SF Fail #1 – Bionics

Science fiction has failed in many ways, but I was reminded of one of its more egregious lapses, bionics, just the other day.   I was talking to a coworker who turned out to be an Extropian.  We don’t get many creationists in Massachusetts, but we do get their opposites like this guy.

We were talking about medical wearables, as one does these days.  The electronics for body sensors have gotten so cheap and low-power that they can be scattered about to track all kinds of health measures.  They’re pretty bad today, as witness the problems with smart watch heart rate monitors.   These attempt to measure your pulse by shining an LED through the skin to see blood flow.  Everything disrupts the signal: movements of muscles, perspiration, saturation of the sensor.  Plus the light won’t shine through dark skin, so it’s not just inaccurate – it can be racistly inaccurate.  Great.

Anyway, we were discussing all this when he said “You know, the real answer is to get rid of this meat altogether.”   He plucked at his forearm.   “We’ve got to get out of this weak stuff.”  Oh?  “Machines are obviously what we’ll be in the long run.  Maybe it won’t be in my lifetime, but it’s got to happen eventually.”

He’s thinking of pictures like this:

Model/athlete Aimee Mullins and MIT prof and climbing champion Hugh Herr

Model/athlete Aimee Mullins and MIT prof and climbing champion Hugh Herr

Superhumanly attractive people with superhuman physical abilities.  Mullins lost her legs due to a birth defect, and Herr lost them to frostbite while trapped during a mountain storm.  Both were competitive with able-bodied athletes, and Herr has been steadily improving prosthetics at the MIT Media Lab.  They sure look like the next generation.

But perhaps the obvious bears repeating:

No artificial replacement of a body part is as good as the healthy original, including teeth and hair.

Dentures stop fitting and wear out.   Toupees are causes of mockery.   Artificial hearts need horrific operations and only help until a transplant can be found.   Artificial limbs don’t join properly with the natural limb and are never as controllable.   They’re just about at the point where they can make a decent ankle.   They’re getting there with knees.    Hands?  Tongues?  Eyes? Nowhere near.

Your existing organs are almost certainly older than any machine you own.   They have a huge advantage over any artificial version – they can repair themselves.   No machine can reproduce itself – it takes an entire industrial system to do that.

That’s not going to change.   Forget about 3D printers that can reproduce themselves – they can’t even make their own motors, much less their chips.   Machines use a far wider range of the periodic table than any organic system, because organics have to rely on what can be eaten in the local environment.  Machines can use trade networks that span the planet.  It’s always going to be easier to make something with central, specialized equipment than it is to put some kind of universal fabricator into every widget.

The ultimate answer to replacing failing body parts is going to be regrowing them.  This is already getting huge attention.  People have used stem cells to regrow tracheas and livers.  The new parts will be bio-compatible with the old, and not instantly attacked by the immune system.   They’ll adapt as the body changes and keep themselves in good repair.

What they won’t be is superhuman.  They’ll be better than what you have, and maybe even as good as what you had at age 20.   But becoming superhuman through mechanical parts?   An illusion.   Yet it’s one that even people in high-tech hold, thanks to the dreams of science fiction.


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Finding One’s Tomorrowland Pin

“Tomorrowland” is an epic disaster of a movie, with annoying characters, a nonsensical plot, and a ridiculous premise – that the problems of the world are because people are no longer inspired by the utopias pushed by Disneyland and the 1964 New York World’s Fair.  Seriously – it says that we’re depressed these days because we never did get jetpacks.

Yet there was a bit in this movie that did resonate with me – the Tomorrowland pin:


When the teenage heroine touches it, she is immediately transported to the parallel dimension that all the innovators have escaped to:

tomorrowland_wheat-fieldYes, those are amber waves of grain, purple mountains’ majesty, and an alabaster city undimmed by human tears – the ideal America right from the anthem.  Subtle this movie is not.

