Home PublicationsCommentary Biden Prediction of More Technological Progress in the Next 10 Years Than the Past 50 Years Is Almost Certainly Wrong

Biden Prediction of More Technological Progress in the Next 10 Years Than the Past 50 Years Is Almost Certainly Wrong

by Morgan Stevens
President Biden

President Biden recently made the extraordinary claim that, largely due to advancements in artificial intelligence (AI), “we’ll see more technological change in the next 10 years than we’ve seen in the last 50 years and maybe even beyond that.” If AI could deliver such progress, it would represent an incredible advancement in human progress, and policymakers should do everything in their power to realize its potential. But even with AI’s dizzying possibilities, it is highly unlikely that technological advancements in the next decade will outpace the achievements of the past five decades given the extent of innovation in this timeframe. This matters because if the assumption is that robust innovation is on autopilot, then efforts to promote innovation can slacken.

The past 50 years have seen extraordinary innovations (see table 1), yet progress takes time. Martin Cooper, the head of communications at Motorola, made the first cellphone call in New York City on April 3, 1973, yet it took another decade before mobile phones were commercially available. Even after the technology became feasible, it was not until 2016 that more U.S. adults were living in households with cell phones than with landlines, nearly a decade after Apple released the iPhone. By suggesting that the upcoming decade will hold as much progress as the past five, President Biden has exaggerated the possibility that so many advancements could occur. Mirroring half a century’s worth of groundbreaking innovations in just ten years is an impossible task.

