I read basic science and technology sites, phys.org, Technology Review, New Scientist, silicon brains, are examples, because I like knowing about the newest discoveries and insights. Also, every time I see a seriously new line of thought, e.g. artificial life as an engineering and manufacturing tool, or artificial diamonds, or 3d printers or robots or CNC machining tools or bacteria or fungi used to make a plant or animal grow faster or taking up less contamination or any of the hundreds of interesting topics I see in a year, it makes me certain that our technological palette is infinite.
The technological palette is the set of known technologies, each of which is opportunities open to inventors. For example, artificial diamonds of large size as a material for equipment allows transparent windows for high pressure equipment. It has the highest index of refraction of transparent materials and is one of the hardest substances, your glasses would never scratch. At $100 per caret for gem-grade, it is still too expensive for glasses, unless you are really rich and want thin, light glasses. Some people are rich and will want the heirloom grade, so there will be a demand for forming diamond. Those technologies will enable other products and technologies. Continuously interating, every few years the prices fall and another set of uses become economic and the design of many different products can be optimized in new ways.
The technological palette is N-dimensional, all combinations of all of those individual items, e.g. diamond lenses will allow lasers with different materials, The number of technologies that can be combined in a new invention or design is limited only by the minds understanding them. The number of sets of technologies is larger than the number of technologists, so effectively infinite.* The number of technologies has been expanding rapidly, I see no reason that will change.
That effectively infinite, ever-expanding technological palette affects everything, and in multiple ways. It is the driver for our technologically-based economy, which is now all of it.
The total sum of technology affects everything because none of the big innovations in our lives are single-technology. Computer processors and memory silicon components and software get all of the attention, but any modern computer system includes countless innovations in manufacturing the components, in the optimization of both electrical signal, metallurgy, plastics and plastics extruding, in automated testing, and large-scale fabrication. Chips include all that and several varieties of materials research, cooling research, optics research for masks and masking.
Every one of those areas of innovation is driven by multiple customers. When customer’s requirements no longer align, markets divide, technological lines and thinking diverge, and another point in the technology-culture-economics space begins its evolution as an exploration of possible futures.
So the future of products is increasing numbers of designs with higher technology content for smaller sets of customers. Special Titanium Dioxide lenses with just the right additives to make it do something cool. When you begin with diamond, or … and add coatings, electrodes, … can you add night vision to ordinary glasses? Ultraviolet also? What new experiences, art, science would those produce? The technological palette will keep expanding so long as there are brains and resources to power the processes of investigation and invention.
Biggest opportunities are in the biggest fundamentals, those are where most attention and resources are focused, e.g. materials science’s focus on the many forms of carbon and other elements that form like structures on their own or with carbon. Nevertheless, there are many of those for carbon and many of the other ‘biggest fundamentals’. Solar cells have hundreds of different items of technology, variations just waiting for a couple of magic combinations to emerge that produce the right combination of conversion efficiency and declining costs with increasing production volume.
Smaller opportunities are combinations of opportunities, e.g. coatings on lenses for many purposes, ion implantation ditto, …
Now consider some other possible palettes :
- The Cultural Palette
This is the list of all of the cultural memes, traits, roles and institutions that have existed in the world’s cultures through the ages. These are the things that individuals can consider using in their selective breeding of their own culture. Churches used to do business. Jewelers used to be bankers. Practical education is still apprenticeship, whatever we call it, and can be combined with academic work.
- The Genetic Palette
These are, this generation, the total set of human genes that individuals can consider using in their selective breeding of their own bloodline. Next generation, with the ability to do more engineering, not just selective breeding, we can consider genes from other species.
- The Economic Palette
These are the ways of adding value to resources and using that value for your own purposes. Resources are people and ideas and materials. The list includes all of the resources in all of the locations and the list of all of the ways there are to add value and the list of business models for extracting that value. There is still a great deal of innovation happening in business models.
- The Intellectual Palette
This list is all of the ideas and points of view and tools of analysis that have ever been applied to any problem, across all the intellectual subcultures that have ever existed. Items from the Intellectual Palette can be combined for new insights in other areas.
Science and math are a subset of this, with the emphasis on new questions and methods of understanding problems. Each new combination, if a fruitful source of new questions about nature, produces a new subspecialty and extends the palette.
- The Entertainment Palette
Every person who ever lived is many possible stories, and the information about ancestors gets better with every century. Our imagination about the future is proportional to the technological palette, infinite. All of the varieties of people and roles, historical periods, stereotypes and realities, each material for stories and all grow with the complexity of the civilization, the depth of its history and its detail.
By the same argument of combinatorics, these are all infinite in their possible effects. These are all dynamic systems, stasis is not possible so long as people are doing technology and science and have the resources, mental and physical. They all affect each other in un-predictable ways, but generally positive, each opening new options in some of the others. It is possible to see trends in each, but progress within each of those arenas is not predictable and side-effects of any action in each cannot be anticipated nor controlled.
