Some forms of technology — think, for example, of computer chips — are on a fast track to constant improvements, while others evolve much more slowly. Now, a new study by researchers at MIT and other institutions shows that it may be possible to predict which technologies are likeliest to advance rapidly, and therefore may be worth more investment in research and resources.
In a nutshell, the researchers found that the greater a technology’s complexity, the more slowly it changes and improves over time. They devised a way of mathematically modeling complexity, breaking a system down into its individual components and then mapping all the interconnections between these components.
"It gives you a way to think about how the structure of the technology affects the rate of improvement,” says Jessika Trancik, assistant professor of engineering systems at MIT. Trancik wrote the paper with James McNerney, a graduate student at Boston University (BU); Santa Fe Institute Professor Doyne Farmer; and BU physics professor Sid Redner. It appears online this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The team was inspired by the complexity of energy-related technologies ranging from tiny transistors to huge coal-fired powerplants. They have tracked how these technologies improve over time, either through reduced cost or better performance, and, in this paper, develop a model to compare that progress to the complexity of the design and the degree of connectivity among its different components.
The authors say the approach they devised for comparing technologies could, for example, help policymakers mitigate climate change: By predicting which low-carbon technologies are likeliest to improve rapidly, their strategy could help identify the most effective areas to concentrate research funding. The analysis makes it possible to pick technologies “not just so they will work well today, but ones that will be subject to rapid development in the future,” Trancik says.
Besides the importance of overall design complexity in slowing the rate of improvement, the researchers also found that certain patterns of interconnection can create bottlenecks, causing the pace of improvements to come in fits and starts rather than at a steady rate.
“In this paper, we develop a theory that shows why we see the rates of improvement that we see,” Trancik says. Now that they have developed the theory, she and her colleagues are moving on to do empirical analysis of many different technologies to gauge how effective the model is in practice. “We’re doing a lot of work on analyzing large data sets” on different products and processes, she says.
For now, she suggests, the method is most useful for comparing two different technologies “whose components are similar, but whose design complexity is different.” For example, the analysis could be used to compare different approaches to next-generation solar photovoltaic cells, she says. The method can also be applied to processes, such as improving the design of supply chains or infrastructure systems. “It can be applied at many different scales,” she says.
Koen Frenken, professor of economics of innovation and technological change at Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, says this paper “provides a long-awaited theory” for the well-known phenomenon of learning curves. “It has remained a puzzle why the rates at which humans learn differ so markedly among technologies. This paper provides an explanation by looking at the complexity of technology, using a clever way to model design complexity.”
Frenken adds, “The paper opens up new avenues for research. For example, one can verify their theory experimentally by having human subjects solve problems with different degrees of complexity.” In addition, he says, “The implications for firms and policymakers [are] that R&D should not only be spent on invention of new technologies, but also on simplifying existing technologies so that humans will learn faster how to improve these technologies.”
Ultimately, the kind of analysis developed in this paper could become part of the design process — allowing engineers to “design for rapid innovation,” Trancik says, by using these principles to determine “how you set up the architecture of your system.”
Marta Buczek | EurekAlert!
Did you know that the wrapping of Easter eggs benefits from specialty light sources?
13.04.2017 | Heraeus Noblelight GmbH
To e-, or not to e-, the question for the exotic 'Si-III' phase of silicon
05.04.2017 | Carnegie Institution for Science
More and more automobile companies are focusing on body parts made of carbon fiber reinforced plastics (CFRP). However, manufacturing and repair costs must be further reduced in order to make CFRP more economical in use. Together with the Volkswagen AG and five other partners in the project HolQueSt 3D, the Laser Zentrum Hannover e.V. (LZH) has developed laser processes for the automatic trimming, drilling and repair of three-dimensional components.
Automated manufacturing processes are the basis for ultimately establishing the series production of CFRP components. In the project HolQueSt 3D, the LZH has...
Reflecting the structure of composites found in nature and the ancient world, researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign have synthesized thin carbon nanotube (CNT) textiles that exhibit both high electrical conductivity and a level of toughness that is about fifty times higher than copper films, currently used in electronics.
"The structural robustness of thin metal films has significant importance for the reliable operation of smart skin and flexible electronics including...
The nearby, giant radio galaxy M87 hosts a supermassive black hole (BH) and is well-known for its bright jet dominating the spectrum over ten orders of magnitude in frequency. Due to its proximity, jet prominence, and the large black hole mass, M87 is the best laboratory for investigating the formation, acceleration, and collimation of relativistic jets. A research team led by Silke Britzen from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Bonn, Germany, has found strong indication for turbulent processes connecting the accretion disk and the jet of that galaxy providing insights into the longstanding problem of the origin of astrophysical jets.
Supermassive black holes form some of the most enigmatic phenomena in astrophysics. Their enormous energy output is supposed to be generated by the...
The probability to find a certain number of photons inside a laser pulse usually corresponds to a classical distribution of independent events, the so-called...
Microprocessors based on atomically thin materials hold the promise of the evolution of traditional processors as well as new applications in the field of flexible electronics. Now, a TU Wien research team led by Thomas Müller has made a breakthrough in this field as part of an ongoing research project.
Two-dimensional materials, or 2D materials for short, are extremely versatile, although – or often more precisely because – they are made up of just one or a...
28.04.2017 | Event News
20.04.2017 | Event News
18.04.2017 | Event News
28.04.2017 | Medical Engineering
28.04.2017 | Earth Sciences
28.04.2017 | Life Sciences