Table 1: Sample of technological innovations, 1973-2023
Year Technology Source
1973 Mobile cellphones Kai McNamee and Mallory Yu, “50 years ago, Martin Cooper made the first cellphone call,” NPR, April 3, 2023, https://www.npr.org/2023/04/03/1167815751/50-years-ago-martin-cooper-made-the-first-cell-phone-call.
1974 Structured query language (SQL) Structured vs. Unstructured Data: What’s the Difference?” IBM Cloud Education, last modified June 29, 2021, https://www.ibm.com/cloud/blog/structured-vs-unstructured-data.
1975 Digital cameras James Estrin, “Kodak’s First Digital Moment,” The New York Times, August 12, 2015, https://archive.nytimes.com/lens.blogs.nytimes.com/2015/08/12/kodaks-first-digital-moment/.
1976 Cray-1 supercomputer “Advanced Simulation and Computing (ACS) Program: Platforms,” Los Alamos National Laboratory, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://www.lanl.gov/asc/platforms/.
1977 NASA Voyager 1 “Voyager 1,” U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://solarsystem.nasa.gov/missions/voyager-1/in-depth/.
1978 Global Positioning System (GPS) “Global Positioning System History,” U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, last modified on October 27, 2012, https://www.nasa.gov/directorates/heo/scan/communications/policy/GPS_History.html.
1979 Laptops Charles Arthur, “Bill Moggridge: the man who put the world in a briefcase,” The Wall Street Journal, November 13, 2010, https://www.wsj.com/ad/article/laptop-invented.
1980 Gigabyte-capacity disk drives “IBM unveils 1GB mini drive,” CNN, June 20, 2000, https://money.cnn.com/2000/06/20/technology/ibm_drive/.
1981 Space shuttles “Space Shuttle Era Facts,” U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://www.nasa.gov/pdf/566250main_SHUTTLE%20ERA%20FACTS_040412.pdf.
1982 AutoCADs “DWG (AutoCAD Drawing) Format Family,” U.S. Library of Congress, accessed on July 14, 2023, https://www.loc.gov/preservation/digital/formats/fdd/fdd000445.shtml.
1983 Release of commercial cellular services Jane C. Hu, “Our reliance on cellphones began 35 years ago today,” Quartz, October 13, 2018, https://qz.com/1422569/the-first-commercial-cell-phone-call-was-made-35-years-ago-today.
1984 DNA fingerprinting “DNA Fingerprinting,” University of Leicester, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://le.ac.uk/dna-fingerprinting.
1985 Windows “Microsoft is born,” Microsoft, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://news.microsoft.com/announcement/microsoft-is-born/.
1986 Internet Message Access Protocol “IMAP,” Stanford Computer Graphics Laboratory, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://graphics.stanford.edu/lab/mail/imap.html.
1987 Scalable Processor Architectures “A.T.&T. Deal With Sun Seen,” The New York Times, October 19, 1987, https://www.nytimes.com/1987/10/19/business/at-t-deal-with-sun-seen.html.
1988 Electronic touch pads James Ryan, “Treading on the Mouse’s Heels: The Oh-So-Subtle Touch Pad,” The New York Times, January 14, 1999, https://archive.nytimes.com/www.nytimes.com/library/tech/99/01/circuits/articles/14howw.html.
1989 World Wide Web “The birth of the web,” CERN, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://home.cern/science/computing/birth-web.
1990 Hubble Space Telescope “About – the Hubble Story,” U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://www.nasa.gov/content/about-the-hubble-story.
1991 Websites Josie Fischels, “A Look Back At The Very First Website Ever Launched, 30 Years Later,” NPR, August 6, 2021, https://www.npr.org/2021/08/06/1025554426/a-look-back-at-the-very-first-website-ever-launched-30-years-later.
1992 Text messages “25 years since the world’s first text message,” Vodafone, last modified on December 4, 2017, https://www.vodafone.com/news/technology/25-anniversary-text-message.
1993 Mosaic web browser National Science Foundation, “Mosaic Launches an Internet Revolution,” news release, April 8, 2004, https://new.nsf.gov/news/mosaic-launches-internet-revolution.
1994 Smartphones “World’s first ‘smartphone’ celebrates 20 years,” BBC, August 15, 2014, https://www.bbc.com/news/technology-28802053.
1995 DVDs Michael W. Davidson, “How a Digital Video Drive Works,” Florida State University, last modified on November 13, 2015, https://micro.magnet.fsu.edu/electromag/computers/digitalvideodiscs/dvd.html.
1996 Universal Series Buses (USB) “Two decades of plug and play,” Intel, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://www.intel.com/content/dam/www/public/us/en/documents/articles/usb-two-decades-of-plug-and-play-article.pdf.
1997 DVD players Scott Kirsner, “How DVDs became a success,” Variety, April 23, 2007, https://variety.com/2007/digital/features/how-dvds-became-a-success-1117963617/.
1998 Quantum computers John Markoff, “Quantum Computing is Becoming More Than Just a Good Idea,” The New York Times, April 28, 1998, https://www.nytimes.com/1998/04/28/science/quantum-computing-is-becoming-more-than-just-a-good-idea.html.
1999 Bluetooth Jaap Haartsen, “How we made bluetooth,” Nature Electronics 1, no. 661, (2018): https://www.nature.com/articles/s41928-018-0186-x.
2000 Camera phones “The Evolution of Camera Phones,” Association for Advancing Automation Blog, February 2, 2016, https://www.automate.org/blogs/the-evolution-of-camera-phones.
2001 Satellite radio “History of Commercial Radio,” U.S. Federal Communications Commission, accessed on July 14, 2023, https://www.fcc.gov/media/radio/history-of-commercial-radio.
2002 Retinal protheses James D. Weiland and Mark S. Humayun, “Retinal Prothesis,” IEEE Transactions on Biomedical Engineering 61, no. 5 (2014): 1412-1424, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4356127/.
2003 Human Genome Project “The Human Genome Project,” National Human Genome Research Institute, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://www.genome.gov/human-genome-project.
