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Shoulders of Others

New inventions often build off of what's already around, altering and combining them in new and interesting ways, writes the Emerging Technology from the arXiv blog at MIT's Technology Review. But whether or not that common wisdom is accurate has been unclear.

A new study available at arXiv from Hyejin Youn at University of Oxford and colleagues turned to technology codes used by the US Patent Office to determine just that. By mining patent office records, which stretch back to 1790, Youn and colleagues found that 40 percent of new inventions use an existing combinations of technologies while 60 percent rely on novel combinations of technologies.

"That has important implications," says the Emerging Technology from the arXiv blog. "One idea is that new inventions can come about through a random walk through the space of all possible permutations of technologies. But the fact that 40 per cent reuse previously existing combinations suggests that invention is not the result of this kind of random search."

This, it adds, is somewhat analogous to how biological organisms evolved — through a combinational process that relies on certain building blocks, but that is also path-dependent and shaped by selection.

"Studying patent, comparative and systemic records of inventions, will open a way to make quantitative assessments for a counterpart of these features of biological evolution in technological evolution," the researchers say.