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“It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn't feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.” – Neil Armstrong (1930-2012)

Fresh Reads from the Science 'o sphere!

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Evolution Or Revolution?

The reality is that the “Aha” moments of industrial creation are preceded by critical moments far less heralded. Behind and beside every big-name inventor are typically lots of others whom history forgot, or never knew. And it’s unusual that an innovation is created in a vacuum (including the vacuum, which itself claims several progenitors).

- Matt Richtel (
Edison ...Wasn’t He the Guy Who Invented Everything?)

About two weeks ago, I had an interesting conversation with a fellow grad student, which I thought I ought to share with you here since it's a lot of fun.

But before I delve into the details, let me first make a big assumption about people in general:

Nobody aims to become a footnote in history.

(although most of us won't even get that...)

I think we can all agree on this.

This is especially so for innovators such as scientists, inventors and artists - people who aim to make a significant impact on the world with their new ideas.

The important question here is: can we predict what sort of new ideas will make a massive impact?

In other words, is there any difference between evolutionary ideas and revolutionary ideas?

Let's go into the conversation!

During lunch, my friend postulated that people who produce the truly original ideas tend to end up benefiting less from their innovations than the people who later work on refining such ideas.

He gave the example of Henry Ford, who invented the motor car, and noticed that today manufacturers that apply incremental improvements to the original car design, such as Toyota, are reaping far more profits than Henry Ford ever did.

I noted that Henry Ford did not actually invent the motor car - what he invented was the assembly line production method. The motor car was invented decades earlier by a number of independent European inventors.

However, his basic point remains plausible. Those early tinkerers probably did not earn much recognition or money from their pioneering efforts, and certainly nowhere as much as Toyota does today.

Still, I did not agree with his view because of two main reasons:

1. Firstly, it's not fair to compare individual innovators with giant corporations.

Some early innovators who spark off a new industry or a new field of knowledge will become well rewarded for their efforts. It's a small beginning, but at the individual level, they will already be better off than their contemporaries.

Many years later, huge corporations may arise from their basic idea. By that time, a company employee may develop an "incremental change" that results in billion-dollar profits for the organization. However, depending on how the profit-sharing is negotiated, that individual employee may not receive a significantly larger reward than the original inventor.

2. Secondly (and more importantly), I doubt there is any inherent difference between an original idea and an incremental improvement to begin with.

I don't believe you can tell beforehand which specific idea will hit the big time.

Most (maybe all) new ideas are integrated, reconfigured or inspired by pre-existing ideas.

Eventually as time passes, a few of these will be considered "revolutionary". This is mainly decided by environmental factors such as success at the academic arena or the market. What is initially an "incremental change" can later be deemed a "truly original idea" and vice versa, depending on its social impact.

But my friend protested that surely there is a distinction between original ideas and incremental changes.

Isn't it obvious, take for example a cell phone, that the invention of the product itself is more fundamental than any modifications done to it?

Let me reformulate his question into two clearer aspects:

Is the invention of physical products more likely to be considered original/revolutionary?

Intuitively it makes sense that the invention of a physical product itself would be more revolutionary than changes in its characteristics, function or application.

However, there are numerous counterexamples in history.

Once again, the motor car is such a case. When motor cars were first invented, they were hand-assembled by the tinkerers themselves in cottage industries. As a result they were produced in small quantities, were extremely expensive and often unreliable and unsafe.

Only a few rich, brave souls were willing to try this new form of transportation.

Henry Ford's invention of the assembly line can be simply considered as an "incremental improvement" to the way that motor cars are built. But due to this more efficient and standardized production method, the quality of their products rose in consistency and dropped in price.

The result is that even his factory workers could afford to buy the motor car for themselves. This had such a revolutionary social impact that today many people still mistakenly attribute the invention of the motor car to Henry Ford.

Similarly, in the case of the cell phone, the original Motorola "brick" was an amalgamation of pre-existing technologies in an expensive, bulky package.

Is it a truly original invention? Telephones already exist, as do walkie-talkies and other forms of wireless communications.

Later efforts of innovators (from Motorola, Nokia and other companies) would be crucial to modify this rich man's toy into a more practical and affordable tool, thus improving the market potential of the product.

However it is ultimately up to the market and society to evaluate whether a product is revolutionary, or simply a kind of incremental improvement to an existing idea.

In the example of the cell phone, the social impact was so huge that the invention is often considered as a revolutionary change in personal communications.

This cannot be foretold ahead of time.

Not convinced?

