Is America ready for the next technological wave ?

Published in the Huffington Post.

« It is technology, more
than science, which ignites growth. Phases of strong growth come years after
scientific discoveries.”
Brian Arthur [1] defines science
as the understanding of physical phenomena technology as the use of physical
phenomena to implement a precise function. For example, science teaches us that
some materials can be both conductive and insulating. The resulting technology
uses this particular property to create a transistor (which enables to control
one current for another current) and then a microprocessor (which is able to
carry out logical operations).
It is technology, not science, which
ignites growth. Phases of high growth come years after scientific discoveries,
and only occur when associated technologies become affordable enough to be used
by a majority of people. The scientific foundations of the Internet date back
to the 1970s, but the effect on growth was only apparent in the late 1990s.
What stimulated this growth was HTML technology, which enabled the creation of
websites easily and quickly.
Several decades passed between
the first prototypes of steam engines (Papin’s in 1679) and the moment their
use became widespread, resulting in both substantial productivity gains and –
already – concerns about unemployment. The steam train was invented in 1804 in
the United Kingdom. Yet, it took twenty more years to see in France the first
line linking Saint-Etienne to Andrézieux, and it took France close to 50 years
to go from a steam machine capacity of 14,000 horsepower in 1833 to 500,000 in
Combining existing technologies. Sometimes
technology evolves through breakthroughs, when a new physical phenomenon is
mastered – for example, to produce new and more efficient way to store electricity.
But most of the times it evolves through the combination of existing
technologies. For example, a hydroelectric power station is composed of a tank,
turbines, electric generators and electrical equipment.
Two figures play a key role in
technological progress. First, the researchers or the research engineers who
discover or master how physical phenomena can be used to create new
technological bricks. Then, the inventors who assemble existing technologies to
design a new innovative solution – from the engineers who improve the
efficiency of an electric motor to the « makers » who build in their
garage a connected device by assembling components bought on the Internet and a
battery collected from a broken toy.
Most of these inventors have
limited resources and must use components available to the public that they
assemble in their garage – that is how Apple or HP started decades ago. Therefore,
growth is greatly accelerated whenever « technology bricks » are
developed, allowing new technologies to be easily assembled to meet needs.
Those bricks are the technologies, the infrastructures, the languages ​​or the
development environments that make complex technologies accessible to everyone-
just as HTML did for the Internet, the microprocessor for microcomputers, or
the C programming language for Computer development. With those bricks, using
advanced technology becomes as simple as assembling the bricks of a Lego game.
A whole generation could master
the fundamentals of computing with the first microcomputers in the 1980s, before
the increasing complexity (and cost) of systems reduced considerably the number
of people capable of developing computer programs. Cloud computing platforms have
the potential to democratize once again the development of applications –
whether for connected consumer devices (like Pebble’s smartwatch app platform,
recently bought by Fitbits) or for industrial processes (like GE’s Predix digital
industrial cloud platform).

The industrial Internet Boom. More
generally, access to numerous technological bricks has been greatly simplified.
It takes only a soldering iron and a few dollars to make an object “connected”
and “smart”. Dedicated networks such as Sigfox enable communication for $1 per
device and per year. Crowd funding allows anybody to find the resources to
scale up a first prototype to a global success.
Experts agree on the potential of
industrial digital in the future: if it is still currently behind on the
mainstream Internet, it would eventually exceed $8 trillion, a size comparable
to the one of the consumer Internet. Moreover, the impact of the industrial
Internet will be seen in the growth statistics, unlike its consumer
counterpart: when an application saves us free time, the GDP figures do not
change, whereas when a factory saves working hours, the measured productivity
increases. Large potential, direct impact on growth and maturity of “technological
bricks »: all the ingredients are there for an unprecedented wave of growth
whose premises, although still modest, are already visible.
Governments often focus their
efforts more on science than on technology. Their centralized structures are usually
more suited to large-scale projects and public research than designing the
regulations supporting technology dissemination or inspiring and incubating tens
of thousands of individual innovators. Though, there are differences across
counties – for example those who witnessed the development of personal computers
in the 1980s in Europe noticed the advantage of Northern countries, where high
school students had more time for experimentation.
Are they real differences across countries? To estimate how countries rank in terms of
« innovation composition » compared to other countries, we analyzed the
volume of Internet search by country of origin for components used by « makers ». For « ESP8266 » [2] (widely lauded for its low cost in the
realization of intelligent connected objects), the Netherlands lead (18% of
searches), followed by Germany (16% distributed in 4 regions – Bavaria, Bad
Württemberg, Berlin, North Rhine-Westphalia), Russia (13%), Poland (13%), Spain
(9%), Italy (8%) and India (7%). The top 10 for search on « Arduino »
[3] includes countries like Sri Lanka, El Salvador or Estonia.
In early November 2015, the « Tensorflow »
deep learning library was transferred to the public domain by Google. It’s a very
promising move: everyone can from now on use this technology that is behind
many of Google’s innovative services. But who has heard about this news? We
will know that governments are ready to seize opportunities that arise, the day
they will be as attentive to opportunities this type of decision offers, as we
are to the defensive discussions on topics such as “Uberization” or the
supposed risks of artificial intelligence…
Thanks to Joyce Bessis for her
help on the english version of this article.
[1] Arthur, W. Brian. The Nature
of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves
. Reprint edition. Free Press,
[2] The ESP8266 is a low-cost Wi-Fi system-on-chip with full TCP/IP
stack used by hobbyist to build connected devices.

[3] Arduino is an open source project designing microcontroller kits
used by students or hobbyist.
À propos

Dédié à l'analyse des questions économiques, sociales et environnementales de long terme, L'Observatoire du Long Terme se fixe pour objectif de donner davantage de visibilité à ces enjeux dans le débat public. Dans ce contexte, il donne la parole à des contributeurs variés, avec pour seul critère le caractère étayé des arguments présentés.

L'Observatoire est indépendant, ne reçoit aucune aide financière et repose sur le volontariat de ses contributeurs, de son bureau, présidé par Vincent Champain et Bruno Fuchs.

Sur le même sujet


S'il vous plaît entrez votre commentaire!
S'il vous plaît entrez votre nom ici

Du même auteur

Gérer le biais technologique pour ne pas le subir

Publié dans Les Echos le 9/4/2024 Accepterions-nous une technologie qui améliore l’accès à la santé, à l’éducation et réduit l’isolement dans le monde mais au...

Simplifier dans la durée

Publié dans Les Echos le 8 février 2024. Le coût de la complexité administrative est estimé à près de 5 points de PIB, et il...

Soyons optimistes pour l’optimisme.

Publié dans Les Echos le 11 janvier 2024 L’année 2023 s’est achevée sur des risques de guerre, de terrorisme, de chômage, de perte de pouvoir...

Quelques rapports de l’OLT

Quelques travaux produits par l'OLT: Rapport "Transition par l'Innovation" : présentation à New Delhi, pack de communication complet, synthese en anglais, infographie en anglais. Rapport "Politique...