Oct 3, 2021
Dr. Brian Arthur and I talk about how technology can be modeled as a modular and evolving system, combinatorial evolution more broadly and dig into some fascinating technological case studies that informed his book The Nature of Technology.
Brian is a researcher and author who is perhaps best known for his work on complexity economics, but I wanted to talk to him because of the fascinating work he’s done building out theories of technology. As we discuss, there’s been a lot of theorizing around science — with the works of Popper, Kuhn and others. But there’s been less rigorous work on how technology works despite its effects on our lives.
Brian currently works at PARC (formerly Xerox PARC, the birthplace of personal computing) and has also worked at the Santa Fe institute and was a professor Stanford university before that.
In this conversation, Dr. Brian Arthur. And I talk about how technology can be modeled as modular and evolving system. Commentorial evolution more broadly, and we dig into some fascinating technological hae studies that informed your book, his book, the nature of tech. Brian is a researcher and author who is perhaps best known for his work on complexity economics.
Uh, but I wanted to talk to him [00:01:00] because of the fascinating work he's done, building out theories of technology. Uh, as we discussed in the podcast, there's been a lot of theorizing around science, you know, with the works of popper and Kuhn and other. But there's has been much less rigorous work on how technology works despite its effect on our lives.
As some background, Brian currently works at park formerly Xerox park, the birthplace of the personal computer, and has also worked at the Santa Fe Institute and was a professor at Stanford university before that. Uh, so without further ado, here's my conversation with Brian Arthur.
Mo far less interested in technology. So if anybody asks me about technology immediately search. Sure. But so the background to this is that mostly I'm known for a new framework and economic theory, which is called complexity economics. I'm not the [00:02:00] only developer of that, but certainly one of the fathers, well, grandfather, one of the fathers, definitely.
I was thinking one of the co-conspirators I think every new scientific theory like starts off as a little bit of a conspiracy. Yes, yes, absolutely. Yeah. This is no exception anyways. So that's what I've been doing. I'm I've think I've produced enough papers and books on that. And I would, so I've been in South Africa lately for many months since last year got back about a month ago and I'm now I was, as these things work in life, I think there's arcs, you know, you're getting interested in something, you work it out or whatever it would be.
Businesses, you [00:03:00] start children, there's a kind of arc and, and thing. And you work all that out. And very often that reaches some completion. So most of the things I've been doing, we've reached a completion. I thought maybe it's because I getting ancient, but I don't think so. I think it was that I just kept working at these things.
And for some reason, technologies coming back up to think about it in 2009, when this book came out, I stopped thinking about technology people, norm they think, oh yeah, you wrote this book. You must be incredibly interested. Yeah. But it doesn't mean I want to spend the rest of your life. Just thinking about the site, start writing this story, like writing Harry Potter, you know, it doesn't mean to do that forever.
Wait, like writing the book is like the whole [00:04:00] point of writing the book. So you can stop thinking about it. Right? Like you get it out of your head into the book. Yeah, you're done. So, okay. So this is very much Silicon valley and I left academia in 1996. I left Stanford
I think was I'm not really an academic I'm, I'm a researcher sad that those two things have diverged a little bit. So Stanford treated me extraordinarily well. I've no objections, but anyway, I think I'd been to the Santa Fe Institute and it was hard to come back to standard academia after that.
So why, should people care about sort of, not just the output of the technology creation process, but theory behind technology.
Why, why does that matter? Well[00:05:00]
I think that what a fine in in general, whether it's in Europe or China or America, People use tremendous amount of technology. If you ask the average person, what technology is, they tell you it's their smartphone, or it's catch a tree in their cars or something, but they're, most people are contend to make heavy use of technology of, I count everything from frying pans or cars but we make directly or indirectly, enormously heavy use of technology.
And we don't think about where it comes from. And so there's a few kind of tendencies and biases, you know we watch we have incredibly good retinal displays these days on our computers. [00:06:00] We can do marvelous things with our smartphone. We switch on GPS and our cars, and very shortly that we won't have to drive at all presumably in a few years.
And so all of this technology is doing marvelous things, but for some strange reason, We take it for granted in the sense, we're not that curious as to how it works. People trend in engineering is I am, or I can actually tell you that throughout my entire life, I've been interested in how things work, how technology works, even if it's just something like radios.
I remember when I was 10, I like many other kids. I, I constructed a radio and a few instructions. I was very curious how all that worked and but people in general are not curious. So I [00:07:00] invite them quite often to do the following thought experiments. Sometimes them giving talks. All right. Technology.
Well, it's an important, yeah, sort of does it matter? Probably while I would matter. And a lot of people manage to be mildly hostile to technology, but there are some of the heaviest users they're blogging on there on Facebook and railing about technology and then getting into their tech late and cars and things like that.
So the thought experiment I like to pose to people is imagine you wake up one morning. And for some really weird or malign reason, all your technology is to super weird. So you wake up in your PJ's and you stagger off to the bathroom, but the toilet, [00:08:00] you trying to wash your hands or brush your teeth.
That is no sink in the bathroom. There's no running water. You scratch your head and just sort of shrugged in you go off to make coffee, but there's no coffee maker, et cetera. You, in this aspiration, you leave your house and go to clinch your car to go to work. But there's no car. In fact, there's no gas stations.
In fact, there's no cars on the roads. In fact, there's no roads and there's no buildings downtown and you're just standing there and naked fields. And wondering, where does this all go? And really what's happened in this weird Saifai set up is that let's say all technologies that were cooked up after say 1300.
So what would that be? The last 700 years or so? I've disappeared. And and you've [00:09:00] just left there and. People then said to me, well, I mean, wouldn't there have been technologies then. Sure. So you know how to, if you're a really good architect, you might know how to build cathedrals. You might know how to do some stone bridges.
You might know how to produce linen so that you're not walking around with any proper warm clothes and so on. But our whole, my point is that if you took away everything invented. So in the last few hundred years, our modern world or disappear, and you could say, well, we have science, Peter, but without technology, you wouldn't have any instruments to measure anything.
There'd be no telescopes. Well, we still have our conceptual ideas. Well, we would still vote Republican or not as the case may be. Yeah, you'd have, and I'd still have my family. Yeah. But how long are your kids gonna [00:10:00] live? Because no modern medicine. Yeah, et cetera. So my point is that not only does technology influence us, it creates our entire world.
And yet we take this thing that creates our entire world. Totally. For granted, I'd say by and large, there are plenty of people who are fascinated like you or me, but we tend to take it for granted. And so there isn't much curiosity about technology. And when I started to look into this seriously, I find that there's no ology of technology.
There's theories about where science comes from and there's theories about music musicology and theories, endless theories about architecture and, and even theology. But there isn't a very [00:11:00] well-developed set of ideas or theories on what technology is when, where it comes from. Now, if you know, this area is a, was that true?
On Thur, you know, I could mention 20 books on it and Stanford library, but when I went to look for them, I couldn't find very much compared with other fields, archi, ology, or petrol energy, you name it technology or knowledge. It was, I went to talk to a wonderful engineer in Stanford. I'm sure he's no longer alive.
Cause this was about 15 years ago. He was 95 or so if I couldn't remember his name it's an Italian name, just a second. I brought this to prompts. Just a sec.
I'm being sent to you. I remember his name and [00:12:00] make it the first name for him. Yeah. Walter VIN sent him. So I went to see one it's rarely top-notch aerospace engineers of the 20th century had lunch with them. And I said, have engineers themselves worked out a theory of the foundations of their subject.
And he looked, he sort of looked slightly embarrassed. He says, no. I said, why not? And he paused. He was very honest. He just paused. And he says, engineers like problems they can solve. It's. So compared with other fields, there isn't as much thinking about what technology is or how it evolves over time, where it comes from how invention works.
