Friday, July 30, 2010

Final Comments on The Nature of Technology

The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves

I finished reading Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves. The final chapter exploits the picture he has drawn of the body of technology evolving by its own logic, unpredictable and beyond any simple control, on a skeleton of social institutions.

Technological knowledge is growing faster than ever before. The $70 billion global economy and population of 6.7 billion people is greater than ever before, and the more people and more wealth, the faster the body of technology grows. Indeed, globalization has resulted in a greater portion of the world's population and economy developing technologies that would be useful to those of us moderns as might read this blog. Science has grown and continues to grow exponentially, and the body of phenomena available to be incorporated into technology also grows exponentially. So too do the number of niches to be filled by new technologies. I would also guess that the greater the cultural diversity, the more different cultural approaches would be brought to technology. Finally, there has been an important development of institutions that support technology development, including such things as research intensive universities, industrial research laboratories, agricultural field stations, government programs for research funding, intellectual property rights, and professional societies and journals. Arthur points out that there is a "messy vitality" to this self-directed growth of technology, and that the vision he has drawn is likely to be even more applicable in the future than in the past.

The final chapter of the book suggests that the managers of enterprises will be increasingly challenged in finding ways to adapt their enterprises to this messy vitality, as will those who lead and make policy for our governments and societies. I would add that the intellectuals who, like Arthur, seek to make sense of our society and our world will also be increasingly challenged to deal with the messy vitality not only of technology and the economy, but of the way people and society respond to a more rapidly evolving techno-economic system.

As more and more phenomena are incorporated in technology, and as more and more of us live in a man-built technological world, our view of nature changes. Certainly we experience nature more as technology-captured phenomena, and certainly there are many who see nature primarily as a source of phenomena to be captured and resources to be exploited. Yet, it is the most technologically advanced societies that seem most concerned with the environment, indeed most interested in preserving the natural heritage of mankind and the world's wild places. Our modern technology allows us to protect ourselves from the dangers faced by "natural man" of our species distant past, while enjoying the most diverse and rewarding natural sites the globe has to offer.

The series of postings I have produced on The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves indicates how closely I have read the book. I have not always agreed with the author, but I suspect he would be pleased by a reader challenging and probing the theory of technology he advances. The book is deceptively easy to read -- short, lovely prose, filled with illuminating examples -- but worthy of serious consideration, Brian Arthur is a very impressive person, trained as an economist and an engineer, with a serious body of contributions to our thinking even before this book, which is obviously much influenced by his work with the Santa Fe institute. I recommend the book wholeheartedly!

Here are my previous postings on the book:

Is the economy an expression of its technology?

The penultimate chapter of The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves begins with Brian Arthur defining technology as "the set of arrangements and activities by which a society satisfies its needs." He then states that "the economy is an expression of its technologies." The then proceeds to give an elegant explanation of the way in which technology and economy co-evolve. I suspect that this is a discussion that it would benefit many economists to read. At a minimum it combats the tendency of economists to treat technological change as exogenous to economic models, treating such changes as both induced by economic needs and creating economic forces.

The word "need" always bothers me since it is sometimes used to mean "something without which we can not live" and some times "something someone thinks we should have". In the latter sense, there seem to have been many situations in the past where donors have used the concept of "need" to provide something other than that which the recipient wants most. I suspect that what Arthur means by "need" in the sentence is "something which society will devote resources to obtain if possible".

Arthur is an economist and has an expansive view of the economy. I would suggest that there are needs -- such as the need for love and nurturing that is met by the family and community or the need for religious belief and support that is met by religious institutions -- that are not economic. There are technologies that play economic roles within the institutions of the family (e.g. household technologies) and church (e.g. construction and architectural technologies) but there are aspects of both that I would prefer to see as other than economic.

This is one of a number of postings on The Nature of Technology.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

How to Make a Faceted Classification and Put It On the Web

Source: Denton, William. "How to Make a Faceted Classification and Put It On the Web" Nov. 2003.

I too like to think about things in terms of many facets, each of which reveals some aspects of those things, and which must be used together to get a good idea of that which is observed. Here is the definition from the papet:
What are facets? Consider a common example, wine. Each wine has a certain colour. It comes from a certain place. It is made from a particular kind (or blend) of grape. Its year of vintage is known. It has been guaranteed to be of a certain quality by its country's wine authorities. It comes in a container of a given volume. It has a price. A list could be made of all wines, but it would be enormously long and unwieldy. On the web, it would mean scrolling through screen after screen of endless subdivisions— hard to use, and hard to search. With facets, we can set up a handful of categories that will combine to fully describe the wines: colour, origin, grape, year, appellation, volume, price. Each category is populated with the right terms and organized in an appropriate way. Then each bottle of wine is classified by picking and choosing the right terms from each category. This is a faceted classification: a set of mutually exclusive and jointly exhaustive categories, each made by isolating one perspective on the items (a facet), that combine to completely describe all the objects in question, and which users can use, by searching and browsing, to find what they need.

Lab Safety

Source: "Danger in School Labs: Accidents Haunt Experimental Science," Beryl Lieff Benderly, Scientific American, August 2010.

There is a movement to improve laboratory safety in American universities. The article holds that there is a culture of safety in American industrial labs, but not in American university research labs. Even though there is little data on university lab accidents, the article cites anecdotal evidence that such accidents occur, sometimes involving students, and sometimes fatal.

My own experience in a small commercial research company many years ago suggested that there were severe problems. I recall a large gas canister, the regulator broken off, breaking loose and flying down the building breaking through lab walls. I recall an accident in a Florine research project that hospitalized two people, one for months. I recall a flock of animals killed by an accidental gas release. And I recall a B52 crashed in a test of an experimental flight warning system.

I suspect that there are more lab accidents per laboratory in developing nations, since in many developing nations safety procedures are relatively underdeveloped.

It seems to me that laboratory safety is an ethical issue for scientists, for university and research laboratory administrators, and for funding agencies. Indeed, it is one of several ethical issues including the ethical treatment of human subjects, the ethical treatment of animals involved in the research, and the containment of risks to others created by research (containment of poisons, pathogens and pests, containment of dangers to the environment).