2004 Graphene European Parliament, “Graphene: the wonder material of the 21st century,” news release, June 4, 2015, https://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/en/headlines/economy/20150603STO62104/graphene-the-wonder-material-of-the-21st-century.
2005 Autonomous vehicles “The Grand Challenge,” Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, accessed on July 7, 2023, https://www.darpa.mil/about-us/timeline/-grand-challenge-for-autonomous-vehicles.
2006 Hadoop T. Subbulakshmi and Jisha S. Manjaly, “A comparison study and performance evaluation of schedulers in Hadoop YARN,” IEEE Xplore, (March 22, 2018): https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8321202.
2007 iPhones Apple, “Apple Reinvents the Phone with the iPhone,” news release, January 9, 2007, https://www.apple.com/newsroom/2007/01/09Apple-Reinvents-the-Phone-with-iPhone/.
2008 Large Hadron Collider “The Large Hadron Collider,” CERN, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://home.cern/science/accelerators/large-hadron-collider.
2009 Bitcoin Nathaniel Popper, “Decoding the Enigma of Satoshi Nakamoto and the Birth of Bitcoin,” The New York Times, May 15, 2015, https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/17/business/decoding-the-enigma-of-satoshi-nakamoto-and-the-birth-of-bitcoin.html.
2010 Square card readers Issie Lapowsky, “Jack Dorsey: The Man Who Made the Cash Register Obsolete,” Inc., April 18, 2013, https://www.inc.com/audacious-companies/issie-lapowsky/square.html.
2011 IBM Sequoia supercomputer Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, “IBM unveils BlueGene/Q at SC11,” news release, November 16, 2011, https://www.llnl.gov/news/ibm-unveils-bluegeneq-sc11.
2012 Higgs Boson discovery “DOE Explains… the Higgs Boson,” U.S. Department of Energy’s Office of Science, accessed on July 14, 2023, https://www.energy.gov/science/doe-explainsthe-higgs-boson.
2013 Boston Dynamics’ Atlas Robots “Atlas,” Boston Dynamics, accessed on June 29, 2023, https://www.bostondynamics.com/atlas.
2014 USB-C Connectors Andrew Cunningham, “Tiny, reversible USB Type-C Connector finalized,” arstechnica, August 12, 2014, https://arstechnica.com/gadgets/2014/08/small-reversible-usb-type-c-connector-finalized/.
2015 Tesla Powerwalls Jon Russell, “Tesla’s $3,000 Powerwall Will Let Households Run Entirely On Solar Energy,” TechCrunch, May 1, 2015, https://techcrunch.com/2015/04/30/tesla-powerwall-home-battery/.
2016 IBM’s 5-qubit quantum computer Chris Lee, “How IBM’s new 5-qubit universal quantum computer works,” ars technica, May 4, 2016, https://arstechnica.com/science/2016/05/how-ibms-new-five-qubit-universal-quantum-computer-works/.
2017 Apple’s FaceID Jason Cipriani, “iPhone Face ID is pretty cool. Here’s how it works and how to use it,” CNET, February 5, 2020, https://www.cnet.com/tech/services-and-software/the-iphone-and-ipads-face-id-tech-is-pretty-darn-cool-heres-how-it-works-and-how-to-use-it/.
2018 Foldable smartphones Chloe Taylor, “Start-up beats major players to launch world’s first foldable smartphone,” CNBC, November 1, 2018, https://www.cnbc.com/2018/11/01/start-up-beats-major-players-to-launch-worlds-first-foldable-smartphone.html.
2019 CRISPR Cas3 system Krishna Ramanujan, “CRISPR-Cas3 innovation holds promise for disease cures, advancing science,” Cornell Chronicle, April 11, 2019, https://news.cornell.edu/stories/2019/04/crispr-cas3-innovation-holds-promise-disease-cures-advancing-science.
2020 Amazon One Annie Palmer, “Amazon unveils a way to pay with just your hand in stores,” CNBC, September 29, 2020, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/09/29/amazon-palm-payment-system-amazon-one-announced.html.
2021 AlphaFold Protein Structure Database “AlphaFold,” DeepMind, accessed on September 21, 2023, https://www.deepmind.com/research/highlighted-research/alphafold.
2022 DALL-E 2 “DALL-E 2,” OpenAI, accessed on July 7, 2023, https://openai.com/dall-e-2.
2023 ChatGPT-4 Deepa Seetharaman, “OpenAI Rolls Out New GPT-4 Version of Chatbot ChatGPT,” The Wall Street Journal, March 15, 2023, https://www.wsj.com/articles/openai-rolls-out-updated-version-of-viral-chatbot-chatgpt-f03fea27.

Further, in assuming the inevitability of significant technological progress, President Biden fails to consider how innovation becomes harder over time. Past innovators have already made important breakthroughs, such as creating foundational concepts or basic technologies, that future innovators will have to spend significant effort refining. For example, researchers have known the foundational principles behind quantum computing for decades, yet developing practical, scalable quantum computers has proven to be a monumental challenge.

Future innovators must also develop more complex technologies. The first digital camera in 1975 was an incredible innovation that showed how it was possible to have an all-electronic camera that did not use any consumable parts like film. But it was a relatively simple device compared to the digital cameras in today’s mobile devices. Likewise, while the invention of the first microchip in 1958 marked a significant breakthrough, today’s computers need vastly more advanced chips that require extensive knowledge, specialized facilities, and considerable investment to produce. As technologies evolve, they often become more intricate and require more time and resources to develop than their predecessors. This additional complexity tempers the pace of discovery.

Many impressive technological advancements will likely occur in the next ten years; however, Biden’s hyperbolic claim about what to expect is wrong and policymakers should not take future advancements for granted. Recognizing the impact of past achievements gives light to the efforts behind them and the importance of continuing to support current research and development into new technologies.

Image credit: Flickr user Gage Skidmore

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