's brightest physicists and engineers to CERN? Would it have made an appreciable difference in the US National Debt? National Pride? Hope?

  • In a finite universe (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Baron_Yam ( 643147 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @03:27PM (#55182913)

    There's going to be a finite number of practical possibilities; we may actually be close to hitting a wall with regards to finding improved ways to push electrons through transistors. And then there's physics itself - there is an information processing limit based on the universe's physical laws.

    That still leaves memristors, photonics, and quantum computing, and there's likely still a corner or two of under-understood physics to find and exploit.

    I don't think we've reached the limits yet. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

    • The only limit is limited understanding

      • Well, that's simply bullshit; the laws of physics don't care about your opinion, and will continue to restrict us regardless.

    • I am reminded of Spider Robinson's short story "Melancholy Elephants" [baen.com] (Hugo winner in 1983 for best short story), wherein a woman confronts a Congressman, trying to get him to throw his influence against a bill that would extend the term of copyright to perpetuity, arguing that with the increased longevity of humanity it would cause irreparable harm to the human race. The link is to the story in the Baen Free Library; read it.

    • An inciteful comment, there are further directions to explore in semiconductor chip technology and circuit topology but the easy wins are in the past. Progress will continue but it is becoming exponentially more difficult to increase the compute power of individual chips. It is arguably true that the internet has provided a considerable boost to human capability on a par with the increasing power of individual devices. I would expect further boosts from things like Big Data, the Internet of Things, Intellig

  • Maybe these scientists are trained using the same mold thus limiting unique idea generation (in the brain)? One truly needs to think outside the box to enable different viewing angles to problems, something one is less likely to have if he is taught like the average Joe besides you.
    • The problem if there is a problem with "creativity" is not so much the training. The problem is monopoly paradigm. There is only one way of doing a thing because of the enormous vested interest in the current way of doing it. (See gasoline and electric vehicles.) There may well be a fantastic future in biological computation for example but no one is going to spend $100 Million on exploring it because we already spent $10 Billion on a chip factory and have to make the money back.

  • We are not running out of ideas. That is nonsense. We are running out of EASY ideas. Before you could tell your supplier: Use this program to place an order directly to our factory. Then we will automatically send the orders for the required raw materials to our suppliers so that we can fill your order. Good idea! Big productivity jump!

    Those easy gains are gone.

  • We've invented everything there is to invent!

    I think "boffins" said that in the past.

    They were wrong then too.

    Jeez! And we think Stanford and MIT are where the smart people are?!

  • by ssyladin ( 458003 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @03:32PM (#55182965)

    Seriously? So a few researchers make the move from germanium to silicon that is (directly) used by approximately 2 people. 70 years later a team of researchers make a design change to reduce battery consumption 2% - for 100M iPhones. Which had more direct economic impact?

    To measure by "economic impact" is complete blarney. You can claim it takes more people/time/money/resources, but to weigh it against the economic impact by saying "it takes 18 people to do [double density] where it used to take 1" is crap.

    • by skids ( 119237 )

      Yes, a massive logarithm comprehension fail on the part of TFA.

      If you are going to equate moore's law with progress, fine, let's stipulate that... but moore's law is that progress doubles every 2 years so a fair comparison is how many years is it taking the number of scientists needed to maintain it to double. 18x over 40 years puts us significantly below 2 years.

  • Asinine fucking math (Score:5, Interesting)

    by MightyYar ( 622222 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @03:34PM (#55182983)

    That means each researcher's output today is 18 times less effective in terms of generating economic value than it was several decades ago.

    Assuming that the absolute number of transistors still matters, this math is ridiculous. A doubling of transistor count now means roughly 10 billion new transistors vs. a doubling in the 70s meaning maybe 10,000. So for 18x the headcount you get 1 MILLION times the transistors. A researcher is about 50,000 times more effective than he was in the 70s.

  • by Angst Badger ( 8636 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @03:36PM (#55183003)

    We're not running out of ideas. What has happened in CPU development is that we have made all of the relatively easy advances in transistor miniaturization, and further advances are becoming incremental as progress runs up against the asymptotic curves imposed by the laws of physics. Further advances in processing power are therefore coming to rely upon increasingly multicore designs and sophisticated caches, mainly because that's a less risky business proposition than investigating architectures other than the von Neumann and (occasionally) Harvard architectures.

    It's also worth noting that most of the several orders of magnitude increase in processing power over the last three decades has been consumed by increasingly inefficient software as a way of keeping software development costs down.

