The expression “eating our seed corn” comes from times of severe drought or other weather induced tragedies when farm families’ near-term survival threatened their long-term survival. With each harvest of corn, ideally some of the seed is not consumed, but retained for planting the next year’s crop. Without this “seed corn,” no next year’s crop can be produced. Eating the seed corn provides short-run survival, but portends disaster for the family in the following year. This phenomenon may offer a metaphor for the impact of social trends on support for scholarly inquiry.
We are a world fascinated by the newest device or platform invented through new technology. These new technologies have offered transformative and positive changes to billions of people. The innovation culture spawning these benefits has several key ingredients – disruption of key features of the status quo, quick iterative improvements through a “fail fast” feature, and equally quick abandonment of ideas that fail to ramp. The culture is weakened by another feature, the so-called Gartner phases of innovation, which includes a “hype phase” that generally greatly overstates the likely benefits of a new technology.
These features have proven themselves amazingly efficient when a) the basic components of a new solution have been developed and proven useable in another domain, b) the assembly of new components offers a set of capabilities that were never before packaged in one service/entity, and c) a market for the new assembled entity is demonstrable. For example, Uber’s success builds on the messaging features of an internet platform, real-time GPS locational information for matching cars to requestors, credit-card electronic payment systems, the ubiquity of smart phones, and the untapped capacity of owners of autos seeking income supplementation. In short, the success of the idea rested on an effective assembly of existing components.
The genius of new technology can easily overshadow one important feature of societal innovation – the basic inquiry that led to the various components being available for assembly. For example, the current hype is focused on artificial intelligence, with boasts that it will replace most human thought and activity within a few years. It’s fair to argue that many AI applications find one of their roots in a 1948 paper by Claude Shannon, “A Mathematical Theory of Communication,” a paper that proffers the key framework underlying most of the key components of artificial intelligence (but also cryptography and data compression). In what could have been criticized as idle play by others, Shannon built a mechanical mouse that could “learn” its way through a maze in 1950; an act that might be easily criticized as child’s play. Theoretical breakthroughs often start with trivial implementations (if any implementation occurs at all), decades before their impactful application.
Would we be seriously planning for autonomous cars and trucks without the 1948 paper? What forces created the environment for Shannon to write the paper? What investments in talent are we making now that gives us assurance that the basic inquiry that is necessary for the innovation of the year 2060 is now occurring?
At one time scientists studying how a computer could play chess were ridiculed as frivolous. What basic questions are being addressed now that are easy candidates for ridicule (e.g., a study of the immune system of shrimp compromised in farmed waters using a treadmill)?
In a way, much of wonderful technological innovation we are experiencing now is based on a harvest of knowledge components that whose “planting” occurred years ago. Are we supporting the young minds who will discover the basic breakthroughs that will permit the innovation of 2060? Or, are they being drawn to other environments that support the next big innovation possible based on merely recombining existing knowledge? These minds and the basic discoveries they can make are our seed corn.