I note that UNESCO has a program focused on the ethics of science, but has apparently never undertaken an effort to reduce these research-related risks in developing nations. Capacity building and policy advice are areas in which UNESCO might be useful.

Mathematical Modeling is an Art!

The Economist has an article challenging the use of dynamic, stochastic equilibrium models of the economy for economic forecasting and policy analysis. The point is not that such models are not useful, or even that they have been stretched from their original academic purposes for use in economic policy making, but that a variety of model types should be used to develop a more complete understanding of the economy. The article cites a recent Congressional hearing on the topic.

Any mathematical model is at best a representation of reality. There is always a trade-off between the complexity of the model and the cost of model development and data collection versus the verisimilitude of the model's results, a trade off which should be made on the basis of the uses intended for the model. Indeed, there is always a question of whether to use one or several models.

The idea that the economy is in equilibrium has been very powerful, and equilibrium models are often useful. On the other hand, they tend to fail when the economy is not in equilibrium, as is the case when there is an economic bubble and especially when the bubble bursts.

Governance in Africa

The lack of government responsiveness to the needs of their populations is, I am pretty sure, a good part of the reason for the economic backwardness of Africa. Unfortunately, the cultural changes needed to make government work better seem to be very hard to achieve!

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

People spend a lot of time talking about things they don't know much about

So 92,000 documents were posted on Wikileaks relating to the U.S. conduct of the war in Afghanistan. If one person can screen 100 documents a day (12 1/2 per hour for 8 hours), it would take 920 person days to do an initial screening of the corpus of documents. Of course, one could use electronic screening to search for specific names or terms much faster, but to figure out what the body of documents means requires a lot more than that.

Thus 31 people could do an initial screening of the 92,000 documents in 30 days. Figuring a 25 day working month, it would take 37 people. I wonder whether the New York Times, the Guardian, or Der Spiegel devoted that kind of manpower to doing the initial screening of the corpus of documents.

How long would it take to do a serious analysis of the documents to ascribe a reasonable measure to their credibility, and to derive the important implications if one were starting from an initially screened corpus of 92,000 documents? I would think that this would be better done by a small team working over a longer period of time. I would guess months at a very minimum would be required to do this well.

So how come we are hearing so many "talking heads" expounding on what the body of documents says and means? Some of course are spokespersons for the affected government or their military forces, who have both the advantage of having seen these documents in the past and formed organizational views of their import as well as having huge staffs to put to work on the documents. Still these official spokespersons are likely to be spinning the news as seems most advantageous to their organizations, and this is a much easier task than the real analysis of the documents.

The rest of the talking heads should be ashamed of themselves, as should the news agencies that put them forward.

Why I was off line for several days

There was a very severe thunder storm three days ago, which resulted in power failure affecting more than a quarter million people. Trees were down all over the place, knocking down power lines and four electric substations were knocked out by the storm (and three people died in the storm). Hundreds of traffic lights went out, leading to massive traffic jams during the extra long rush hours.

The electric company took days to get people back online. My house and home office went dark on Sunday at about 3pm, and electric power was not restored until Tuesday at 11:20 pm. The Internet connection went down with the electric supply. So, even with a battery powered laptop, I was off line.

I am reminded that without electric power we d0 not have electric light nor air conditioning, and the fans and air purifiers in the house don't work. Neither do clocks, the refrigerator, freezer, stove and microwave (fortunately some local shopping centers had power, and we could eat out, and we could buy ice and store food in ice chests.). There was of course no television, but our radios work on battery power. The telephone land line went out before the power returned (making it impossible to get the updates on the expected return of power), but we our cell phones. I am impressed how much we depend on household technology, and on the resilience of the technology system due to the complex redundancy we can afford in our wealthy country.

An example of science leading to the recognition of technological needs

In 1896 Svante August Arrhenius published a scientific paper indicating that the emissions of Carbon Dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels had the potential to change the climate. From that start, a century of research has added more an more evidence that anthropogenic global warming was indeed a serious threat. The research has illuminated the nature and amount of other greenhouse gas emissions, the effects of changing land use on the albedo of the surface of the earth, the mechanisms of absorption of greenhouse gases, the changes in cloud cover to be expected, and the impacts that can be expected from global warming. The evolution of scientific technology has facilitated this research, but I direct attention specifically to the introduction of satellite remote sensing which has allowed collection of data on a global scale, and the evolution of the digital computer and computer networking has allowed the analysis of the huge masses of data accumulated, the modeling of atmospheric and oceanographic phenomena, and the projection of trends in atmospheric pollution and temperature response.

I really believe that without the synoptic view of global warming provided by science over this century long effort, mankind would not have recognized the problem of global climate change. Indeed, many people still do not recognize the problem, nor do many political systems.

Nonetheless, the partial recognition of the problem of global warming has unleashed an avalanche of efforts to develop new technologies, including focus on renewable energy sources such as biomass, solar and wind, expanded efforts to improve nuclear energy, efforts to develop thermonuclear power technology, technology to conserve energy or reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and technology to sequester carbon. There will also be efforts to develop technology to ameliorate or respond to global warming, such as water conservation technologies, technologies to combat sea level rise, and agricultural technologies to respond to changing growing conditions created by global warming.

(Incidentally, I understand there is new resistance to raising the funds necessary to complete the ITER project -- the internationally supported effort to develop the first thermonuclear experiment that would generate more power than it consumes. I can't evaluate the technical merit of the project, but the cost does not seem excessive if the project would really produce a significant step forward in the development of the technology. It is estimated as costing $19 billion, which might be compared with a global economic product in excess of $70 trillion. Thus, over the several years needed for the project, the cost per year would be a small portion of the global economy. It has been suggested that the funds might be better directed to the development of other energy technologies, but I think that is the wrong comparison. There are a lot of areas of expense, military spending for example, that would better be cut than expenditure to develop a huge and pollution reducing source of power for mankind.)

Of course, the recognition of the threat of global warming is but one of many factors influencing this torrent of technology development, and importantly the prior development of these technologies itself leads to further technology development as it introduces new possibilities and leads to improved technology development capacity.

