Friday, May 13, 2016

A few reasons for technological stagnation (and philosophical mediocrity)

The more I think about it, the more I believe the lack of technological progress is the real elephant on the room of any advanced (or developing, for that matter) country political agenda. The real lubricant of our whole sociopolitical compact for the last three centuries has been economic growth, and a healthy rate of growth (above 3% in advanced economies and above 5% in developing ones) is the whole difference between social decay, increasing inequality, growing tensions, diminishing hopes, reduced quality of life for almost everybody (see the statistics of middle-income Americans regarding life expectancy and suicide rate… for an even more depressing picture look at Russian statistics, almost for any age and income group) and their opposite. Want a good grasp of how important growth is? Look no further than this passionate (and long!) post by John Cochrane: If GDP grows, everything will be good again . In other posts I’ve argued (more or less obliquely, as usual No way Jose) that there are two main engines of GDP growth: innovation and demography, and that both have mostly stalled in the last three to four decades. Given the pressure we already exert on the resources of our finite planet, I would be very cautious to propose a return to unchecked demographic growth (and the kind of bucolic futures I tend to imagine are conspicuously lacking in it), but it would seem that innovation is the gift that keeps on giving: it helps (rather: it causes) society to be able to produce more with less consumption of non-renewable resources, and it helps most people be better off, even if the growth it fuels is not very equitably distributed.   

But as regular readers already know, I’ve contended a number of times that innovation is as dead as demographic growth, and I’ve pointed to our global “system” as main culprit for such lack of technological progress (Progress is toast!, No progress, no kids! and  No progress, no money for money!) . In this post I want to look more closely at what aspects of the system are inimical to technology’s advance, and hint at what could be done to alleviate them.

1. Diminishing returns and the increasing weight of tradition

The usually brilliant Tyler Cowen pointed recently to the following little article about the puzzle of great philosophers being clustered in bygone times: The mediocrity of philosophy's greats (!!) when the whole population of Attica (which produced Socrates, Plato and Aristotle in a few decades) was far smaller than a suburb of current Athens (and infinitely smaller than New York, Sao Paulo or Beijing). The conclusion of the writer is that, IF philosophical talent is more or less evenly distributed, there must be thousands (may be even millions) of people as philosophically gifted as Plato (and possibly much more) walking around, so we should not think so highly of the old fogeys… The argument fails on a number of levels:  if I think there isn’t anybody remotely as brilliant as Plato around is not because I am unconsciously biased in favor of Plato (rather the opposite, I spent much of my youth virulently despising and criticizing him, and it has taken me many years to realize how asinine my criticism was), but because the works of philosophy being produced today, where the number of people professionally devoted full time to the elaboration of philosophy is greater than ever, are almost universally a big load of worthless crap. So there is indeed a puzzle that cries for explanation, and surely the solution is not to dismiss it as the result of uncritical idolization of the classics. I would suggest that a possible reason why it was easy for Plato to do great philosophy, while it’s almost impossible for any living philosopher, is because Plato found an almost completely uncultivated soil in which to formulate his theories. Yup, he had the presocratics, the Eleatics and the like, but those were not “real” philosophers in the modern sense (or maybe in my more limited sense), more like the traditional sages that every culture has and honors (I recently commented disparagingly on a little piece of nonsense in the NYT advocating that Confucius should be taught in our hopelessly parochial philosophy schools alongside Kant… sorry but no, too many silly little pet “thinkers” already clutter the curricula to add a mythical figure of whom we have only retained the foggiest and most distorted fragments, whose translation depends vastly more on the mood and background of the translator than on whatever the revered figure supposedly said). You may argue he had Socrates blazing the trail before him, but I’ve come more and more to the hold the opinion that Socrates (or at least the Socrates we have come to know) is in a 90% an invention of Plato. So not only could he afford to be original, he really had no other option, and in the realm of thought originality is 60% of greatness. Ditto for Aristotle, only even more so, thanks to his knack for systematizing and identifying new fields of enquiry that could be talked about. Indeed, Aristotle somewhat surveyed the whole field of what can be grasped with some structure by the human mind, so after him the field where some innovation could be displayed got considerably smaller, to the point that after the truly great philosopher (Kant) we only find comparatively minor figures detailing what this or that word means, and what trivial implication such meaning is supposed to have (see the most recent entry in Mr. Lewis list: Wittgenstein). In a similar vein, I recently read this very interesting article Reading Augustine's mind about how part of the greatness of St. Augustine can be explained by the fact that he didn’t speak Greek, so a lot of the teaching of Church’s fathers and patriarchs were unavailable to him, and that allowed him to be much more innovative, and reach some bold conclusions that marked a real (unintended) discontinuity with the Church’s traditions, especially regarding individual will (free or not) and the relationship between temporal and ecclesiastical power that still do resonate with us today.

