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Is Internet Becoming The New Threat To Innovation?

We need to do something to stop this intoxicating cocktail of "innovation" and "commerce" that's being swallowed by the promising talent through the vortex called the internet

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Humans have inhabited earth for a very short period of time compared to the age of the planet but in this short period human mind and its quest for knowledge has been extraordinarily impactful. Over the years, human spirit to find answers, solve problems and chase unknown frontiers has led to inventions that have changed the course of our civilization. Tabulated below, are few of the path braking 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 about comprehensiveness or the exact chronology but that's really not relevant to the point I am about to make.

It's quite evident from this list that a few inflexion points in time lead to a significant acceleration and proliferation of game changing inventions. One such pivot happened after the invention of the printing press, the steam engine and the telephone. We all know that knowledge is a key ingredient for innovation. 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 other interesting observation for this period is that the quest for innovation and new ideas was very wide spread covering diverse areas such as medicine, industrial, transportation, entertainment, lifestyle and communication to name a few. Not only these areas were diverse, subsequent new ideas/discoveries were neither linked to one common theme/technology nor did they over leverage any one common particular invention from past. The brightest of minds in those years continued to find new problems to solve, asked new questions and scaled new frontiers.

Second half of the 20th century witnessed another major inflexion point with the inventions in the area of semiconductors and computing, which subsequently would lead to the digital revolution and the advent of the internet (and later the world wide web). After the printing press, this was another game changing invention which exponentially increases the speed and effectiveness of storage, sharing and communication of knowledge. With this unprecedented and transformational change in speed, one would imagine and expect that the next wave of inventions should be way faster, path breaking and dramatic to say the least.

Unfortunately, and sadly the early signs in this direction aren't very encouraging and if this trend continues the same way, human race is at the door step of the biggest missed opportunity for our civilisation. The culprit as I see is the internet and our disproportionate preoccupation with the same.

Is internet making innovation unidirectional and driving us to the long term danger of missing out on leveraging the exciting acceleration opportunity that we have in today's knowledge sharing/harvesting spectrum? I hope I am wrong but my answer is increasingly becoming yes given the skew we have already started seeing, where majority of bright minds are disproportionately focussed on and around internet for all innovation/new ideas. In an ironic way, innovation is becoming a prisoner to this fantastic beast called internet.

Today, innovation efforts are being measured around how one can create a valuable company (mostly for investors and sometime for consumers) by developing a business idea. From the table above, in earlier times, innovation revolved around solving a problem or creating a new process/product (with or without having a commercial market in mind). The drive then was not "valuations" but human intelligence challenging the unknown and eventually triumphing, which sometimes was good for mankind and sometimes not so good. Creating valuable companies around those innovations happened much later in almost every case. The innovation efforts in past were always driven by quest for new answers and the results that we reap today speak about the impact they created.

Innovation thrives on knowledge and how fast it can be shared, by that principle, Internet should have exponentially accelerated the advent of unbelievable and unimaginable new discoveries. Surprisingly, the same hasn't happened because Internet has now become the sole lynch pin for most innovation efforts as most bright minds are innovating around it or for it. Internet has become the starting point of innovation and our future is becoming a prisoner to its limitations. If we go by the new ideas that have come to light in last 20 years, people (except a handful) are only using Internet to innovate and not many are challenging the unknown like the older times when a number of diverse path breaking new things were created/discovered.

Its alarming that the last path breaking invention was the world wide web (which is a knowledge storage and sharing platform) and since then, majority of brain power is being consumed around how best to use the web for everything in life. It's scary to imagine if after the invention of printing press (the first major inflexion around knowledge sharing) the brightest minds solely focussed on how to use the printing press for everything. If the innovators solely focussed on information processing, which became easier after the printing press, we wouldn't have had the amazing new discoveries listed in the above table (16th century to 19th) that fundamentally changed the course of human race. Today, data and information processing is becoming pretty much the sole obsession of many who should be inventing new things instead.

