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Gary Kasparov on innovation

Books + Ideas — March 2013

Three weeks ago I went to a lecture by Gary Kasparov, one-time world chess champion, on "Reviving the Spirit of Innovation". A video of this talk is available here.

A key part of his argument was that innovation had slowed down since the 1970s. But the evidence he presented for that seemed pretty weak to me.

One can hardly generalise from commercial aircraft speeds, which have actually gone backwards since the Concorde stopped flying. Firstly, there are physical constraints here which one can't necessarily innovate around. Secondly, the example is somewhat cherrypicked - as the friend sitting next to me pointed out, a comparison of improvements in DNA sequencing technology would suggest there had been more innovation in the last ten years than the preceding fifty...

Kasparov also displayed a Google ngram chart, showing the rise of references to "risk" (compared with "investment" or "profit"). This seems backwards to me, however, as I consider improvements in our undersanding of risk and the development of tools for dealing with it to be (potentially) one of the most important innovations of the last thirty years.

And the entire approach seemed rather too upbeat. Kasparov complained at one point that his grandchildren couldn't fly any faster than he could, but said (addressing the 20 year old students in the audience) that he was sure that our grandchildren would be able to. Frankly, I think it's quite likely that my grandchildren won't be flying anywhere much at all, between fossil fuels becoming scarcer and global warming concerns.


  1. Indeed, the old Boeing 707 is faster than many more modern jetliners. Fuel efficiency, higher altitude and noise abatement are the main constraints. Observe how big the new generation jet engines are in order to achieve those objectives.

    I quite like the idea of airship travel which is more comfortable, and a possible answer to fuel economy. I can't see bio-fuel is the answer. I am happy to trade-off speed for comfort and lower ticket costs. The down side is: the lumbering giants are easy targets for would be terrorists.

    Is Kasparov on the celebrity speaker circuit? Does he command a fee, do you have to pay to attend his talks?

    Comment by DL — March 2013
  2. Isn't this just a dumbed down version of the economic arguments about declining productivity since 1970 in the developed world? It is usually associated with arguments for small government. Which is one of Kasparov's anti-Putin lines.

    The Economist has an article here:

    I have seen other pieces and articles on the same idea, seems to be fashionable.

    Comment by David — March 2013
  3. The talk was free, Doug, but I assume the Oxford Martin School, which was hosting it, paid Kasparov at least expenses and probably a fee.

    Thanks for that link, David. My feeling is that technological innovation may keep going even as the rate of social change it drives may slow. So modern sequencing technology is advancing in leaps and bounds, but it's simply impossible for it to make as much of a difference, to as many people, as the basic advances in public health that drove improvements in life expectancies, infant mortality, etc. in the first half of the 20th century (at least in the developed world). Similarly, it's hard to see any transport innovation changing the ordinary lives of people as much as the bicycle and then the car did. If we get a reasonably cheap 1 hour sub-orbital Sydney-London shuttle, it would be nice for me and might change where people have holidays, but is hardly going to make as much difference as the step up from a six week boat trip to a 24 hour jet flight.

    There are surely a lot better arguments against Putin than that he's stifled innovation, and it would have been more interesting to hear Kasparov talk about Russian politics (or chess, for that matter). I mostly went along because I wanted to see the man - my experience is that famous people talking outside their areas of expertise tend to be a lot less original and interesting than they think they are.

    Comment by danny — March 2013
  4. So, Kasparov was out of his comfort zone on subjects other than Russian politics and chess. I wonder if he is on Putin's hit list for his outspokenness. I guess most people there for the talk were like you, they went along to see the man, a sense of occasion. It reminds me reports of Stephen Hawking's visit to Hong Kong and China, he was mobbed wherever he go.

    Comment by DL — March 2013
  5. Indeed, Doug, I imagine the number of people who'd like to see Stephen Hawking must be a thousand times the number who actually have any understanding of his contributions to physics. The Kasparov talk was pretty popular - they had to move it to the Exam Schools South, which is one of the larger venues in Oxford, seating 440, and even then they were turning people away.

    Comment by danny — March 2013

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