Recently,afriendgavemealiftinhis car.Whenwereachedourdestinat on, heopenedtheboot pulledoutacord and plugged it in I’d never actually seenanyonechargeavehiclebefore – only about 2 per cent of existing carsareelectric–anditwasag impseofabetter future At last, after 50 years of disappointment, innovationmightagainstartimprovingour ives, chiefly through reduced emiss ons and better medicine Thatspartlybecausetoday’spolycrisis hassparkedpoly-innovation
The golden age for life-enhanc ng innovation, argued the economist Robert Gordon, was the per od 1920-1970 Thats when most people in deve oped countries acquired electric lights, telephones fridges,cleanwaterathome,vaccines, ant biotics and perhaps the most important invention, ﬂush toi ets In that half-century, life expectancyinthemosttechnologicallyadvanced country,theUS jumpedfrom53to70
But after 1970, even as tech became the dominantindustry itdeliveredmuchless Lookat thecontr butionsoftoday’sbehemothcompanies: social media and a delivery company that did to highstreetswhattheiPhonehasdonetoattention spans. These innovations haven’t benefited humanity, but then why would we expect them to?Thepurposeofnewtechistypica lytoenrich innovators or to build deadlier weapons Any human progress is an accidental side-eﬀect. Far frominnovationcombatingcl matechange,most CO2 emissions in history were generated after 1990. In fact, the next technological frontier for several garlanded innovators invo ves leaving behindourdamagedplanetandheadingforSpace
Progress has been rare lately American lifespans are now about the same as in 1996 largely because of op oids, processed foods and mismanagement of Covid-19 Poor countries did ga nmanyyearsoflifeexpectancy,butmostlyby gettingaccesstothings ikepre-1970vaccines.
In f nance, remarked former Fed chairman PaulVolckerin2009,thebestmoderninnovation was “the automatic tel er machine. That really helps peop e ” Other novelties, most recently cryptocurrencies, not so much More generally, self-reportedhumanhappinesshas slumped this century, according to Gallups annual survey of more than140countries
To be fa r, innovation keeps getting harder. Scientists need years of study ust to absorb past discoveries Most then work on smallbore, specialised problems. Andthere’salwaysaba ancebetweeninnovation andtheregulationof,forinstance,medicines As societies get richer they tend to swing towards regulation. One measure of this is the stock of lawyers: up more than fourfold in the US since 1970,andby148percentinChinainadecade
But crises accelerate innovation. When Covid struck, regulators waved through new mRNA vaccines that stimulate the immune system Now these vaccines are being tria led against cancer.Meanwh le,medicalresearchoccasionally produces step changes, and the first effective vaccines against the ancient scourge of malaria couldreachtensofmil ionsofinfantsthisyear
The Ukrainian crisis may prove equally productive Vladimir Putin, by provoking
sanctions against Russian fossil fuels ach eved what democratic po ticians never could he createdtheﬁrstseriousdefactocarbontax.That spurred the EU and the US to invest fortunes in innovativegreenenergy Lastyear’sbreakthrough in zero-carbon nuclear fusion, by scientists at an Americangovernment ab willattractmorefunds Fusion sgettinganadditionalhandfromartiﬁcial intelligence. The climate cr sis was caused by techno ogicalinnovation,butmightjustbesolved bytechno ogicalinnovation
AI is also discovering drugs, notes Steve Crossan of venture capitalﬁrmDCVC AIisnowsoeasy to use he says, that an academic chemist can get up to speed with a few hours of study. Add on the gene-editing drugs current y in clinical trials, and were speeding towards personalised medicine. Onepersonslivercancer,say,w llincreasinglyget diﬀerenttreatmentfromanothers Innovationwil solvesomeoftoday’sproblems. But it wi l create new ones. AI is advancing too fastevenforspecialiststokeeptrack,one eading entrepreneur in the field told me “There is litera ly a breakthrough every week or two.” The neuralnetworksbeingcreatedaresovast,hesays, that“thereseemtobeemergingcapabilitiesthat we don’t understand”. Worry ngly for the west, theleadinginnovatorsinAIappeartobeChinese. If even James Watt’s humble steam engine set us on the road to cl mate crisis, whats coming is unimag nab e,forbetterandworse.
simon kuper@ft com @KuperSimon
Covidsawregulators wavethroughmRNA vaccines Theyare nowbeingtrialled againstcancer