Thursday, March 5, 2009

Marriage of art and craft

March 5, 2009

By Andy Ho

A RECENT report had Singapore topping the global innovation rankings, with the United States placed sixth.

However, most academic studies have the US in pole position. The survey in question was carried out by a non-profit organisation founded in 2006 by the lobbying arm of the IT industry in the US, so its motivations may be open to question.

Could Singapore have a more innovative culture than the US? At a recent seminar on how technology evolves, a speaker diplomatically evaded this question. Reading between the lines, however, his answer was probably that Singapore could not.

The speaker, Dr Brian Arthur, said that 'novel species' of technologies do not emerge through a process of small differences in technologies, accumulating over time in a Darwinian process of selection and adaptation. For instance, radar did not emerge over time through the accumulation of small differences among integrated circuit technologies.

Dr Arthur, visiting professor at the Nanyang Technological University's business school, argued that new technologies are constructed from existing ones - like snapping lego blocks together to give us new structures. Thus, Frank Whittle, who first conceived of jet propulsion in 1930, did so by marrying internal combustion technology with turbine technology.

This being so, the innovations that a culture can come up with will depend on its existing store of technologies. Compare a material culture consisting of stone and skins with one consisting of pulleys and steam power: Steam locomotives could not have emerged from the former.

If new technologies emerge on the basis of existing technologies, then technology is essentially self-creating, Dr Arthur claimed. First there were X-rays. Then came computers. Combined, they led to CT scans that imaged bone structures and MRI scans that imaged soft tissue in high definition. This is how new technologies 'bootstrap' themselves into existence, Dr Arthur theorised.

Furthermore, no known society has evolved great technologies without already being suffused with a deep culture of basic science, he observed. People must have many degrees of freedom to pursue scientific endeavours and society must invest in basic science, not applied science, without expecting dollar returns any time soon. In a word, it takes lots of time to get great technologies.

If we think of groups of technologies - biotech, imaging, computer graphics and so on - as different languages, then innovations are utterances in those languages. But for new and unexpected technologies to emerge by self-combinations, the speakers must know the 'grammar' - which is basic science. This is because new combinations of technologies are like poems. Unless you have mastered a language and acquired 'deep craft', you cannot aspire to be a poet. And just as poets must generally endure genteel poverty for years with patience, it takes time to produce great innovations in technology.

For technologies to combine so that new species of technology can emerge, one more thing is needed, which Dr Arthur rather infelicitously called 'the capture of phenomena'. For instance, there hasn't been any headway towards teleportation because there is no known phenomenon in real life akin to it to capture. So we cannot begin to think about what technologies could, if melded together correctly, teleport real people.

In contrast, we know that nuclear fusion is happening in the sun all the time, which is why it gives out heat and light. Thus, what inventors need to think through is which existing technologies may, if combined well, capture and stabilise the phenomenon called nuclear fusion so as to produce power in predictable and controllable ways for human use.

Or think of how one is to process DNA which exists in such tiny amounts locked up within cell nuclei. The technology to tease apart the double strands of the DNA helix and identify the parts holding the strands together was well-established. But it took Dr Kerry Mullis to think of capturing the phenomena of xeroxing and chain reactions to make repeated copies of mirror images of the strands, thus causing the quantities of any DNA to rise exponentially in-vitro.

In 1983, he invented the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) which - together with digital imaging and intensive computational technologies - now enables even whole genomes of human beings to be sequenced. Although Dr Mullis shunned academic life after his PhD to write fiction, run a bakery and windsurf, he still managed to create PCR, for which he shared the 1993 Nobel Prize in chemistry.

But whether we are concerned about which technologies to marry or what phenomenon to capture, the culture must have 'deep craft' in basic science, Dr Arthur reiterated. Think about a cordon bleu culture of cooking. That won't emerge in Singapore just by printing a whole lot of cordon bleu cookbooks to drop all over the island from the air.

Deep craft in cookery - or anything else, for that matter - cannot be inculcated so easily. People must first value the craft highly, love it and desperately want to acquire it for themselves. Then only, after perhaps generations, will the craft become part of a culture's warp and woof.

So Singaporeans need time, space and freedom to develop a deep culture of science. Only then will we be as fecund in producing new technologies as China once was and the US now is.

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