We've a theory of how new species come into existence since 1859 and Darwin. [00:13:00] We don't have much for theory at all. At least. This was 10, 15 years ago about how new technologies come into being. I started to think about this. And I reflected a lot because I was writing this book and people said, what are you writing about?
I said, technology that is always followed by Y you know, I mean, I could say I was maybe writing the history of baseball. Nobody would've said why, but Y you know, what could be interesting about that? And I reflected further that and I argue in my book, the nature of technology, I reflected that technology's not just the backdrop or the whole foundation of our lives.
We depend on it 200 years ago, the average length of life, might've been 55 in this country, or 45. [00:14:00] Now it's 80 something. And maybe that's an, a bad year, like the last year. So, and that's technology, medical technology. We've really good diagnostics, great instruments very good methods, surgical procedures.
Those are all technology. And by and large, they assure you fairly well that if you're born this year in normal circumstances, Reasonably the normal circumstance through born, let's say this decade, that's with reasonable, lucky to live, to see your grandchildren and you might live to see them get married.
So life is a lot longer. So I began to wonder who did research technology and strangely enough maybe not that strangely, it turns out to be if not engineers, a lot sociologists and economists. [00:15:00] And then I began to observe something further in that one was that a lot of people. So wondering about how things change and evolve had really interesting thoughts about how science, what science is and how that evolves.
And so that like Thomas Kuhn's, there are many people speculated in that direction, whether they're correct or not. And that's very insightful, but with technology itself I discovered that the people writing about it were historians associates, which is an economist and nearly, always, they talked about it in general.
We have the age off the steam engines or when railroads came along, they allowed the expansion of the entire United States Konami that connected his coast and west coast and [00:16:00] so on. So they're treating the technology has sort of like an exogenous effect sent there and they were treating that also. I discovered there's some brilliant books by economic historians and sociologists add constant is one.
He wrote about the turbo chapter, super good studies about Silicon valley, how the internet started and so on. So I don't want to make too sweeping the statement here, but by and large, I came to realize that nobody looked inside technologies. So this is if you were set in the 1750s and by ology certain biologists, they would have been called social scientists, natural philosophers.
That's right. Thank you. They would have been called natural philosophers and they would have been interested in if they were interested [00:17:00] in different species, say giraffes and Zebras and armadillos or something. It was as if they were trying to understand these from just looking outside. And it wasn't until a few decades later, the 1790s, the time of George cookie that people started to do.
And that to me is, and they find striking similarities. So something might be a Bengal tiger and something might be some form of cheetah. And you could see very similar structures and postulate as Darwin's grandfather did that. There might be some relation as to how they evolved some evolutionary tree.
By time, Darwin was writing. He wasn't that interested in evolution. He was interested in how new species are formed. So I began to realize that in [00:18:00] technology, people just by and large looking at the technology from the outside, and it didn't tell you much. I was at a seminar. I remember in Stanford where it was on technology every week.
And somebody decided that they would talk about modems. Those are the items that just connect your PC. The wireless internet. And they're now unheard of actually they're built into your machine. I'm sure. And we talked for an hour and a half about modems or with an expert who from Silicon valley who'd been behind and venting.
These never was the question asked, how does it work? Really? Yeah. Did, did everybody assume that everybody else knew how it worked? No. Oh, they just didn't care. No, no. Yeah, not quiet. It was [00:19:00] more, you didn't open the box. You assume there was a modem who is adopting modems. How fast were modems, what was the efficiency of modems?
How would they change the economy? What was in the box itself by and large was never asked about now there are exceptions. There are some economists who really do get inside, but I remember one of my friends late Nate Rosenberg, superb economist of technological history here at Stanford. Rude poop called inside the black box, but he didn't even in that book, he didn't really open up too many technologies.
So then I began to realize that people really didn't understand much about biology or zoology or evolution for that matter until this began to open up or can [00:20:00] isms and see similarities between species of toads and start to wonder how these different species had come about by getting inside. So to S set up my book, I decided that the key thing I was going to do, I didn't mention it much in the book, but was to get inside technologies.
So if I wanted to talk about jet engines, I, wasn't just going to talk about thrust and about manufacturers and about people who brought it into being, I was going to talk about, you know heat pumps, exactly Sur anti surge systems for compressors different types of combustion systems and materials whole trains of compressors.
Oh, assemblies of compressors the details of turbines that drove the compressors. [00:21:00] And I found that in technology, after technology, once you opened it up, you discovered many of the same components. Yeah. So let me hold that thought for a moment. I thought it was amazing that when you look at technologies from the outside, you know, see canoes and giraffes, they don't look at all similar legs.
Yeah. But they all have the same thing, basic construction there. And then their case, their memos, and they have skeleton their vertebrates or et cetera, whatever they are or something. And so in technologies, I decided quite early on with the book that I would understand maybe 25 or so technology is pretty well.
And of those [00:22:00] I'd understand at least a dozen very well, indeed, meaning spending maybe years trying to. Understand certain technologies are understanding. And and then what I was going to do is to see how they had come into being and what could be said about them, but from particular sources. So I remember calling up the chief engineer on the Boeing 7 47 and asking them questions personally, the cool thing about technology, unlike evolution is that we can actually go and talk to the people who made it right.
If they're still alive. Yes. And so, so, so I decided that it would be important to get inside technologies. When I did that, I began to realize that I was seeing the same components [00:23:00] again and again. So in some industrial system, safe for pumping air into coal mines or something, fresh air, you'd see compressors taking in their piping, it done.
And and yeah. Again, and again, you see piston engines or steam engines, or sometimes turbines powering something on the outside. They may look very different on the inside. You are seeing the same things again, again, and I reflected that in biology and say, and yeah, in biology save mammals we have roughly the same numbers of genes, very roughly it's kind of, we have a Lego kit of genes, maybe 23,000 case of humans slightly differently for other creatures.
[00:24:00] And these genes were put together to express proteins and express different bone structures, skeletal structures, organs in different ways, but they were all put together or originated from roughly the same set of pieces put together differently or expressed differently, actuated differently. They would result in different animals.
And I started to see the same thing with technology. So again, you take some. You take maybe in the 1880s some kind of a threshing machine or harvester that worked on steam summer inside. There there'd be a boiler. There'd be crying, Serbia steam engine. If you looked into railway locomotive, you'd see much the [00:25:00] same thing, polars and cranks, and the steam engine there be a place to keep fuel and to feed it with a coal or whatever it was operating on.
So once I started to look inside technologies, I realized it was very different set of things that there's ceased to become a mystery. And so the whole theme of what I was looking at was see if I can get this into one sentence. Technologies are means to human purposes normally created from existing components at hand.
So if I want to put up some structures and Kuala lumper, which is a high level high rise building, I've got all the pieces I needed. Pre-stressed concrete, whatever posts are needed to create. [00:26:00] Fundations the kinds of bolts and fasteners the do fastened together, concrete, high rise, cranes, and equipment et cetera.
Assemblies made of steel to reinforce the whole thing and to make sure the structure stands properly. It's not so much of these are all standardized, but the type of technology, every technology I thought is made with pieces and parts, and they tend to come from the same toolbox used in different ways.
They may be in Kuala, lumper used in Seattle's slightly different ways, but the whole idea was the same. So it's technology then cease to be a mystery. It was matter of combining or putting together things from a Lego sets in M where [00:27:00] I grew up in the UK. We'd call them mechano sets. What are they called here?
Erector sets or, well, I mean, Legos are, or, but like, I mean, there's, there's metal ones, the metal ones. I think the metal ones are erector sets. There's also like the wood ones that are tinker toys. Anyway, I like Legos, like, like I'm kinda like, okay. Okay. So, and that goes and yeah. And then you could get different sorts of Lego sets.
