pjk at design.eng.yale.edu
Sun Dec 16 14:39:14 EST 2001
Subject: Technology Quarterly
Dear Colleagues -
Four times a year The Economist surveys technology, most recently
Dec. 6th 2001 <http://www.economist.com/science/tq/index.cfm>.
The choice of topics is insightful and eclectic, the prose
refreshingly free of jargon. Reading it does not make one feel like
riding the subway during rush hour. Those who value their peace of
mind, and 'hardened commuters', should both try it.
There is also an online forum for discussion of issues raised.
Here is the introduction to the current Technology Quarterly:
The loss of diversity
Dec 6th 2001
The broad diversity of technological design appears to be narrowing.
Is innovation running out of big ideas to exploit? Discuss
As a section of the community, technologists ought to be a fairly
harmonious lot. They share a similar set of unshakeable axioms,
inculcated from youth, about the way the physical world worksÑand how
to make it better. Though technology may nowadays have absorbed much
of biological science as well as quantum mechanics, it remains
essentially a framework for solving problems by means of Newtonian
principles which, for most practical purposes, are self-evident and
It is a world in which certain trusted notions can be taken for
granted. What goes up comes down. Nothing travels faster than the
speed of light. Opposite charges attract. Technology even has rules to
govern cases where, in the real world, rules formulated for ideal
conditions break down. For instance, the splendid first law of
thermodynamics says in effect that, when putting energy into things
and getting work out, the best you can do is break even. The more
pragmatic second law of thermodynamics says, forget it, you cannot
even do that.
Why not? Because, without the second law, it would be possible to
build a perpetual motion machineÑand thousands of years of trying have
shown that to be a laughable waste of time. In the real world,
friction gets in the way. Technically speaking, the tendency to
disorder (ie, the inevitable increase in entropy) is an immutable fact
of life. Upon such rugged intellectual foundations is technology
Yet, for all its single-minded predictability, technology has always
flourished on a diversity of opinions and an unerring ability to
invent alternative solutions. Even when working within the same
physical constraints, there have been a variety of ways of meeting the
same specific requirement. Consider the radically different aircraft
designed by Lockheed Martin and Boeing for America's recent $19
billion Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) contract. Both designs met all the
exacting demands made by the five different armed services that will
re-equip with the JSF in a decade's time. But the Lockheed Martin F-35
was judged to have met those demands far better than the Boeing F-32.
Thanks to the competitive tender, the customers should finish up
getting a far better product.
Such are the virtues of having design teams compete. But the JSF will
probably be technology's last big endeavour to be selected
competitively. With the next major contract now decades off, the
Boeing team will be dispersed, leaving America (like Europe) with only
one consortium capable of designing and building warplanes in the
future. This trend to single-supplier technology is under way in
various other fieldsÑfrom submarines to air-traffic-control systems.
The increasing cost of developing high-tech products is only one of
the reasons why technological choice is on the wane. The trend to
globalisation has not helped. Nor have stifling safety standards that
continue to emphasise detailed design specifications rather than set
minimum levels of performanceÑand then leave the methods of achieving
those performance targets up to the designers.
Design as a commodity
But it is not only industrial concentration that is limiting
technological choice. An increasing number of high-tech products have
become commodities. There is nothing to choose, for instance, between
a 256-megabit DRAM chip from Toshiba or Samsung. Through licensing and
patent-trading, manufacturers have converged on a single solution.
Is this because technology is running out of physical phenomena to
exploit? Engineers who design F1 racing carsÑthe most technologically
sophisticated vehicles ever conceivedÑsay there are no big quantum
leaps in improvement left to be achieved (see article). The last "big
idea" in motor racing was ground effect, introduced by Lotus in the
1980s. By contrast, computing may still have a few more tricks to play.
[No, not molecular computing which hasn't started to compute yet, but
the example of the "giant magneto-resistive" effect which has already
transformed computer storage through pain-staking research, and makes
an interesting case history in the collaboration between research and
product development. This is why you can buy 40Gb hard drives for
under $100 right now. Have you noticed? --PJK].
Readers interested in continuing this discussion furtherÑand to raise
points about other stories in this issue of TQÑare urged to go to our
online forum, where they can post their thoughts under the appropriate
heading. This is intended as a place for genuine discussion, and the
bigger the differences in opinion the better. It is not the place for
offensiveness or shameless self-promotionÑcorporate or personalÑwhich
will be taken offline immediately. So let the heated, albeit
good-natured, arguments begin.
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