Ten years ago hardly anyone had a smartphone. Social media was in its infancy. Artificial intelligence was still science fiction. Yet today all of those things are mature technologies that have become an integral part of everyday life. Anywhere you go you see people using all of them as a matter of habit.
It’s become conventional wisdom to look at these developments and say that technology is accelerating. It certainly seems that way. Nevertheless, look a little closer and it becomes clear that’s not really true. Buy a computer or smartphone today and it has nearly identical technical specifications to one that came out five years ago.
The truth is that every major technology has a similar life cycle called an S-curve. It emerges weak, buggy and flawed. Adoption is slow. In time, it hits its stride and enters a period of rapid growth until it hits maturity and an inevitable slowdown. That’s what’s happening now with digital technology and we can expect many areas to slow down in the years to come.
Einstein’s Miracle Year
In 1905, a virtually unknown patent clerk unleashed a series of papers of such enormous impact that it seemed to call every physical law into question. Before long, Albert Einstein was world famous and the two parallel revolutions he spawned, relativity and quantum mechanics, would remake the world as we knew it.
Today those papers are collectively known as Einstein’s miracle year and they unleashed a torrent of innovation that is perhaps unparalleled in the history of science. By the 1920s and 30s, physicists became like rock stars, regularly called on to advise heads of state and captains of industry.
By the 1960s the revolution had mostly run its course and the standard model of physics was largely complete a decade later. There were, of course, some details to be confirmed and some rival ideas, such as string theory, emerged, but for the most part scientists’ view of the universe has remained largely unchanged for the past 50 years.
The twin revolutions of physics gave rise to a number of new fields, ranging from radiology and nuclear power to transistors and GPS satellites, but today physics moves slowly. The most celebrated discovery in recent years, that of the Higgs boson, merely confirmed the existence of a particle first proposed back in the 1960s. The heady days of Einstein and Bohr are long past.
A Medical Revolution
Until the 1940s, even a seemingly minor infection could be life threatening. That all changed when penicillin became commercially available in 1945. At the time, it was considered to be a miracle drug and it catalyzed a hotbed of research into new ways to combat microbial infections.
From there things moved quickly. The period between 1950 and 1970 was considered a “golden age” of antibiotic research, with pharmaceutical firms investing heavily. New compounds were being introduced every year to specifically target different kinds of infections and global health improved enormously.
Since then, things have moved slowly and no new classes of microbial drugs have been discovered for over 40 years, which is increasingly becoming a problem in an age of antibiotic resistance. Nevertheless, because these cases still tend to be fairly rare, research funding in the field remains somewhat scarce.
Much like quantum mechanics, antibiotics went from focal point to backwater after a few decades. What’s hot in one era is generally not in the next.
3 Digital Laws
For the past 50 years, we’ve been in the midst of a transformative age commonly known as the digital revolution, which has been driven by 3 digital laws. The most well known is Moore’s law, which describes how the number of chips on a silicon chip tend to double about every 18 months. Kryder’s law describes an even faster rate for computer storage and Nielson’s law shows a somewhat slower rate for the growth of bandwidth.
The confluence of these trends produced an amazing about of innovation over the past few decades. Every year, new devices came out which were smaller and more powerful. Businesses and entrepreneurs raced to develop new applications that would amaze their customers. At times it seemed like even last year’s device seemed hopelessly out of date.
Now, however, it seems like those days are becoming a thing of the past. Moore’s law will end in a few years. Storage has become so plentiful and cheap that companies are literally giving away gigabytes for free online. We have enough bandwidth to stream entire movies, even on mobile devices, and new 5G networks will give us even more.
That doesn’t mean advancement in digital technology will stop, but like technologies that came before, we can expect it to slow considerably until we can jump to the next S-curve.
Moving Back To A World Of Atoms
The digital revolution was somewhat unique not necessarily because it moved any faster, but because it was more visible. Unlike quantum mechanics, antibiotics and other technological revolutions, the Internet allowed us to access new innovations almost as soon as they were created.
Yet today, things are slowing down. Think about hot new devices like Amazon Echo and Google Home, which allow us to use voice interfaces rather than a touchscreen or a keyboard, but actually don’t do much we couldn’t already do with our smartphones. It’s hard to see how their impact will be anything like the PC, the Internet or the smartphone.
That doesn’t mean that innovation itself will stop — or even slow down — but it does mean that we will have to look to new S-curves to find it. Over the next few decades, we will see an enormous amount of innovation in a number of fields, such as genomics, materials science and advanced manufacturing.
This transformation will not be virtual, but will use bits to power atoms. That will make it far less visible, but potentially far more impactful, than the seemingly endless stream of “killer apps” that we’ve come to associate with progress.
An earlier version of this article first appeared in Inc.com