You know, a few were working in high pressure, high temperature, it'd be different types of things of you're working in construction. There'd be a different set of Lego blocks for that. I don't want to say this is all trivial. It's not a matter of just throwing together these things. There's a very, very high art behind it, but it is not these things being born in somebody's attic.
And in fact [00:28:00] of you were sitting here and what used to be Xerox park and Xerox graphy was invented by not by Mr. Xerox. Anyway, somewhere in here, but xerography was invented by someone who knew a lot about processes. A lot about paper, a lot about chemical processes, a lot about developing things. And shining light on paper and then using that maybe chemically at first and in modern Sarah Buffy.
Electrostatically. Yeah. And so what could born was rarely reflecting light known component of marks on paper, thinking of a copier machine focused with a lot of lenses, [00:29:00] well-known onto something that was fairly new, which was called a Xerox drum. And that was electrostatically charged. And so you arranged that the light effected the electrostatic charges on the Xerox drum and those electrostatic as the drum revolved, it picked up particles of printing, ink like dust and where being differentially charged, and then imprinted that on paper and then fused it.
All of those pieces were known.
It's and it's not a matter of someone. I think mine's name is Carlson by the way. It's not a matter of what's somebody working in an attic that guy actually, who was more like that, but usually it's a small team of [00:30:00] people who are, who see a principal to do something to say, okay, you know, we want to copy something.
Alright. But it could, you know cathode Ray tube and maybe it could project it on to that. And then there might be electrons sensitive or heat sensitive paper, and it could make her copies that way. But certainly in here Xerox itself for zero park, the idea was to say, let's use an electrostatic method combined with Potter and a lot of optics to ride on a Xerox drum and then fuse that under high heat into something that, where the particles stuck to paper.
So all of those things were known and given. So I guess there's sorry. There's, there's so many different directions that I, that I want to go. One. [00:31:00] So sort of just like on the idea of modularity for technology. Yeah. It feels like there's both I guess it feels like there's almost like two kinds of modularity.
One is the modularity where you, you take a slice in time and you sort of break the technology down into the different components. Yeah. And then there's almost like modularity through time that, that progresses over time where you have to combine sort of different ideas, but it doesn't necessarily, but like those ideas are not necessarily like contained in the technology or there's like precursor technology, like for example there's you have the, the moving assembly line.
Right. Which was a technology that was you originally for like butchering meat. Yup. Right. And so you had, you had car manufacturing [00:32:00] and then you had like a moving assembly line. Yep. And then Henry Ford came along and sort of like fused those together. And that feels like a different kind of modularity from the modularity of.
Of like looking at the components of technology, M I D do you think that they're actually the same thing? How do you, how do you think about those sort of two types of modularity? I'm not quite sure what the difference is. So, so the, the Henry T I guess like the, the, the, the, the Ford factory did not, doesn't contain a slaughter house.
Right. It contains like some components from the slider house. And some components, I guess. Let's see, I think, like, [00:33:00] this is like, I, I was like, sort of like thinking through this, it feels like, like when, when you think of like the sort of like intellectual lineages of technology the, like a technology does not always contain the thing that inspires it, I guess is and so, so there's this kind of like evolution over time of like, almost like the intellectual lineage of a technology that is not necessarily the same as like the.
Correct evolutions of the final components of that technology like for yeah. Does that, does that make sense? Like th th th or am I just like, am I seeing a difference where there, there is no difference which could be completely possible? Well, I'm not sure. I think maybe the latter, let me see if I can explain the way I see it, please stop me again.
If it [00:34:00] doesn't fit with what you're talking about. I could fascinated by the whole subject of invention, you know, where to radically new technologies come from, not just tweaks on a technology. So we might have we might have a Pratt and Whitney jet engine in 1996, and then 10 years later have a different version of that.
That's a good summer different components. That's fine. That's innovation, but it's not ready. Invention invention is something that's quite radical. You go from having air piston engines, which spit like standard car engines, driving propellers systems, 1930s, and you that gets replaced by a jet engine system working on a different principle.
So the question really is so I've [00:35:00] begun to realize that what makes an invention is that it works in a different principle. So when Cox came along, the really primitive ones in the 12 hundreds, or a bit later than that are usually made up, they're made with their water clocks and are relying on this idea that a drip of water is fairly regular.
If you set it up that way and about the time of Galileo. And in fact, Galileo himself realized that the pendulum had a particular regular beat. And if you could harness that regularity, that might turn into something that can measure time I clock. So, and that's a different principle that the principle is to use the idea that something on the end of a string or on the end of a piece of wire, give you a regular.
[00:36:00] Frequency or regular beat. So the country realize that inventions themselves something was carrying out unnecessary purpose using a different principle before the second world war in Britain, they in the mid 1930s, people got worried about aircraft coming from the continent. They thought it could well be terminated and and bombers coming over to bomb England and the standard methods then to detect bombers over the horizon was to get people with incredibly good hearing, quite often blind people and attach to their ear as the enormous air trumpet affair that went from their ear to some big concrete collecting amplifier, some air trumpet that was maybe 50 or a hundred [00:37:00] feet across to listen to what was going on in the sky.
And a few years later in the mid thirties, actually the began to look for something better and then. Made a discovery that fact that being well-known in physics by then, that if you bounced a very high frequency beam electromagnetic beam of say piece of metal, the metal would distort the beam.
It would kind of echo and you'd get to stores and see if it was just to adore three miles away, made a word, wouldn't have that effect, but it was metal. It would. So that that's different principle. You're not listening. You're actually sending out a beam of something and then trying to detect the echo.
And that is a different principle. And from that you get radar, how do you create such a beam? How'd [00:38:00] you switch it off very fast. Search can listen for an echo or electronically how do you direct the beam, et cetera, et cetera. How do you construct the whole thing? How can you get a very high energy beam because needed to be very high energy.
These are all problems that had to be solved. So in my, what I began to see, she was the same pattern giving invention guidance began usually an outstanding problem. How do we detect enemy bombers that might come from the east, from the continent, if we need to how do we produce a lot of cars more efficiently and then finding some principle to do that, meaning the idea of using some phenomenon in the case of ear trumpets, it was acoustic phenomena, but these could be greatly amplified for somebody's ear.
If you directed them into a big [00:39:00] concrete here, right?
Different ways to put out high frequency radio beams and listen for an echo of that. Once you have the principle, then it turns out there's sort of sub problems go with that in the case of radar, how do you switch the beam off so that you can, things are traveling at the speed of light. I just switched it off fast enough that the echo isn't drowned out by the original signal.
So then you're into another layer of solving another problem and an invention. Usually not. Well, I could talk about some other ways to look at it, but my wife looking at an invention is that nearly always is a strong social need. What do we do about COVID? The time that [00:40:00] says February, March 20, 20 oh, cur we can do a vaccine.
Oh, okay. The vaccine might work on a different principle, maybe messenger RNA rather than the standard sort of vaccines. And so you find a different principle, but that brings even getting that to work brings its own sub problems. And then if with a bit of luck and hard work, usually over several years or months, you solved the sub problems.
You managed to put all that in material terms, not just conceptual ones, but make it into some physical thing that works and you have an invention. And so to double click on that, couldn't you argue that those, that the solution to those sub problems are also in themselves inventions. And so it's just like inventions all the way down.
[00:41:00] No great point there. I haven't thought of that. Possibly the, if they need to use a new principal themselves, the sub solutions. Yeah. Then you'd have to invent how that might work. But very often they're standing by let me give you an example. I hope this isn't I don't want to be too sort of technical here, please go, go, go, go rotate.