Still the developing recognition of the problem of global warming, based on accumulated scientific evidence (itself partially the result of improved technology applied to the scientific effort) seems a good example of the way science helps create recognition of problems to be solved by the development of technology.

This posting is one in a series triggered by Brian Arthur's book, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves

We need to update proverbs and figures of speec

A lot of the things we say refer to ways of thinking of the past. They are as outdated as a car phone or an 8-track (not a buggy whip). It is really time to update this language. Here are some suggestions:

On persistence: You have to go through a lot of spam to find a worthwhile email.

Adding strength to strength: He is like a Buffett to my Gates

On naivite: He would believe a Nigerian get-rich quick email

On scams: Pulling a Madoff

On behavior: He posts his heart on Facebook

On old people: He's as old a Strom Thurmond

On efficiency: She goes through work the way Google goes through websites

Don't work all night, outsource it to India.

Still More on Brian Arthur's The Nature of Technology

Reference: The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves

I am morphing Brian Arthur's model of technology as a growing and adapting structure of technological information. As Arthur points out, technologies are means of harnessing properties to achieve human purposes. They are interconnected, with technologies formed by collections of other technologies, and perceived as grouped by domains. There are portions of this structure, the relatively mature technologies, that are relatively static. Other portions, such as information technology and biotechnology today, that are growing quite rapidly. Still other portions of technology, such as those relating to traditional crop cultivars, are decaying and disappearing.

This technological information includes some that is disembodied, in the sense that it is published and available to all. Most however is embodied in devices, supplies, people (knowledge, understanding, skills, craft, etc.), and institutions. We find some regions are very rich in the embodiment of specific technologies; Silicon Valley is rich in the embodiment of information on information technology and biotechnology and Amsterdam is rich in information on the diamond jewelry industry.

The body of technological information in its various embodiments, is analogous to an ecosystem, the individual technologies to species, and the processes of change in that information analogous to species evolution and ecological evolution (or devolution).

The body of technological information is linked intimately to a body of complementary information about properties, resources, and problems. Much of this information is scientific, but much might also be considered ethno-science, coming out of cultural approaches to the understanding of the world that are not those of modern science. Some too are craft understanding, embodied in the information intrinsic to a craft or profession.

The body of technological information and its body of complementary information differs from region to region. That of the Central African Republic is different than that of Silicon Valley. It may be useful to consider the ratio of the quantity of information in a given geographic location to the number of people in that location. Clearly, the quantity of technological information in a region is a function of the investment that has been made in facilities and devices in that region, in the investment in education, and the investment in institutional development.

As an aside, one might differentiate the explicit from the implicit information embodied in an institution. A formal institution such as a formal business organization or a formally organized market may be easier to reconstitute if it fails or replicate because the information embodied by the formal institution may be more explicit as compared to an informal institution. Consider for example the traditional institutions which govern planting, pest control and water distribution in Bali. No one could describe the overall system nor how the subsystems interrelated. When that system was disrupted by the control of people from Java and the Indonesian Ministry of Irrigation, rice yields fell precipitously. Yet it was hard to see how to regain the yields, either by improving the “modern” management with traditional practice nor by restoring the key elements of the traditional practice.

The bodies of information and their embodiment are found within an environment of larger systems or networks. The economic system is one portion of this surrounding field. As Arthur points out, the economy and its technology co-evolve as technological change drives and enables changes in economic organization and as economic change drives and enables technological change. However, I would suggest that the relevant surround is not only economic, but also social, political, and cultural not to mention demographic. Thus, for example, economic growth and technological improvements drive increases in life expectancy, which drive other social, political and cultural changes, all of which drive further technological and economic changes.

The differences in these bodies of information explain significantly the differences in industrial cultures and in economic productivity among regions. A key question in international development is how to move poor regions and countries toward greater productivity. This model suggests that a major part of that effort should be to change the body of technological and complementary information in the region or country involved. The model also suggests how very difficult it may be to change the body of information in a poor nation in such a way as to increase economic productivity.

I would suggest that part of the problem is finding an appropriate balance of information embodied in people versus facilities and devices, versus institutions, and the related problem of how best to balance investments in improving the stock of information embodied in each of these areas. All too often development assistance has left a project with technology which people don't know how to use properly ot maintain. In developing nations all too often we find health service providers trying to function without the supplies embodying advanced technology -- vaccines and other pharmaceuticals -- that they need. We find people trained abroad who return to their home country and find themselves without the equipment that they were taught to use in their work.

Arthur argues persuasively that the technology chosen to achieve a particular purpose is seen as a combination of other technologies to achieve subordinate purposes, as those subordinate technologies are themselves combinations of still more subordinate technologies. Technology development in a specific region must necessarily be based on the technologies already there, or must include the transfer or development of all of the new technologies required for the success of the final technological product.
Moreover, the technological information required in people, facilities and devices, and institutions must all be available embodied in the right places, as well as the complementary information. Thus the coordination of technological development appears quite complex and difficult, as well as vital for the increase in productivity which underlies economic success and all the progress that economic success implies.

Arthur believes that the body of technology grows and will continue to grow without end. This seems to be clearly too optimistic. If one considers the technology developed by the Anasazi, for example, it seems clear that some of that disappeared in the collapse of their civilization caused by environmental changes. Today’s pueblo people, who are thought to be the descendents of the people of Chaco Canyon and other Anasazi towns, have had to recapture technology of or parallel to that of their ancestors. There are many other examples of civilizations that have crashed, and it seems clear that in the crash of a civilization part of the technology on which the civilization is built is lost.

There are less extreme examples of loss of technology. Think of the failed states, and the likelihood that much of whatever modern technology was held by Somalia or Zimbabwe has been lost. Many poor countries face serious problems of brain drain and deterioration of technological infrastructure. I recall that Uganda, for example, has lost the use of several of the railroads it once had, and many of its ports on Lake Victoria.

