General purpose technology: what is it, and what can it do?

Once in a while, a new technological invention changes the course of human advancement and the way we live and work. These transformative technologies then go on to form the foundation of a host of other tools, skills, ideas, and opportunities.

We call such inventions general purpose technology.

But what exactly makes a technological innovation ‘general purpose’? What do general purpose technologies do that make them important?

What is general purpose technology?

General purpose technology (GPT) refers to technologies that have a wide range of abilities, substantial scope to grow and improve, and the value to affect an entire economy and worldview.

So, GPTs:

  • Are generic technologies, which can be adapted to fit a variety of functions and have many different uses;
  • At the time of creation, have a large scope for growth and improvement;
  • Get widely adopted across an economy or economies;
  • Create opportunities — leading to spillover or ripple effects, such as a change in work conditions, more inventions, different perceptions of the world, etcetera.

General purpose technology through the ages

GPTs have appeared intermittently throughout the ages, from the very start of human existence. For example:

·         Early general purpose technology

Early innovations that could (arguably) be considered GPT include language, clothing, fire, weaponry/tool making, the wheel, and so on. These things allowed us to work together and create civilisation, countries, economies. They’re the foundation of a host of other technologies and opportunities that humans have enjoyed over the centuries.

Moving later in the early GPT timeline, we find the technologies behind the industrial revolution.  (The improvement of the printing press, the development of a factory system, etc.) The industrial revolution massively changed the creation of goods and the way people worked and earned money. In other words, the GPTs behind it directly impacted the economy.

For another early example, consider the impact that the steam engine/locomotive and railroads brought to travel and the ability to transport goods for sale. Or, consider what the discovery and harnessing of electricity has done to boost further technological growth.

But GPTs aren’t just from the distant past — some are from a recent time, creating new opportunities and impacts that we have lived through in our lifetimes. For example:

·         Modern GPT

  • Cars

A distant descendant of the wheel and the train, cars are a common sight on streets today. They revolutionised personal travel. Cars made local tourism easier than ever, as well as providing easy access to more businesses and opportunities for enjoyment.

  • The internet

Another, more modern major general purpose technology is the internet — something which is arguably still evolving. The internet is so widely used as to be near-ubiquitous. It has completely changed too much to recount: job applications, shopping, learning. It enabled globalisation on a huge scale, and connected people across the world, allowing for more collaboration.

  • Automation

Automation — both as software and as industrial robots — is a general purpose technology that’s still expanding in use and functionality today. It’s the perfect example of what it means for GPT to serve a wide array of functions. After all, automation can do almost anything you tell it to. (Provided you can write/provide the rules for it.)

Automation is also impacting the economy and the way we work by improving productivity. It does this by taking on work that provides little new value — leaving humans to do more engaging work that furthers the growth of the businesses they’re representing.

Entirely ‘new’ examples of general purpose technology (that is, GPT that is only just now becoming a useful, usable technology) also exist. For instance:

·         Newest GPT

The biggest example of new GPT is artificial intelligence (AI). This is a technology encompassing a huge scope — machine learning, natural language processing and speech recognition, artificial creativity and intelligent analytics, etc. It’s giving way to smarter chatbots, more powerful robots, and better data use across business, social, and medical fields. (As a small sample of examples only.)

As an emergent technology, AI is still not as widely used as, say, automation or the internet. But it’s set to grow to meet these standards as its capabilities improve.

What can general purpose technology do?

Looking at these examples, it’s clear that general purpose technology doesn’t do any one thing. Rather, it provides a foundation for a host of functionalities and opportunities. It leads to new ways of doing things, and new devices and products too.

Sometimes, GPT may (initially) dampen productivity while it creates the need for new infrastructure, new skills to be learned, and time for people to adapt to the change. But it boosts productivity in the longer-term.

GPT also changes the way we see the world and interact with it, such as through communication or travel, for instance.

In short, general purpose technologies are those that drive massive economic growth and further technical progress.

TL;DR: General purpose technology

So, in a nutshell, what is general purpose technology?

General purpose technologies directly impact the economy, technological growth, and the way we live. GPTs are the inventions that create waves across time and society. And in doing so, they also serve a huge variety of functions.

Useful links

The automated workplace: automation and the office atmosphere

Automation and the Swing Riots

A history of automation: the rise of robots and AI