Winter 2019, Vol. 25, No. 1, Pages 33-49
© 2019 Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Open-Ended Technological Innovation
Article PDF (10.39 MB)
We detect ongoing innovation in empirical data about human technological innovations. Ongoing technological innovation is a form of open-ended evolution, but it occurs in a nonbiological, cultural population that consists of actual technological innovations that exist in the real world. The change over time of this population of innovations seems to be quite open-ended. We take patented inventions as a proxy for technological innovations and mine public patent records for evidence of the ongoing emergence of technological innovations, and we compare two ways to detect it. One way detects the first instances of predefined patent pigeonholes, specifically the technology classes listed in the United States Patent Classification (USPC). The second way embeds patents in a high-dimensional semantic space and detects the emergence of new patent clusters. After analyzing hundreds of years of patent records, both methods detect the emergence of new kinds of technologies, but clusters are much better at detecting innovations that are unanticipated and undetected by USPC pigeonholes. Our clustering methods generalize to detect unanticipated innovations in other evolving populations that generate ongoing streams of digital data.