The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves

This is one of several postings on The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves:

Sunday, July 25, 2010

The Perceptual Illusion About Technology

An Ant Hill in Australia
Brian Arthur uses the coral reef as a metaphor for technology. The reef is a structure that grows by the action of the corals that live at its fringe, but the living coral organisms do not understand the structure that they are expanding nor do they rationally plan its growth. Indeed the reef can be seen as an unintended byproduct of actions by the living coral organisms.

I suppose an ant hill might be an alternative metaphor. We perceive the structure, but we can not assume that the ants that built it had any understanding of that which they were building. Like the living coral organisms, each ant carries out its very limited activities according to very limited information and with very limited purposes. Yet a large architectural structure emerges from the independent actions of many ants.

Technology in this view is a growing body of knowledge and practice. It grows by the accretion of models and knowledge created by inventors and innovators. Those people however tend only to be aware of the portion of the body of technology related to the frontier on which they are working, and their expansion of technology is not understood as or intended to build the overall structure of human technology, but rather to solve specific and local problems .

Arthur emphasizes that new technologies are inevitably built through new combinations of old technologies,  although they may also grow through the discovery of new phenomenon to utilize technologically to accomplish human purposes. I would suggest that the body of human technology is even built on technology developed by pre-human species. Stone tools, fire, and other technologies were bequeathed to Home sapiens by the species from which we evolved.

Arthur, in The Nature of Technology, uses the term "autopoiesis", created by Chilean biologists Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, to describe the process by which the body of technology grows. The term, as I understand it, refers to entities structured by processes that are themselves influenced by the structure they themselves are creating and modifying. "An autopoietic system is to be contrasted with an allopoietic system, such as a car factory, which uses raw materials (components) to generate a car (an organized structure) which is something other than itself (the factory)."

Science policy generally focuses on the research and development occurring at the margin of the body of technological knowledge. Arthur's analysis forces a perceptual shift, much like that which occurs in the optical illusion I used in a recent posting. He focuses on the overall structure growing by teleonomic rather than teleologic processes, and thus requiring a different orientation of science policy.

I note that in one way the metaphors are misleading. Technological knowledge is not only created, but it is also lost. We don't know how the ancient Egyptians created the pyramids, nor how the Incas formed the stone blocks in their monumental structures. Many of the traditional cultivars of major crops have been lost as have the cultivation practices used in their growth. Thus while technological knowledge is growing in some areas, and indeed growing explosively in some domains such as information technology and biotechnology, it is also deteriorating and disappearing in other areas.

This is one of a series of postings occasioned by reading Arthurs book:

Some Reviews of The Nature of Technology

Reviews of Brian Arthur's book, The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves:

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Early Results from an Obama Administration Science Diplomacy Initiative

Bruce Alberts was appointed Science Envoy to Indonesia, Elias Zerhouni Science Envoy to Algeria, and Ahmed Zewail Science Envoy to Egypt by the Obama administration. All very distinguished scientists, they serve in their personal capacity and are not government employees (although there are science attaches in some embassys). Now, according to the American Institute of Physics, they have reported on their early experience to the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. I quote from the AIP report:
Alberts has had some initial success, including the establishment of an annual “Frontiers of Science” meeting with 40 US and 40 Indonesian future science leaders, and a new US program to support university exchanges. There are presently 7,000 Indonesians in US universities and Alberts hopes to triple that number. Indonesia is considering creating a new merit-based research funding agency similar to the National Science Foundation. This is another opportunity for the US which aided China’s creation of a similar agency. Furthering science education cooperation, Indonesia recently sent an envoy of scientists and educators to a US conference on science education....

Three areas—water, food and energy security, health and environment, and how best to establish evidence and merit-based systems—have emerged as common priorities across countries. To address these issues, Zerhouni outlines common needs in these countries. Science, technology, engineering, and mathematics programs at every level are also needed; a problem compounded by unqualified teachers and large youth populations that beleaguer already thin education systems. Zerhouni also identified a need to establish stronger scientific cultures of inquiry as opposed to rote learning......

Ahmed, who called Obama’s Cairo speech “historic” and “well received,” argued for a new way of international partnership focused around science. Zewail said that he was surprised by a lack of science expertise at US embassies, a hindrance to science diplomacy. Zewail also urged Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) Director John Holdren to bring the issue of scholarships and visa issues for foreign students to the attention of the President. Zewail ended with this anecdote, “After the June speech by President Obama the expectations were so high…. In Egypt you sell dates in Ramadan… the dates that were sold in Egypt, the highest priced date was named Obama…. The expectations were extremely high, so quite frankly the people would like to see action. Time is running out….”
The stories sound quite different, and one wonders how much of the difference is due to the diplomatic and bureaucratic skills of each Envoy and how much to the differences in scientific cultures of Algeria, Egypt and Indonesia.

I hope that USAID can work with the Science Envoys to mobilize funds to make something happen. I have never worked in Algeria, but many years ago I coordinated a USAID science sector assessment in Egypt that led to a $140 million loan, and in the 1970s I coordinated a month long visit to the United States by Indonesia's Minister of Science and Technology and the chief scientific officers of a dozen other ministries. My experience indicates that there is a huge potential for fruitful scientific cooperation between each of these countries and the United States, but that money is a requirement to make that cooperation work.

More on The Nature of Technology

Chapter 8 of Brian Arthur's book, The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves, is titled "Revolutions and Redomaining". Recall that Arthur uses the term "domain" to refer to technological fields such as chemical technology, electronics technology or railroad technology. He makes the important point that once there is a breakthrough in the development of a useful and important technology in a domain, the domain tends to see other related technologies introduced. Indeed he provides valuable insights on the process of evolution within a technological domain.

