The World Is What It Is Today Because of These Six Innovations

In a new book, Steven Johnson describes the many technologies that glass, refrigeration and other fundamental inventions have made possible

"Today we can use light to create an artificial sun on Earth, if only for a split-second," writes Steven Johnson. Here, Vaughn Draggoo examines a test site for light-induced nuclear fusion at the National Ignition Facility in Livermore, California. (Getty Images)
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If you believe that invention comes from single, solitary geniuses working on their own, trying to invent something that will make them fantastically rich, then you have a set of policies and prescriptions as a society that encourage that kind of invention. You have a really strong patent protection, so that when someone comes up with this brilliant idea, no one can steal it, and the inventor will be able to maximize the value that he or she gets from the invention.

But if you believe, as I do, that most important ideas come out of these collaborative networks, where one person comes up with one thing and the next person says, “I want to modify it a little bit and try this version of it,” then, in fact, patents can hurt as much as they can help. People are not free to share, remix and improve on other people’s ideas. It is not that patents are entirely a problem, but we live in this age where there is such incredible legal infrastructure around this. There are patent trolls, and there are firms that buy up thousands of patents randomly and hold them to see if they become valuable.

While it is the exception, not the rule, you acknowledge that there occasionally are “time travelers,” people who somehow make huge leaps in innovation. What is it about these people that make them capable of such thinking?

The French inventor Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville invents recorded audio 20 years before Edison’s phonograph, but he forgets or fails to even think of the idea of playback. He invented this amazing technology for recording the sound of the human voice, but there was no way to listen to the recordings afterwards. It is this brilliant failure. 

Particularly in the 19th century, it was unusual to be a full 20 years ahead of the competition. While he couldn’t conceive of this idea of actually listening to the audio, he was able to come up with the idea of recording the audio because he was influenced by a bunch of seemingly unrelated things. He was really interested in new anatomical drawings of the human ear. He was also a printer. He understood the idea of transcribing and coding. Then, he was really interested in stenography and how people could learn to take dictation at these incredible speeds. What inspired him to build this contraption was this idea that he could somehow record the sound of a spoken voice by translating the sound waves into these little scribbles on a page. Eventually people would learn how to read those scribbles just as they learned how to read alphabets. It was logical that maybe people would be able to read sound waves, but it turns out that people can’t. It’s not part of our neural tool kit to be able to do that.

I think he was able to conceive of recorded audio so far ahead of everybody else in part because he had all these different interests. It is that diversity of perspective. If he had just been looking at it from one perspective, he probably wouldn’t have been able to come up with it. But because he was interested in printing, stenography and the anatomy of the human ear, you put all those things together and it suddenly becomes possible to imagine a machine that could capture audio.

So if we aspire to be great innovators, we should take up a bunch of hobbies.

Yeah. Think about Darwin. Think about Ben Franklin. These are people that had a thousand hobbies. They would focus on their primary projects at various different points in their lives. Darwin had the theory of evolution, but he also had a beetle collection, and his beetle collection shaped his interest in evolution in all these subtle ways. Focus is overrated.

What is the biggest invention that we are on the cusp of now, and what pieces are coming together to make it part of today’s adjacent possible?

There is going to be artificial intelligence of some sort, not necessarily computers becoming self aware or anything like the science fiction versions, but there is going to be much more human-like intelligence in our machines 10 years from now. 

When they [IBM employees] trained [the supercomputer] Watson, they trained it by having it read the entirety of Wikipedia. The teacher for this new machine was basically all of us. Millions of people have collectively authored this global encyclopedia. We took all of that intelligence and set it into a computer, and the computer somehow became smart on a level that no computer had been smart before. There is something kind of lovely in that.

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