SFI External Professor W. Brian Arthur explores how new technology is created, and how closely evolutionary processes in technology mirror those from biology.

It's clear, Arthur says, that new technologies are always new combinations and new manifestations of technologies and pieces of technologies that already exist.

"The questions for people in engineering, or technology, or science is 'is there a family tree or ancestry for all technologies?" he says. "Could you take a cell phone, or could you take another technology, and go back in time and find a common ancestor? Where does all the technology come from? Is it all dreamed up out of nothing, or does it come from a background of technologies giving birth to new technologies?"

A "fair amount" of Darwinian-style evolution occurs in technology, for example when a new technology like the airplane is invented, and the better variations of that invention are selected.

But that isn't the whole story, Arthur says. "Occasionally you get these massively disruptive technologies that just seem to come out of nowhere" -- such as the jet engine or radar sensing, very different from their predecessors -- and these kinds of advancements are working on completely different principles, he says.

Hear Arthur's interview on the Santa Fe Radio Cafe (48 minutes, September 16, 2013)

Arthur is author of the 2011 book The Nature of Technology: What it Is and How it Evolves