Thursday, January 03, 2013


After reading The Idea Factory by Jon Gertner it is hard not to believe that 1) Bell Labs was by far the most innovative institution of the past 100 years (at least) and 2) that after Bell Labs innovation sprint between the late 1940's and early 1960's there has been really no more fundamental innovation on Earth.

These were the fundamental Bell Labs innovations during the aforementioned period:

1. The transistor.  This is by far the most important of all modern inventions because it evolved first into the integrated circuit (IC) and then into the microprocessor.  So, without the transistor there wouldn't be cell phones, or personal computers, or tablets or iPods, or...  And obviously there wouldn't be Google, or Apple, or FaceBook, or LinkedIn, or Amazon...

2. Semiconductor lasers (which were actually also an off-shoot of the transistor).

3. Optic fiber.  It allowed outrageous amounts of information to be transmitted all over the world.

4. Information theory.  

Without the above stated innovations, the world today would probably be very, very similar to the world of the early 1950's.  

Amazingly, the persons behind those discoveries are nearly unknown today.  What person in the street knows who was William Shockley?  Who knows who was Claude Shannon?

So for the past 50 years the only thing we have done is achieving small incremental improvements on the technological treasures released by Bell Labs.

Why did fundamental innovation cease?  There are at least two possibilities.

a) Bell Labs was a truly unique organization sprinkled with geniuses and no other institution has been able to replace it.
b) We have hit a real wall because there is nothing fundamental to innovate anymore.  Say, even if we produced "quantum transistors", they would still be transistors.  Or maybe we need to look in a completely different direction such as genetics (creating DNA) or even in more fantastic spaces such as tele-transportation.  Who knows?

Whatever the reasons, it is humbling and even scary to realize that humanity has not made fundamental innovations in more than fifty years and counting...


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