Characterizing Technical Progress

Thread Starter

Ya’akov

Joined Jan 27, 2019
6,626
What I am talking abut might not be immediately clear but if not I beg your indulgence because I believe it will come into focus as you get moire information. I would really appreciate constructive input on this.

I began thinking about how technology that was current when I was younger is now characterized as “ancient”. While this is certainly an exaggeration, it is indicative of the experience of the speaker and that struck me. When I think of “ancient technology”, what comes to mind are things like primitive water wheels or early windlasses, etc. But today, the PSTN telephone seems “ancient” to average people.

This provoked thoughts of how for any given time span from the past, the same span would include more technological progress per year now than it did then. Akin to “dog years”, I would like to be able to calculate (and it will have to be almost purely speculative, but at least plausible) “progress years”. That is, some way to calculate the equivalence of time vs. progress for two different time ranges.

It is immediately obvious that, unlike the simple coefficient to derive dog years since technology itself lead to acceleration of the process (see: Moore’s Law). So there has to be some accommodation for this effect, and, while I am not immediately concentrating on the math, I want to think about the variables that would underlie it.

In particular, just now I am thinking about the punctuated timeline of technology that would possibly mark inflections in the curve. I have a prospective list, and it would be very nice if you could give some feedback about it. The items on this list are intended to be top tier enabling technologies. It is absolutely the case that various factors lead to each of these, they don’t stand alone. But on this list they do stand for punctuations in the historical timeline of technologies that dramatically changed the world and technology as an idea.

The list may have problems with sequence, items might be of a different class than they should be, or items may be missing. Proposed amendments and additions, and the rationale for them, are especially welcome—but anything that comes to mind is desirable.

Below is a sketchy framework for the idea that I am starting with.

Water Power
Steam Power
Electric Power
Telegraphy/Telephony
Vacuum Tube
Radio
Transistor
Integrated Circuit
Microcomputer
CNC Machine Tools
Mobile Telephony/Wireless Data Networks
Additive Manufacturing
 

BobTPH

Joined Jun 5, 2013
5,809
I see that you have microcomputer, but not computer. The latter is not possible without the former. I guess it should come before or after transistor, depending on when they became important.
 

sparky 1

Joined Nov 3, 2018
731
One definition that includes global definition is summarized by this statement.
Economic growth is an increase in the quantity and quality of the economic goods and services that a society produces.
In times past characterization of technical progress followed a pattern , in medicine or in the sector of biology the invention of the microscope sharply increased the rate of technical progress. This is how a market could be studied but no longer follows any predictive course.

The political ambition is now projected into and influences the financial market that might allow an elite sponsored invention.
The real characterization being controlled by the powers that be. The chosen technology goes through fake process called the Wall Street casino.
 
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strantor

Joined Oct 3, 2010
6,112
Water Power
Steam Power
Electric Power
Telegraphy/Telephony
Vacuum Tube
Radio
Transistor
Integrated Circuit
Microcomputer
CNC Machine Tools
Mobile Telephony/Wireless Data Networks
Additive Manufacturing
I think your story is starting on chapter 10. The bedrock elements of measurement and mechanical systems are missing. How do you harness the power of water without gears, shafts, etc. And how do you make gears, shafts, etc without measurement devices? And how do you make measurement devices without measurements? And how can you have measurements without basic math? How about written language? Each of these advancements took quite a long time to happen and are therefore worthy of mention IMO. The time between the wheel and the wood screw I think is longer (edit: 15 times longer) than the time between the wood screw and the Tesla car.

Also there is an element that I don't see being accounted for, and I don't know how to account for: necessity. As the mother of invention, kinda important. Much of our technical advancement that lent lessons learned to all the next technologies, was gained in pursuit of a better understanding of astronomy. This remains a large driving force but now the bigger necessity is consumerism, and subject to wild whims.
 
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Thread Starter

Ya’akov

Joined Jan 27, 2019
6,626
I think your story is starting on chapter 10. The bedrock elements of measurement and mechanical systems are missing. How do you harness the power of water without gears, shafts, etc. And how do you make gears, shafts, etc without measurement devices? And how do you make measurement devices without measurements? And how can you have measurements without basic math? How about written language? Each of these advancements took quite a long time to happen and are therefore worthy of mention IMO. The time between the wheel and the wood screw I think is longer (edit: 15 times longer) than the time between the wood screw and the Tesla car.