    Nature only provides so many free rides, and humans have proven themselves very good at exhausting them quickly. Ideas, even good ones, are always cheap and plentiful. It's a willingness to do hard (and therefore expensive) work that is in short supply.

  • check the math (Score:5, Insightful)

    by u19925 ( 613350 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @03:47PM (#55183131)

    "it now takes 18 times as many scientists as it did in the 1970s. That means each researcher's output today is 18 times less effective in terms of generating economic value than it was several decades ago"

    In 1970s, they used to make only few hundreds to few thousands of each high end chip. Today, Apple A11 or Qualcomm 835 or Intel x64 will get produced in hundreds of millions in quantities.

  • by bettodavis ( 1782302 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @03:50PM (#55183159)
    While I appreciate throwing dirt over the younger generations from time to time (a pastime of the not so young), let's admit science and technology have become too darned complex, requiring any person lot more time to become more-or-less proficient in a single topic,and as a consequence, it takes much longer to find the almost mythical "synergies" accelerating any field with the help of sideways/cross-pollinated knowledge.

    Also, we may have started hitting some hard physical limits, not just a lack of better ideas. If silicon makers are finding so hard to improve their chips, it may be because electronics and digital systems as we known them break up when the gates' size is comparable to that of atoms.

    The solutions may again come from other fields of knowledge. If quantum effects ruin your logic gates because they are too small, better start thinking on quantum computing approaches leveraging your knowledge to make small things on a waffer.

    Easier said than done, though.
    • which is indistinguishable from pork projects since they're generally too complex to tell the difference between somebody playing around with physics puzzles and the next big leap. The best part is even the physicists don't know which is which.
    • Sorry, could you say that again? My stupid neighbor is performing percussive maintenance on his quantum computer and I couldn't hear you. :D

  • by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @03:51PM (#55183165) Homepage Journal

    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 output today is 18 times less effective in terms of generating economic value than it was several decades ago.

    Only if you assume that economic value is directly proportional to transistor density, which is by no means a given.

    • In an agricultural society, economic value is how much food can be produced. In an industrial society, economic value is how many manufactured goods can be produced. In an information society, it seems reasonable to measure economic value by how much information can be processed which will roughly correlate with transistor density.
      • Why? Just because they exist doesn't mean they're doing something, and just because they're doing something doesn't mean that thing is useful.

        Most CPU power - at least on the desktop - is either drawing animated amimojomongs or whatever they're called, putting chrome like transparent shadows on menus, or just sitting around waiting for user input.

      • You're conflating "how much information a researcher generates" with "the percentage change in ability to crunch that information." By the same logic, agriculture had 0 productivity for centuries, as farmers remained unable to improve their yield per effort.

        • 1) I don't know why you're using quotes when when you're not actually quoting me or even paraphrasing anything I wrote. I made no statements regarding either of those quoted phrases, let alone tried to conflate the concepts. I'm just pointing out the economic value of transistor density in an information driven society.

          2) Just FYI: agricultural yield per farmer has been steadily improving since its first invention. Cultivar selections, irrigation techniques, co-planting, crop rotation, plow methods, etc.

  • ... when First Contact happens and causes us to rethink everything and people will want a a less complex world.

    There are so many new technologies that haven't been developed yet, let alone imagined, that we'll _never_ run out of ideas to try.

    The fundamental problem today is that when your R&D is tied to an artificial monetary system then yeah, no one can afford to pay for R&D. But when money is no longer the sole focus then R&D will flourish.

    Here is a preview of the two most exciting technologi

    • * Teleportation -- possible because space is relative
      * Time Travel -- possible because time is relative

      That's gibberish.

  • I think they have to eventually accept that "Moore's Law" is no law at all. Eventually any technology matures and you then get very incremental improvements.

    Take automobiles for example: While there have been a lot of efficiency improvements and such over the years, you could take a car from 1945 and while it will certainly look "retro", if it's in good condition it's still perfectly workable in a modern setting. On the flip side, you COULDN'T really do that with a Model T.

    Computers, much like everything

  • This is apparent decline of productivity is typical of a mature science.

    One day, for example, semiconductors will hit their physical limits and Moore's law will cease to apply. At that point, these "Boffins" will presumably conclude that productivity in that industry had ceased to grow, and that it could all be fixed if we just had more on the ball researchers. They presumably also think that we could have 500 MPH cars if only the automotive researchers weren't so lazy. .