But I myself once saw such a pin.  Or rather, I saw an image that affected me so strongly that it changed my life’s direction.  It was in 1969, and I was a kid bicycling along a rundown commercial street.   In the midst of the pizza places and the garages and the hair salons, there was a used book store.   In its window was this:


The text at the bottom reads:
Metalliding Seventy-Five Cents
August 1969

It’s a picture of two molybdenum wires, both heated to a yellow glow at 1000C.  The one on the right has been treated with a new process called metalliding that diffused silicon into it, and so can withstand the high temperature.   The one on the left hasn’t been treated, and is oxidizing and boiling away.

At that age I didn’t know what this picture was, and couldn’t have understood the description.  It was just a serenely beautiful image.   Every other image on the street or in that bookstore was trying to sell something.   This just glowed there, like a Russian icon amidst candy wrappers.

So that’s what the technical world was like, thought my younger self.  It was a different place, a cleaner place.   Most of the paperbacks in that store had covers with girls or monsters or weapons.  This was something else.   This was the kind of world I wanted to be in.

Did you ever see such an image?   Maybe for you it was a line of poetry, or an equation, or a psalm, or a scene from a drama – something that gave you a glimpse of the world where you belonged.  Maybe it started you on a road to that world, as it did me.    I ended up in the world of engineering, where we rarely actually see things of the Zen purity of the above image.  Yet the clean solution is what we always strive for, and are proud to show off to each other.  My Tomorrowland pin was a magazine cover from long ago.  What was yours?

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“The Affinities”: Weaponized Psychology

“What will be the next big technology?” is a question that gets constantly asked.   The answers are usually boring: smaller and more prevalent computers, some new energy source, some advance in space tech, or maybe something will finally happen with AI.

Yet there’s a different trend that holds more interest.  As time goes on, more and more complex subjects can be understood and handled.   By complex I mean subjects that need concentrated and theoretical study, not just empirical tinkering.   All technology was empirical until the 19th century.   Then people started to use real physics – theories of heat, motion, and light – in their engines and electrical equipment.   By the 20th century we advanced to the much more complex fields of chemistry (plastics, semiconductors) and biology (medicines that were at last effective, serious crop breeding).

So now in the 21st century we’re coming up on understanding really difficult areas like psychology and sociology.   These are far harder to do experiments on, and contain such a mixture of underlying causes that teasing them apart is far trickier.

affinities cover

Click for author site

Which brings us to Robert Charles Wilson‘s new SF novel, “Affinities”.   He’s had a long and solid career, and won the Hugo for his novel “Spin” in 2005.  Here he proposes that in the near future scientists will actually understand what makes people trust and cooperate with each other.  They found a company, InterAlia, that puts candidates through a series of psychological and genetic tests to find out what group, or affinity, they belong to.  There are said to be 22 such natural groupings, which cover about 60% of the population.   Once they find out yours, they assign you to a weekly meeting of your affinity.  You pay for the testing and then an annual subscription fee.

The protagonist, Adam, comes from a quite dysfunctional family.  His father despises him as a weakling, and favors his jock older brother.   He won’t cover the cost of college for Adam’s artistic ambitions, but his grandmother sneaks him the money and he moves away to attend school in Toronto.   He’s rather lost and lonely in the strange city, and so signs up with InterAlia.

Meanwhile his beloved grandmother falls sick.   His father gets power of attorney and immediately cuts him off, saying the money is needed for her medical expenses.    He returns to Toronto, but doesn’t know what to do now that he can’t afford school or even an apartment.

In this state of anger and anxiety he attends the first meeting of his affinity.  There’s an instant connection.  Finally, people who understand him!   He has found his tribe.   One of them knows another member who has a graphic design firm downtown, and needs an assistant.    There’s always a spare room where he can stay.  A girl with dark hair and deep eyes takes an immediate interest in him.   In the course of an evening he finds a job, a house, and a romance.

His particular affinity is called Tau, and covers the casual and creative types.  Others prefer more hierarchy and discipline.   InterAlia’s system is like a Big Data version of Myers-Briggs personality type indicator, where instead of the rather arbitrary axes of feeling/thinking, introversion/extroversion, intuition/sensing, and perception/judging, the categories are extracted from data on millions of individuals.

