Ideas are what power our economy. It’s what sets us apart. It’s what America has been all about. We have been a nation of dreamers and risk-takers; people who see what nobody else sees sooner than anybody else sees it. We do innovation better than anybody else — and that makes our economy stronger. When we invest in the best ideas before anybody else does, our businesses and our workers can make the best products and deliver the best services before anybody else.
And because of that incredible dynamism, we don’t just attract the best scientists or the best entrepreneurs — we also continually invest in their success. We support labs and universities to help them learn and explore. And we fund grants to help them turn a dream into a reality. And we have a patent system to protect their inventions. And we offer loans to help them turn those inventions into successful businesses.
And the investments don’t always pay off. But when they do, they change our lives in ways that we could never have imagined. Computer chips and GPS technology, the Internet — all these things grew out of government investments in basic research. And sometimes, in fact, some of the best products and services spin off completely from unintended research that nobody expected to have certain applications. Businesses then used that technology to create countless new jobs.
So the founders of Google got their early support from the National Science Foundation. The Apollo project that put a man on the moon also gave us eventually CAT scans. And every dollar we spent to map the human genome has returned $140 to our economy — $1 of investment, $140 in return.
In the end, politics is about story. Robert McKee, Hollywood's master of storytelling, views the world from the top of America's other great cultural export—its movies.
"1 think that the American ethos is not science-friendly and never has been," he says. "The American model is Thomas Edison and Henry Ford. Guys who never went to college and who were geniuses and invented things, and people like them. The inventor versus the scientist. Somebody who can go west, discover gold mines, and create a lot of money without an education. Unlike Europe or Japan or India, or even China these days. In those cultures they admire and compete to be a really well educated person in some field. That is not the American dream. The American dream is Hollywood, sitting in a drugstore and somebody says, 'You ought to be a movie star.' It's an attitude that life a game and that what you gotta learn is to play that game well, but it's not on a gridiron where you actually have to practice, it's a game of manipulation and most of that game is somehow bullshit."
If McKee and Tocqueville are right, the influx of European scientist: starting in the 1930s and continuing through World War II may hare changed the United States and led to a temporary boom. America ma^ be coasting to the end of that momentum now. The importing of such talent declined sharply in the wake of 9/11. We have made the country more difficult and less hospitable for immigrants, closing those door; Ronald Reagan saw standing open to anyone with the will and th( heart to get here. And now science, like our corporations, is going global, and the last great engine of the American economy—our ability to innovate—may be slipping from our grasp
So we are faced with a choice. Will we go the way of the ancient Chinese, nosing our heads comfortably into the warm sand, obedient, productive agreeably alike in thought, but rigid, paralyzed, no longer able to improve*
Or will we take up the mantle of freedom and leadership that science gave us—the commitment to knowledge over the assertions of "but faith, or opinion" that led to the disquieting idea of equality that is the foundation of democracy? Will we be skeptical of claims that seek to crowd out the space for knowledge in the public dialogue? Will we continue to embrace the antiauthoritarian power of wonder, tolerance, and imagination to create a new future—a shining city upon a hill? Will we reject ideological conformity and reward a facts-based press and science education? Will we set aside the left-right skirmishes of identity politics and focus as our founders did on the top-bottom battle for freedom? Will we protect and fund the conditions that encourage diversity, creativity, and prosperity in art and science, not because of what they do for our pocketbooks but because o what they mean to our values as Americans? Will the people, in short, remain well enough informed to be trusted with their own government?
In a century dominated by the awesome powers and dangers of science. there is no greater moral, economic, or political question.
