Bernardo M. Villegas
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Unlimited Capacity of Human Inventiveness (Part I)

           Thanks to a large dosage of economic history included in the curriculum of the Ph.D. in Economics program at Harvard University, I was immunized very early in my training as an economist from any Malthusian virus.  Two of our eminent professors, Simon Kuznets and Alexander Gerschenkron, demonstrated from their scrutiny of the last two centuries of human progress in economic development that there had never been any limit to growth from the standpoint of natural resources.  The resources of planet earth will always be adequate to meet human needs as long as human inventiveness is not restrained by human tyranny or destroyed by human malice.  Human inventiveness has no limit because it participates in the infinite intelligence of the Creator.

          With the support of the Boston Consulting Group, the Financial Times came out with a publication entitled "The fifty ideas that shaped business today" last June 2013.  Even just a few of these ideas have convinced me more than ever that present day Malthusians who talk about the world running out of resources to meet the needs of a growing population are barking at the wrong tree.  I would like to share these reflections of mine on my own personal experiences with those of my generation who can still remember the state of technology that prevailed in the late 1950s or early 1960s when the senior citizens of today finished their high school or college studies.  It is no exaggeration to say that in a little more than a half century the utility of some of the resources of this planet to satisfy human needs has multiplied thousands of times.

          Fresh from college in 1958, I started teaching as an instructor at the age of 19 in my alma mater, De La Salle College.  Among the subjects I taught were typing and shorthand (together with Logic and English).  Well, today Logic and English are still extremely valuable in preparing productive human beings, especially Filipinos whose knowledge of English has been one of the most outstanding economic assets of our nation.  It is obvious, however, what has happened to typing and shorthand.  A survey of university students in the various study centers around the Philippines with which I am familiar has confirmed my observation that anyone below 20 has never seen a typewriter, although the skill of touch typing is still very useful in handling the personal computer or its mobile equivalent.  Shorthand, together with slide rule and the calculator, have been relegated to the dust bin of history.  I have a nephew whose hobby is collecting all of these museum pieces, including my analogue tape recorder and kodak instamatic. I would invite pessimists who doubt the ability of human inventiveness to solve the economic problems of this world to visit his informal museum.

          As the BCG study reported, it was only in 1958, the year when I graduated from college with a double degree in accounting and the humanities from DLSC, that the microchip, or integrated circuit, was first created.  The chip has been the basic building block of scientific and technological progress since then.  Someone with the mentality of a Thomas Malthus would have never imagined that the microscopic chip "would launch space missions, modernize corporations, revolutionize world trading and, through progressive miniaturization, put power that was once the province of room-sized supercomputers into a smart phone that can fit in the palm of a hand."  I can attest to the enormous size of the supercomputers as late as the early 1960s at the Harvard computer lab where I had to go to do simple regression analysis for my doctoral thesis.

          People forget that before the chip was discovered, the natural resource called "sand" from which silicon is derived was "useless" except for construction and decorating beaches for tourists.  Today, it is as valuable as gold and uranium (also considered useless until its potentials for generating energy were discovered).   No one can say that the resources of this world are limited because heretofore "non-resources" can become some of the most valuable resources in the future.  In fact, the silicon revolution continues and no one knows what its limits will be.  According to the BCG report, Jack Kilby of Texas Instruments and Robert Noyce, co-founder of Intel, are jointly credited with coming up with the integrated circuit, by different means, at about the same time. "The two figured out that components and wires could be made from one material--silicon--and shaped as well as combined together on a single chip.  The latest chips from Intel have circuit widths of just 22 billionths of a meter and, while Intel's first microprocessor in 1971 had 2,250 transistors, 6 million of them from 22-nanometer chips could now fit on the full stop at the end of this sentence." (To be continued)