Saturday, February 18, 2023

Hedgehog Innovation

According to Archilochus, the fox knows many things, but a hedgehog knows one big thing.

In his article on AI and the threat to middle class jobs, Larry Elliot focuses on machine learning and robotics.

AI stands to be to the fourth industrial revolution what the spinning jenny and the steam engine were to the first in the 18th century: a transformative technology that will fundamentally reshape economies.

When people write about earlier waves of technological innovation, they often focus on one technology in particular - for example a cluster of innovations associated with the adoption of electrification in a wide range of industrial contexts.

While AI may be an important component of the fourth industrial revolution, it is usually framed as an enabler rather than the primary source of transformation. Furthermore, much of the Industry 4.0 agenda is directed at physical processes in agriculture, manufacturing and logistics, rather than clerical and knowledge work. It tends to be framed as many intersecting innovations rather than one big thing.

There is also a question about the pace of technological change. Elliott notes a large increase in the number of AI patents, but as I've noted previously I don't regard patent activity as a reliable indicator of innovation. The primary purpose of a patent is not to enable the inventor to exploit something, it is to prevent anyone else freely exploiting it. And Ezrachi and Stucke provide evidence of other ways in which tech companies stifle innovation.

However the AI Index Report does contain other measures of AI innovation that are more convincing.

 AI Index Report (Stanford University, March 2022)

Larry Elliott, The AI industrial revolution puts middle-class workers under threat this time (Guardian, 18 February 2023)

Ariel Ezrachi and Maurice Stucke, How Big-Tech Barons Smash Innovation and how to strike back (New York: Harper, 2022)

Wikipedia: Fourth Industrial Revolution, The Hedgehog and the Fox

Related Posts: Evolution or Revolution (May 2006), It's Not All About (July 2008), Hedgehog Politics (October 2008), The New Economics of Manufacturing (November 2015), What does a patent say? (February 2023)

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