Monday, January 20, 2003

Paul Marks over at Samizdata comments that it is possible to contest the claim that we live in a period of exceptionally rapid technological progress. He quotes a speech to that effect given by John Jewkes in 1972. At that point, Jewkes asked where are battery operated cars, a typewriter that can take dictation, much cheaper ways of digging tunnels, a cure for the common cold, substantially new and much more efficient desalination techniques, et cetera. Most of the things Jewes asked for, we still do not have.

I think there is some truth in this. With respect to the technology of large things, we haven't got very far in fifty years. Look at transport. Rail, road, and air travel hasn't advanced much at all. From 1903, when the Wright Brothers made their first flight, to 1958, when transatlantic Boeing 707 services commenced, the advances were immense. (I will consider the De Havilland Comet to be essentially an experiment, and the Boeing 707 the mature product). From 1958, there has been essentially nothing. The time it takes to cross the Atlantic has in fact increased slightly, as aircraft today are slightly slower than those of 1958. Aircraft today are more efficient, and travel costs a lot less, but the product itself is the same one we had in 1958. As for railways, widespread electrification is also something that dates back about 50 years, but since then there has been no widespread technical transformation. As for roads, the car was a mature product by the second world war. Since then, they have again improved in quality and have become more widespread and cheaper, and the road networks they run on have become larger, but the car itself has not really changed. The speeds of cars on our roads have not really become higher. As for physical infrastructure, as Jewkes said, the cost of, for instance, digging tunnels, hasn't dropped appreciably. Digging an underground railway through London was done in the 1860s, and the difficulty of doing so seems today about the same. Engineers commenced digging a Channel Tunnel in 1880, and there doesn't appear to have been any technical obstacle to their succeeding at the time. The project was shut down for purely political reasons.

As for bridges, the length of the largest bridge span in the world increased dramatically from about 1800 to about 1930. In 1800 the longest bridges in the world had spans of about 150 metres. In 1937, the longest bridge in the world was 1280 metres long (The Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco). Well, after this dramatic series of advances, the longest bridge in 1997 the record had only advanced to 1410 metres long, hardly any further advance at all.

And of course there is rocketry. The Germans invented the V2 in the second world war. Since then we have had bigger rockets, culminating with the Saturn V and the Russian Energia in the 1960s, but no real technical advance. Since the 1960s, though, rockets have actually got smaller. The technology is basically that of 1950.

Robert Zubrin makes a similar argument towards the end of The Case for Mars . Zubrin argues that mankind lacks frontiers, and the we need a new one, and that in the mean time we are becoming steadily more introspective, and large scale technical advance has suffered. Zubrin believes that we won't really get it going again until we have a new frontier, and the planets in general and Mars in particular are the frontier we should look at. Yes, this will boost rocketry, but it will increase the scale of the things we are trying to do, and get us out of what Zubrin perceives as a rut. (I don't have a copy of the book handy. If I did I would quote from it).

My interpretation is a little different though. While I would like to see humans visit and colonise Mars at least as much as Zubrin would, I don't think the absence of a frontier is what has caused this curious pause in physically large technology. What I actually think is that most of the technologies listed above had essentially reached the limits that the human mind and analogue technology could manage on their own. These technologies had reached limits of complexity that were it was hard to go beyond.

Since 1950, technological progress has instead concentrated on the very small instead of the very large. We have had an electronics revolution, and a resultant communications revolution, basically. And of course we have had a computer revolution. This in my mind only really got going in a big way in about 1980, with the beginnings of the widespread adoption of the personal computer. (I will consider the engineering workstation to be a form of PC, also). This put a tool on everyone's desk that allowed us to get through the complexity limits of analogue technology. Suddenly, this additional computational power was available, and this changed the rules dramatically. It immediately made technologies such as the mobile phone much more practical. (Essentially, a huge amount of computational effort is needed to prevent different calls from interfering with each other, plus it had key roles in various other parts of the "communications revolution"). And, it had the potential to revolutionise almost all the technologies mentioned above. It is only just starting to do so, but this is the lag as people learn to use new technology. (Economists spent decades worrying about the "productivity paradox". All this money was being spent on computers, but it wasn't showing up in productivity statistics. And then, in the late 1980s, it suddenly did. There was a lag, but it came through. We have had the lag in lots of other technologies too, but everything is suddenly coming through).

So let's look at some of the technologies mentioned above. Air transport. Much higher speeds requires stronger materials, more powerful engines, and really complicated modelling of fluid dynamics equations that describe what is going on at mach 6. Modelling the fluid dynamics equations is getting better and better, but you cannot do it without a computer. As for stronger materials, well we now pretty much have these. We have them because materials science uses some really fancy computational modelling techniques to make them. (Big advances in materials science are crucial to all sorts of things. We wouldn't have them without the computer revolution). Car transport. Well, at the highest performance end, Formula 1 racing, we have a situation where the technology is advancing at an incredible speed. Composite materials, fancy air flow models, computer based suspension and gear changes and a lot of other things lead to a situation where the cars become faster and faster every year. The administration of the sport has to change the rules every year in a desperate attempt to slow the cars down, but none the less they still get faster every year. The bottleneck is the driver's reflexes. On public roads, the issue is the driver, and congestion. Well, computer modelling may eventually solve these problems too. It is certainly being worked on. As for fixed infrastructure, well, tunnel building is still hard. As for bridges, in the last 15 years we have seen an utter revolution. More advanced materials science means that cable stayed bridges have become practical where suspension bridges were needed before. Cable stayed bridges can be built for a fraction of the price, so we have a golden age of bridge building. In December I visited the Pont de Normandie, the second longest cable stayed bridge in the world (856 metres) . 20 years ago a suspension bridge which would have cost several times as much to build would have been required.

The longest bridge in the world was 1410 metres in 1997. It is now 1992 metres: the longest bridge being a particularly economically pointless bridge in Japan. It seems likely that a bridge connecting Italy and Sicily will soon be built, with a span of approximately 3000 metres. After 60 years of stagnation, suddenly we have a huge advance. As for rocketry, well the computation led advance in materials science may mean that we can do without rockets almost entirely, and use space elevators for getting payloads into orbit. To do this, we need modern materials again, and we need complicated computer systems to prevent the elevator cable from colliding with space debris.

Almost all the technological fields I have discussed above advanced dramatically between 1800 and 1950, but then more or less stopped. Since then we have seen ourselves stagnate, but I would contend the stagnation is ending.

This is only a small part of the story. The spread of computational power has led to dramatic developments in nanotech and biotech, also. These revolutions will be at least as big, and may give us things like cheap desalination, as well as other things unimaginable. This, fundamentally, is why (as I mentioned once before), I dislike the expression "information technology" or "IT" so much. I think the computer revolution is, at heart, about computation, not about information. The benefits of improved information processing and improved communications are of course very important, but they are only a small part of the revolution that computers have unleashed (and they mostly wouldn't be possible without the computation anyway). Computation exists at a lower level, and it enables many things besides information processing. The larger revolution is that improved computation will give us a dramatically improved ability to control the physical world. The expression "IT" is just far too narrow an understanding of what computers are for.

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