  • Let me explain this in terms a child can understand.

    Learning things gets exponentially harder. Think of it like climbing a cliff. When you move from a 10 ft cliff to a 20 ft cliff, and it takes you twice as long, it does NOT mean we are moving half as fast.

    We are working on harder problems so it will take more work to figure them out. That does not mean we are running out of ideas, nor does it mean the ideas are smaller. It means we are applying the same size ideas to bigger problems.

    Luckily for us,

  • Spellikans be deludin' that our common ling be driftin' up on a split. Satchel in sharp tip, "boffins" fur "enginkrafter". It squaks like a non-flying ave to some; but it's snot.

  • Fortunately in the United States we rely on scientists and engineers for doing scientific research and engineering!
  • In the early 1900s there was a scientist who believed we had already figured everything out, we just had to sort out the details now.

    That sentiment was ridiculous then and it's ridiculous now. If the idea flow seems to be slowing, it's not because we're running out of them. Rather, it's because society's problems are maturing. I guarantee a brand new class of need shows up, the ideas will flow faster than ever before.

  • to use on an American site. Let me guess...that's right! It's msmash. Copying and pasting from British sites since...
  • by HumanWiki ( 4493803 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @04:07PM (#55183341)

    To bring us this information...

  • Anyone can make an idea, whether it's something like cheap space flight, teleportation, cure for the common cold, cold fusion, perpetual motion machines, and so on. Some of these may be impractical, but they still exist and are unclaimed.

    On an annual basis, research productivity is declining at a rate of about 6.8 percent per year in the semiconductor industry.

    Given that the article-linked paper is behind some paywall, this makes it hard to create questions, whether it's methodology or actual cause.

    It could

  • In many ways, the West held the lead in science and technology and the rest of the world more or less caught up with it, by and large copying Western science and technology.

    Does this imitation help or hurt innovation? Is it possible that without globalism, Chinese or Indians would have developed ideas that are considered present-day innovations in the West?

    Historically it sort of seemed to work like that -- technological development within a given cultural paradigm seems to stagnate and then some contact i

    • by g01d4 ( 888748 )

      if the homogenization of the world has made this lost to humanity now

      While improved communication has promoted some degree of homogenization, I think there's still plenty of culture variation. Some cultures promote development and some don't, so even if cultures do homogenize (i.e. we reach some Fukuyamian end-of-history) it depends on what type of culture results and whether it remains stable.

      • by swb ( 14022 )

        I'm sure my idea is as fuzzy as its communication, but it's not the cultural homogenization per se, but the technological homogenization.

        The Chinese or the Indians or the Arabs won't develop those catalyst technologies because technologically they've totally adopted our technological paradigm. It's like a disease, once they've experienced it, there's no going back.

        And of course it's impossible to imagine a world where major cultures were both living so isolated and developing in parallel enough to contribu

  • by Hognoxious ( 631665 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @04:47PM (#55183689) Homepage Journal

    we find that ideas -- and in particular the exponential growth they imply

    Not seeing the causal link there either.

  • by slapout ( 93640 ) on Tuesday September 12, 2017 @04:50PM (#55183721)

    "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 doesn't mean that "each researcher's output today is 18 times less effective in terms of generating economic value than it was several decades ago".

  • ... reasonably implementing them is where the hard work is.

    I've got 200+ ideas on stock. If somebody lacks any, they can ring me up.

  • Original ideas are probably out there, but if its not a quick money making idea we just decide to bin it.
  • 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 output today is 18 times less effective in terms of generating economic value than it was several decades ago.

    Firstly, no, it doesn't mean that.

    Secondly, Moore's Law is not the sole benchmark by which to measure technological progress. Not by a long way.

  • It seems on slow news days we tend to get these articles.
    No hurricane to cover today? Write something about how history is ending. Say "we're running out of ideas" or some other blatant nonsense.

    Maybe you'll get some annoyed but easily-manipulated idiot posting in reply, which is what we want. An annoyed click is still a click of revenue, right?

  • But has the entire species run out of ideas? Like fuck. People have been making that argument for centuries. They look at the world around them and don't have the imagination to think it could ever change.

    I don't doubt that there's some truth in the article though. I don't have a link, but I remember reading an article suggesting a similar trend to semiconductor development occurring in medical R&D - the amount of money invested produces fewer finds year on year.

    My personal opinion is that there's a few

  • Fuck off, msmash.

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