Here we go then. So it's 1972 here in Xerox park where I'm sitting and the engineer, Gary Starkweather is his name, brilliant engineer and trained in lasers and trend and optics PhD and master's degrees, really smart guy. And he's trying to [00:42:00] figure out how to how to print. If you have an image in a computer, say a photograph, how do you print that now at that time?
In fact, I can remember that time there. There are things called line printers and they're like huge typewriter systems. There is one central computer you put in your job, the outputs it was figured out on the computer and then central line printer, which is like a big industrial typewriter. And then it clanked away on paper and somebody tore off the paper and handed it to through a window.
Gary, Starkweather wondered how could you print texts? But more than that images where you weren't using a typewriter, it's very hard to his typewriters and very slow if you wanted to images. So he [00:43:00] cooked up a principle, he went through several principles, but the one that he finished up using was the idea that you could take the information from the computer screens, a photograph you could use computer processors to send that to a laser.
The lasers beam would be incredibly, highly focused. And he realized that if he could use a laser beam to the jargon is to paint the image onto the Xerox drum. Then so that it electrically charged the Xerox drum, right then particles would stick to the Xerox, strung the charge places, and the rest would be zero graphy, like a copier machine.
He was working in Xerox park. [00:44:00] This was not a huge leap of the imagination, but there were two men's sub-problems in as well. We want to mention, if you look at it there's an enormous two huge problems if you wanted. So you were trying to get these black dots to write on a zero extremity to paint them on a zero Ekstrom.
I hope this is an obscure. No, this is great. And I'll, I'll, I'll include some like pictures and this is great. All right. So you suppose I'm writing or painting a photograph from the computer through a processor, send to a laser. The laser has to be able to switch on and off fast. If it's going to write this on a Xerox Trump, and if you work out commercially how fast it would have to operate.
Starkweather came to the conclusion. He'd have to be able to switch his [00:45:00] Lezzer on and off black or white 50 million times a second. Okay. So 50 megahertz, but nobody had thought of modulating or doing that sort of switching at that speed. So he had to solve that. That's a major problem. He solved it by circuitry.
He got some sort of pizza electric device that's kind of don't ask, but he got a electronic device that could switch on and off. And then he could send signals to modulator for that to modulator, to switch on and off the laser and make a black or white as needed. And so that was number one. Now that kind of, that in your terms acquired an invention, he had to think of a new principle to solve that problem.
So how do you, how do you write images on a computer? Sorry, on [00:46:00] how do you write it? How do you write computer images? Print that onto paper. That's required a new principal switching on a laser and. 50 million times the second required a new principal or acquire a new principal. So those are two inventions.
There's a third one and another sub problem. The device, by the way, he got to do this was as big as one of these rooms in 1972. If I have my if I have the numbers, right a decent laser would cost you about $50,000 and you could have bought a house for that in 1978 here. And it would be the size, not of a house, but of a pretty big lab, but not something inside a tiny machine, but an enormous apparatus.
And so how do you take [00:47:00] a laser on the end of some huge apparatus that you're switching on and off the 15 million times a second and scan it back and forth. And because there's huge inertia, it's an enormous thing. And believe it or not, he, he solved that. Not with smoke, but with mirrors. So he actually, instead of moving the laser beam, He arranged for a series of mirrors under evolving a piece of apparatus, like actuate the mirrors.
Yeah. All he had to do was 0.1 beam at the mirror, switch it on and off very quickly for the image. And then the mirror would direct it kind of like a lighthouse beam right across the page. And then the next [00:48:00] face of the mirror exactly little mirror would come along and do the next line. So how do you do that?
Well, that was easier. But then he discovered that the different facets on this mirror you'd have to, they'd have to line up to some extraordinarily high precision that you could not manufacture them to. So that's another sub problem. So to solve that he used ope optics if there was so here's one facet of mirror here is the beam.
So directs the beam right across the page, switching it off and on as need be. Then the next facet of the mirror comes round switches. The same beam that you want to line up extraordinary. Precisely. Couldn't do it manufactured. [00:49:00] In manufacturing technology. But you could do it with optics. It just said, okay, if there's a slight discrepancy, we will correct that.
He did agree and optics. He really knew what he was doing with optics in the lab. So using different lenses, different condensing lenses, whatever lenses do he solved that problem. So it's took two or three years, and it's interesting to look at the lab notebooks that he made. But for me let me see if I can summarize this.
There is no such thing as Gary Starkweather scratching his head saying, wouldn't it be lovely to wouldn't it be lovely to be able to print images off the computer and not have to use a big typewriter. And and so he sits in his attic, a star of some self for three months comes up with the solution, not at all.
What he did was he envisaged a [00:50:00] different principle. We're writing the image, using a highly focused laser beam onto the Xerox drum. The rest then is just using a copier machine fair. But to do that, you have to switch on and off the laser beam problem. So that's at a lower level to invent a wedge to that.
And he also had to invent a principle for scanning this beam across the Xerox strung, maybe whatever it would be 50 times a second, or maybe a hundred times the second without moving the entire apparatus. And the principally came up for that was mirrors. Yeah. And so, and then I could go down to another level, you have to align your mirrors.
And so, so what I discovered and see if I can put this in a nutshell [00:51:00] invention, isn't a sort of doing something supremely creative in your mind. It finishes up that way. It might be very creative, but all inventions are basically as problem-solving. Yeah. So to do something more mundane imagine I live here in Palo Alto let's say I work in the financial district in San Francisco and let's say my car's in the shop getting repaired.
How am I going to get to work? And or how am I going to get my work done tomorrow? I have no car. The level of principle is to say, okay, I can see an overall concept to do it with. So I might say, all right, if I can get to Caltrain, if I can get to the station I'll go in on the train, but hang on. How do I get to the station?
So that's a sub problem. [00:52:00] Maybe I can get my daughter or my wife or her husband, whatever it is to, to drive me. Then the other end, I can get an Uber or I could get a a colleague to pick me up, but then I'd have to get up an hour earlier, or maybe I'll just sit at home and work from home, which is more of the solution we would do these days.
But how will that work? Because I et cetera. So invention is not much different from that. In fact, that's the heart of invention. If we worked out that problem of getting worked when your car is gone nobody would stand up and say, this was brilliant yet you've gone through exactly the same process as the guy who invented the polymerase chain reaction.
Again, I can't recall his name. Getting older. I can't [00:53:00] eat there, but anyway so what's really important in invention. I think this goes to your mission. If I understand it, rightly is the people who have produced inventions are people who are enormously familiar with what I would call functionalities.
Yeah. How do you align beams using optical systems? How do you switch on and off lasers fast? And so the people who are fluent at invention are always people who know huge amounts about those functionalities. I'm trained as an electrical engineer. You're, what's it I'm trained as a mechanical engineer robotics.
Oh yeah. Brilliant. So what's really important [00:54:00] in engineering, at least what they teach you apart from all that mathematics is to know certain functionalities. So you could use capacitors and inductors to create, and also electronic oscillations or regular waves. You can. Straighten out varying voltage by using induction in the system, you can store energy and use that in capacitors.
You, you can actually change a beam using magnets. And so there's hundreds of such things. You can amplify things you can use using feedback as well to stabilize things. So there are many functionalities and learning engineering is a bit like becoming fluent in this set of functionalities, not learning anything that's semi [00:55:00] creative.
What might that be? Yes. Paint learning to do plumbing. Yep. Learning to work as a plumber. Good. A true engineer. So it is a matter of becoming fluent. You want to connect pipes and plumbing. You want to loosen pipes. You want to unclog things you want to reduce. The piping systems or pumping system, you want to add a pump you want, so there's many different things you you're dealing with.