Tau is one of the largest and most energetic groups.   They soon organize their own insurance programs for their members, and then pension plans.    Need help with an abusive boyfriend?   Your fellow Taus can figure out a way to keep him away from you, with the help of a Tau cop.   Need to set something up in a new city?   The local Taus are ready to help because they trust you, and know just where to find what you need and who to deal with.

A social mechanism like this is far more important than a new widget.  Almost anything worth doing needs the cooperation of a large group of people.   Maintaining a common purpose among factions gets harder and harder as the group grows and ages.  Institutions that can overcome the natural divisions among people can take over the world.   The Church.  The university.  The joint-stock company.   The parliament.

All of these have been worked out empirically, and look creaky today.   What if there were a real theory behind these social inventions?   What if they could be tuned up in a systematic and optimum way?   You would go from hand-tweaked steam engines to engineered gas turbines, from locomotives to jets.

In the novel, this naturally goes wrong pretty quickly.    Which of the 22 affinities is going to be dominant?   The Taus are fast and clever, but they lack the killer instinct.  What happens to the people who don’t belong to any affinity?   What happens when one’s loyalty to the group conflicts with that to your actual family?  And what happens when this technology marches on, as they always do?

The characters here are vivid and the plot is engaging, but let me recommend this novel for that most SF of qualities – extrapolation.  The future doesn’t belong to better widgets – to jetpacks and Mars bases and phones that interface directly to your retinal and auditory nerves.   That’s 20th century physical thinking.  The future is mindware, baby; it’s cognitive engineering.   Get a million people working together effectively, and a Mars base is a side-effect.

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The History of Computing in Lego

The family and I were just at Legoland San Diego, which was big fun.  It’s a cheery small theme park filled with LEGO creations, and with boxes of the blocks everywhere for the kids to create with.   Yet in this networked age, you can always find someone somewhere who takes things to astonishing and intimidating levels.  Here’s a bitmap display built solely out of bricks:

Lego bitmap display by AncientJames

AncientJames’ Lego bitmap display.  Click for site

It uses that little board to specify which disks to flip on the display, where the white cones specify the position of white disks.   A stack of the boards can spell out a message one letter at a time on the 5×5 matrix.    Here it is in operation:

Spelling out Everything Is Awesome!   That song was inescapable at Legoland.

This was done by someone in New Zealand, which is clearly a country of ingenious people with a lot of time on their hands.  It’s like the Jacquard Loom of 1801, which took punch cards and used them to direct the weaving of a piece of cloth.  That was the first real piece of computing technology, incorporating stored memory and a means of output.

So can Lego take one to the next level of computing?  But of course:

Back Camera

Andrew Carol’s Lego Difference Engine.  Click for site

This is several cells of Babbage’s Difference Engine No. 2 of 1849, as built by Andrew Carol.   Here it is computing the squares of the first several integers:

If you want to learn more about the Engine, you can’t do worse than to pick up Sydney Padua’s just-released graphic novel about Lovelace and Babbage:

Lovelace and Babbage, Padua

Click for her site

Their actual lives came to depressing ends, but in this better world, this odd couple joined up for excitement and adventure.

Now, can Lego actually take one to the first full computer, ENIAC?

WIP by Christopher Briggs, click for photostream

WIP by Christopher Briggs, click for photostream

Almost certainly not.  ENIAC had about ten thousand gates, so many that it was barely reliable enough to function when using electronics, never mind mechanical parts.   Electronics also have the great advantage of having gain elements, which is so hard to do with mechanics that Babbage himself never accomplished it.

Still, a computer can be built with as few as two hundred transistors, if they implement the Subtract-contents-of-address-A-from-contents-of-address-B-and-branch-if-negative single instruction architecture.   I’m sure that someone somewhere is working on a LEGO version now!

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Who Are the Most Inventive People?

In What Are the Most Inventive Countries, States, and Cities, I described how the inventors listed on US patents granted in 2014 were distributed geographically.  The data came from Google XML files here, with a pile of Perl post-processing.  Let’s now ask some questions about the inventors themselves:

Q: How many people are involved in patents?

A: In 2014 there were 301,643 US utility patents issued with 831,131 names listed as inventors, representing 537,662 individuals.

Q: Were they lone inventors or groups?

