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The Nature of Technology Feb 10, 2011 W. Brian Arthur External Professor, Santa Fe Institute and Intelligent Systems Lab, PARC

How does technology evolve? • Novel technologies arise by putting together existing technologies (by combination)

Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Š 2011 W. Brian Arthur


Ogburn’s Claim (1922) inventions. When the existing material culture is small, embracing a stone technique and a knowledge of skins and some woodwork, the number of inventions is more limited than when the culture consists of a knowledge of a variety of m etals and chemicals and the use of steam, electricity, and various mechanical principles such as the screw, the wheel, the lever, the piston, belts, pulleys, etc. The street car could not h ave been William Fielding Ogburn invented from the material culture Social Change, 1922 existing at the last glacial period. The discovery of the power of “It would seem that the larger the steam and the mechanical equipment of material culture, the technology existing at the time greater the number of inventions. made possible a l arge number of The more there is to invent with, the greater will be th e number of© 2010 W.inventions.” Brian Arthur


The Evolution of Technology (Steps)


Novel element forms as combination from existing elements. Accepted if provides a needed functionality, and is technically and economically viable

2. Novel element replaces techs and components with similar functionality across the collective 3. Adds to the substrate of elements to construct from

Š 2011 W. Brian Arthur


Evolution of Technology (Steps cont’d) 4. Novel element generates new needs - for supporting methods and arrangements - for methods to overcome limitations - for techs to broaden functionalities

5. New element destroys replaced technologies’ niches for their dependent technologies 6. The economy adjusts to these steps

Š 2011 W. Brian Arthur


Biological vs. Technological Evolution •

Biological: – – –

Darwinian variation and selection, accumulation of incremental changes But … occasional combinations

Technological: – – –

Combinatorial, abrupt, self-augmenting With much Darwinian evolution once a technology exists

© 2010 W. Brian Arthur


An Experiment at FXPAL W. Brian Arthur and Wolfgang Polak


Create an artificial world in which technologies evolve indefinitely from previous ones. I.e. Allow the system to create technologies by combining previous technologies

Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


An artificial world within the machine

• The “technologies” will be logic circuits • Little agents in green eye shades • They have a wish list of “needs” for logic circuits to be potentially fulfilled – ( 2-bit Exor, 4-bit Equals, 2-bit adder, etc)

© 2010 W. Brian Arthur


How the experiment works 1. Start from one primitive element (a NAND gate) 2. Make circuits by random combination of existing elements 3. Check to see if any needs (target logic purposes) are fulfilled 4. If so, these novel circuits become new building blocks

Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


NAND: the primitive element

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NOT circuit

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IMPLY circuit

Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


3-bit AND Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


1-bit adder Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


2-bit adder Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Tech 33: And-3

Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


3-bit adder Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


4-bit adder Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


After 250,000 steps


Quite complicated circuits have evolved – 8-way exor, 8-way and, 4-bit equal, etc. – An 8-bit adder (16 inputs, 9 outputs). This is one of 10177,554 possible circuits

© 2010 W. Brian Arthur


But these complicated technologies require intermediate steps

• They require intermediate (simpler) technologies … which only appear if there are intermediate needs -

(Cf. R. Lenski et al. Evol. Origin of Complex Features)

© 2010 W. Brian Arthur


A Cambrian explosion? After about 30,000 steps, sudden appearance of key circuits (enabling technologies) then quick use of these – Full

adder appears after 32,000 steps; 2,3,4-bit adders quickly after that

Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


The evolution is history dependent

New technologies build out of ones “discovered” earlier So the order in which techs are invented matters

© 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Schumpeter’s Gales of Destruction When a technology disappears (is replaced) a technology it used may have no further use. That tech then disappears … etc.

Q. Are these gales “sand-pile avalanches”? –I.e. is the system at self-organized criticality?

© 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Avalanches of destruction follow a power law Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Joseph Schumpeter “Add as many mailcoaches as you please, you will never get a railroad by so doing.”

© 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Franç ois Jacob “In our universe, matter is arranged in a hierarchy of structures by successive integrations. Whether inanimate or living, the objects found on earth are always organizations or systems. Each system at a given level uses as its ingredients some systems from the simpler level. … The great diversity of vertebrates results from differences in the arrangement, in the number and distribution, of these few [building blocks].”

© 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Laser printer

Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Part 2. Bodies of technology ‌ and how innovation works in the economy

Innovation: works differently for bodies of technology Domains offer a toolbox of technologies: they emerge, aren’t invented

… build slowly … and profoundly change the economy © 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Since 1600s • Optical phenomena • Chemical phenomena, heat phenomena • Electrical, electronic, digital • Genomic, photonic, nanotech

© 2010 W. Brian Arthur


A domain offers a world where things can be done differently

Real world object

Digital Version

Real World

New, processed object

Manipulated Version

Digital Realm

Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Domains go through stages


Early phase: many companies, turbulence, missing pieces, sometimes a crash


Sustained buildout, steady growth


Mature technology Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


How does innovation work with a domain?

• The economy doesn’t adopt a domain, it encounters it

• All parts of the economy encounter the domain – many change as a result (if the change is significant, we call that a revolution)

© 2010 W. Brian Arthur


A domain and industries that use it

• Put together combinations drawn from each


E.g. Banking and financial derivatives, Movie industry and CGI

Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Why is technology becoming more “biological”?

• A chemistry of functionalities, programmable, remotely connectable -- Everything in conversation with everything

• Can sense environment, and thus reconfigure appropriately • Thence self-configuring, self-optimizing, self-healing © 2010 W. Brian Arthur


Three overall observations • Technology is a vast “chemistry” of functionalities, that in combination give rise to further functionalities • Bodies of technology are worlds in which things can be done differently. They are not adopted, but encountered • Technology is becoming biological

© 2010 W. Brian Arthur


We feel an unease with this huge thing building out ‌

We place our hopes in technology, but we place our trust in nature

Modern mythology Š 2010 W. Brian Arthur


How Technological Innovation Happens  

"How Does Technological Innovation Happen?" W. Brian Arthur

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