There is no such thing as innovation – I decided to start this opinion piece with what might be a very silly statement, and one with which I think most people would disagree. I hope you continue reading this piece though, after you’ve finished laughing your head off.
Think of the most innovative, absolutely mind-blowing innovation around, from any time in history. It could be anything from the wheel to the iPod’s scroll wheel… whatever made you go, “Wow”! Once you’re done reminiscing about how great it felt to experience that innovation, think honestly about all of the times it was attempted before, and what inspiration or learnings it gained from previous attempts. Do a little research and you will find hundreds of ideas that preceded it, all the way from ancient history to modern science, thousands of people would have contributed something to that idea.
Since I am writing this at a time when the iPhone X (Ten) is the hot topic of the month, let me use that as an example. BooMan’s column this month will point you to more than a few “inspirations” that the iPhone X seems to have had. And let’s be clear, there’s nothing wrong with copying what works – happens all through life in every aspect of it. What’s wrong is to claim innovation where there was none. Of course, I’m going one step further and claiming there’s no real innovation happening at all, by anyone!
What we like to call innovation, is really just a gradual discovery of new ways of looking at things, or new ways of putting something to use. Like everything else that is animate in the world, we are the products of evolution, and everything our brain does also follows the laws of natural selection. This holds true for all the ideas we have as well.
Like with genetic evolution, new ideas are really just mutations of old ones, and no new ideas come from anyone with a lack of knowledge or experience. In essence, knowledge is just passing on of a lot of the information gathered by all who went before us, which we then parse in our imperfect supercomputing brains, and arrive at (very slightly) different answers.
Although I’m a coding and AI ignoramus, my own worthless two cents on the topic is that it’s the perfection of a computer’s logic that has prevented it from gaining sentience thus far. When we build two imperfect computers who arrive at slightly different results when given the same information (like humans do)… and then let them interact with one another… that’s when we’d really get started on building true human-like AI.
I digress though. The point of all that was to show that if we all thought like computers, there would never be any changes whatsoever, because no mind would arrive at a different answer given the same data.
Most of science (what I like to call ‘true knowledge’) just boils down to discovery. If you wiped out all traces of civilisation, and somehow rebooted the whole of humanity to, say, 50,000 years ago, what would change?
Sure, the smartest person to have ever lived might have been called Albert Tesla, or Donald Trump could be the first black president of West-India, but by and large, barring any catastrophes, we’d expect to be somewhat close to where we are now in terms of knowledge. The physical properties of the universe would still remain the same. It would still take two hydrogen atoms to bond with oxygen to form water – even if we didn’t call those elements hydrogen or oxygen… or water.
Maybe someone at Microsoft would have “invented” the iPod and iPhone in a universe where Steve Jobs’ tragic cancer struck two decades earlier. Basically, I’m pretty sure we’d end up having similar technology anyway. This is because technology, or ideas, and everything else man made, is pretty much just following Darwinian evolution. Given a large enough population (and boy do we have a lot of human brains), ideas that can happen will, and the ones that arrive at the right time and place will thrive.
Just something to think about when having fanboy wars, or lamenting, “Why didn’t I think of that?” Given enough time, it’s possible you would have, or at least that someone else would have. Who is to say that giving a large enough group of AI computers the thirst for knowledge, and an essentially unlimited lifespan, they wouldn’t just do all that humans have done in a fraction of the time? And if all inventions are really just inevitable in the grand scheme of things, are any of them really “innovative” at all?