The “Ap” Society

One of my smallest granddaughters is enchanted with the “aps” on her mother’s smartphone [she can’t be enchanted with mine, because I only have a new version of an old-fashioned cellphone], and everywhere I look or read, there’s another “killer ap.”  And I don’t have a problem with “aps.”  I do have an enormous problem with what they represent… in the deeper sense.

The other week, I was reading an article about the difference between inventors and “tweakers,” and one of the points made by the writer was that, in general, initial inventions seldom are what change society.  It’s the subsequent “tweaks” to those basic innovations that make the difference.  Bill Gates didn’t invent the personal computer, but the tweaks provided by Microsoft made it universal.  Steve Jobs was a superb tweaker and marketer, and those abilities led to the I-Phone, among other commercial and societally accepted and successful products, and all the smartphone clones that are changing communications patterns in technological societies.  And, of course, killer aps are another form of tweaking.

But… as I’ve noted before, for all our emphasis on tweaking and commercialization, we’ve seen very little development and implementation of basic technological innovation in more than a half century. We still generate the vast majority, if not essentially all, of our electricity based on 1950s (or earlier) principles; aircraft and automotive propulsion systems are merely tweaked versions of systems in use more than a half century earlier, and we don’t travel any faster than in 1960 (and actual travel time is longer, given security and other problems).

In some areas, we’ve actually shelved technology that was superior in performance to currently used technology for reasons of “economic efficiency,” i.e., cheaper. That tends to remind me of the ancient Chinese and the Ptolemaic Greeks, and even the Romans, who never implemented technological advances because slaves or servants were cheaper.

Take Burt Rhutan, one of the most prolific and dynamic aircraft designers of the past generation.  What I find most interesting is that for all of the technical success of his designs, few indeed have ever resulted in being produced in large numbers – and it’s not because his aircraft are particularly expensive [as aircraft go, that is].

Of course, all this raises the question of whether we’ve reached the effective limits of technology. This issue was raised more than a century ago, when some U.S. luminaries proposed closing the patent office because there was nothing new to discover.  It certainly wasn’t so back then, but all the emphasis on tweaking and commercialization I see now raises that same question once again, if in a slightly different perspective.  Have we hit the limits of basic science and technology?  Or are we just unwilling to invest what is necessary to push science further, and will we settle for a future limited to “killer aps”?


10 thoughts on “The “Ap” Society”

  1. Joe says:

    FWIW, the word is “App” from “Application” which is how Apple names its programs.

    I don’t believe we’ve run out of science to discover. Think genetics. Think AI. Think nano-tech. But capitalism as it is practiced today is a dead end because any project must deliver a return very quickly, which naturally limits the scope of any project and only allows tweaking. You’ll notice that the next generation rockets are being built by small companies bankrolled by a billionaire (Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, John Carmack, Richard Branson), rather than a … bank. You’ll also notice that few large companies even have a research division any more (Xerox Park? HP?)

    That is why long term government funding for science is essential in a capitalist economy. The US’ lead in tech can be traced back to government research labs (eg: Darpanet). But instead of spending our money colonizing the Moon or Mars (both rather sizable pieces of real-estate which would give us a huge leverage on future developments), or reorienting our economy towards a more sustainable future, we’re “freeing” Iraq, strip-searching grannies, inventing new ways of swapping pieces of paper and then saving the banks when it all blows up. So I would blame our use of resources, not any new barrier to scientific innovation.

  2. I stand corrected… which also may show my interest in new apps.

  3. Sam says:

    I do wonder if cumulative innovations over time can lead to larger breakthroughs.

    I also think technological bottlenecks can lead to rethinking of architectural principles. The basic PC architecture has been around for several decades now however there have been changes that have occurred incrementally over time that make the modern PC very different to the original. For example floppy drives no longer exist in most modern PCs. The creation of the USB standard meant that many devices such as printers, scanners etc. could use the exact same connection. Motherboard BIOS is still around but it’s looking like the complete transition to EFI will take place sometime in the next 5 years. Similarly the transistion from 32 bit computing to 64 bit computing. The bottlneckin this instance is memory. A 32 bit operating system can only support up to 4GB of memory. A 64 bit operating system could easily support 128GB of memory.

    In the evolution of the PC advancement of one component has often led to bottlenecks in it’ interaction with other components leading to those componnents being redesigned or replaced with superior technology.

