Letter: Mankind needs to rediscover its hunger for innovation, Financial Times

In the Financial Times Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel published one of the most important articles in the spirit of the BIG POTATOES perspectives since we published. The article – Our dangerous illusion of tech progress, Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel, Financial Times, November 8, 2012 – picks up on the themes in our Principle 02: Go beyond the post-war legacy of innovation. Though their emphasis is slightly different it is hard to find fault with.

Our reply has been published in the FT, slightly edited, as Mankind needs to rediscover its hunger for innovation, November 13, 2012. The letter as submitted follows. We have Tweeted about it and would value re-Tweets:

Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel are right that the bright future of scientific ingenuity we expected to solve our problems has gone missing (“Our dangerous illusion of tech progress”, November 8, 2012). Though this vision was technocratic – borne out of the necessity of a World War and the Cold War – today, by comparison, its seems wonderfully positive and ambitious.

As we observed in our 2010 BIG POTATOES manifesto, when boosters of ICT – the main game in innovation today – rave about ‘exponential growth’, they should really say ‘accelerating, but only for the moment’. In reality we are seeing the endgame of research into micro-electronics, computing and telecommunications conducted 40 or more years ago. That these innovations have transformed the media has made amplified our perception of them, in our mediated age. But we are blinded to the lack of investment in fundamental research that will lay the basis for future growth.

Previous huge leaps in innovation were international, mutually reinforcing and, critically, coincided with major social, economic and political upheavals, and the new hopes in the possibility and necessity of progress they ushered in. Today our emphasis is not on revolutionising production, but rather on finance, home insulation, consumer goods, and consumer services. As the authors note, the only huge leap proposed is a misanthropic and irrational leap backward ‘for the environment’s sake’.

In the second decade of the 21st century we badly need to leap ahead in creating new industries. To achieve this we need to re-establish the principles around which mankind should continue innovating.


2 Comments so far. Leave a comment below.
  1. Good term “useless research”.
    It doesn’t take a genius to investigate and see that 99% of research funded by EPSRC results in nothing at all apart from the paper presenting it.

    Meanwhile a small business with a great innovative idea to boost production and create jobs cannot get a penny from the funders due to the small percentage funding which favours global giants, and a carefully crafted series of hurdles and loops aimed at keeping SMEs and inventors out completely. Not opinion, real life experience.

  2. Nico Macdonald,

    There have been two interesting letters in the FT on the Thiel/Kasparov debate.

    Science will continue to make great leaps forward From Mr Peter Schwartz, November 13, 2012

    Significant leaps in technology of the sort that create major new industries usually follow big leaps in science… Synthetic biology will lead to a new industrial revolution of manufacturing with biological processes

    Let global public play with science From Mr Ajay Bhatla, November 15, 2012

    Garry Kasparov and Peter Thiel question why science-based value generation has been so limited even while acknowledging that innovations from scientists have produced exponential value when these had their basis in science. The answer is to make science so widely accessible and usable that large numbers of receptive and self-selecting individuals can discover it and use it in innovations targeted at producing dramatic progress on our most intransigent challenges… Only when we can widely disseminate what science knows can we hope to unleash the volume of human ingenuity that can lead to exponential progress on our most vexing problems.

    To the first writer I would note that our more prescriptive way of framing scientific research, most recently witnessed in changes in the funding model of the Wellcome Trust limts this kind of research and thus its future potential (see Principle 04: For useless research). And to the second that knowledge generation is crucial while sharing is secondary, and that we have made considerable progress in spite of any challenge around sharing. Also that even with more widely shared knowledge we still face cultural and political challenges, such as risk consciousness (Principle 08: Take risks).

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