The Nature of Technology: An Interview with W. Brian Arthur

2009917944227491-ArthurBrian3 In American Scientist:

Technologies evolve, but how far does the analogy go with Darwin’s ideas? Does it hold up pretty well, or have you had to adapt it?

Attempts to create a theory of evolution for technology have failed because they have tried to import Darwin’s mechanism of the gradual accumulation of changes through variation and selection. That works pretty well once a technology exists—the helicopter, say, or the steam engine. It exists in many variants, the better ones are selected, and progress happens. That’s what Darwin would have called descent with modification, and that does apply in technology.

But the difficult part comes in the question that Darwin himself asked for biology: How do new species originate? The counterpart question is “How do radically new technologies originate, such as jet engines or laser printers?” It’s pretty clear that a different mechanism is at work, and I came upon the idea—it’s by no means totally new—that these radically new technologies are created by putting together combinations of what already exists. That doesn’t mean you throw technologies up into the air and randomly watch what combines. The human mind is extraordinarily important, and human beings are essential to how new technologies originate. Still, when someone comes up with an invention, it turns out to have been put together from existing components.

A GPS system is a combination of computer processors, satellites, atomic clocks, radio transmitters and receivers. Whoever invented that did not say, “I am going to combine existing technologies”; they’re basically saying, “What is it going to take to solve a problem here—the one of finding a point’s location on the earth?” And that combination resulted. So technology evolves by combination, and once the technology’s in place, then the Darwinian mechanisms of variation and selection set in.