I have written in the past about surgery, which I think would qualify as a domain in Arthur's definition. There are many related surgical procedures, each with its specific objectives. The surgeon uses a variety of devices such as surgical implements and diagnostic imaging devices in order to perform surgery. I would add that the surgeon has learned a great deal in order to use those devices well in achieving his surgical objectives. Thus surgery seems to qualify as a technological domain. (Indeed, surgery as a technological domain may have co-evolved with the health service industry and an number of social institutions modified by the impact of a more and more useful surgical practice,)

Surgery has been performed for a very long time. Included in the classical surgical casebook are amputations, caesarian sections and trepanning. These interventions, however were quite rare in the distant past as compared with the frequency of modern surgery, largely because they were so painful and so often deadly. Before surgery could become an important economic domain several things had to occur:
  • Anaesthesia had to be developed to eliminate the pain experienced by the patient during a surgical operation.
  • The nature of infections had to be discovered and antiseptic technology developed to prevent infections resulting from the open wounds created by surgery.
  • Anatomy and physiology had to be developed to the point that the surgeon could identify useful interventions and could perform them with a reasonable chance of success.
When these factors were in place, the field of surgery could evolve as surgeons learned more, as new devices were invented and proven, and as surgical innovators developed new operations and surgical techniques.

I suggest that perhaps other domains also require specific conditions to exist before they can evolve successfully. Electronics technology could only evolve after electrification, and computer technology could only evolve after both electrification and electronics had developed. Railroads required the Bessemer process to produce steel efficiently, the steam engine, and eventually the use of coal as a fuel to flower as a domain.

In the chapter, Arthur (although surely aware of them) does not emphasize Thomas Hughes insights relevant to technological systems. In the case of electricity, it makes no sense to generate and distribute electrical power unless there are uses for that power. Edison created the generation and distribution system, but also the first "killer app", the electric light. Other killer apps followed -- electrical motor driven trolleys, electrical motor powered machines in factories, phonographs, radios, refrigerators, electric stoves, etc. The term "killer app" itself comes from the personal computer sub-domain of the computer domain, and refers to the sequence of killer apps -- word processing, spread sheets, data base software, email, and the Internet and World Wide Web -- that have led to the commodification of the personal computer and the sale of billions of the devices.

Arthur addresses the important feature that there is a history of geographical clustering in the development of technological domains -- cotton cloth in England in the Industrial Revolution, chemical manufacturing in Germany in the 19th and early 20th century, computers in Silicon Valley in the last half century. He uses different terms, but refers to the knowledge spill overs that occur among enterprises, schools and scientific centers in such a cluster. He might have focused more on the knowledge that has to be embodied in supporting institutions for such a center of innovation, such as knowledge of how to finance technological firms in the financial institutions serving the area, knowledge of how to foster development in the governance institutions, and knowledge of how to deal with intellectual property, norms and standards in there relevant institutions.

Arthur talks about "deep craft", the body of understanding held by people in a technology cluster which is used to make innovation and quality production possible and even easy. I suspect that in part we fail often to recognize the importance of craft knowledge due to social stratification. I recall as a young engineer how much I didn't know and how much I depended on good technicians who worked with me and provided some of that craft knowledge and understanding. The certainly contributed greatly to any success we had together. Yet much of the credit seemed to go to the engineering and scientific staff.

I might have suggested that Arthur focus more on the distinction between explicit and tacit information. To some degree the difficulty in replicating a center of innovation in a domain is the difficulty in duplicating the implicit information. This is perhaps especially true in replicating in another geographical location the tacit information that is embodied in facilities and institutions, and in the linkages among institutions. Explicit information is easier to spread, although industrial clusters often protect explicit information as trade secrets (or in the past as secrets of a trade guild).

I liked Arthur's insight that domains have a lifetime. Some, such as the horse drawn buggy disappear replaced by a newer domain (the automobile), while others recede into an unremarked staple of our society, as has happened with potable water systems introduced in the 19th century or central air conditioning and heating.


One of the most important contributions that Arthur makes in this book is the discussion of technological revolutions. The technological revolution occurs as the technology domain and industry interact and co-evolve. Railroads evolved as people moved to locations newly served by the railroads, as markets grew geographically as railroads opened transportation options and reduced transportation costs, manufacturing enterprises grew adopting new technologies to realize economies of scale possible due to increased market size, etc. Computer networking has not only made it possible to re-engineer organizations to accomplish information processing tasks more efficiently using the information technology, but has allowed firms to outsource functions and concentrate on core functions due to the improved markets utilizing the evolving information infrastructure, and comparably to modify their relations with customers. I recall some 45 years ago helping a firm in Chile to improve its relationship with the banks financing its line of credit by introducing computer processing to improve the projection of financial needs over the course of the year.

Incidentally, I would recommend Alfred Chandler's book, The Visible Hand, for those interested in the way a technological revolution influences business organizations.

Arthur describes the decades long process of the technological revolution and explains why the institutional changes and co-evolution of the technology domain and its users takes so long. Indeed, he points out that it is this change that defines "time" in an industrial revolution. I wonder what factors influence the time frame for different technological revolutions. It seems to me that the revolution of communications introduced by the telegraph was much quicker than that of the revolution of transportation introduced by the railroad, but why? There seems to be a perception that technology is disseminating more rapidly in the modern world than in the past; is that a factor? I would guess that the more extensive the revolution, the longer it will take.

This is another in a sequence of postings occasioned by Arthur's book:

Friday, July 23, 2010

A thought about thinking

I suspect that Homo sapiens has evolved to attribute order to agency. If a pattern appears then it must be that some thinking entity created that order. Thinking that way seems instinctive. When we argue from ignorance, we attribute things to the intervention of others, even spirits. The language of philosophers distinguish teleological systems (which are goal directed) from teleonomic systems (in which order appears without planning). Scientists have spent a great deal of effort to develop models that explain the appearance of order without planning:
  • Statistics explains how many random samples from a distribution are likely to show properties like that of the original distribution.
  • Feedback systems can maintain homeostasis without the intervention of a planner.
  • Evolutionary processes can present order without planning.
  • Indeed, our perceptual apparatus can make us believe we perceive order when it does not exist. Think of the visual illusion of the old woman-young woman when we perceive one or the other images in the same field; the mind imposes one of two ordered patterns in the perception of something which is in fact neither.
The languages I know are quite good in providing words like "planned" and "organized" to reflect teleological explanations for order, but are less useful in providing words to reflect teleonomic explanations. Indeed, many Americans believe that "evolution" requires planning.

