Innovation Engine Running on Empty

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Livemint pointed me to a research paper that said it is indeed becoming harder to achieve the innovation that everyone expects.  One of their findings is this:

“The number of researchers required today to achieve the famous doubling every two years of the density of computer chips is more than 18 times larger than the number required in the early 1970s.”

This isn’t the first article that I’ve read that says innovation is becoming more difficult.  But is it correct?

Now, I’m not going to argue with four researchers who spent days/months of their lives researching this … maybe I am.  Not so much argue as present a different perspective on it.

The example talks about how difficult it is to innovate in the microchip manufacturing arena.  This particular area has been the subject of intense innovation and change for almost sixty years.  The integrated circuit was first demonstrated in 1958.  The first microprocessor was developed in 1970.  These are not new areas where innovation is rapid because of a dearth of previous innovation, these are very mature areas.

You don’t see advances in looms every year because the loom is a very old device and it takes a lot more time for mature technologies to gain advances.  Now, quantum computing?  Yeah, there is a lot happening in that area.  I could give you lots of examples were *new* areas of knowledge have a deep pool of innovation whereas more mature areas of knowledge are relatively quiet in terms of innovation.

In some respects, I think that the developers of computer simulation games have the right idea.  There are a number of games that have a technology tree that you need to research, but each branch of the tree has a limited number of things that can be researched.  They do this because it just isn’t feasible to create an unlimited number of research items for the game.  But perhaps it is replicating real life more than anyone thinks?  What if in each area of knowledge there are only a limited number of innovations?  Or, as is more likely the case, some of the innovations require other innovations in other areas of human knowledge?

Now, does this mean you can’t be innovative in long-standing areas?  No, it just means you need to try harder.  This would explain the requirement for 18 times the staff of the original microchip industry from the 1970s.  The question also comes up, as to whether or not you are innovating in the right area.  Sometimes that is actually the problem.

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