Other disturbing trend that we see today is that fundamental research and innovation about basic building blocks of science and environment are largely being carried out at the institutional level either by universities or by government run organisations (NASA, CERN and the likes). We all know that government run institutions are becoming bureaucratic and funding has become a big challenge (in most countries, defence budgets are way bigger than the federal budgets for research). The universities still show some hope but once again, for projects that have little foreseeable commercial value, they aren't able to attract the brightest and craziest minds away from "internet". Sadly, these are the projects that might have the potential of changing the course of humanity. Historically, path breaking inventions have mostly been the works of crazy, independent and bold thinkers, sometimes aided by institutions but not the other way around. At the risk of generalising, I do feel we are losing this battle.

One would counter argue about the fantastic research that gets published in science journals around the world and the progress reflected in the works of noble prize winners. With no offense to academic research and not undermining the importance of the same, it is also true that we haven't had a break through discovery in a long time which will have the same impact on our future as most of the ones listed in the above table. Once again, the expectation is that "a long time" in today's age should be a relatively much shorter time given the accelerated knowledge sharing environment.

Facebook, Amazon, Google, Uber and even Mobile phones aren't great example of new discoveries, at best they can be called as a really good and successful attempt at leveraging the earlier inventions and then mostly commercialising the internet, internet being the key invention. We are witnessing incremental improvement and we are 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 discoveries. This ongoing addiction to Incremental innovation can become the biggest threat to accelerated growth of the human race. In crude words, most innovation today is almost becoming a parasite to the internet.

Life sciences is one area which perhaps is the most critical for advancement of 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 firms, which in most cases tend to benefit if the pace of innovation is slow. This conflict of interest is concerning and is becoming more widespread.

Brightest minds and role models of today (Gates, Musk, Bezos, Thiel, Zuckerberg and many others) are all consumed by the internet. Yes, we also have Gates working on Malaria, Musk and Bezos working on rockets but primarily we have simply wasted too much talent in creating enterprises which aren't that path breaking and could have been created by others. A crude analogy, but being a film buff, I have always believed that the world has been deprived of George Lucas's brilliance in film making because he got so over consumed by the Star Wars franchise. In the same way, the world would have been better off if the brilliance of Bezos was used in quest for the unknown answers and not in creating an e commerce business empire. Even with slightly better and non-internet led examples like Tesla, the focus seems to be on making a different car with batteries (which have been invented long time ago) and not on the replacement for a car or how transportation could be done in drastically different manner. Sadly, it's still about how the car looks and drives and not on why do we need a car to go from point a to b, in the first place.

Even bigger danger is that the young bright minds of today are increasingly aping these role models and are further moving away from the real innovation challenges. Digital space and internet is fast becoming a lazy destination for the smart bold talent of today and the objective largely isn't solving a problem or finding a new truth, sadly its crating a business around an idea using the internet. When we start labelling the creator of "Pokémon Go" as the path breaking innovator, no offence but the deterioration of ambition and aspiration has already started.

Given the astonishing speed at which knowledge can be shared in today's time, we should not take another century to replace, drastically modify or significantly improve the following - Automobile engines, aero planes, the way food is grown and processed, the concept of medicine, aging, learning, 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

We should also be able to see progress in the areas that are the unknown and unchallenged - invisibility, immortality, telepathy, teleport and many others that we cannot imagine yet.

Whilst Internet is a very powerful tool/idea that has fundamentally changed the basis of how we process information, knowledge and communication, it cannot be the only foundation for all innovation. We are significantly limiting the pace and extent of new answers that human race can find. We need majority of the bright minds to use the internet as one of the available resources and not as a driver of their imagination or questioning ability. Perhaps one successful measurement would be if not more than 20 per cent of the start-up ideas are based on the internet (alarmingly, the number today is north of 90 per cent and increasing). That's when we can get back to challenging the unanswered questions and discovering new things. It's neither too late nor the problem has 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 through the vortex called the internet.

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.

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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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