A: About 1/3 of the patents had a single inventor and about 1/2 had one or two inventors, so inventions do tend to be individual affairs.   The most inventors on a single patent was 63 for 8,694,397, “Consistent set of interfaces derived from a business object model”, which was assigned to the German business software firm SAP.   It looks like a typical bogus software patent, and the USPTO was pretty leery of it as well, given that it took 9 years to get granted.

Q: Are the multiple inventors together?

A: Less than one would think.   Only 3/4 of the multiple-inventor patents had all the inventors in the same country or US state.   About 1/5 are from two places, and the other 5% are from more.  The record is 7 for 8,706,683, “Knowledge management across distributed entity” which has 12 inventors from SAP from the countries US, Russia, Ireland, Israel, India, China, and Egypt.  A distributed entity indeed!

Q: How many patents did each inventor tend to get?

A: Of the half million inventors, 25% received two or more patents in 2014.  That’s higher than I would have expected.   Patents are expensive after all – they cost at least $15K – so the cost adds up fast.   When I think about my own patents, though, they also got issued in bursts.   You come up with new ideas when you’re facing new problems, and you usually get several at once.    This is very clear when you look at the historical record – innovation comes in big bursts when a new material or a new technique or a new product comes along.   As soon as it became clear that you could make light by electrically heating a wire inside a glass envelope, everyone tried different flavors of light bulb.

Q: Who got the most?

This guy:

Shunpei Yamazaki - the most prolific inventor of all time

Shunpei Yamazaki in his lab

The most prolific inventor of 2014 was Shunpei Yamazaki of the Semiconductor Energy Laboratory of Toyko with 436 US credits.  In fact, he’s the second most prolific inventor of all time, with 3611 US patents to his name.  He trails only Kia Silverbrook of Sydney Australia, who has 4705, but only got 52 in 2014. The SEL appears to be Yamazaki’s personal lab.   His first filing was in 1978, so he’s been out there for almost 40 years.

Q: What does he do?

The most notable thing he has worked on is a kind of thin-film transistor for flat-panel displays made from an indium-gallium-zinc oxide.   This has a much stronger drive than the usual transistors made from amorphous silicon, and so can make displays with faster refresh times, less blur, and more contrast.

He didn’t invent that material itself – that was done by Prof Hideo Hosono of the Tokyo Institute of Technology.   He sure has jumped all over it, though.   Of those 436 patents, a third of them are called “Semiconductor device [and something]”.    39 of them are just called “Semiconductor device”, and 13 more are just “Display device”.  It’s hard to believe there’s something distinctive about those even if his lawyers did manage to fool the patent examiner.   It really looks as though he’s flooding the field with minute variations of ideas in the hope that one of them will pay off.  SEL makes its living on patent licenses, and so attempts to cover everything.

Q: How about other prolific inventors?

The next two top inventors, Roderick A. Hyde (233 patents) and Lowell L. Wood Jr. (220) are not doing tiny variants; they’re doing the opposite.   They appear together on a lot of patents, along with #7 Jordin Kare (125), #8 Clarence T. Tegreene (114), and #9 Edward K. Y. Jung (107).  Most of their patents are assigned to a mysterious entity called Elwha LLC in Washington state.   After some digging I discovered that it’s a shell company for Intellectual Ventures, which is a huge patent sponge started by Nathan Myhrvold, former CTO of Microsoft.  Edward Jung is a cofounder and another senior Microsoft guy.  They buy up languishing patent portfolios and offer patenting services to research organizations, then sue everyone they can find.  They’re the world’s leading patent trolls.

Hyde, Wood, and Kare are mainly known for exotic space technology ideas.   Hyde worked on building big space telescopes with Fresnel lenses.  He and Wood came up with the the Space Fountain, a scheme for accelerating things into orbit by having a stream of pellets shoot upwards and get redirected down again by a big U in space.  Kare has spent his career on rocket laser propulsion, where a ground laser boils a propellant in a rising ship.

