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BW Businessworld

Internet — Threat To Innovation?

We are witnessing incremental improvements and solving smaller problems by simply harnessing the Internet

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Humans have inhabited earth for a very short period compared to the age of the planet but during this time, the human mind and its quest for knowledge has been extraordinarily impactful. Over the centuries, the human spirit to find answers, solve problems and chase unknown frontiers has led to inventions that have changed the course of our civilization. A timeline on the facing page lists some of the path-breaking inventions that have had a major impact on our race, this planet and the future that is yet to come. This list can be debated for comprehensiveness or the exact chronology but that’s not relevant to the point I am about to make.

It’s evident from this list that a few inflexion points lead to a significant acceleration and proliferation of game-changing inventions. Knowledge is a key ingredient for innovation and if there is improvement in how knowledge can be stored, shared and communicated, there is a direct impact on the quality and speed of innovation. That’s what happened in subsequent centuries after the inventions of printing press, steam engine and the telephone. The quest for innovation and new ideas became widespread covering diverse areas such as medicine, industry, transportation, entertainment, lifestyle and communication, etc.

The second half of the 20th century witnessed another major inflexion point with the invention of semiconductors and computing, which then led to the digital revolution and the advent of the Internet. With this unprecedented and transformational change in the speed of knowledge sharing, it was expected that the next wave of inventions be way faster, pathbreaking and dramatic to say the least. Unfortunately, the same hasn’t happened.

Is Internet making innovation unidirectional and creating a long-term danger of missing out on leveraging this exciting acceleration opportunity of knowledge sharing/harvesting? I hope I am wrong but my answer is increasingly becoming ‘yes’ given that most bright minds are disproportionately focused on and around the Internet. In an ironic way, innovation is becoming a prisoner to this fantastic beast called the Internet. Today, innovation efforts are being measured around how one can create a valuable company. The drive in earlier years was not “valuations” but human intelligence challenging the unknown and eventually triumphing. Building valuable companies around those innovations happened much later in almost every case.

Most of the fundamental research about basic building blocks of science today is being carried out by universities or government-run organisations (NASA, CERN, etc.), where funding is increasingly becoming a challenge (in most countries, defence budgets are way bigger than the federal budgets for fundamental research). Universities still show some hope but again, for projects that have little foreseeable commercial value, they aren’t able to attract the brightest and boldest minds away from the “Internet” and the money that’s chasing it. At the risk of generalising, I do feel we are losing this battle.

Life sciences is one area which perhaps is the most critical for advancement of the human race. However, innovation there is in the most vulnerable spot. Majority of research for this crucial area is being carried out by big pharma, which in most cases tend to benefit if the pace of innovation is slow. This conflict of interest is a matter of concern and is becoming more widespread.

We are witnessing incremental improvements and solving smaller problems by simply harnessing the Internet. Mobile phones, e-commerce, social media and ‘cloud for everything’ are extensions of computing/communications and not new finds. This addiction to incremental innovation can become the biggest threat to accelerated growth of the human race. In crude terms, most innovation today is feeding almost entirely off the Internet.

The bright minds and role models of today (Bill Gates, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Peter Thiel, Mark Zuckerberg and many others) are mostly consumed by the Internet. Yes, we also have Gates working on malaria, Musk and Bezos on rockets, but primarily we have simply wasted too much talent in creating enterprises which aren’t that path-breaking. Being a film buff, I have always believed that the world has been deprived of George Lucas’s brilliance because he got ‘over-consumed’ by the Star Wars franchise. In the same way, the world would have been better off if Bezos’ brilliance was used to seek answers to the unknown and not for creating an e-commerce business empire.

An even bigger danger is that the young bright minds of today are increasingly aping these role models and Internet is fast becoming a lazy destination for otherwise smart and bold thinkers. The objective doesn’t seem to be finding a new truth; instead, sadly, it is creating a business around an idea using the Internet. When we start labelling the creator of Pokémon Go as a path-breaking innovator — here no offence is meant to the individual — but it’s a sad commentary on the deterioration of ambition and aspiration.

Given the astonishing speed at which knowledge can be shared in today’s world, we should not take another century to replace, drastically modify or significantly improve the following: automobile engines, aeroplanes, the way food is grown and processed, the concept of medicine, aging, learning, education process, democracy (and governance at large — law and order, social security, etc.), concept of trade (which fundamentally hasn’t been challenged for centuries), reproduction, need for water, garbage handling, energy, etc.

We should also be able to see progress in areas that are uncharted and unchallenged — invisibility, immortality, telepathy, teleporting, intergalactic colonisation and many others that we cannot even imagine yet.

Whilst Internet is a powerful tool / idea that has fundamentally changed the basis of how we process information, knowledge and communication, it cannot be the sole foundation for all innovation. Perhaps one critical measurement criterion would be if not more than 20 per cent of the startup ideas are based on the Internet (alarmingly, today it may be north of 90 per cent and increasing).

It’s neither too late nor has the problem reached an alarming level. I am just spotting an early trend that needs to be corrected early. Somehow we need to do something to stop this intoxicating cocktail of “innovation” and “commerce” that’s being swallowed by the promising talent of today through the vortex called the Internet.

The author is a business and geopolitical thinker, and ex Asia Pacific CEO for a large MNC firm

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.


The author is a business and geopolitical thinker, Ex Asia Pacific CEO for a large multinational firm and lives in Hong Kong.

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