It is increasingly believed by scientists that Homo sapiens has evolved to perceive others to be like us, and to attribute thought to others. We can not only guess what someone else is thinking, but what that person thinks another person is thinking, and so on. Of course, many of us will as a result attribute screw ups to deliberate action by others rather than to Murphy's law (that anything that can go wrong will go wrong). I have found it useful often to buck the trend and to assume that incompetence is more often the explanation of screw ups than ill will.

I suspect that our inherent tendency to attribute thoughts to others is linked to our tendency to assume teleology rather than teleonomy, and these are also linked to our lack of facilities in language to describe order appearing by natural rather processes rather than by the organization of an agent.

I suggest that it might be useful to have individual words for the following forms of real order:

  • accidental order
  • natural order (that arises from evolutionary, feedback and similar unplanned processes)
  • planned order
and reflecting the possibility of perceiving order where none exists
  • perceptually imposed order.
Any suggestions!

The Persistance Of Technological Gaps

My son just brought this comment from The Atlantic to my attention:
1500 AD technology is a particularly powerful predictor of per capita income today. 78 percent of the difference in income today between sub-Saharan Africa and Western Europe is explained by technology differences that already existed in 1500 AD – even BEFORE the slave trade and colonialism.
I have not read the original article, but I don't doubt the conclusion. That of course does not mean that countries that were best placed to exploit the "economic opportunities" of slavery and other conditions over the centuries did not profit from that exploitation.

There are also famous comparisons -- South Korea versus Ghana, South Korea versus Egypt in the last have century -- suggesting that countries starting in comparable technological conditions can progress very differently both technologically and economically. Indeed, the experience of all the "Tigers" suggests that rapid technological and economic progress is possible even while most countries retain their traditional places in the rankings.

Technology Deepening

Brian Arthur in his book, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, has a chapter on technology deepening. I usually think of the term "technology deepening" as related to the capacity of a country or an industry with respect to a technology. Thus as newly industrializing countries began to learn how to manufacture computers and electronic devices they began with relatively simple tasks for which they had a relative advantage due to their low labor costs. With time their industries improved the efficiency of production and the quality of their products, while they developed the capacity to produce more complex products, to innovate technologically and eventually to make independent improvements in product and production technology.

Arthur uses the term in a more restrictive sense, focusing especially on what he perceives to be a tendency for the technology for a specific class of devices to become more complex over time. Thus combat aircraft and commercial jet aircraft have become more and more complex over many decades, as have many if not all of their subsystems.

It occurs to me that although this is true of his examples, I can also think of examples in which related technologies have become simpler. While combat fighters have become more complex we have also seen the development of ultra light airplanes, unmanned areal vehicles, hang gliders, and even human powered aircraft capable of crossing the English channel and kite-like devices capable of carrying a person when towed by a boat or car. Indeed, Brazil and Indonesia stand out in my mind as having airplane manufacturing industries that developed by producing aircraft for civil aviation that focused on market niches for simpler craft to meet the needs of the commercial airlines of developing nations. All these devices are all less complex than the high performance military airplanes or the planes intended for long-range commercial airline flights.

What seems to me to have happened is that over decades the market for aircraft has expanded and diversified, with many different devices becoming available for different niche markets, each satisfying a different set of purposes.

In this respect, the theorists who have advanced concepts of the social construction of technology seem to provide a useful perspective. Perhaps the most famous example provided by this school is the evolution of the bicycle. It was originally construed as a device for use by athletic young men, and thus one saw bicycles that were difficult to ride, such as the one pictured above. Bicycles construed as suitable for a wider population were different in form, as were bicycles construed as toys or locomotion devices for children again were built differently. The latest edition of bicycles for the racers in the Tour de France, which are made of extremely high tech materials and extremely precise standards, are construed for the very extreme needs of a very small set of users.

Extending this approach, society has constructed a large number of different purposes for aircraft devices, and industry has responded by developing and commercializing products satisfying the social demands. The technology has improved in the sense that designers know much more about wing design, power plant design, control design, etc. The technology has also improved in that much more is known about how to manufacture aircraft (e.g. robots are available now for some functions, which was unthinkable in the early days of airplane manufacture). Some of the aircraft are simpler than those of the past, some more complex.

This is one of a series of postings occasioned by Arthur's book.

HIV/AIDS and the links between science and technology

Soon after the AIDS epidemic was recognized it became apparent that the world was faced with a major public health crisis. Millions of people, perhaps many millions were going to die and there were no known ways to deal with the disease. As it became apparent that HIV was a retro-virus that attacked the immune system, that it was silent for some time even after the victims could infect others, and that it was quite contagious the problems became more evident and of greater concern.

Scientific research not only identified the nature of the virus and the way that it functioned, but epidemiological research soon identified that the disease was concentrated in homosexual males, in intravenous drug users, in those who had sexual contacts with these first groups and in certain geographical areas. It became obvious that public health measures should include campaigns to promote safe sex, case finding, campaigns to reduce transmission by shared needles among intravenous drug users, prevention of HIV transmission via blood transfusions, and that these measures were of greatest urgency in places in Africa and Haiti were the epidemic was most advanced. Epidemiological techniques were quickly applied to measuring the effectiveness of these approaches.

At the time of the discovery of the epidemic, there were no pharmaceuticals available to cure viral infections, much less infections of RNA retro-viruses. Indeed, decades later there are still none. A major research program was undertaken to develop anti-retroviral drugs which was successful first in development of AZT in the early 1990s, then other agents, and later the antiviral combinations that are now in use. The development of these drugs was greatly enhanced by scientific research illuminating the nature of the virus, the cells and organs it attacked, the natural history of the disease progression in patients, and the infective mechanisms.

It was thought that it might be possible to develop a vaccine to prevent infection at least in a large percentage of those who received the vaccine. Epidemiological evidence that some people seemed to be in high risk groups and engaged in behavior that created risk who did not exhibit HIV infection added to the hope that a vaccine could be found. Of course, decades have passed in which billions of dollars have been spent to develop such a vaccine, and we still do not have one; the problem is that the traditional approaches which worked with so many viral diseases did not work in developing an effective HIV vaccine. Still the effort continues, but it continues based on a vastly increased understanding of the HIV virus, the immune system, the population dynamics of the virus in the infected individual, and the processes of immunization; all this understanding was developed by biomedical science, much of it by research specifically intended to support HIV vaccine development.