Here, let me show you another portable product that was emerging during the same time period as the cell phone.

Would you consider the pocket TV to be a revolutionary product?

Is something that is technically more difficult more likely to be considered original/revolutionary?

In many cases, creating the first version of a physical product is technically, or even conceptually more difficult than making changes on it later.

But does that make it more "original" than later innovations?

Take for example, the invention of the transistor, arguably one of the most important inventions of the 20th century. It was also one of the most technically difficult, requiring intense efforts of brilliant physicists, chemists and engineers to develop.

Yet today very few people know (or care about) who invented the transistor.

In contrast, you'd be hard pressed to find anyone who doesn't know the inventor of the first personal computer.

"Steve Jobs, right?"

Not really.

What I'm saying is, whether an idea is considered original or not doesn't depend on its technical difficulty.

You can think of a personal computer simply as an incremental improvement to the corporate minicomputers of their era. Most of the basic parts are still there, except that they are smaller, less powerful and cheaper.

You can also think of the internet simply as an incremental improvement to computers. After all, the internet is merely a glorified assembly of computers, cables and software, none of which are totally new inventions.

However, I think you would agree that the advent of the personal computer and the internet are revolutionary advances in technology, no less original or important than the transistor that made them possible.

That reminds me of something else...

I can't resist slipping in an illustration from evolutionary developmental biology.

Recently, I read a book entitled "The Evolution of Developmental Pathways".

In his book, writer Adam Wilkins made a curious original insight. Evo-devo is focused on finding differences in the developmental pathways of different organisms. But one of the main causes for the emergence of this new field was the realization that animals share many common developmental components at the molecular level.

For example the discovery of the Hox gene family demonstrated that the genes involved in creating the body shape of the animal are highly conserved from flies to human beings, with only minor differences across species.

This suggests that small changes at the DNA level (incremental change) can result in visibly significant changes to the overall shape of the animal (revolutionary effect), without the need for new genetic circuits (technical difficulty).

Heh, that was definitely an over-extended analogy, but it's something fun to think about.


So, is there any compelling reason to be an innovator?

After all, it seems like there is no reliable way of predicting if your efforts will eventually pay off, no matter if the idea seems revolutionary or not.

Still, I doubt it's an accident that the most innovative nations in the world are also the ones with a huge social and economic impact on the rest of the world.

Perhaps it's impossible to know the outcome of any single, specific idea.

But a society that is constantly generating novel ideas and values originality and creativity stands a better chance of reaping the benefits of those few good ideas that succeed big time.

You are thinking: "Yeah whatever. I don't need to have any sort of new ideas in order to succeed big time. All I need is to get an MBA and climb up the Toyota corporate ladder until I reach the top. Then I'll just sit in my office and watch you innovators rake in the billions for me while I impress everyone with my friendly smile."


You just won the internets.


gmatei said...

Evolutionary idea = 2%. Ex the current software model.
Revolutionary idea = many times, for example I work to a fundamental invention in software, with advantages 100:1!!!!! More about on
Sincerely Gheorghe Matei (Romania)

Anonymous said...

Alan Turing
The first programmers of enaic are all women :)
Oops Seem like Edison work in a patent office
Einstein (swiss) Too.
The popular misconceptions (That they are genius) are propagated by American Media(noticed they are both Americans).
And that why 1% ingenuity 99% perspiration != Truth.
It's just a quote by a plagiarizing talent :)

Ryan said...

Brilliant article. Some great points, especially liked the start, “Nobody aims to become a footnote in history. (although most of us won't even get that...”
How very true.


Lim Leng Hiong said...

To Gmatei,

Hi, and welcome to Fresh Brainz!

To Anonymous 3:34,

Wow, I didn't know that about ENIAC! History can be so one-sided.

Yes, I agree that the American media prefers to focus on the individual themselves - no doubt that Edison is smart and Einstein brilliant, but intelligence and creativity play only a partial role in their eventual success.

Ingenuity is definitely necessary; what I hope to show in this post is that we shouldn't look down on "incremental improvements" - nobody can really tell if these will make a big difference someday.

To Ryan,

Welcome to Fresh Brainz! There is a deep human desire to beat the odds and to rock the boat - those who succeed are elevated to the level of celebrities. For better or worse, only a few people will enter the public consciousness as the poster child of revolutionary change, while a far larger number of people who were pivotal in creating those changes will be completely forgotten.

Fresh Brainz will always be a special place for the second best, the failures, the bizarre and the utterly insane. Their stories constitute an indispensible part of the human condition.