    In a market-driven society demand in the marketplace can lead to techological advances, ie. demand for an mp3 player that can store twice as many mp3s as the previous model. The company that one-ups another company in such a manner gain an edge in the marketplace for a time.

    Demand for devices with longer battery life can also lead to research into improving the energy efficiency of designs as well as advancing/improving current battery technology. Many review of devices such as smart-phones and tablets place a strong emphasis on their battery performance.

    Some technological advances can have a knock-on effect in other areas, particularly the invention of new materials and manufacturing methods. A local program here in Australia called The New Inventors featured a man last year who had invented a new surfboard using modern materials that weren’t around several decades ago. The new materials allowed him to design a board that was both sturdy and lightweight.

  4. R. Hamilton says:

    Let me grab my iPhone…ok.

    Here’s some items, not all, but it may suggest _something_:
    * six e-book readers (I’d rather one that could handle multiple formats and DRM implementations, with plug-ins, but that would take a level of cooperation…)
    * eleven news and editorial apps (mostly glorified bookmarks, although some are a bit more) – this includes some that are very far from anything I’d agree with, if only to hear a dissenting voice (and keep alert for what the evil ones are up to 🙂
    * periodic table, first aid manual, Constitution, Federalist Papers, etc
    * multiple streaming media apps (one streams from my home computer), and a Dilbert online app
    * four barcode scanners, three remote controls, and eight games
    * unit conversions, chord finders, file sharing
    * a couple of NASA apps
    * Trapster (that some meddling senator wanted banned, because people could report speed traps along with other hazards)
    * an astronomical (not astrological!) star chart, helpful for amateurs to recognize what they’re looking at when away from the city lights

    How much of that do I really need? None obviously, given how long I got along without it. But it becomes increasingly useful to have any information at any time, and some like the first aid manual on the phone itself so as to be available without regard to signal.

    Some of them, that use the phone’s accelerometers and gyros as one of their inputs, are pretty creative. The rest are mostly just a matter of making it work on a small (if very detailed) screen, with a touch screen instead of mouse and keyboard. But that’s still a lot harder than it sounds!

    Burt Rutan (no “h”) seems, from a quick scan of his designs, to have been interested in craft that except for SpaceShip 1/2 and Virgin Galactic, and also his home-builts, were of little commercial interest; if neither an airline nor a military wants it, and it would cost too much for Cessna or Beech or somebody like that to jump all the hoops for certification, what do you expect? Commercial volume isn’t everything though. Innovative (if not truly breakthrough) designs may find applications years after they first appear.

    Take the flat screen display. Uses less space and power. Longtime readers of magazines like Popular Science may remember just how long a flat screen display was predicted to be only a few years away, and yet it’s only been a few years that they’ve almost completely displaced CRTs.

    Take the “evil” internal combustion engine. Why is it still the only answer if you want to drive 400 miles or more in one day? It’s had about 150 years of growth, whereas electrics, around roughly as long, have always been niche because batteries couldn’t match the energy density of liquid fuels. Maybe something like methanol fuel cells could compete (although the advantage would depend on the efficiency of methanol production)…but then, why not just work on processes to produce bio-sourced substitutes for diesel and gasoline at reasonable efficiencies?

    A “Mr. Fusion” is easy to imagine…and a heck of a lot harder to create. Controlled fusion is like flat screens used to be, except rather than always five years out, it’s more like always 20 years out. Meanwhile, some further increase in solar cell efficiencies (using the one sustained fusion source readily available) may reduce combustion-based energy (a questionably useful undertaking, but already assumed by most to be necessary sooner or later)…and more proximately important, might decentralize the grid, reducing the risks of accidental (or intentional) failures.

    Connect the dots. Visible progress depends on lots of mostly invisible progress, in the form of all the needed prerequisites. I’m sure a number of industrial processes had to reach certain levels of sustained quality and complexity to make flat screens practical…and so there are at least _four_ major technologies (LCD, DLP, plasma, LED)…although DLP isn’t totally flat). For now, LCDs have the price/performance advantage in most cases, but sooner or later, oLEDs or something else will displace them, unless LCDs keep getting better fast enough to stay ahead.

