Archive for Monday, May 15, 2017

Editorial: Dig deeper

For America to remain the world’s leading innovator, it’s time to expand our horizons.

May 15, 2017

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It would be easy to understand why a story about a firm named the Boring Co. didn’t exactly grab your attention. But it may be the type of company that Americans ought to be rooting for.

The story was in the USA Today section of Saturday’s Journal-World. The Boring Co., founded by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, has the ambitious goal of boring tunnels beneath Los Angeles. Inside the tunnels will be machines that will ferry vehicles and their passengers from one end of the tunnel to another at speeds of up to 125 mph. Musk — who has begun test-boring on the project — hopes it will greatly alleviate the “soul-destroying” traffic congestion of L.A.

Will it work? Probably not. Most ideas don’t. But we ought to be glad that someone is trying.

The incandescent light bulb probably shouldn’t have lit up. A winged contraption in Kitty Hawk, N.C., probably shouldn’t have stayed airborne. Watson probably shouldn’t have heard Bell. But those ideas did work. They, and many others, have propelled America as the world’s leader in innovation, and our economy and lifestyles have greatly benefited from that designation.

That standing, though, should never be taken for granted. America still innovates, but at times it seems that our success causes us to settle. Billionaire entrepreneur Peter Thiel — an early investor in Facebook — has said in recent years that “we wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.”

There may be some truth to that sentiment. The personal computer, the internet and mobile devices all have been fairly recent innovations that were truly transformative. But now you hear some people say we are not living in the age of the internet but rather the age of social media. If that indeed is the era we live in, it may not produce a particularly compelling chapter in the history books.

Many of the most valuable inventions increase our productivity. Raise your hand if you feel like Facebook honestly has made society more productive. Certainly social media has value, but it is hard to see how it is going to change the world as much as some of the previously mentioned innovations, such as the lightbulb, aviation or the telephone.

Now, a series of tunnels that would allow vehicles to move at super-fast speeds — that could increase productivity. A new source of energy far cheaper and more efficient than fossil fuels could free up trillions of dollars in disposable income. Putting a human on Mars likely would create new technologies that we can’t imagine today.

In some ways, America seems to be becoming more insular. Such an attitude can be problematic on many fronts, but particularly in the area of innovation. It is tough to expand horizons if you spend most of your time looking inward.

It probably is a long shot that Musk’s tunnel project will produce success. But even if it doesn’t end L.A. traffic congestion, it can still be useful. It can serve as a reminder that for America to remain the world’s leading innovator, we’re going to need to dig deeper.

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