It stands to reason that what applies to philosophy may apply also to the hard sciences. I know the dominant narrative is that in science, much to the chagrin of people devoted to other pursuits, knowledge seems to accumulate, and as Newton famously said, new researchers can “stand in the shoulder of giants” that preceded them, so they expand the range of their discoveries without having to revisit or question them. Such triumphalist view (which I mostly subscribe, by the way) has been heavily questioned in the last four decades (a questioning that stems mainly from envy and frustration, in my humble opinion), with feeble and convoluted arguments about the social character of the scientific enterprise and the incommensurability of the different paradigms under which it operates. I do not share such opinions, but I’m starting to believe that when applying our understanding of how nature works to solve the problems of everyday (and not so everyday) life, it is advantageous to be able to approach them as unburdened by the weight of previous solutions as possible. In a similar vein to what Clayton Christensen described in The Innovator’s Dilemma, engineers and technicians (and physicists and chemists) can not avoid, when investigating how to solve a practical problem (from the design of a steam turbine to the calculations needed to define the dimension of a coil to keep plasma confined in a fusion reactor) to resort to what has worked in the past, and do only the minimal tweaks required to adapt it to new requirements. That worked great while there were numerous areas where little previous experience exited (think about designing bubble chambers to perform high-energy physics experiments), but it is more and more stifling when what is required is to improve on highly developed technologies (think about improving the power train of a car, which requires infinitesimal changes on the internal combustion engine that has been refined and optimized for more than a century). Counterintuitive as it may seem, I am contending that it was easier for Newcomen to come up with a design for a steam engine (when there were no steam engines around, and the technology for building them –metallurgy, precision machining, interchangeable parts- was not yet developed) in the XVIIIth century than what it is today for a team of inventors to come up with a new design for a vehicle’s motor (be it internal combustion, electric or anything else), with almost any conceivable line of approach has been exhaustively developed and is likely protected by a patent (more on that later).    

2. The (mostly dead) weight of regulation

But it is not only tradition, and the amount of things already discovered, tried and commented upon that makes innovation harder than ever. A growingly complex society, to protect itself and its growing wealth necessarily produces increasing amounts of legislation every activity has to comply with. I’ll illustrate the difficulties imposed by such unwieldy mass with two examples: traditional (fission) nuclear reactors and disruptive fusion reactors.

I recently was asked by my good friend Pedro what did I think of a new design of fuel rods for nuclear power plants, announced in the MIT technology review: New fuel could make nuclear power safer and cheaper (keep on dreaming) … summarizing my longish answer, it seemed cool, but had as many chances of ever being put into practice as a snowball of surviving three millennia in Hell. Note that this is a modification on current fuel rod design that would not require major modifications in the existing plants, and if it could “burn” for 18 months instead of the current 14-16 it would allow for very substantial economies, making nuclear energy (even) more economically attractive. However, being a major modification of the approved design, it would need to be approved by the NRC first, and by each country where it was to be applied regulatory body afterwards. Processes that take years (if not decades), as it has to be proven that the proposed changes do not make the installations any less safe, which requires countless calculations, possibly building prototypes to validate the calculations, and unbelievable amounts of paperwork to demonstrate the reliability and solidity of all the process. That in a nutshell is why we still build 2nd generation reactors in India and China (and few places elsewhere). Getting “licenses” for anything more advanced (and believe me, there are designs that put to utter shame that 2nd generation ones) has proved an insurmountable barrier. In France they got the license for a 3rd generation one, the AP1000, and guess what? Actually building it (in Flamanville in France and Olkiluoto in Finland) under the national regulator supervision is what has put the final nail in Nuclear Energy’s coffin, at least regarding “the West”, as an unholy mix of regulatory incompetence (continuously adding new “safety” criteria of dubious value, especially if compared with their skyrocketing impact in the final cost) and the industry’s loss of capabilities (after one lost generation there are just not enough welders, electricians and piping erection companies able to construct a plant up to nuclear standards, something that was done routinely thirty years ago).

