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General-purpose technologies (GPTs) are technologies that can affect an entire economy (usually at a national or global level),,. GPTs have the potential to drastically alter societies through their impact on pre-existing economic and social structures. Examples include the steam engine, railroad, interchangeable parts, electricity, electronics, material handling, mechanization, control theory (automation), the automobile, the computer, the Internet, and the blockchain.
The introduction of a new GPT to an economy may, before improving productivity, actually decrease it:
This initial inability to exploit the benefits of the new technology is known as the Solow Paradox.
In his book, Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?: Military Procurement and Technology Development, Vernon W. Ruttan, Regents Professor Emeritus in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, examines the impact of military and defense-related procurement on U.S. technology development. Ruttan reviews the development of six general-purpose technologies:
Based on his reading of the histories of these technologies, Ruttan finds that military and defense-related procurement has been a major source of technology development. He believes that the current technological landscape would look very different in the absence of military and defense-related contributions to commercial technology development. However, from his research, Ruttan determines that commercial technology development would have occurred in the absence of military procurement but more slowly, e.g., the aircraft, computer, and Internet industries. He cites nuclear power as an example of a general-purpose technology that would not have developed in the absence of military and defense-related procurement.
In the book Global Energy Transformation, author Mats Larsson refers to the work of Professor Ruttan and argues that large scale government programs for energy systems transformation will become necessary to drive the development of new energy technologies. Energy efficient technologies and infrastructures will become necessary to drive economic growth in a future situation after peak oil. The task of developing and implementing these technologies on a large scale will be too complex and demanding in terms of resources, for the market to drive this on its own.
Larsson refers to earlier large scale development programs and projects, to support his argument. One is the transformation of US industry to war production during World War II, the second is the Marshall Plan and the third is the Apollo program. A similar government funded program will become necessary to transform global energy systems on a large scale.
Economist Richard Lipsey and Kenneth Carlaw suggests that there have only been 24 technologies in history that can be classified as true GPTs. He defines a transforming GPT according to the 4 criteria listed below:
Since their book, more GPTs have been added for the 21st century. A GPT can be a product, a process or an organisational system.
The earliest technologies mentioned by Lipsey and Carlaw occur before the neolithic period and have not been cast as GPTs, however, they are innovations that the other 24 rely upon.
|Mastery of Fire||Process||Pre-10,000BC|
|Domestication of plants||Neolithic Agricultural Revolution||9000-8000 BC||Process|
|Domestication of animals||Neolithic Agricultural Revolution, Working animals||8500-7500 BC||Process|
|Smelting of ore||Early metal tools||8000-7000 BC||Process|
|Wheel||Mechanization, Potter's wheel||4000-3000 BC||Product|
|Writing||Trade, Record keeping||3400-3200 BC||Process|
|Bronze||Tools & Weapons||2800 BC||Product|
|Iron||Tools & Weapons||1200 BC||Product|
|Water wheel||Inanimate power, Mechanical systems||Early Middle Ages||Product|
|Three-Masted Sailing Ship||Discovery of the New World, Maritime trade, Colonialism||15th Century||Product|
|Printing||Knowledge economy, Science education, Financial credit||16th Century||Process|
|Factory system||Industrial Revolution, Interchangeable parts||Late 18th Century||Organisation|
|Steam Engine||Industrial Revolution, Machine tools||Late 18th Century||Product|
|Railways||Suburbs, Commuting, Flexible location of factories||Mid 19th Century||Product|
|Iron Steamship||Global agricultural trade, International tourism, Dreadnought Battleship||Mid 19th Century||Product|
|Internal Combustion Engine||Automobile, Airplane, Oil industry, Mobile warfare||Late 19th Century||Product|
|Electricity||Centralized power generation, Factory electrification, Telegraphic communication||Late 19th Century||Product|
|Automobile||Suburbs, Commuting, Shopping centres, Long-distance domestic tourism||20th Century||Product|
|Airplane||International tourism, International sports leagues, Mobile warfare||20th Century||Product|
|Mass Production||Consumerism, Growth of US economy||20th Century||Organisation|
|Computer||Digital Revolution||20th Century||Product|
|Lean Production||Growth of Japanese economy||20th Century||Organisation|
|Internet||Electronic business, Crowdsourcing, Social networking, Information warfare||20th Century||Product|
|Biotechnology||Genetically modified food, Bioengineering, Gene therapy||20th Century||Process|
|Business Virtualization||Paperless office, Telecommuting, Software agents||21st Century||Process|
|Nanotechnology||Nanomaterials, Nanomedicine, Quantum dot solar cell, Targeted cancer therapy||21st Century||Product|
|Artificial Intelligence||Autonomous car, Inventory robot, Industrial robot||21st Century||Process|
Steam engine increased labor productivity annually by 0.34%, IT - 0.6% (in 1995-2005), robotics - 0.36% (in 1993-2007).