All are opportunities to be gained at the cost of learning new information, requiring thinking and experimentation. All are mix and match, guided innovation, work for new threads of research, new enthusiasts. All defy anything except targeted research, meaning that there is plenty of room for enthusiasts. In every field of endeavor, some amateurs have surpassed experts, we can expect that here also. Human brains are far too limited to know much of any of these in detail, and therefore education which produces wide knowledge about segments of knowledge with the ability and materials to dig as deeply as desired is a key. If we spread that knowledge randomly across minds, we will automatically produce people with interests in their combinations.
This is directed research, which has a much higher payoff in both new products and new scientific information.
The proliferation of complexity includes 3D printing and CNC and automated lab equipment and robotics. These allow continuous improvements in local manufacturing based on local technology. This will rapidly show that of enforcing patents is as difficulty as enforcing copyright after every generation of copying technology. Smart law will get rid of patents. If your process is complex enough and un-obvious enough, you can sell it for a premium, but not just any idea. Future is inevitably smaller operations, we will not have the finance industry building conglomerations. This is a world of small-scale, not large-scale. People will be moving to the periphery, raising more value per acre and living lives in community.
In a dynamic system, winning is a process, not a state. If you want to win at genetic evolution, you mix your genes, there is no choice. If you want to win in cultural evolution, you mix your culture, there is no choice.***
Thus, we change the goal of families and education and … Positive-sum people of strong moral principles built the industrial revolution, the right kind of people working in small workshops can do it again based on the very many different designs of everything that are being produced. That process rewards investigations, active tinkering producing innovation, it is something everyone does via lots of web sites and exploration and maker-class chatting. Apprenticeships for cross-technology training, just like we do post-docs now.
The constant proliferation of new combinations of technologies, the infinite opportunities for complexity and combinations across categories, means we should devote a larger proportion of our population to exploring the future ! Our modern societies’ ROI for research is the rate of economic growth. This shows that our fastest-progressing industrial sectors are where the money has been and where it has been economic to invest in R&D that rapidly advanced their technologies.
The costs of scientific equipment is falling along with technology’s growth, so more people doing more-scientific observations and more of it in pursuit of a technical goal is not too much to expect. Anyone can learn many things, with some effort. The materials and help are freely available on the network, and maker spaces are spring up everywhere, building scientific instruments will soon become part of that, and prices will continue to fall.
Individuals working together got humans civilization through all of the first technologies, up through the early iron age. People’s capabilities and interests, are indeed widely various. but we have much evidence to show that many more people can do sophisticated technology. Many of the people I have worked with learned to program by themselves, never had a course, yet were as competent as University CS degrees. 20% of new hires at Google now do not have a degree, most learned to program on their own before they left high school.
‘Self-taught or peer-to-peer’ are still the ways most people learn most of the things they do. Now, ‘citizen scientist‘ is a respectable idea. I believe that tinkering with technology with both tech and scientific progress is going to become normal and profitable. Our most sophisticated software now results from people collaborating over the network, who may never meet or even exchange email. Many collaborative projects in science and engineering show that we may expect collaborative science to proceed naturally from citizen science.
That is our modern continuation of the industrial revolution and also the Renaissance.
*Assume 1000 distinct technologies, although I believe that is low. That is ~1 billion sets of 3 different technologies. All of those are not reasonable, feasible, economic, … but you don’t know until you consider the set against possible products.
**The obvious question is “why so few?” or “why so simple?” Hollywood movies expect you to believe dumb things lest their plots fall apart. I think they should fix the plot, not degrade the knowledge and understanding of their publics.
***Defining ‘win’ is the problem. Do Amish win their war with the surrounding culture? They increase their numbers, always a win in evolutionary terms. They maintain a stable core of values and religion. They are a positive part of the greater culture because they are living examples of the range of alternative social organizations and do much better than the wider culture in satisfying fundamental human values. Hutterites, Mennonites and others are variations, all show that groups can isolate themselves from the greater culture and do well. OTOH, they have nearly zero influence outside of their own group and local communities. Not their fault, they don’t want it, and the rest of us don’t learn.
Added later. This is an example of how vocational training could work with academic training, and new types of businesses develop.
Later. Another example of how you can’t write about anything or have any idea without seeing many things that are supportive, or related, or … Minds make connections, you can’t stop them. It takes efforts to determine meaning and importance.
I think anyone can find 5 examples of absolutely anything with an internet search. Bloggers Law? It needs a good name.
It is rare for me to find so similar thoughts so soon from someone so high in the Status Quo as Matt Ridley. Indeed, all of these palettes evolve independently.
Later. I added “and Renaissance” to the summary sentence. We are in a Renaissance, tho the so-many positive parts of that are swamped by our various government’s negative effects.