None of their real work has come to anything.  They’re all in their 50s and have little to show for their careers.  I think their friends at Microsoft are letting them cash in.   They’re probably acting as patent screeners, checking and editing other people’s ideas.   Hyde has his name on patents in a huge range of subjects: “Blood brain barrier device”,  “Methods and systems for use of photolyzable nitric oxide donors”,  “Systems and methods for managing emissions from an engine of a vehicle”.   No one can make real contributions in such diverse fields.   The fact that they often appear on these patents with Clarence Tegreene, whose whole career is as a patent attorney, is doubly suspicious.   These guys used to be innovators, but that didn’t work out for them and now they’re troll assistants.

Q: That’s depressing.

Cheer up – the work of the #4 inventor, Prof. Shou-Shan Fan (153 patents) of Tsinghua University in Beijing, looks legit.  He’s a leading authority on nano-materials, and most of his patents have to do with uses of graphene. Some of them are outside that fold, like “Method for making touch panel”, so he’s thinking about a range of related things.

#5,  Jeyhan Karaoguz (138) of Broadcom Inc. in Irvine, CA, is also coming up with a nice range of ideas within one area.  His have names like “Method and system for location-based dynamic radio selection” and “Service mobility via a femtocell infrastructure”.  These are all cellphone radio features that Broadcom builds chips for.

Q: So what’s the big take-away?

Some people like Yamazaki and the Elwha guys are racking up big numbers by gaming the system.  Yet there are others like Prof. Fan and Jeyhan Karaoguz who really are idea-creation machines.    Good engineers will generally get a couple of patents to their credit over the course of their careers.   These guys come up with a couple of patents a week.   That’s pretty scary.  Most of them are probably of little value, but so are most of all patents.   Some people are just way off the curve of technical creativity.





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Robot Intimations in Pleasant Palo Alto

I was in the Bay Area last week for a conference, and was able to take some time to visit my friend Ted Selker, an inventor living in Palo Alto.  It was a sunny day in the 70s.  In February.   Knowing that gloating is among the most satisfying of feelings, I was sure to show him pictures of snow-drowned Boston.  We had lunch in an open-air cafe and strolled down University Avenue.   It’s a modest suburban street lined with low buildings.   You would never know that Palo Alto is the blazing heart of Silicon Valley, with more inventors per capita (1 out of 30 Palo Altans received a US patent last year) than any other city in the world, except Redmond.

But then you see this jammed between two buildings:

The Cathedral of Apple

The Cathedral of Apple

They put their snazziest store in their home town.  We wandered in and were chatting about the recent New Yorker piece about Jonathan Ive, Apple’s lead industrial designer.   “Yes, the luckiest guy in the world,” said Ted.

“Really?” I replied. “They said Ive had obvious talent even as a kid.  How often do you see some object and go ‘ah!’ the way you do with all this stuff?”

“Yes, but he found someone in Steve Jobs who actually appreciated that talent, and could really let it shine.  The world is full of talent, but not much of it finds its niche.”

True enough.  We strolled on, and Ted said “Here’s a place you have got to see.”  It was a shop that looked almost bare.  There were some sofas and a coffee table in the back, but the rest was open carpet.  There were some odd devices against the wall though.  We walked in, and one of them came to life!

Ted Selker and a Beam agent on a telepresence robot

A Beam agent on a telepresence robot, and Ted Selker

It was a BeamPro telepresence robot built by Suitable Technologies.   An operator can drive it around with a touch pad.  It has a camera and screen a little below eye level, so it doesn’t feel superior to you.   We chatted with the charming Katherine, who was driving it from her home in the East Bay.

They’re intended for tele-conferencing, to avoid exactly the kind of business travel that I was on.   Instead of being stuck in some video-conference room, a visitor could roll around and see something of what their hosts’ place looked like.   As Aristotle discovered with his Peripatetic School, people think and speak better when they can walk around.  That’s what Ted and I were doing, after all.

This big version goes for a few thousand bucks (although it can be leased), and there’s a couple-thousand dollar consumer version that lets a tech-savvy grandmother see the kids:

Consumer-level Beam+ on left, BeamPro on right.  Docking stations on floor

Consumer-level Beam+ on left, BeamPro on right.

The Beam+ has lower resolution video, a smaller display, and less battery life. Both systems charge themselves on those docking stations on the floor, but can’t yet drive themselves in there on their own. There’s a down-pointing camera that lets the operator guide them in.