    As was mentioned, the “nothing left to invent” scenario has been proposed before. It was as arrogant then as when Bill Gates said that a PC would never need more than 640KB of RAM (my iPhone has 512MB of RAM and 32GB of flash). Moore’s Law keeps rolling on, too, although its demise has been predicted (and without a switch to something beyond silicon and perhaps even beyond electronics as we know them, it can’t go on forever).

    I wouldn’t expect the _rate_ of progress of the last couple hundred years to continue forever; the explosion of complexity, where there’s far too much to know to master more than a narrow area, will eventually run into the inefficiency of getting people to work together…or not. After all, what do we have? A frivolous thing called the Internet, designed by ARPA to be survivable, and a web designed by Berners-Lee at CERN to make footnotes, cross-references, and bibliographies something you can click on to see for yourself what they cite. And more recently, someone had the unmitigated gall to design a _game_ that actually harnesses the player’s 3D spacial perception abilities to become part of distributed processing to solve protein molecule folding problems, as part of the search for cures and treatments long dreamed of. So…maybe with some imagination, and frivolity put to at least a _little_ productive use (even unknowingly perhaps), complexity might address some of the problems it creates.

    We’re a long way from stalled. The economy hasn’t been much help, since the dot-com bubble burst and slowly started to re-introduce the notion that just maybe something has to actually be _produced_ to make a profit. But we’re at least decades, more likely centuries, away from a Theory of Everything, and even if we had one, it would take just about forever to figure out all the things we could _do_ with it.

    Sometimes, as when the economy is such that people are worrying more about keeping their job (or finding one) than about the latest science news or really astounding gadgets, we may be a bit short on _will_ for something new. Only if big government keeps getting bigger, will there be a danger of the will to create and imagine vanishing, that everyone may be a properly mediocre ward of the state.

  5. Hob says:

    One could argue that there is a direct link between power/status and innovation. Innovation causes fluidity in most economic models, even as economic models are shaped by power/status.

  6. Cubanero says:

    This is a great book that covers the issue about disruptive technology:

  7. Matthew Runyon says:

    Tell any chemist or (especially) biologist that there have been no improvements in basic technology in the last sixty years, and they’ll tell you you’re crazy. Chemistry has come a long way since then, and biology has come even further, especially in fields like genetics. Heck, even in the last ten years that’s changed. My sister’s high school offers biotechnology classes, and she is sequencing human DNA for regular projects.

  8. Wine Guy says:

    It still comes down to the lowest common denominator: money. No one is willing to pay for new stuff when the old stuff works, even if it is clearly superior, unless the old money-usefulness-value-experience scales balance properly.

    And government investment in the basic sciences was all well and good, until the private companies figured out they could buy the university labs. THAT, in my opinion, is slowing things down as much as anything.

  9. David Sims says:

    In what sense is Burt Rutan not simply a tweaker whose aircraft “aps,” however efficient they were, didn’t find a large commercial market? Rutan didn’t discover a new means of levitation. All his aircraft do is employ novel, or “tweaked” versions of the old airfoil idea.

    How would you produce electricity without converting some natural energy resource (nuclear, chemical, kinetic) energy into it using conductive materials moving through a magnetic field? The only innovation that wasn’t a tweak on that idea involved using the photoelectric effect to convert light into electricity. And solar power never caught on because of the energy needed to fabricate solar panels; generally, this construction is carried out with energy from the aforementioned conventional generation methods.

    And solar panels don’t have a high EROEI (energy returned on energy invested) score. While you might get back out of them, over their operational lifetimes, a little more energy than was required to build them in the first place, the energy profit from solar devices isn’t great enough to make them commercially viable. People use solar power when it is convenient, as to run a handheld device (such as a calculator), or as a hedge against a possible failure of commercial electric power.

    There probably are more fundamental discoveries that await future science. But the universe might not be an inexhaustible reservoir of basic ideas, which could be finite in number. Once we have them all, we’ll be forever after in the business of finding clever tweaks.

    Much of the expansion of the computer industry, as well as practical spinoff benefits, were made possible by game players who, over the years, kept demanding better sound and visual effects. There were a lot of gamers, and they had money to spend, and to keep them happy and buying the industry had to improve hardware, and then write software to take advantage of the advances in hardware. After the gamers played the latest round of games, they wanted something even better next time, which began the development cycle all over again. The Department of Defense has, on at least one occasion, made a bulk purchase of game computers, so they could adapt them to military use.

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