That’s a highly biased summary of what afflicts nuclear fission, and what explains that, in the West at least, we are done with such energy source most likely forever (we have chosen instead to keep on burning fossil fuels surreptitiously while we collectively whitewash our consciences signing toothless treatises that forbid us to do so). But what about that other promising inexhaustible, clean, source, fusion energy? Aren’t we making gigantic progress in that area? Nope, we are not making anything of the sort. We have put most of our collective eggs in one single basket, ITER (a still experimental Tokamak being built in Cadarache, France). And ITER, as could not be otherwise, has been spiraling out of control both regarding cost and schedule. I still remember when I was studying nuclear engineering the exhilaration and anticipation with which we received the news that ITER had been approved, and that it would be built in a neighboring country. Fusion energy was just around the corner, and may be we would be designing the first power plants for its commercial exploitation. Well, my son will go to university in a couple of years, and honestly even he will not be designing those plants (that doesn’t mean ITER is not a worthy endeavor, again, it will simply take longer and cost more than planned, but we exhausted the low hanging fruit of technological development many decades ago). One of the reasons? In a pigheaded decision to appease the host country’s regulators, it was decided that ITER was a INB (Nuclear Base Installation, when what it really is is a huge laboratory to experiment with the basic plasma physics we need to master before being able to move forward), thus subject to a veritable deluge of additional regulation to comply with (now there were thousands upon thousands of “safety important activities” and “safety important components” that needed to meet “defined requirements” and had to be endlessly documented before and after to ensure they were safely safe enough…). Long story short, they added 5-10 years to the completion of ITER, and multiplied the costs by a factor of 2-3.

As both examples have been taken from the field of energy production, it may look like I’m advocating a deregulation of the nuclear industry. Far from it, in a recent post (Confessional ) I mulled about the failure of my profession, and one of the lessons we learned in the incident that triggered the whole reflection was that an excessive proximity between the regulator and the industry was counterproductive. Indeed, the excess in regulation as a drag on economic growth has been a recurring gripe of liberal and neoliberal economists, as recently quantified by John Cochrane, citing a paper by Coffey, Mc Laughlin and Peretto: Regulations and Growth

3. The wrong incentives: short-termism and monopoly rent seeking

If I were asked about the most frustrating moment in my whole professional life, I wouldn’t have any problem to point it with exactitude: Nine years ago, in Mexico, I was in charge of a complex implementation (a CRM package in an incumbent cellular operator with no culture of IT innovation). Things were slowly coming along, and we had already completed the development and were rolling out the system successfully, but (as it always does) it was slower and costlier than our initial estimates had forecasted. However, as the client was already seeing the benefits of the new system, the relationship was in a healthy state and we believed we could later on sell them additional services that would compensate the overcosts we were incurring. Unfortunately we were approaching the end of our fiscal quarter, and back in my home office my boss (who oversaw all of Latin America, and Spain and Portugal) had experienced some losses in some other projects, and needed some good news and a cash injection to compensate, so he called me to find out why my client was late in some of his payments. I explained him the situation, and how we were managing the whole account prudently to ensure we strengthened the relationship and built mutual trust, and gained mutual benefits from a successful completion of the project (you probably know, the usual business jargon claptrap). He essentially told me to shove it, and get the client to pay the bills, even if I completely alienated him and would never be able to do business with him again (because he would see us as what we ultimately were, a bunch of greedy bastards who were on his side as long as the good money kept coming, and fled the moment some difficulties arose). There I got the clearest lesson in what short-termism means in my whole life. What made business sense was to take a very minor (and temporary) loss in a promising client, to ensure a good long term relationship. What made “true” sense was to obey my boss, get the money, reduce the team supporting the client to cut my losses, and go look for the next sucker to fleece. I did get the money, I did lose the client short afterwards and I was so disillusioned with that management style that I was soon replaced in the position of account manager in the country (and returned to Europe to a quite lackluster chapter of my career, until I finally switched companies, I now know that’s what marked the beginning of my fall). Such is life, but since then I’ve noticed the huge amount of decisions taken not with a view of the best possible outlook (if that outlook takes longer than the profit-reporting cycle), but with a view towards what the investors, or the analyst that act as their surrogates, may say in the next investor’s conference, or in the next filing of the quarterly results to the SEC.