One problem with them is lighting. We could see Katherine very well because she had set up desk lamps around her screen to get a nice even illumination, but our faces were lost in the glare from our receding hairlines from the overhead lighting. There should be some LEDs around the display to help that, just like the bulbs around an actor’s makeup mirror.  There was also some warping from the fisheye lens, but that’s a GPU software update.

These kind of robots may also ultimately be a solution for a problem that Palo Alto itself has – workers can’t afford to live here.   If you make less than $100K a year, it’s hard to live anywhere in the Valley.   This naturally causes resentment.   I saw this myself on a previous night when I was going to dinner in San Francisco and was wearing my conference uniform of a navy blazer.  A street person with a beard down to his chest yelled at me: “Silicon Valley a–hole!”   True Valley sorts would never wear a jacket, but he was right overall – I am exactly the sort of person who would be driving rents up to impossible levels.   Yet if people like me were running San Francisco, we would find places for crazy people to live instead of them forcing them to sleep on sidewalks and yell at strangers.

Anyway, telepresence robots could actually start doing things if they had arms.   With current robot arms it wouldn’t be safe to have them near people, but there are new designs such as the Baxter production bot from Rethink Robotics that use compliant springs instead of hard motor drives, and so are much safer to have near people.   Such robots could do the housework and yardwork instead of forcing people to drive two hours each way from a town they can afford to live in.   They could also do 20 houses a day instead of having to spend time trudging between them.

This was the plot of the interesting SF movie “Sleep Dealer” (2008), where Mexicans work driving robots in the US instead of doing manual labor.    That was dystopic, but it might actually work out well.  And that future is nearer than we think, given what I saw in pleasant Palo Alto.

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What Are the Most Inventive Countries, States, and Cities?

That is, in what places do the most inventors live?   Let’s define an inventor as someone who gets their name on a patent.   Let’s restrict it further to names on US patents, since the US system is much the largest – it gets twice the filings of the EU Intellectual Property Office.   It so happens that Google keeps an XML database of all US patents here , although they’ve deprecated their search tools.   I downloaded all 32 GB of the files for the year 2014 and boiled it down into this spreadsheet.

In 2014 there were 301,643 US utility patents issued.  There’ve been about 9M issued total, so it’s growing fast.  I didn’t count design patents because they’re largely ornamental.   There were 831,131 names listed as inventors, representing 537,662 individuals, where an individual is identified by last name, first name, city, state, and country.   People who moved or happened to have the same name as someone else in their town would not get counted correctly.   Rather than counting names on patents, I counted individuals, although one person may have gotten many patents in a year.   There’s a rather sad story about that which I’ll tell in a later post.

Let’s first look at what fraction of all inventors live in which countries:

inventors_by_countryNot too surprising – these are the leading technical countries of the world.  The US is larger than it probably should be because this is its own system. The UK and France are farther down than I would have expected given their scientific prowess, and Taiwan is farther up.

Patents have been issued to 155 countries all told.  They’ve gone to inventors in a lot of places you wouldn’t expect: Cuba has 154, Iran 62, North Korea 32,  Afghanistan 3, Syria 2, and Greenland 1.  Even tiny Monaco has 19 inventors even though they only have 36K residents.

94 countries and territories had no inventors, of which the largest was Sudan (pop 38M), followed closely by Iraq (pop 37M).   Places torn up by war tend to not be good places for  patent lawyers.  There were also no inventors in Haiti, Laos, Bhutan, and El Salvador (too poor), or in Fiji (too beautiful), or in Antarctica (since no one is actually a citizen),  or in the Vatican, although I’m sure the Jesuits would file a lot if they were allowed to.

Now let’s look at the number of inventors versus number of people in a country.  The higher the ratio, the more inventive the place:

inventors_per_capita_by_countryThese are all the countries that beat the world average of 0.07 inventors per 1000.  The most inventive countries are in developed Asia, North America, and northern Europe, with Israel as an outlier.   This is again unsurprising.   The top countries are largely those whose main resource is educated people.   They invent because they must in order to be globally competitive.  The exceptions to that rule are the US, Sweden, and Canada, which do have lots of natural resources.    They also have lots of talented people, though, and so prove the rule.

