Has Innovation Peaked? Atlanta Forum Explores

The past 200 years have seen huge advances in technology, from electricity to antibiotics. But in recent decades there have been mounting concerns that innovation is slowing. Are the techno-pessimists right? Has the age of innovation come to an end?

Joel Mokyr, Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University and Will Roberds, research economist and senior policy adviser at the Atlanta Fed

Are we out of ideas?
The short answer is no, said Joel Mokyr during a recent Public Affairs Forum at the Atlanta Fed. Mokyr, the Robert H. Strotz Professor of Arts and Sciences at Northwestern University, studies the relationship between technology, technological progress, and economic growth.

Of the many factors that can boost economic growth, technology is one that doesn't appear to face the problem of diminishing returns. "We keep discovering new things that we never dreamed of before," Mokyr pointed out. Indeed, technology and science help build taller ladders, helping us reach the higher-hanging fruit.

It might seem like innovation has peaked, but that is probably because "in technology the results are often unexpected," Mokyr said. Indeed, the complex and intertwined relationship between technology and science is one reason why innovation might actually accelerate. Essentially, the tools used in the scientific field help determine how fast science advances—"If the positive feedback loop between technology and science is getting stronger all the time, science will continue to expand at ever faster rates," he explained.

Challenges to innovation
That's not to say there aren't challenges to innovation, however. Private and public organizations can help overcome some of them—for instance, by funding research and development. The government also has a role in making sure the patent system encourages, rather than stymies, innovation. "This is not an easy problem, but it is a problem that we should be thinking about a lot more than we are," said Mokyr.

Technological progress also requires a healthy dose of skepticism—or, at least a willingness to challenge old truths. Our cultural institutions don't always encourage this kind of thinking. Take high school education, for example. "You're supposed to take the word of your parent or your teacher...and then learn it by heart," Mokyr noted. "As long as that's what learning is all about, then you're not going to get very much progress."

Imagining the workplace of the future
Technology has already deeply changed the nature of work, and that process will continue. Mokyr described how the future workplace might look. For one, the "factory" orientation is already phasing out.

Also, robots will perform more of the tasks that humans are doing now. It won't look like an episode of the Jetsons, though. Instead, most robots "will be nothing more than little chips connected by A.I. [artificial intelligence] to sensors," Mokyr said. If that's the case, then what will humans do? He believes the "Age of Leisure" may arise, where people will work whenever and wherever they want. "Will we be bored and feel unproductive? Some will, some won't. Just like now."

For more information, see Mokyr's presentation or watch his interview with Will Roberds, research economist and senior policy adviser at the Atlanta Fed.