Science, technology and commercialization

In my last post, I randomly talked about why most of young students have no interest studying STEM subjects/degrees or being scientists/engineers. I blamed a little bit about our over-commercialized society. Yes, our society obeys too much about what is called “natural market” or “supply-demand balance”. In this post, I am going to talk about more about scientific research and commercialization; I would reflect on a common idea, that is “good scientific research achievements should be those that can be commercialized”.

After the end of the Cold War, the whole world has stepped into a “pure business” society. Commercial values are regarded as the only standard to measure an object. And the outcome is our society pays less and less attention to scientific research. Because those financiers and businessmen don’t have enough patience to wait for money. Those products that can generate huge commercial values must be those that have huge crowd of consumers. That is the reason why the most successful new companies are mostly internet service companies. It has been a declining trend in the past few decades: a century ago, the startups like Thomas Edison’s company invented countless new products that are still influencing our life today and their inventions were totally new to the world; in 1960s to 1980s, startups such as Microsoft and Apple tended to apply the science or technology which had already existed just to make those existed stuff work better; and after the beginning of 21st century, the startups are mostly like Facebook, Twitter and Amazon; they didn’t invent any new scientific or engineering achievements; they just use internet, an existed science or technology, to decorate our life with better methods to communicate or show off, which is merely a type of service. When the society only respect commercial value, the result is we enhance more on service innovation but don’t have patience for true scientific and engineering breakthrough; because it takes money and time.

In the last post, I analyzed why most of the breakthroughs of science main took place during the Cold War age. Because neither USSR or USA paid so much attention to the commercial value of their inventions. If USSR had asked about how to use Sputnik to make money, they would rather not launch such a “waste”. Meanwhile, Apollo 11 was a waste of money as well if we only regard it as a commodity. In other word, if the Cold War were a commercial society like today, we wouldn’t have seen people landing on the moon or the Voyagers passing Neptune by.

In the retrospect of human history, a scientific or engineering breakthrough could not have any business value when they appeared at the beginning. Because science and technology are mostly far more advanced than the contemporary industrial demand; only after a new scientific theory or engineering technology has been explored, could a new type of industrial production method which is related to the scientific discovery be exploited. Have a look at our story of all industrial revolutions since 1750s: Newton wrote the Principia first, then businessmen and engineers applied his theory to build and sell machines; Ørsted, Faraday and Coulomb started the exploration of circuit and electronics, then the industries various from electricity generator to today’s microelectronics spring out; Only after the physicists such as Feynman initiated the research of quantum physics, could we today start a new business or industry called “quantum computing”. Could we imagine that Newton, Faraday and Feynman etc did their research because they had already seen that their achievements could be commercialized later? If they unfortunately live today, would they be treasured by our society? If a “scientific research” can be seen with huge commercial value once it begins, it indicates that this research is just a small patch of a skyscraper.

I am not against commercialization; but I reckon when everything is commercialized, the value of science and scientists will be underestimated. Just as today, we connive the rule of “freedom of economics” and “supply-demand” rule and think the system of market should not be interfered, we see that scientists earn much less than those entertainment stars. And we stop the large-scale engineering or scientific explorations just because we are afraid of “waste of money”. And now we have the result: we have the products much more beautiful and convenient than those in 1970s, but they are using the same scientific principle; and we regard those internet service companies as “technological innovation”. The booming of internet companies, or to say, silicon valley startups, just comes up with more and more services, instead of true scientific breakthroughs. If we are still stingy about the investment of large-scale scientific researches, we will see science fictions are truly fictions in the future.

The “genius” in Silicon Valley call up all students should learn programming. But actually, it doesn’t mean computer or AI will take over the jobs from other types of engineers. The truth is those IT companies are in deed of more programmers for themselves! Engineers, such as mechanical, electrical and aerospace engineers, will never be taken over by what is called “AI”. Up till now, all “AI” companies are using computers. However, as long as a computer can be programmed, it is indeed still doing repeated tasks instead of creativity. Before figuring out how our brain works, there is no true AI existing.

18 May 2017