When Europeans first arrived in China, three hundred years a^ago, they found that almost all the arts had reached a certain degree of perfection there, and they were surprised that a people which had attained this point should not have gone beyond it. At a later period they discovered traces of some higher branches of science that h had been lost. The nation was absorbed in productive industry; the greater part of its scientific processes had been preserved, but science itself no longer existed there. This served to explain the strange immobility in which they found the minds of this people. The Chinese, in following the track of their forefathers, had forgotten the reasons by which the latter had been guided. They still used the formula without asking for its meaning; they retained the instrument, but they no longer possessed the art of altering or renewing it. The Chinese, then, had lost the power of change; for them improvement was impossible. They were compelled at all times and in all points to imitate their predecessors lest they should stray into utter darkness by deviating for an instant from the path already laid down for them. The source of human knowledge was all but dry; and though the stream still ran on. it could neither swell its waters nor alter its course.
Innovations, free thinking is blowing like a storm; those that stand in front of it, ignorant scholars like you, false scientists, perverse conservatives, obstinate goats, resisting mules are being crushed under the weight of these innovations. You are nothing but ants standing in front of the giants; nothing but chicks trying to challenge roaring volcanoes!
...the process of innovation often relies heavily on the combining and recombining of previous innovations, the broader and deeper the pool of accessible ideas and individuals, the more opportunities there are for innovation.
We are in no danger of running out of new combinations to try. Even if technology froze today, we have more possible ways of configuring the different applications, machines, tasks, and distribution channels to create new processes and products than we could ever exhaust.
Here’s a simple proof: suppose the people in a small company write down their work tasks— one task per card. If there were only 52 tasks in the company, as many as in a standard deck of cards, then there would be 52! different ways to arrange these tasks.8 This is far more than the number of grains of rice on the second 32 squares of a chessboard or even a second or third full chessboard. Combinatorial explosion is one of the few mathematical functions that outgrows an exponential trend. And that means that combinatorial innovation is the best way for human ingenuity to stay in the race with Moore’s Law.
The third explanation for America’s current job creation problems flips the stagnation argument on its head, seeing not too little recent technological progress, but instead too much. We’ll call this the “end of work” argument, after Jeremy Rifkin’s 1995 book of the same title. In it, Rifkin laid out a bold and disturbing hypothesis: that “we are entering a new phase in world history—one in which fewer and fewer workers will be needed to produce the goods and services for the global population.”
Computers caused this important shift. “In the years ahead,” Rifkin wrote, “more sophisticated software technologies are going to bring civilization ever closer to a near-workerless world. … Today, all … sectors of the economy … are experiencing technological displacement, forcing millions onto the unemployment roles.” Coping with this displacement, he wrote, was “likely to be the single most pressing social issue of the coming century.”
But to grasp just how far our current mindset is from being able to attempt innovation on such a scale, consider the fate of the space shuttle’s external tanks [ETs]. Dwarfing the vehicle itself, the ET was the largest and most prominent feature of the space shuttle as it stood on the pad. It remained attached to the shuttle—or perhaps it makes as much sense to say that the shuttle remained attached to it—long after the two strap-on boosters had fallen away. The ET and the shuttle remained connected all the way out of the atmosphere and into space. Only after the system had attained orbital velocity was the tank jettisoned and allowed to fall into the atmosphere, where it was destroyed on re-entry.
At a modest marginal cost, the ETs could have been kept in orbit indefinitely. The mass of the ET at separation, including residual propellants, was about twice that of the largest possible Shuttle payload. Not destroying them would have roughly tripled the total mass launched into orbit by the Shuttle. ETs could have been connected to build units that would have humbled today’s International Space Station. The residual oxygen and hydrogen sloshing around in them could have been combined to generate electricity and produce tons of water, a commodity that is vastly expensive and desirable in space. But in spite of hard work and passionate advocacy by space experts who wished to see the tanks put to use, NASA—for reasons both technical and political—sent each of them to fiery destruction in the atmosphere. Viewed as a parable, it has much to tell us about the difficulties of innovating in other spheres.
Suppose, in our imagination, we take this radio apart. Suppose we take all the pieces out of the wooden box we call a cabinet. Now, you could call in a good cabinetmaker and say, "Jim, can you make a cabinet like that for me?" He'd answer you, "Of course I can. For about five dollars." You could say to another fellow, "How much can you make that pin for?" He might say, "Oh, about a dime."
