Just how much is technology improving? It’s a hard question to answer. MIT researchers may have just come up with a way to calculate the rate of technology improvement based on information gathered from pending patents. This measurement isn’t just useful for scientists who enjoy crunching numbers; it could help new technology businesses figure out where to invest their research and development dollars.

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Searching through the U.S. Patent Office database for patents associated with each domain, researchers were able to calculate improvement rates for 28 different technologies including solar photovoltaics, 3D printing, fuel-cell technology and genome sequencing, according to Phys.org. The researchers were able to develop a method for garnering the patents that best represent each type of technology.

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After selecting the patents, researchers determined the rate of improvement through a number of methods, including forward citations. How often a patent was cited in other patents is a good indicator of a technology’s rate of improvement as well as its success. The researchers came up with an equation that incorporates a patent set’s average forward citation and average publication date, and determined the rate of improvement for each technology. The results almost completely matched a more labor-intensive approach that included finding many historical performance data points for each technology domain.

The fastest growing technologies include 3D printing, MRI technology, wireless communications, and optical technology. Slower technologies include batteries, wind turbines and combustion engines. Venture capitalists, universities, start-ups and government labs may be interested in this type of information to help further their research or other projects. “There’s a lot of nuance to our method, and I don’t see it as something to hand out to the masses to play with,” says Chris Benson, a former MIT graduate student, who helped developed the prediction tool. “I see it more as something where we work with somebody to help them understand what the future technological capabilities that they’re interested in are. We’re probably more like a real estate agent, and less like Zillow.”

The researchers are hoping to develop a rating system for technologies that will allow investors and scientific labs looking for new breakthroughs.

Via Phys.org

Images via Alexandre Dulaunoy and Neil Turner