Flows of liquids, usually and piping systems and pumping systems and filtration systems. So after maybe three to four years or whatever, it would be a for rail apprentice ship in this, not only can you do it, but you can do it unthinkingly, you know, the exact gauges, you know, the pieces, you know, the parts, you know where to get the parts, you know how to set them up and you look at [00:56:00] some problem and say, oh, okay.
The real problem here is that whatever, the piping diameter here is wrong, I'm going to replace it with something a bit larger. So Lincoln's whatever. And here's how I do that. So, you know, being good at invention is not different people. Like Starkweather, Starkweather new, I think is still alive. Knows all about mirrors, but optical systems above all, he knew an awful lot about lasers.
He knew a lot about electronics. He was fluent in all those. So if we don't, if we're not fluent ourselves, we stand back and say, wow, how did he do that? But it's a bit like saying, you know, you write a poem and French, let's say I don't speak French. French and support them and it worked, how did he [00:57:00] do that?
But if I spoke French, I might, so, okay. Yeah, but I can see, so this actually touches on sort of like an extension of your framework that I wanted to actually run by you, which is what I would describe what you were just describing as talking about almost like the, the affordances and constraints of different pieces of technology and people who invent things being just very like intimately familiar with the, the affordances and constraints of different technologies, different systems.
And so the, the question I have that I think is like an open question is whether there is a way of sort of describing or encoding these affordances and constraints [00:58:00] in a way that makes creating these inventions easier. So like in the sense that very often what you see is like someone who knows a lot about.
One like the, the affordances in one area, right. When discipline and they sort of like come over to some other discipline and they're like, wait a minute, like, there's this analogy here. And and so they're like, oh, you have this, this constraint over here. Like, there's, there's like a sub problem.
Right. And it's like, I know from the, the affordances of the things that I'm, I'm really familiar with, how to actually solve the sub problem. And so like, through that framework, like this framework of like modularity and constraints and affordances, like, is it possible to actually make the process easier or like less serendipitous?
Yeah. In, in a couple of ways. One is that
I [00:59:00] think quite often you see a pattern where some principle is borrowed from a neighboring discipline. So Henry you were saying that Henry Ford took the idea of a conveyor belt from the meat industry. Right. And and by analogy use the same principle with manufacturing cars. But to get that to work in the car industry, the limitations are different cars are a lot heavier, so you could have a whole side of beef and it's probably 300 pounds or whatever.
It would be for a side of beef, but for the car, it could be at 10 and a half. So you have to think of different ways. Yeah. And in the meat industry to do conveyor belts, there's two different ways. You can have a belt standard, rubber thing or whatever it would be just moving along at a certain speed, or you [01:00:00] can have the carcass suspended from an over hanging belts working with a chain system and the carcass is cut in half or whatever and suspended.
And you could be working on it pretty much vertically above you both. It was that second system that tended to get used cars as, so things don't translate principles translate from one area to another, and that's a very important mechanism. And so if you wanted to enhance innovation I think the thing would be to set up some institution or some way of looking at things, whereas.
They're well-known principles for doing this in area in industry X, how would I do something equivalent in a different industry? So for [01:01:00] example blockchain is basically let's say it's a way of validating transactions that are made privately between two parties without using an intermediary, like a bank.
And you could say, well, here's how this works with a Bitcoin trading or something. And somebody could come along and say, well, okay, I want to validate art sales using maybe some similar principle. And I don't want to have to go to some central authority and record there. So maybe I can use blockchain to do fine art sales, in fact, that's happening.
So basically you see an enormous amount of analogous principle transfer of principles from [01:02:00] one field to another. And it's we tend to talk about inventions being adopted. At least we do an economic. So you could say the, the arts trading system adopts block chain, but it's not quite that it's something more subtle.
You can get a new principal or new, fairly general technology comes out, say like blockchain and then different different industries or different sets of activities in conjure that they don't adopt it then countries. Oh, blockchain. Okay. No, I'm saying the medical insurance business let's say so I can record transactions this way and I don't have to involve a room or, and I particular, I don't have to go through banking systems and I can do it this way and then [01:03:00] inform insurance companies.
And so they're encountering and wondering how they can use this new principle, but when they do, they're not just taking it off the shelf. Yeah. They're actually incorporating that into what they do. So here's an example. A GPS comes along quite a while ago. I'm sure. 1970s in principle using atomic clocks.
Satellites or whatever. Basically it's a way of recording exactly time and using multiple satellites to know exactly where they are at the same time and allowing for tiny effects of even relativity. You figure out you can triangulate and figure out where something is precisely. Yeah, no, that just exists.
But by the [01:04:00] time, so different industries say like Oceanwide Frazier shipping and you conjure it exists. Okay. And by the time they encounter it, they're not just saying I'm going to have a little GPS system in front of, in the Bennett code it's actually built in. And it becomes part of a whole navigational system.
Yeah. So what happens in things like that is that some invention or some new possibility becomes a component in what's already done just as in banking around the 1970s, being able to. Process customer names, client names, and monetary months you could process that fast with electronic computers and there most days they were [01:05:00] called and data processing units that we don't think of it that way now, but you could process that.
And then that changed the banking industry significantly. So by 1973, there was a, the market and futures in Chicago where you were dealing with say pork belly futures and things like that because computation coming home. Interesting. So the pattern there's always an industry exists using conventional ideas, a new set of technologies becomes available.
But the industry doesn't quite adopted it, encounters it and combines it with many of its own operations. So banking has been recording people in ledgers and with machinery, it has been facilitating transactions, [01:06:00] maybe on paper unconscious computation. Now can do that. Yeah. Automatically using computation.
So some hybrid thing is born out of banking and computation that goes into the Lego set and actually sort of related to that, something I was wondering is, do you think of social technology as technology, do you think that follows the same patterns? What do you mean social technology? I, I think like a very obvious one would be like for example, like mortgages, right?
Like mortgages are like mortgages had to be invented. And they allow people to do things that they couldn't do before. But it's not technology in the sense of, of built. Yeah, exactly. It's not like, there's no, like you can create a mortgage with like you and me and a piece of [01:07:00] paper. Right. But it's, it's something that exists between us or like democracy.
Right. And so, so I feel like there's, there's like one end, like, like sort of like things like new legal structures or new financial instruments that feel very much like technology and on the other end, there's like. Great. Just like new, like sort of like vague, like new social norms and like, yeah.
Great question. And it's something I did have to think about. So things like labor unions nation states nature. Yes, exactly. These thing democracy itself, and in fact, communism, all kinds of things get created. Don't look like technologies. They don't have they don't have the same feel as physical technologies.
They're not humming away in some room or other. They're not under the hood of your [01:08:00] car. And things like insurance for widows and pension systems. There's many of those social technologies even things like Facebook platforms for exchanging information. Sometimes very occasionally things like that are created by people sitting down scratching heads.
That must have happened to some degree in the 1930s when Roosevelt said there should be a social security system. But that wasn't invented from scratch either. So what tends to come about in this case, just to get at the nitty gritty here, what tends to happen is that some arrangement happens.
Somebody maybe could have been a feudal Lord says, okay, you're my trusted gamekeeper. You can have a [01:09:00] rather nice a single house on my estate. You haven't got the money to purchase and build it. I will lend you the money and you can repay me as time goes by. And in fact, the idea that so many of those things have French names, more, more cash.
You know, it's actually, I think the act of something dying as far as my, my school friends would go, I don't know. But a lot of those things came about in the middle ages. There are other things like What happens when somebody dies the yeah. Probate again, these are all things that would go back for centuries and centuries.
I believe the way they come about is not by deliberate invention. They come about by it being natural in [01:10:00] to something. And then that natural thing is used again. And again, it gets a name and then somebody comes along and says, let's institutionalize this. So I remember reading somewhere about the middle ages.