Then you look at all the parts on the table. Someone had to make every piece in the set. If you checked only the weight of the material, you'd probably find the radio could be bought for forty or fifty cents a pound. But you can't buy a radio the way you buy a pound of meat. That material isn't all you bought. You bought something else. You bought that intangible something which, when the parts are all put together, makes it work. That something which makes it possible for you to hear the announcer say, "This is London calling."
When you bought that radio you bought the combined knowledge and experience of every great electrical scientist from Michael Faraday on down to the present. You also bought the results of endless experiments and the ideas of thou-sands of inventors.
That is what is housed in that cabinet along with so many pounds of material - that intangible some-thing which goes into every product - that something which is priceless.
To illustrate how priceless it is - let us suppose there was some force that could take radio away - could completely wipe out radio in the world. What would it be worth to have a group of men rediscover and redevelop that intangible something? The something which makes it possible to take a few pounds of material and a few hours of work and with it be in contact with almost any place in the world.
As purchasers, we see the finished article - the automobile, the radio, the telephone, the airplane or the Diesel locomotive. But how did they come about?
You have heard a great deal about science, research and engineering. But for every experiment that has been a success, there have been thousands of failures, much discouragement and sleepless nights. Long hours have been spent in just thinking about and experimenting with these developments. If that work had not been done, man would not be flying. We would have no electric lights, no motorcars, nor could you now be listening to this great orchestra.
So the thing that really started and maintains progress in the world is man's ability to think, and his dissatisfaction with things as they are. That is the intangible motive power which makes for human progress.
• An ability to associate creatively. They could see connections between seemingly unrelated concepts, problems or questions.
• An annoying habit of consistently asking “what if”.And “why not” and “how come you’re doing it this way”. These visionaries scoured out the limits of the status quo, poking it, prodding it, shooting upward to the 40,000-foot view of something to see if it made any sense and then plummeting back to earth with suggestions.
• An unquenchable desire to tinker and experiment.The entrepreneurs might land on an idea, but their first inclination would be to tear it apart, even if self-generated. They displayed an incessant need to test things: to find the ceiling of things, the basement of things, the surface area, the tolerance, the perimeters of ideas—theirs, yours, mine,anybody’s. They were on a mission, and the mission was discovery.
• They were great at a specific kind of networking.Successful entrepreneurs were attracted to smart people whose educational backgrounds were very different from their own. This allowed them to acquire knowledge about things they would not otherwise learn. From a social perspective, this behavioral pirouette is not easy to execute. How did they manage to do it consistently? Using insights generated by the final common trait.
• They closely observed the details of other people’s behaviors. The entrepreneurs were natural experts in the art of interpreting extrospective cues: gestures and facial expressions. Consistently and accurately interpreting these nonverbal signals is probably how they were able to extract information from sources whose academic resources were so different from their own.
Let me suggest a new axiom: juxtaposition is the spice of life. Humanity’s biggest talent, unique to us, is juxtaposing, finding and operating novel relationships between things or ideas... Recent ideas on neural activity suggest that the brain operates in a very associative way, with small neuron clusters containing core concepts, rather in the way a battery holds a trickle charge. These core concepts would be irreducibly small fragments of sounds or sights, or any phenomena that you experience. And these clusters are all, in some way, apparently interconnected, set up in microcolumns and macrocolumns, each column made up ofmillions of these lit,tle clusters of neurons. Now, if you consider that the brain passes information by means of synaptic junctions (the bits where one neuron almost touches another) and that there are potentially more of those kinds of connections in the brain than there are atoms in the known universe, you get a feel for the immensity of the network. With this associative system, to retrieve data, you go in, so to speak, anywhere on the network and find the target by association. Given the scale of things, an associative approach might be the only way the whole huge complex could work. Anyway, retrieval by association would be a good survival mechanism, because it would make you very flexible.