Perhaps a better rule is that countries with strong democratic values are friendly to invention.  The least democratic state here is probably Singapore, and it still has a parliament, even though one party has always won.   The most democratic country that isn’t here is probably Spain.

Now let’s look closer at the US, where about half of those credited on US patents live.  Breaking it down by state:

inventors_by_stateCalifornia rules!  If it were its own country, it would be second only to the US and Japan in number of inventors.  Texas does well too – it has more inventors than all of China.  Note, though, that it’s the only red state in the top 10.

Sorry about that blur of names at the top – a lot of states just have very small proportions of the total.  However, there are inventors in every single US state, and even 2 in Guam.  There aren’t any in Samoa or the Northern Marianas, though.

Again let’s look by population:

inventors_per_capita_by_stateIn the states of Massachusetts and Washington, about 1 in 500 people received a patent in just the last year.   It looks overall like the Pacific coast and New England lead in inventiveness, plus Minnesota.   The highest-ranked red state is Utah at 13th.  It’s a bit surprising to see Hawaii at the bottom of the list, but perhaps it, like Fiji, is too distractingly beautiful to invent much in.

But these geographical regions are still pretty broad.   How about if we focus down on cities?   The statistics here vary wildly depending on city size, so let’s break it into categories of Large (> 3M people), Medium (300K to 3M) and Small (30K to 300K).  Here are the 30 most inventive large cities:

inventors_per_capita_by_large_cityJapan and Korea dominate.  I’ve never been to Korea, but I can say that whenever you visit Japan it’s clear that these are a people who delight in skill.    Bangalore, the red-hot heart of Indian tech, is #7, and the first non-Asian city on the list.   Los Angeles, New York and Berlin are the large inventive Western cities, and are similar at about 1 inventor per 3000 people.  Madrid is unexpected, and a bit ahead of London.  Paris actually does very well at 0.6 inventor/1000, but its nominal population is only 2.2M, so it missed the cutoff.

The largest city with zero inventors is Aleppo, Syria with 4.4M people.   Some other large inventor-less places are  Jiddah Saudi Arabia (2.8M), Medellin Columbia (2.4M), and Phnom Penh Cambodia (1.6M).

Moving to medium-size cities we see:

inventors_per_capita_by_medium_cityHsinchu is the richest city in Taiwan, and the home of the chip foundries TSMC and UMC.   Note that the scale here is about 10X that of the large cities.  Hsinchu has about 4000 inventors – as many as Yokohama even though it’s 10X smaller.  After it come San Jose and San Francisco, the south and north anchors of Silicon Valley.   Seattle, Austin and San Diego have their charms for coffee, music, and surfing.    Dixie is represented by Raleigh at #13, the anchor of North Carolina’s Research Triangle, a quite deliberate piece of government interference in the economy.

The largest US city with no inventors is Paterson, NJ, a decayed industrial town near NYC of about 150K.

Finally let’s look at the top 30 small cities:

inventors_per_capita_by_small_cityThe scale expands by another factor of 3X.  About 1 in 30 people in Redmond and Palo Alto was an inventor in 2014; that’s more than one per block.   The top spots are dominated by Silicon Valley, and a similar concentration around Microsoft in Redmond.   The highest eastern city is Lexington,MA at #12 at about 14 inventors / 1000.   It has a reputation as a high-end WASP suburb of Boston, but in looking at the names there I see a huge range of ethnicities.  It’s like the upper West Side of the Boston area.   I was pleased to see my own town, Arlington, MA as #21 in the world at about 9 / 1000.   Sadly, I did not myself contribute to the total in 2014, but I have in the past.

What conclusion can we draw from all this?   It’s impressive to see the range of places that inventions come from.   It’s most places in the world, aside from the dead poorest and the war-torn.  There’s a huge range in inventor density between Redmond and Aleppo, but in the developed world there’s an inventor for every couple of thousand people.   You may well have walked past one today.    Half a million people all over the world came up with something new in just the last year.   No wonder no one can keep up with modern life.

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