They it was some Guild of some traders and they didn't feel they were being treated fairly. I think this was in London. And so they decided to withhold their services. I don't know what they're supplying. It could have been, you know, courage, transport, and along the streets or something. And some of these people were called violets.
We were, would not be valet again, very French, but so they withheld their services. Now that wouldn't be the first time. [01:11:00] It goes back to Egypt and engineered people withholding their services, but that becomes, gets into circulation as a meme or as some repeated thing. Yeah. And then somebody says, okay, we're going to form an organization.
And our Gilda's going to take this on board as being a usable strategy and we'll even give it a name that came to be called going on, strike or striking. And so social invention kind of should take place just by it being the sensible thing to do. The grand Lord allows you. It gives you the money to build your own house.
And then you compare that person back over many years [01:12:00] and and put that, put that loan to to its death and mortgage it. So the I think in this case, what happens in these social inventions is that sensible things to do gets a name, gets instituted, and then something's built around it. Well, one could also say that many inventions are also the sensible thing to do where like it's someone realizes like, oh, I can like use this material instead of that material.
Or like some small tweak that then enables like a new set of capabilities. Well, I'm not, yeah. In that case, I wouldn't call it really an invention that the, the vast majority of innovations, like 99 point something, something, something 9% or tweaks and, you know, [01:13:00] w we'll replace this material. Well, why doesn't that count as an invention?
If, if, if it's like a material, like it's a different, like, I guess why doesn't that also count as, as a new principal, it's like bringing a new principal to the thing. The word to find a principal is it's the principles, the idea of using some phenomenon. And so you could say there's a sliding scale if you insist.
Up until about 1926 or 1930 aircraft were made of wooden lengths covered with canvas dope. The dope, giving you waterproofing and so on. And and then the different way of doing that came along when they discovered that with better engines, you could have heavier aircraft, so you could make the skeleton out of [01:14:00] metal, right?
And then the cladding might be metal as well. And so you had modern metallic aircraft. There's no new principal there, but there is a new material and you could argue, well, the new materials, different principle, then you're just talking about linguistics. So, so, so you would not consider the, like the transition from cloth aircraft to metal aircraft to be an invention.
No. Huh? Not got another, I mean, sure might be a big deal, but I don't see it as a major invention going from air piston Angeles to jet engines. That's a different principle entirely. And I, so I, I've a fairly high bar for different principles. But you're not using a different phenomenon. That's my that's, that's my criteria.
And if you have a very primitive clock [01:15:00] in this 16, 20 or 16, Forties that uses a string and a bulb on the end of the string. And then you replace the string where the wire or piece of metal rigid. You're not really using a new phenomenon, but you are using different materials and much of the story of technology isn't inventions, it's these small, but very telling improvements and material.
In fact jet engines, weren't very useful until you got combustion systems where you were putting in aircraft fuel. Yeah. Atomizing that and setting the whole thing and fire the early systems down. When you could better material, you could make it work. So there's a difference between a primitive technology and [01:16:00] then one that's built out of better components.
So I would say something like this, the if you take what the car looks like in 1919 0 5, is it a very, is it a different thing than using horses? Yeah, because it's auto motive. There is an engine. It's built in. So it's from my money. It's using a different principle. What have you changed? What if you like took the horse and you put it inside the carriage?
Like what have you built the carriage around the horse? Would that be an automotive? Well then like, like what if I had a horse on a treadmill and that treadmill was driving the wheels of the vehicle with the horse on it, then I think it would be it would be less of an invention. I don't know. I mean, you're basically say I find it very useful to say that if [01:17:00] that radar uses a different principle from people listening, you could say, well, I mean, people listening are listening for vibrations.
So is radar, you know, but just at a electro magnetic vibrations, what's different for my money. It's not so much around the word principle. All technologies are built around phenomena that they're harvesting or harnessing to make use of. And if you use a different set of phenomena, In a different way, I would call it an invention.
So if you go from a water wheel, which is using water and gravity to turn something, and you say I'm using the steam engine, I would regard that as you're still, you [01:18:00] could argue, well, aren't you use a phenomenon phenomenon of the first thing you're using the weight of water and gravity, and the fact that you can turn something.
And then the second thing you are using the different principle of heating something and having it expand. And so I don't see, I would say those are different principles. And if you're saying, well, there's a different principle, I'd go back to, well, what phenomena are you using? So, yeah, I mean, if you wanted to be part of a philosophy department, you could probably question every damned thing because yeah.
I'm actually not trying to, to challenge it from a semantic standpoint. I think it's just actually from like really understanding, like what's going on. I think there's actually like a, sort of a debate of like, whether [01:19:00] it's. Like, whether it's like a fractal thing or whether there are like, like multiple different processes going on as well.
Maybe I'm just too simple, but let's start to look at invention. The state of the art was pathetic. It wasn't very good because all papers, well, all the versions of invention, I was reading, all of us had a step, then something massively creative happens and that wasn't very satisfactory. And then there was another set of ideas that were Darwinian.
If you have something new, like the railway locomotive that must have come out of variations somehow happening spontaneously, and might've been sufficiently different to qualify as radically new inventions. It doesn't do it for me either because you know, 1930 you could have varied [01:20:00] radio circuits until you're blue in the face.
You'd never get radar. Yeah. So what the technology is fundamentally is the use of some set of phenomena to carry out some purpose. The, there are multiple phenomena. So but I would say in this maybe slightly too loose speaking, that's the principal phenomenon you're using or the, the key phenomenon constitutes the concept or principle behind that technology.
So if you have a sailing ship, you could argue, well, you know, it, displaces water it's built to be not have water intake. It's got a cargo space, but actually for sailing ships, the key principle is to use the motive, power of wind in clever ways to be able to propel a [01:21:00] ship. If you're using steam and take the sails down you're using, in my opinion, a different principle, a different phenomenon.
You're not using the mode of power of wind. You're actually using the energy that's in the, some coal fuel or oil and clever ways and to move the ship. So I would see those as two different principles you could say, well, we also changed whatever the staring system or as does that make it an invention.
It makes maybe that part of it, an invention, but overall The story I'm giving is that inventions come along when you see a different principle or a set of phenomena that you want to use for some given purpose and you managed to solve the problems to put that into reality. Yeah. I completely agree [01:22:00] with that.
I think the, the thing that I'm interested in is like like to, to use is the fact that sort of, again, we go back to like that modular view then, you're you sort of have like many layers down you, the, the like tinkering or, or the, the innovations are so based on changing the phenomena that are being harnessed, but like much, like much farther down the hierarchy of, of the modularity.
Like, like in, in S like sailing ships you like introduce like Latin sales, right? Like, and it's like, you change the, into, like, you've invented a new sale system. You haven't invented a new kind of ship. Right. So you've changed the phenomenon, but yeah, I think the distinction you're making is totally on target.
When you introduced Latina sales, you have invented a new. Cell system. Right. [01:23:00] But you haven't invented a new principle of a sailing ship. It's still a sailing ship. So I think you're getting into details that are worth getting into at the time I'm writing this. I I was trying to distinguish, I'm not trying to be defensive here.
I hope, but I was just, I'm not trying to be offensive in any way. Wait for me to, I haven't thought about this for 10 years or more the I think what was important in
yeah, let's just in case this whole thing that said innovation happens. Nobody's quite sure what innovation is. But we have a vague idea. It's new stuff that works better. Yes. In the book I wrote I make a distinction between radically new ways to do something. So it's radically new to propel the ship by a [01:24:00] steam engine.
Even if you're using paddles versus by wind flow. Okay. However, not everything's right. Radically new. And if you look at any technology, be it computers or cars the insides, the actual car Bratcher system in the 1960s would have been like a perfume spray or a spraying gasoline and atomizing it, and then setting that in light.