In short, there has been a very serious and well financed scientific program developed in support of the effort to develop effective technology to limit the extent of the HIV/AIDS epidemic and to ameliorate the effects of the disease in those infected. Indeed, some of the scientific evidence that has been accumulated arises directly out of efforts to develop pharmaceutical agents to detect, prevent and cure the disease. Technology development and science have been so closely intertwined as to make it difficult to draw boundaries between scientific research and technology development. Indeed, investigators have told me that they write a proposal for support for their work to emphasize basic research, applied research or technology development according to the preferences of the funding agency rather than the nature of the project which they fully intend to prosecute if funded.

This is one of a series of postings occasioned by reading Brian Arthur's book, The Nature of Technology: What it is and How it Evolves:

Thursday, July 22, 2010


I usually refrain from posting on issues about which I know no more than the general public, but I am breaking that rule to post on BP. The news media suggest not only that the huge oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico was from a BP well, but that BP has been the subject of many more actions due to unsafe conditions than other oil companies. There are also stories that BP has been less than forthcoming with information on the crisis.

There is also a story in the media that BP lobbied for the release of the Lockerbie bomber. Not coincidentally there is a lot of oil in Libya for which oil companies are competing. I take this quite personally as one of my friends was killed on Flight 103.

Now there is a move in Congress to remove subsidies for the production of ethanol. Note too that there are tariffs that protect American ethanol producers from the competition of Brazil's efficient ethanol industry. These moves would both promote use in the United States of a renewable fuel and save the consumer money. I have heard that BP is benefiting from a significant portion of the subsidies and protection of ethanol. I hope that BP lobbyists will be ignored if they seek to protect that transfer from the consumers and tax payers to BP coffers.

Thoughts on invention on reading Brian Arthur's book

Brian Arthur, in his book The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves has a chapter on invention. In the chapter he is focusing on major inventions rather than the innovations that accrue in the course of improvements and extensions of existing technologies. Thus he is focusing on important inventions, not the "me too" things that are given so frequent patent protection.

He suggests that these inventions can arise from thinking about new ways to approach a given problem or from a focus on a phenomenon. I suppose that the latter case might be either focusing on ways to use a newly discovered phenomenon or new ways to use an existing phenomenon.

I am not an inventor in the sense of producing transformative inventions, but some nearly 50 years ago I was asked to investigate whether a laser could be used for measuring distance. The laser was a new technology at the time. In my report saying yes, I mentioned that if you pointed a laser at a target, a missile with the right optics could navigate to that target much as a ship can navigate to a lighthouse on a dark night. I suspect this is an example of a phenomenon (the laser) leading to an application (missile guidance).

I also developed a then new algorithm for design of neural networks with a colleague that was the result of spending time on the problem of how to better develop computers to recognize patterns.

It occurs to me that sometimes new techniques can arise when two people meet, one with a problem and one with a "phenomenon" that may solve that problem. I had lunch years ago with a colleague who was interested in the design of reverse osmosis plants. He had developed a computer program to predict the throughput of a plant based on a number of parameters. I was doing my doctorate in operations research at the time, and saw immediately how hill climbing techniques could be applied to the optimization of the parameters using my friends model. I traced the method for him on a napkin and he went off happily to write the program. The result was a major publication, which I hope contributed to the development of the technology. There is a similar story of J.W. Cooley and John Tukey meeting, with Cooley concerned with better ways of doing fast fourier transforms, and Tukey having a method which he wrote out on the back of an envelope. The result was the Colley-Tukey algorithm.

As a manager of a research program I reviewed a great many project proposals that sought to find a phenomenon to solve a specific problem. Many of these focused on finding an appropriate diagnostic reagent or vaccine.

I am somewhat concerned with Arthur's differentiation of science and technology. For example, Penzias and Wilson discovered the Background Cosmic Radiation using technology developed to receive signals from a satellite. They discovered the background radiation as they were seeking to eliminate noise from their instrument to make it more effective as a detector. Where was the dividing line between the science (since the background cosmic radiation is a key discovery in cosmology) and the technology?

In my small way I discovered approaches to measure the information in pattern recognition systems leading to new statistical models and a better understanding of the errors made by people in classifications.

This is one of a series of postings occasioned by Arthur's book:

Per capita annual visitation rates for U.S. libraries

Nationwide, per capita visitation increased every year during the study period, growing steadily from 4.13 in 1997 to 4.91 in 2007, an increase of 19 percent.
 The availability of Internet terminals in public libraries rose sharply between 2000 and 2007, increasing by 90 percent on a per capita basis. This dramatic increase is one example of the way U.S. public libraries are expanding their range of services to meet patron demand.

Jump in Fall 2008 Enrollments of First-Time, Full-Time S&E Graduate Students

The NSF reports that foreign science and engineering enrollment in the United States recovered after the Bush administration policies imposed after 9/11 and began to grow again in the second half of the last decade. Good news! The students that stay increase our scientific and technological capacity leading to economic advantages as well as strengthening our educational system, and the ones who go back abroad build scientific and technological linkages, leading in turn to economic linkages advantageous to the United States.

Where does all the computer power go?

Source: "Tracking HIV Evolution," Regina McEnery, IAVIReport, Vol. 14 (3), May-June 2010

The HIV retro-virus is notoriously variable. There are as many as 100,000 variants of the HIV virus in a single infected individual. There are data on the viruses found in at least 250,000 people. It is important to understand the viral population infecting specific human populations as scientists seek to find HIV vaccines. Moreover, the evolutionary history of HIV provides an important input to understanding the source and evolution of the epidemic.