Also there is an element that I don't see being accounted for, and I don't know how to account for: necessity. As the mother of invention, kinda important. Much of our technical advancement that lent lessons learned to all the next technologies, was gained in pursuit of a better understanding of astronomy. This remains a large driving force but now the bigger necessity is consumerism, and subject to wild whims.
This is a reasonable criticism. I had considered it already, and for me measurement and math falls into necessary but insufficient to make the kind of societal change that I am trying to characterize. Math was applied to managing commerce and calendars, and was important in that way. But it wasn’t until the advent of real science that math became something that could be applied to punctuate progress.

As far as “chapter 10” goes, yes, I am arbitrarily choosing a place in history when the superpostion of things like math, metallurgy, and other things create a distinctive change in the rate of progress. Do you think there was some point when math or anything else I’ve neglected managed to change the rate of progress in technology in the way each of these did.

Note that I also feel an impulse to include the shift from hunter-gatherer to farmer which is clearly an inflection but I can’t quite fit it into the curve I am working on. For me, the initiation of this change acceleration—no doubt in a somewhat arbitrary way—happened with the industrial revolution. I included water power because is was a harbinger of harnessing rotary motion provided by something other than human or animal power to increase productivity. The change it made was to allow for the quick milling of grains which previously would occupy one person for 3 hours a day, or more if the household was larger than normal.
 

MrChips

Joined Oct 2, 2009
27,179
I'm thinking, how does one measure progress and improvements? One would have to devise a suitable metric for this.

In society we can measure life expectancy and infant mortality rates.

The obvious ones that come to mind that are measurable:

  1. transistor size and circuit density
  2. RAM memory size and density
  3. digital camera display size and resolution
  4. monitor or TV screen size and resolution
  5. microscope and telescope resolution
  6. nano technology
  7. computer processing power
  8. PCB trace width and density
  9. battery energy density

Other thoughts, some debatable:

  1. container vessel size
  2. cruise ship size
  3. internal combustion efficiency
  4. number of electric vehicles
  5. global electricity consumption
  6. total miles driven
  7. computer, smart phone uptake and usage
  8. internet bandwidth and usage
  9. number of hits or likes on certain platforms
  10. incidences of robots
  11. application of AI
  12. number of specific medical procedures performed
  13. global consumption of specific foods and drinks
  14. global consumption of anything
 

Thread Starter

Ya’akov

Joined Jan 27, 2019
6,626
There also needs to be something about mechanization in manufacturing.
I am covering non-CNC machine tools under the category of steam power. There are additional cases under electric power. I’d have to do more research to see if automatic machinery fits with what I am trying to do—though I suspect ti does indeed. Making small things on an industrial scale-mass production—is a very important change.

There is also the particular case of the assembly line which seems to be important.

My struggle is to identify when clusters of things coalesced into a force for accelerated technical progress.

Thanks, I have to think about this piece more.
 

Thread Starter

Ya’akov

Joined Jan 27, 2019
6,626
I'm thinking, how does one measure progress and improvements? One would have to devise a suitable metric for this.

In society we can measure life expectancy and infant mortality rates.

The obvious ones that come to mind that are measurable:

  1. transistor size and circuit density
  2. RAM memory size and density
  3. digital camera display size and resolution
  4. monitor or TV screen size and resolution
  5. microscope and telescope resolution
  6. nano technology
  7. computer processing power
  8. PCB trace width and density
  9. battery energy density

Other thoughts, some debatable:

  1. container vessel size
  2. cruise ship size
  3. internal combustion efficiency
  4. number of electric vehicles
  5. global electricity consumption
  6. total miles driven
  7. computer, smart phone uptake and usage
  8. internet bandwidth and usage
  9. number of hits or likes on certain platforms
  10. incidences of robots
  11. application of AI
  12. number of specific medical procedures performed
  13. global consumption of specific foods and drinks
  14. global consumption of anything
While all of this is reflexive where cause and effect are quite muddled, I am trying to find things that are effects which exceed the causes that effected them and result in synergistic effects. So, everything on your lists are significant, but to succeed in a high level characterization will require a somewhat arbitrary clumping of things into something nameable that contains them.

For example, LSI (which I am currently lumping into integrated circuits, lead to the advent of microcomputers, which in turn lead to a mass application of electronic computers thanks to both smaller size and lower cost. This in turn lead to better machine tools, etc.

None of this is airtight, it is leaky everywhere. I am just hoping to get a view of it that will allow for a decent picture of change and possibly provide new insights into the properties of progress accelerating things.
 

Thread Starter

Ya’akov

Joined Jan 27, 2019
6,626
One definition that includes global definition is summarized by this statement.
Economic growth is an increase in the quantity and quality of the economic goods and services that a society produces.
In times past characterization of technical progress followed a pattern , in medicine or in the sector of biology the invention of the microscope sharply increased the rate of technical progress. This is how a market could be studied but no longer follows any predictive course.