Now we might have as some sort of turbo injections system, that's, that's working, maybe not with a very different principle, but working much more efficiently. So you might have an invention or a technology that the insights are changing enormously. But the, the, I, the overall idea of that [01:25:00] technology hasn't changed much.
So the radar would be perfect examples. So be the computer, the computers kept changing its inner circuitry, the materials it's using, and those inner circuits have gotten an awful lot faster. And so on. Now that you could take a circuit out and you could say, well, sometime around 1960, the circuit cease to be.
Certainly it seems to be trialed, vacuum tubes and became transistors monitored on boards. But then sometime in that deck, could it became integrated circuits, was the integrated circuit and invention yeah. At the circuit level, at the computer level better component. Yeah. So hope that, that absolutely has I guess as, as actually a sort of a closing question is there, is there like work that you [01:26:00] hope people will sort of like do, based on what you've written like, is, is there, is there sort of like a line of work that you want people to be, to be doing, to like take the sort of the framework that you've laid out and run with it?
Cause I, I, I guess I feel like there's like, there's so much more to do. Yeah. And so it's like, do you have a, do you have a sense of like what that program would look like? Like what questions, what questions are still unanswered in your mind? I think are really interesting. I think that's a wonderful question off the red cord. I'm really glad you're here because. It's it's like visiting where you grew up. I am. I'm the ghost of, of books. Oh, I don't know. I mean, it's funny. I was injured.
This is just, yeah. I was interviewed a month or two ago on [01:27:00] this subject. I can send you a link if you want, please. Yeah. I listened to tons of podcasts, so, yeah. Anyway, but I went back and read the book. You're like, wow, I'm really smart. Well, it had that effect. And then I thought, well, God, you know, it could have been a lot better written.
It had all sorts of different things. And, and the year this was produced and free press and New York actually Simon Schuster, they put it up for a Pulitzer prize. That really surprised me because I didn't set out to write something. Well-written I just thought of keep clarifying the thing. And it went to come back to your question.
Yeah. My reflection is this the book I wrote the purpose of my book was to actually look inside technologies. So [01:28:00] when you open them up, meaning have you look at the inside components, how those work and how ultimately the parts of a technology are always using some, none, you know, we can ignite gasoline and a, in a cylinder, in a car, and that will expand rapidly and produce force.
So there's all kinds of phenomena. These were things I wanted to stay at. And yeah, the book there's that book has had a funny effect. It has a very large number of followers, meaning people have read that and I think of a field for technology and they're grateful that somebody came along and gave them a way to look at technology.
Yeah. But having, let me just say it carefully that I've done other things in research [01:29:00] that have had far more widespread notice than this. And I think it's something tech the study of technology, as I was saying earlier on is a bit of a backwater in academic studies. Yeah. It's eclipsed. Is that the word dazzled by science it's?
So I think that it's very hard to we, if something wonderful happens, we put men on the moon, we put people on the moon. We, we come up with artificial intelligence. Some are vaguely. That's supposed to be done by scientists. It's not, it's done by engineers who are very often highly conversant, both with science and mathematics, but as a matter of prestige, then a [01:30:00] lot of what should have been theories of technologies, where they come from, it's sort of gone into theories of science and I would simply point out no technology, no science when you can't do much science without telescopes crystallography x-rays systems microscopes.
So yeah, it's all. Yeah. So you need all of these technologies to give you modern science. Without those instruments, we'd still have technology. We'd still have science, but be at the level of the Greeks, which would be a lot of conceptual ideas about how the world works. Anyway, to my surprise, this book came out nature of technology, 2009, I think.
Yeah, August. So it's 12 years old [01:31:00] and there was a lot of fuss about it at the time. And then it was kind of like a submarine that appeared and then die. Everything was quiet. Got there, period. It has to be a renewed interest in it this last year. So I have no idea why I suspect I'm trying to keep my own ego out of this.
Not very well, but I suspect that a lot of it. Yeah. I think that to start with, and to finish with it has not been fully accepted. That technology is really a worthwhile entity to be thought about in its own. Right. It's more that, oh yeah. Well, we have technology. What more do we want? Well, we can talk about trading [01:32:00] systems.
Well, isn't that isn't that economics, well, we could talk about, so things like financial derivatives that I see as technologies that was part of finance. So we tend to subsume these into other fields. There's maybe we can talk about high rise, steel and concrete buildings a hundred or more years ago.
Well, isn't that architecture and so on, but actually there hasn't been sufficient attention paid to technology in its own. Right. And so there's been a lot of attention paid to this book, but not so much. I thought it might help give some impetus to get getting the field of study for technology and it didn't not yet.
And now I cherish a feeling that after I'm gone this thing, that'll be discovered [01:33:00] mentally F this is very fancy comparison. But it shouldn't have said men to left. I'm thinking of gosh, Mendel, Gregor Mendel, Greg Armento. Yes. Sorry. Okay. Mendel had a theory of genetics and by the time that could properly develop too, you know, it was too late for him.
So I don't know, it's a bit of a mystery to me. But I do think I want to stress one or two things that we didn't mention here. And we are moving into
we, or leaving as system in the economy said 50 years ago, most things in the economy were produced in factories and I'm thinking of general foods or even general motors. We didn't put this to the factory system. We'd manufacturing, [01:34:00] then we'd outputs. And some of the outputs might be rolled. Steel would be inputs to other factories systems.
And then we got a service economy, but now we're moving into an economy that has an awful lot of autonomous functionalities. You use the word affordances and I think that's right. And I hadn't thought of that was a good word. Nationalities is something that does something for you. So being able to navigate your car with a GPS, that's a functionality.
And a lot of those, everything, not everything, but we're seeing the economy become more autonomous. So everything from trading systems pretty soon air traffic control systems, autonomous, no human beings involved, supposed to be a lot safer. Similarly, driverless convoys of trucks, trucks, [01:35:00] et cetera. I think if you want to understand those properly, you need to very good understanding of technology and how autonomous systems can work, work, and where technology has come from.
I would just simply say that technology is a major part of what we've achieved as humans are, and we need to understand it just as we 300 years ago, we didn't really look very closely at the inside of creatures, animals, or species. By the 17 hundreds, we were well underway doing that. We learned a huge amount.
I think we need to do the same in technology. I think technology is very much part of what makes us human. I do think that many technologies let's say kind of social [01:36:00] tech platform technologies think of Facebook or Google for that matter. Another platform technologies, Uber. These are technologies where you can dial into the technology and use it services maybe as a passenger in Uber, or maybe as someone recording information and Facebook, many technologies technology is resisted in many ways because it can produce really nasty things war the automation of war et cetera.
And, but I would like to point out that many social technologies of platform technologies like Facebook are neutral. It's what you put in there. Like pipelines what'd you send along the papers differently. That can be benign. It can be [01:37:00] wonderful. You know, I'm a, I'm a great consumer. A late night detective.
So that's all coming on the platform of Netflix. And, but you can equally use those pipelines to send a really negative stuff along. So I think we need to be careful. We, we can't just say technology is wonderful. Technology is bad for the most part. Technologies are in some intermediary position between us as humans and the earth, which produces phenomena.
It produces metals. If we understand those phenomena produces optics that produces electrical phenomena, magnetic phenomena, and we've learned to harness all those. So they're in the middle and what those are used for is something [01:38:00] not very well. It could be nefarious or could be wonderfully beneficial. I would argue that I used to teach classes here in economic development.
And so I had to face the problem. And the first lecture is economic development making an economy say, and Syria or Jordan, is that. Good or bad, and you could argue many ways. But one thing I think is unarguable is that technology has allowed us to live healthier and longer lives. And so I'd come back to the demographic element, morbidity slower, meaning by and large, we're much healthier to give an age and we, and our children are living longer.