Super computers have been used for some time to understand the population genetics of HIV. I quote from the cited article:
 Last year, through a unique arrangement that allowed a handful of scientists access to LANL’s latest supercomputer, the Roadrunner (pictured below), before it was moved to a classified computing network, Korber, computer scientist Marcus Daniels, and physicist Tanmoy Bhattacharya compared the evolutionary history of more than 10,000 genetic sequences from more than 400 HIV-infected individuals to try and identify common features of the virus that is transmitted and establishes infection. This work was done in collaboration with the Center for HIV/AIDS Vaccine Immunology (CHAVI), of which Korber is an investigator. CHAVI collected the samples from both acutely and chronically HIV-infected individuals from around the world. The samples were used to construct the world’s largest phylogenetic tree, with the end goal of identifying similarities in HIV sequences from samples taken during acute and chronic infection. A single HIV-infected person can have 100,000 different variants of the virus circulating throughout their body, so understanding how these variants branch off from the initially transmitted virus is important for the development of vaccine candidates. To build such a tree, LANL researchers needed Roadrunner‘s processing capability. Roadrunner does 1.042 petaflops, or a quadrillion calculations per second, using 122,400 processors. To gauge the power of Roadrunner, consider this: It took a single week to run a calculation on Roadrunner that the fastest supercomputer a decade ago needed 20 years to complete. 
The computer shown above is a multi-million dollar device. How many developing nations have that kind of computing power? How many of them could or would devote that kind of power to understanding the nature of the HIV virus? This is an indication of a digital divide!

Incidentally, this is one of a series of postings titled "Where does all the computer power go?" You should be able to track the  series using the search function, inputting the title.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Classification and Technology

Classification is the basis of science. There are two kinds of classification errors, classifying dissimilar things in the same category and classifying similar things in different categories. Think about mosquitoes. They are small and hard to see. Modern use of DNA analysis has demonstrated that what had been previously classed as single species by visual inspection were actually multiple, non-interbreeding species. What does this have to do with technology? Consider the possibility that only one of several sibling species is actually an important vector of malaria. What is the possibility that one would test methods for the control of the species, find that the methods reduce the population of a sibling species but fail to reduce the infection rate of the disease.

Cancer seems to be diagnosed largely on the basis of the location of a tumor, but different tumors in the same organ may be biologically and biochemically distinct. Medical researchers are now finding treatments that are very effective against sub-categories of cancers previously not distinguished one from another.

Of course, we sometimes find that the same treatment will succeed against a variety of diseases. This is the very meaning of "broad band" antibiotics -- they work against a variety of bacterial agents.

Thus in medical and public health technology it is important to have good classifications as to what remedy to apply to what class of situations. I would suggest that classifications are part of technological knowledge in these circumstances. The same would apply for soil classifications as a basis for soil amendments in agriculture, pest and disease classifications in veterinary medicine and treatment of crop diseases, and other areas.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

A Thought About Engineering and Technology

Brian Arthur in his book, The Nature of Technology: What It Is and How It Evolves, has a chapter on engineering. The term "engineer" can refer to a member of one of the engineering professions or it can be a verb for a kind of manipulation. Arthur seems to use the term in a slightly different fashion, focusing on professional producers and users of technology rather than artisanal or journeyman producers and users of technology. I presume that he would say that the medical profession "engineers" medical technology, while others would consider engineering to apply primarily to the technology used by civil, mechanical, electrical, chemical and other engineering professions.

I am reminded of the traditional distinction between doctors of medicine (who were gentlemen educated in Latin) and surgeons (who came from the plebeian barber surgeons). Even today British surgeons are addressed as Mr. rather than Dr. reflecting that old distinction between medical practitioners who work with their hands and those who do not. There was a similar difference between French and English civil engineers in the 19th century; the French were trained through institutions of tertiary education while the English learned their profession through apprenticeship with senior civil engineers. The English were reportedly proud of their practical, hands-on approach.

It is interesting that some of my engineer colleagues are now using the term "science, technology and engineering" as if engineering is not fundamentally technology.

Arthur talks about electrical and chemical engineering as professions that emerged with the emergence of new technological domains that required a scientific background. They may be contrasted with military and civil engineering which were the earliest fields to emerge as requiring professional engineers. Of course, all engineers today are produced in colleges of engineering, have a grounding in science, and approach their work with strong analytic capabilities and a "toolkit" of engineering knowledge and technique.

It occurs to me that there is a significant difference in engineering practice according to the scale of the output. That would be typified by the range from the engineer building a road or a dam to the engineer designing a new personal computer to be sold as a commodity. I suspect that this is indeed a continuum, with intermediate stages. Thus there are engineers working to produce high performance race cars or space craft of which only a small number of units will be produced.

I think Arthur would agree that broadly defined, a road or a dam could be termed a device. In both cases the engineer would be concerned with the means of production of the desired device, albeit a construction project in the civil engineering case versus a production line in the electronics engineering project.

The civil engineer who is planning a road or a railroad is using his engineering synthesis skills to plan the construction, and is making choices for the bedding and surface of the route as well as for the cuts, tunnels, and grades to be used. Failing to recognize the importance of the technical choices to be made and the technology involved in building and maintaining civil works may be part of the reason that developing nations so often fail to develop adequate cadres of civil engineers.

Note also that there is a difference between engineers working in the public sector versus those working in the private sector. Both may have been trained in the same schools and have passed the same professional examinations, but the civil servant is doing engineering to achieve a public purpose while the the engineer in a commercial organization is of course concerned with the profits of the firms investors.

A strong engineering profession is fundamental for developing a strong infrastructure of roads, railroads, canals, airports, ports, electrical power systems, potable water and sewerage systems, and irrigation. These systems are critical to the economic productivity of the entire society. So too, in these days, a strong engineering profession is critical not only to manufacturing but also to technologically sophisticated industries such as medicine and financial services. In all these fields, professional engineers are needed both for their technological mastery but also for the professionalization that breeds responsibility and ethical conduct.

I have suggested that UNESCO strengthen its support for engineering, a support that would include emphasis on engineering education and for engineering professional societies (as well as professional certification and regulation of the professions). Such an effort would contribute to UNESCO's program supporting capacity development in less developed nations, and indeed only UNESCO among the UN agencies has a charter that would allow such a broad support of engineering capacity development. (Of course, the UN system should coordinate for such support, with FAO helping to support agricultural engineering, WHO helping to support biomedical engineering, the ITU helping to support electronics engineering, etc.)