I can not avoid thinking that the kind of pressures I (and every person in charge of sales) I felt to improve “a bit” the quarterly results is also felt by the people in charge of large R&D projects the world over. Hell, even in ITER (and in CERN) they have been told to tweak the progress reports (and even to bend the planned schedule) to be able to communicate some milestones as achieved that were “close to being achieved” (or not so close, but the internal dynamics of each program call for different levels of dissembling). Same with the lab personnel of pharmaceutical and biochemical companies (the likely origin of the Theranos fiasco?). We just put too much pressure on researchers and innovators to deliver when the market needs to hear news from them, which may be very different of what would make more sense from an internal development perspective.

The focus on short term results and disregard of those consequences that may require more time to play out is bad enough, but there may be an even more perverse force sapping the capacity of our society to innovate. Since the time of Shakespeare (which, according to free-market apologists, wrote Hamlet purely out of desire for material gain, and not out of the sheer genius that throbbed to be expressed within his tortured soul), it’s been believed that the best way to promote a behavior considered socially valuable was to incentivize it with pecuniary rewards, so it is just natural that we want to ensure that the authors of innovations can reap the benefits of their ingenuity. To that end we have developed a robust system of patents and copyrights that should protect the “intellectual property” of the creative entrepreneurs and thus motivate them to develop new ideas, in the belief that they will be properly rewarded for their exertions. Resorting to a trope that I may be abusing a bit of late, anybody that thinks that’s how the patent system works please contact me, as I have a nice bridge in Brooklyn I am willing to sell for a pittance. Far from ensuring a fair reward for the meritorious inventor’s creativity, the copyright protection system that has in effect crystalized is a monstrosity oriented to facilitate monopoly rent seeking by those big enough and sophisticated enough to navigate a system of bewildering complexity. Obtaining a patent is both costly and time consuming, and it seems to benefit only the lawyers and specialized paper-pushers that are unavoidably required, and far from serving as an incentive to innovate it stifles any attempted breakthrough with the threat of potential lawsuits for supposed patent infringement if some technology vaguely familiar to the proposed one already exist (and in what field are there not similar developments, of which even the most watching researcher may not be aware? Especially when the final decision of what “similarity” consists in may in the end be reached by a judge with very limited knowledge of the technology being discussed, many years and untold millions after the original suit was brought to court).

4. The (mis)measurement of wealth: focusing on the wrong metrics

If the previous reasons were not bad enough, we have at a collective level the tyranny of GDP, which only recognize as valuable those items and activities (“services” that can be exchanged in a money-mediated market) that people want to pay for. As has been noted countless times, the cleanliness of the air we breathe or the water we drink, the unspoiled view of a pristine landscape or the enjoyment of a work of art freely shared (displayed in a public space) are considered worthless, not computed, and thus not subject to be rewarded or somehow incentivized. Indeed, its preservation has been left to legislation (and we have already discussed the effect of such legislation on innovation in general). As long as politicians see as their best ticket to reelection the increase of the nation’s GDP, the development of deeper insights about man and nature will always receive the short end of the stick, and they will be able to issue regulations to protect the commons (in the best case, and only if the voice of the many manages to be heard above the interested buzz with which the few try to silence it), but not to enhance it or incentivize its enhancement.

However, it may be argued that even if the great public bodies (national and local governments) can not be counted to further the common good because they are wedded to (and are ultimately measured by) the wrong metric (GDP), there are smaller organizations devoted to the increase of knowledge and to pushing the boundaries of what that knowledge can achieve. They are the universities and the great laboratories (CERN, ITER, Salk Institute, NASA, whoever runs the ISS…) whose sole end is to research and innovate and sustain the people that devote their life to such research and provide them with the complex tools demanded by their daring experiments. Yep, sure again. I still have my bridge, by the way. How is the productivity of such geniuses being measured? By the number of publications they achieve in peer-reviewed journals, weighted by the impact index such journals can boast. That probably merits a separate post, but let me confidently state that the existence of such journals is the single individual factor most culpable of the abysmally sad state of current philosophy (and what call themselves, somewhat pompously, “social sciences”), even if it were true that we have a few hundreds of people around with the subtlety and the ability to think deeply as Kant their voice would be utterly drowned, and their talent fruitlessly wasted, in the soul-crushing mill of being forced to produce snippets of insight grotesquely hidden in layer upon layer of learned references to similarly trivial and inane works that nobody outside a minimal circle of initiates can care about. When I learned about the absurd system and how it was distorting any attempt at coherently developed systems of thought I believed it was the unintended consequence of trying to apply basically sound principles born in the “true” sciences, but now I am of the opinion that the chickens are coming back home to roost, and the natural science journals are slowly becoming similar monstrosities, and similarly stifling (instead of enhancing) the possibility of true innovation in physics, chemistry or mathematics.