And I know that if I went back a century ago and looked at my [01:39:00] family, my grandmother died over a hundred years ago of something that would be perfectly treatable. Yeah. Pernicious, anemia, and et cetera. So if the least we can, I've mixed feelings about technology as a, the humanist part of the more practical engineer would say, well, you know, maybe you can, maybe you can criticize technology, but you might be doing it with a swimming pool in your backyard with a Volvo in the driveway with your smart and your hip pockets and, and with your children all alive and a hundred years ago, none of those would have been the case.
Is that so [01:40:00] bad? Well, yeah, but we have to be careful. I want to mention one thing if I may, and yeah, this is your platform. The one thing is that
yeah, one thing we really, one thing I want to mention is that coming back to the idea of the technology evolves it evolves in the following way that new technologies by and large well, new technologies are constructed from existing technologies. You can't really make a new technology unless you have the components to put it together.
So jet engine is made out of compressors and turbines and combustion systems. Those all already existed. And then a new technology becomes available for, to be a component in some other systems. So jet engines are available. That's power [01:41:00] jet aircraft. Yeah. Et cetera. And new amplifier circuits around 1912 using trialed vacuum tubes become available to power radio receivers and res radio transmitters.
And it got a broadcasting system which so building blocks each new technologies and principle, a building block for use and further new technologies. So it's as if your Lego set every so often gives you a new block that has its own interesting possibilities. Sometimes that's a, one-off the Solvay process is I think it purchases, what is it sodium?
Carbonator this? I thought this isn't the Solvay process. Isn't that for aluminum, then it doesn't look it up or I can not to worry. [01:42:00] Well, this is a process, so, well you can take the Harbor process or any yeah. So the, the Solvay process, oh, it is for, for obtaining setting. Right? Okay. So the. Yeah, Solvay process produces sodium carbonate.
But it doesn't mean it's solved a process. Isn't something that is central to a thousand. Other technologies probably is useful in a few hundred other ones. Whereas something like the transistor comes along or even the laser around 1916, nobody, I remember seeing a headline. This was a solution in search of a problem.
The laser now it's used, I wouldn't say in everything, but in many, many, many uses. I think so. So what I want to point out is there is a mechanism of [01:43:00] evolution technology that if you take the whole collection of technologies at any one time period, some of those existing technologies in combination are making novel technologies and many of the novel technologies go on to become building blocks for yet further technologies.
So if you look at the entire and collection of technologies, it is throwing off new technologies, which may be components and yet further new technologies. The technical word for that is to say either itself creating or the fancy word is Alto ploy, attic, POI ETI. So it's auto poetic. That's the word? I think it came from Umberto Maturana [01:44:00] and
The cheese, I'm
not sure on anyway to be scanned down. Sorry. All right. So just like, yeah. Sorry. Maturana and Francisco Varela. They at Chilay and philosophers actually of, of technology as well as everything else. So systems' flaws first, but anyway, technology itself producing herself, creating, and but the mechanism isn't Darwinian the mechanism.
There's no flood of Darwinian improvement around initial primitive 1825 railway locomotives are still not that difference from ones a hundred years later. Using steam. And there's a certain amount of Darwinian variation and improvement, but [01:45:00] mostly technologies evolve. Bye now of all technologies becoming components and yet other technologies.
So the steam engine becomes a component in the railroad locomotive. Yeah. We've stopped in Darlington express around 1820 was a trend of cars. Just train, meaning something that flows out behind you. Yeah. Drawn by horse. And when the railway locomotive comes along, that's a new technology. New technology is adopted in other ways.
So you get a whole railroad system and so on. So you go from steam engine to steam, locomotives, to steam trains, to railroad systems. And in that sense technology yeah. At any level, then the technology becomes a component in further technologies. I call that [01:46:00] sort of evolution, competent tutorial evolution.
If you can bind things in your Lego set to make new things that are repeated often and encapsulated, then you have a new component. Yeah, for further accommodation, would that be comparable to Darwinian evolution? If, instead of looking at things at the level of species, we look at things sort of at the level of you know, like, like genes or body parts or proteins yeah.
That sort of evolution does occur biologically in a fairly primitive bacterial systems are archaic. There's something called horizontal gene transfer. So you're taking genes from one, whatever they are bacterium, and those are getting transferred horizontally to other the actual standard cell for [01:47:00] many creatures evolved out of other cells that become absorbed into our model.
That's why we have like mitochondria. Yeah. So this does happen, but but once we get up to like a draft F evolving something, doesn't affect the thing new. Great. If you could take a traps neck and put that onto a horse. Yeah. Whatever, but that's not the way it works. So yeah. When you think about it this time, Evolution by combination is all over the place in biology, but it's quite specific.
I think Darwin got it roughly, right by just saying variation and selection. He didn't think in terms of combinations. So to come back to your question, I should let you go here to come back to your question. What what theories could be built out of this and what use could be made out of this thinking as [01:48:00] so many, see if I can give you a, a decent answer, serious answer to that.
I think that the book I wrote in 2009, the nature of technology lays out a framework for asking what is the technology? How does technology evolve, how our technology is put together? How does invention work? How does more standard engineering, just pure innovation work? How does tech, how to technologies create an economy?
It's it looks at all those questions. I think, I think that, so it's giving a framework for thinking about technology and how to operate. So in our world, yes. I think all of those ideas could be refined or could be challenged. Could be improved upon just so this book, I think, is a first step in trying to set up a theory of [01:49:00] evolution for technology and as such I, I haven't seen that much academically coming up, building on this quite surprising.
The other thing I would point out is that this nature of technology dolls positive different method of evolution than Darwin's. So you're not looking at, in Darwin's evolution. Some snail species might evolve say, and bridges of cliffs in Hawaii by being in a slightly different wetter environment and small variations genetically, and those over many, many generations are selected to fit that new environment a bit better until that sort of snail has evolved that to the degree, continue to breed with the old ones and you get a new species.
So [01:50:00] Darwin's things, variation and accumulation of small differences. This book puts together a version of evolution that says there's a mechanism. Well, a novel things are created via a combination of the old and become available themselves as building blocks for further combination. Yeah. I am amazed and surprised that I haven't seen that idea taken up.
The theory that Darren came up with in 1838, but finally published 20 years later, 1859 got taken up almost immediately argued about bitterly centered resistance celebrated everything you can think of, but there's a different type of evolution competent. I called it competent tutorial evolution.
It it hasn't been talked [01:51:00] about in any detail. I'm sure if you go back, you'd find that some people been vaguely aware, but nobody really has written about it in detail. So I think that that would be worth taking up and looking at, in some detail, I'd call it a second evolutionary mechanism.
That's certainly not being modest, but I do think that it's different evolution, a different form of evolution. Once you understand it, you see it all over the place. You see new combinations, even in language, certainly in my lifetime the word Munich, he used to be labeled for city in Germany. And now it's kind of label for holes for a type of for a piece of unsavory what's done by unsavory [01:52:00] authorities.
So if you try to be accommodating to whoever runs Bella ruse, you could be accused of pulling a Munich and similarly hyphen gate, which came from water gate, you know, truck travel game. That's now a combination and rarely gets rid of an awful lot of components. It's usually official government malfeasance and some minute area of misdoing.
And that is but if we want to avoid lengthy explanations, we compress that into a module, something hyphen gate. So concept. Or often encapsulated and then used as components in language, certainly the case in mathematics, [01:53:00] et cetera. It's, it's certainly certainly the case in engineering it's case in science as well.
And all those systems build up by having new ideas, concepts, or objects that are created in some competent tutorial where combining way from previous ones and then becoming things in their own ride for further combination that's worth looking at yes. And hopefully this will spawn many arguments about it.
Brian, Arthur. Thanks for being part of idea machines.