PROGRESS: Rates of Innovation [was Re: COPY: Re: Stasism/Dynamism]

Robert J. Bradbury (
Sun, 5 Dec 1999 11:40:31 -0800 (PST)

On Sun, 5 Dec 1999, Robert Owen wrote:

> > It Appears that once upon a time :
> >
> > > > writes:
> > > >
> > > >if the "free market" really worked it would be innovative;

I've snipped a lot of discussion on this and thought I would put some spin on from my perspective.

Lets take an example from the recent Scientific American special publication I previously mentioned. In the article about getting to petaflops computing, they mention the Grape computers (that I mentioned at Extro 3) that were the first to obtain teraflop computations. Now these were assembled by a small research group in Japan for a very special purpose. They also discussed the effort at Caltech being supported by the DOD/DOE and probably some other agencies we don't want to name to get to a petaflops by 2007, this is a very large effort that is going to require the invention of a lot of stuff that doesn't exist yet. Mentioned in passing that is the fact IBM has looked at the problem of a special architecture Protein-Folding computer (like the Grape but doing a different calculation). They believe it would only cost a few million dollars but but they say nothing about plans to develop such a machine.

I question whether an open and free market would have any influence on the rate of development of any of these things (all of which involve large amounts of innovation). We are getting innovation in these areas because people want to solve a problem are are able to swing the application of the resources required to develop the solutions (i.e. to do the innovation).

It seems to be the case that now (in contrast to a 100 years ago) that the resources required to do world class innovation are much greater than they used to be (with the possible exception of the software industry). I think this is because we have moved out of the realm where most innovation is done on human scales (i.e. designing a chair) and into the realms where innovation requires a fair amount of relatively expensive infrastructure (university labs, X-ray & e-beam lithography machines, DNA sequencers, mass spectrometers, etc.) and most people simply do not have access to such resources.

I can easily innovate if it requires a hammer and nails, less easily (but still doable) if it requires a milling machine and not at all if it requires radioactive Gandolinium. Most of the hammer & nail and much of the milling machine innovation has been done already.

The shift you see in innovation from individuals to organizations is, I believe, due to the fact that the problems we are dealing with have simply gotten harder and require more resources. People who are in those privileged positions where they have access to the required resources are by and large pretty innovative (IBM for example has been amazing the last few years). The connection between innovation and "free markets" in my mind is pretty slim. I can even make the case that the free market for and declining costs of general purpose microprocessors are stifling innovation because companies see no point to putting resources into exploring novel architectures because there is no market for them. I can only think of a single computer company (Tera) that has anything really innovative in state-of-the-art in computer architectures in the last decade.