7. Reflections on Technology: R&D and Productivity


In the field of science once a problem has been solved, one goes on to a new prob­lem, unless some unexpected difficulty arises in the context of the first.  Thus, for ex­ample, when the motions of planets were adequately explained in terms of gravita­tion, one was quite happy with the solution, until some problems arose with respect to details, such as the motion of the perihelion of Mercury.

In a sense a somewhat similar situation arises in the world of technology also.  Except that here, it seldom happens that once a particular problem is solved, one sim­ply passes on to a totally unrelated one.  The solution of a problem almost always leads to another problem; often if it is only that of finding a better version of the solution to the problem already solved.  If the automobile is invented as an effective means of trans­portation, one would like to invent an even better automobile.  It could be better in so many ways: in comfort, in efficiency, in cost of production, in wear and tear, in speed, in safety; one can go on and on.  If images can be reproduced by means of photo­graphy, one would like to reproduce moving images, then talking moving images, then talking moving images in color; then one tries to bring such images to one’s own living room, then make them three dimensional, and so on.  Thus from black and white still photography one passes on to moving pictures, silent movies, talkies, color movies, television, etc.  Such is the pattern of  development of all inventions.

Such a course of development can occur in two different ways.  Either the genius of a new inventor comes to improve an already existing item or technique, or the in­dustry which manufactures and markets a particular product itself tries to improve its product.  The individual inventor may be interested in the problem because, by patenting his new method, he or she can earn some money.  And industry will be interested in it for more or less the same reason, except that here the incentive usu­ally comes from a competitor (which could be the individual inventor). The carefully planned and sustained effort that industry exerts along this direction, i.e. to improve existing products and techniques, and produce new ones, is referred to as Research and Development, or simply R&D.  It has become an important aspect of modern sophisticated technology.

Each year millions of dollars are spent on R&D in the U.S. alone.  Since money is an important (indeed the ultimate) criterion in business and industry, the question that is often posed is whether and to what extent such expenditures are justified.  It is well known that certain very successful industries began to lag behind and eventually lose the market simply because they did not pay sufficient attention to R&D.  On the other hand a few have also lost considerable sums in the process.  It is therefore im­portant to assess the costs and benefits of R&D. In other words, how is one to measure the value of engaging in R&D?  This is a question of the utmost importance to industry, and many debates and discussions constantly take place on this matter.  Two factors must be borne in mind in assessing any R&D.

The first is the obvious one of seeing to what extent the sums expended for this purpose pay off through the development of profitable products.  In l9th century scientific technology developed the concept of efficiency in relation to heat engines.  The corresponding idea here is productivity.  If, as in the case of the heat engine, we consider a model in which there is a certain amount of input (which may, for example, be measured in terms of the amount of money invested for R&D), and a certain output (which may be determined, for instance, in terms of the increase in the sale of the new products and the corresponding profits), we will have a measure of productivity.  Greater output for smaller inputs always implies increase in producti­vity.  The problem in practice is not as simple as it may sound in principle, because it is extremely difficult to quantify inputs and outputs in actual situations.

The second factor that must be considered is the overall impact of a new process or material.  In other words, one must not lose sight of the fact that every significant innovation has a larger impact on society, on the national economy, on lifestyles, etc.  Detailed analysis of these impacts is even more difficult.

A scientific study of R&D and its implications to any given industry is very valu­able in understanding the nature of technology, the factors leading to the rise and fall of particular industries, the overall impact of technology on society, economic trends in a country, etc.  There is reason to believe that these phenomena occur in well de­fined patterns, i.e. that they are governed by tractable laws of sociology, economics, etc.

Some have questioned the wisdom of committing enormous sums of money for research for developing already existing and well functioning entities.  In their view, to want to eliminate deficiencies is one thing, but to be perennially preoccupied with making everything we have bigger and/or better may be productive in the short range, but quite wasteful in the long run.  Moreover, the transference of the concept of productivity to human matters, which has already occurred in seve­ral instances (e.g. in evaluating the performance of school teachers and factory work­ers) may be both unintelligent and immoral, in the view of these critics.  Productivity at any cost may defeat its own purpose.

September 13, 2010

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