5. The life poorly lived: software and finance as the wrong organizing principles

Finally, we are fooling ourselves giving social recognition to activities that are not just non value producing (that would be the “social sciences”: economics, psychology, sociology and political science) but actively value destroying. Not only do we give them social recognition, but we actively funnel our most brilliant young minds to them, thus losing them forever from the pool of potential contributors to humanity’s well being. A lot of ink has been spilled analyzing why the U S of A, a nation that dominates so many professional sports, is so abysmally mediocre at weightlifting (where not only the likes of Bulgaria, which historically has been a weightlifting powerhouse, but tiny nations as Cuba, Santo Domingo and even Vietnam, consistently produce better lifters than anything that the powerful, rich and well-fed Americans seem able to put on a platform), but a common thread (apart from the fact that they seem to think they are the only nation on Earth whose lifters do not take anabolic steroids, against all evidence) is that the more genetically blessed (the ability to produce a lot of power in a very short time being very heavily influenced by genetics, to the point of being able to eclipse whatever idiotic training regime you may want to put in the poor souls talented enough to make a good Olympic prospect) amongst them are routinely diverted to play in the NFL, which is more handsomely rewarded, thus depriving them of the raw talent that other nations can enjoy without such competition. I do not what to delve in the arcana of such puzzling lack of success (I’ll just note that I don’t believe many explosive kids that weigh 140 pounds and are 5 feet tall may decide their prospects as NFL linebackers are so brilliant as to forego a potential lifting career), but I can not fail to notice the parallelism with what I’m decrying here. How many brilliant, intelligent, creative, disciplined (all features that are very highly correlated with having a high IQ) kids are wasting, yes wasting, their talent as trial lawyers, quant analyst at investment banks or hedge funds, or programmers for a total contribution to society of exactly zero or less? As somebody else put it, may be the next Einstein instead of dreaming the next relativity theory is spending his weeks working 100-120 hours in a Silicon Valley start-up with exactly 0,001% chances of succeeding and that, if it succeeds, will be devoted to improve the hit rate of the digital advertisements  of its customers a 1%, or increase the predictions of a marketing algorithm another 1%.

Maybe things are not so dire, so it is worthwhile to share the thoughts about the end of technological innovation of Tim B. Lee (not Berners Lee, one of the parents of Internet, btw), more optimistic than mine, while not being ludicrous: On the end of economic growth
Maybe we are just at the end of the road for a number of innovations (that determine how we dress, in what dwellings we live and work and how we move between them) although we can find alternative roads where a lot of innovations are still to be seen (Tim seems to have great expectations for VR). I am more of the persuasion that our whole system has catastrophically strayed from the path of truth, goodness and beauty, and is becoming more and more unable to find any of them. It is crumbling under the weight of its contradictions, seeming to be able to pick from its rich past only those aspects that more hobble its pursuit of a better state. The globality of the world will still progress for some decades as the poorest places play catch up with what the West developed mostly between 1750 and 1970 (and which is not capable of keeping on developing), and after that I can only see a new dark age coming, whether it will take the form of a prolonged technical stasis or a spectacular collapse and devolution to our historical average, I can not yet tell.

Just to cheer you up before finishing, I’ll remind you of what that average looks like:

·         Lifespan: 25 years

·         Income: 300-500 $/year (2010 dollars)

·         Infant mortality: 400-600 per 1.000 live births

·         Inequality: Gini index between 40 and 60 (well, the USA is almost there)

Given that’s what the future most likely reserves us, I’d rather take my time to get there. 

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