What drives technological progress?

I found an excellent piece Was Moore’s Law Inevitable? which discusses how technological progress in some fields has proceeded at exponential rates.  Here are two charts from the piece which illustrate this kind of growth:

The author then included a chart of a more general model of how the capability of a technology improves in sequences that while not exponential individually result in exponential capability increases overall.

The piece then provides  commentary on what drives this kind of progress:

“Writing in 2005, on the 40th anniversary of his law, Moore says, “Moore’s law is really about economics.”  Carver Mead made it clearer yet: Moore’s Law, he says, “is really about people’s belief system, it’s not a law of physics, it’s about human belief, and when people believe in something, they’ll put energy behind it to make it come to pass.” In case that was not clear enough he spells it out further:

After [it] happened long enough, people begin to talk about it in retrospect, and in retrospect it’s really a curve that goes through some points and so it looks like a physical law and people talk about it that way. But actually if you’re living it, which I am, then it doesn’t feel like a physical law. It’s really a thing about human activity, it’s about vision, it’s about what you’re allowed to believe. Because people are really limited by their beliefs, they limit themselves by what they allow themselves to believe what is possible.

Finally, in a another reference, Mead adds : “Permission to believe that [the Law] will keep going,” is what keeps the Law going. Moore agrees in a 1996 article: “More than anything, once something like this gets established, it becomes more or less a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Semiconductor Industry Association puts out a technology road map, which continues this [generational improvement] every three years. Everyone in the industry recognizes that if you don’t stay on essentially that curve they will fall behind. So it sort of drives itself.”

If Moore and Mead are correct, it seems that expanding the vision of any particular technical community to the belief that exponential improvement is possible may be the key to actually realizing such rapid improvement.  The belief has to be based on the potential for an economic return on the investment in people and capital.  That’s another way of saying that the technology investment has to produce a meaningful increase in standard of living or productivity.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: