New method uses patent data to estimate a technology’s future rate of improvement.
How fast is online learning evolving? Are wind turbines a promising investment? And how long before a cheap hoverboard makes it to market?
Attempting to answer such questions requires knowing something about the rate at which a technology is improving. Now engineers at MIT have devised a formula for estimating how fast a technology is advancing, based on information gleaned from relevant patents.
The researchers determined the improvement rates of 28 different technologies, including solar photovoltaics, 3-D printing, fuel-cell technology, and genome sequencing. They searched through the U.S. Patent Office database for patents associated with each domain — more than 500,000 total — by developing a novel method to quickly and accurately select the patents that best represent each technology.
Once these were identified, the researchers analyzed certain metrics across patents in each domain, and found that some were more likely to predict a technology’s improvement rate than others. In particular, forward citations — the number of times a patent is cited by subsequent patents — is a good predictor, as is the date of a patent’s publication: Technologies with more recent patents are likely innovating at a faster rate than those with older patents.