The political ambition is now projected into and influences the financial market that might allow an elite sponsored invention.
The real characterization being controlled by the powers that be. The chosen technology goes through fake process called the Wall Street casino.
All of this is important to consider but is a diversion from the main point of my list which is to identify punctuated changes in the rate of progress based on identifiable technology milestones. As I write these responses it strikes me that I am really looking for high intensity systems, about which we can reasonably say are the nexus of many other technologies (which is the same meaning as in the response mentioning cause and effect, but stated diiferently).
 

Thread Starter

Ya’akov

Joined Jan 27, 2019
6,626
I see that you have microcomputer, but not computer. The latter is not possible without the former. I guess it should come before or after transistor, depending on when they became important.
I wanted to put ”computer” on the list but because before microcomputers, computers were confined to large applications in commerce and industry I wasn’t sure it was a fit.

Thinking about it, computers (minis and mainframes) were used for two important functions:

  1. Information Processing
  2. Simulation

Those two functions did have a huge impact on both commerce (including technologies that followed), science, and engineering. So there is a strong case. I have to think about where it belongs and what is under its umbrella. Because the microcomputer is temporally distant from the computer, I think for purposes of the list it is not just a kind of computer.
 

Thread Starter

Ya’akov

Joined Jan 27, 2019
6,626
I'm thinking, how does one measure progress and improvements? One would have to devise a suitable metric for this.

In society we can measure life expectancy and infant mortality rates.

The obvious ones that come to mind that are measurable:

  1. transistor size and circuit density
  2. RAM memory size and density
  3. digital camera display size and resolution
  4. monitor or TV screen size and resolution
  5. microscope and telescope resolution
  6. nano technology
  7. computer processing power
  8. PCB trace width and density
  9. battery energy density

Other thoughts, some debatable:

  1. container vessel size
  2. cruise ship size
  3. internal combustion efficiency
  4. number of electric vehicles
  5. global electricity consumption
  6. total miles driven
  7. computer, smart phone uptake and usage
  8. internet bandwidth and usage
  9. number of hits or likes on certain platforms
  10. incidences of robots
  11. application of AI
  12. number of specific medical procedures performed
  13. global consumption of specific foods and drinks
  14. global consumption of anything
Rereading this, I am not sure I understood it properly. Are you saying the things on your lists might be metrics, or part of some larger index, concerning progress?

If so, I agree there needs to be some measurable aspect of technology that provides a basis for comparison. The idea is very good. Somehow though, it must be as applicable to the water wheel and steam engine as it is to the modern computer. This feels very difficult but it also seems, to my intuition, doable.

It requires looking at your list and finding what the general class various items fall into. I have a feeling it is going to involve productivity, though I wish it was leisure time as we were told these great “space age” advancements would bring.
 

MrChips

Joined Oct 2, 2009
27,179
Agreed. Technological advances and societal progress might be poles apart.

Hence for example, a measure of leisure time might be number of daily working hours.
Does global cell phone production and usage reflect human progress?
How about global consumption of wine, beer, alcohol and cigarettes?
Global consumption of cannabis is increasing. What does that tell us?

1656856104217.png

You might be going down a rabbit hole.
 

crutschow

Joined Mar 14, 2008
30,824
I've often mused on the fact that, for most of human history, the technical/scientific advancements, were hardly perceptible from one generation to the next, whereas in the last few centuries, the advancements seem to be rather exponential.
For example, it is amazing that we went from the first heavier-than-air crude flying machine to landing on the moon in little more than 50 years.

But perhaps the early advancements were also exponential, just at the very low end of the exponential.
 

Thread Starter

Ya’akov

Joined Jan 27, 2019
6,626
I've often mused on the fact that, for most of human history, the technical/scientific advancements, were hardly perceptible from one generation to the next, whereas in the last few centuries, the advancements seem to be rather exponential.
For example, it is amazing that we went from the first heavier-than-air crude flying machine to landing on the moon in little more than 50 years.

But perhaps the early advancements were also exponential, just at the very low end of the exponential.
I think until the Bronze age, it was pretty linear, though maybe even after that.

 

nsaspook

Joined Aug 27, 2009
10,426
The ability to predict the future (farming, building) using past and present data was the prime driver of advanced technology in history. Technical progress is the the application of science. That scientific data comes from Metrology.

Without precise Metrology and the SPC methods using that metrology the technological progress of today would be impossible. Metrology is, the oldest science.

https://msc-conf.com/history-of-metrology/

HISTORY OF MEASUREMENT
The history of measurement is the history of mankind. Since man slew his first animal and built his first fire, his progress has been built on the foundation of measurement. The rate of his progress throughout history has been closely related to his progress in the science of measurement.
...
 
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