General-purpose technologies (GPTs) are technologies that can affect an entire economy (usually at a national or global level). GPTs have the potential to drastically alter societies through their impact on pre-existing economic and social structures. Examples include the steam engine, railroad, interchangeable parts, electricity, electronics, material handling, mechanization, control theory (automation), the automobile, the computer, the Internet, medicine, and artificial intelligence.
In economics, it is theorized that initial adoption of a new GPT within an economy may, before improving productivity, actually decrease it, due to: time required for development of new infrastructure; learning costs; and, obsolescence of old technologies and skills. Impending timeframe to utilize the latent benefits of the new technology is deemed a trade-off.
Historical GPT according to Lipsey and Carlaw
Economists Richard Lipsey and Kenneth Carlaw suggest that there have only been 24 technologies in history that can be classified as true GPTs. He defines a transforming GPT according to the four criteria listed below:
- is a single, recognisable generic technology
- initially has much scope for improvement but comes to be widely used across the economy
- has many different uses
- creates many spillover effects
Since their book, more GPTs have been added for the 21st century.[by whom?]
A GPT can be a product, a process or an organisational system.
The earliest technologies mentioned by Lipsey and Carlaw occur before the Neolithic period and have not been cast as GPTs, however, they are innovations that the other 24 rely upon.
|Spoken Language||process||Pre-10,000 BC|
|Mastery of fire||process||Pre-10,000 BC|
|Coil pottery||product||Pre-10,000 BC|
|Weapons (sharp-edged tools)||product||Pre-10,000 BC|
Expanded list of 24 technologies
Steam engine increased labor productivity annually by 0.34%; IT by 0.6% (1995–2005); robotics by 0.36% (1993–2007).
In his book, Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?: Military Procurement and Technology Development, Vernon W. Ruttan, Regents Professor Emeritus in the Department of Applied Economics at the University of Minnesota, examines the impact of military and defense-related procurement on U.S. technology development. Ruttan identifies the development of six general-purpose technologies:
- Interchangeable parts and mass production
- Military and commercial aircraft
- Nuclear energy
- Computers and semi-conductors
- The Internet
- The space industries
Based on his reading of the histories of these technologies, Ruttan finds that military and defense-related procurement has been a major source of technology development. He believes that the current technological landscape would look very different in the absence of military and defense-related contributions to commercial technology development. However, from his research, Ruttan determines that commercial technology development would have occurred in the absence of military procurement but more slowly, e.g., the aircraft, computer, and Internet industries. He cites nuclear power as an example of a general-purpose technology that would not have developed in the absence of military and defense-related procurement.
- Landes, David S. (1976). The Unbound Prometheus: Technological Change and Industrial Development in Western Europe from ... At the University Press.
- Rosenberg, Nathan (1982). Inside the Black Box: Technology and Economics. Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521273671.
- Bresnahan, Timothy F.; Trajtenberg, M. (1995-01-01). "General purpose technologies 'Engines of growth'?" (PDF). Journal of Econometrics. 65 (1): 83–108. doi:10.1016/0304-4076(94)01598-T.
- Liao, Hailin; Wang, Bin; Li, Baibing; Weyman-Jones, Tom (2016-09-01). "ICT as a general-purpose technology: The productivity of ICT in the United States revisited". Information Economics and Policy. 36: 10–25. doi:10.1016/j.infoecopol.2016.05.001. ISSN 0167-6245.
- Lipsey, Richard; Kenneth I. Carlaw; Clifford T. Bekhar (2005). Economic Transformations: General Purpose Technologies and Long-Term Economic Growth. Oxford University Press. pp. 131–218. ISBN 978-0-19-928564-8.
- Muro, Mark; Andes, Scott (16 June 2015). "Robots Seem to be Improving Productivity, Not Costing Jobs". Harvard Business Review.
- Ruttan, Vernon (2006). Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?: Military Procurement and Technology Development. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-518804-2.
- General Purpose Technologies and Economic Growth – edited by Elhanan Helpman
- Economic Transformations: General Purpose Technologies And Long-Term Economic Growth by Richard G. Lipsey, Kenneth I. Carlaw, Clifford T. Bekar
- Usage History of Industrial Robotics from IFR
- Paperless office adoption statistics – 2015
- Installed solar capacity and solar employment growth – 2015