How Science and Technology Slammed into a Wall and What We Should Do About It

Captin Future 1944

It might be said that some contemporary futurists tend to use technological innovation and scientific discovery in the same way God was said to use the whirlwind against defiant Job, or Donald Rumsfeld treated the poor citizens of Iraq a decade ago. It’s all about the “shock and awe”. One glance at something like KurzweilAI.Net leaves a reader with the impression that brand new discoveries are flying off the shelf by the nanosecond and that of all our deepest sci-fi dreams are about to come true. No similar effort is made, at least that I know of, to show all the scientific and technological paths that have led  into cul-de-sac, or chart all the projects packed up and put away like our childhood chemistry sets to gather dust in the attic of the human might-have- been.  In exact converse to the world of political news, in technological news it’s the jetpacks that do fly we read about not the ones that never get off the ground.

Aside from the technologies themselves future oriented discussion of the potential of technologies or scientific discovery tends to come in two stripes when it comes to political and ethical concerns: we’re either on the verge of paradise or about to make Frankenstein seem like an amiable dinner guest.

There are a number of problems with this approach to science and technology, I can name more, but here are three: 1) it distorts the reality of innovation and discovery 2) it isn’t necessarily true, 3) the political and ethical questions, which are the most essential ones, are too often presented in a simplistic all- good or all-bad manner when any adult knows that most of life is like ice-cream. It tastes great and will make you fat.

Let’s start with distortion: A futurists’ forum like the aforementioned, KurzweilAI.Net,  by presenting every hint of innovation or discovery side-by-side does not allow the reader to discriminate between both the quality and the importance of such discoveries. Most tentative technological breakouts and discoveries are just that- tentative- and ultimately go nowhere. The first question a reader should ask is whether or not some technique process or prediction has been replicated.  The second question is whether or not the technology or discovery being presented is actually all that important. Anyone who’s ever seen an infomercial knows people invent things everyday that are just minor tweaks on what we already have. Ask anyone trapped like Houdini in a university lab-  the majority of scientific discovery is not about revolutionary paradigm shifts ala Thomas Kuhn but merely filling in the details. Most scientists aren’t Einsteins in waiting. They just edit his paperwork.

Then we have the issue of reality: anyone familiar with the literature or websites of contemporary futurists is left with the impression that we live in the most innovative and scientifically productive era in history. Yet, things may not be as rosy as they might appear when we only read the headlines. At least since 2009, there has been a steady chorus of well respected technologists, scientists and academics telling us that innovation is not happening fast enough, that is that our rates of technological advancement are not merely not exceeding those found in the past, they are not even matching them. A common retort to this claim might be to club whoever said it over the head with Moore’s Law; surely,with computer speeds increasing exponentially it must be pulling everything else along. But, to pull a quote from ol’ Gershwin “ it ain’t necessarily so”.

As Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft and the financial muscle behind the Allen Institute for Brain Science pointed out in his 2011 article, The singularity isn’t near, the problems of building ever smaller and faster computer chips is actually relatively simple, but many of the other problems we face, such as understanding how the human brain works and applying the lessons of that model- to the human brain or in the creation of AI- suffer what Allen calls the “complexity break”. The problems have become so complex that they are slowing down the pace of innovation itself. Perhaps it’s not so much of a break as we’ve slammed into a wall.

A good real world example of the complexity break in action is what is happening with innovation in the drug industry where new discoveries have stalled. In the words of Mark Herper at Forbes:

But the drug industry has been very much a counter-example to Kurzweil’s proposed law of accelerating returns. The technologies used in the production of drugs, like DNA sequencing and various types of chemistry approaches, do tend to advance at a Moore’s Law-like clip. However, as Bernstein analyst Jack Scannell pointed out in Nature Review’s Drug Discovery, drug discovery itself has followed the opposite track, with costs increasing exponentially. This is like Moore’s law backwards, or, as Scannell put it, Eroom’s Law.”

It is only when we acknowledge that there is a barrier in front of our hopes for innovation and discovery that we can seek to find its source and try to remove it. If you don’t see a wall you run the risk of running into it and certainly won’t be able to do the smart things: swerve, scale, leap or prepare to bust through.

At least part of the problem stems from the fact that though we are collecting a simply enormous amount of scientific data we are having trouble bringing this data together to either solve problems or aid in our actual understanding of what it is we are studying. Trying to solve this aspect of the innovation problem is a goal of the brilliant young technologist,Jeffrey Hammerbach, founder of Cloudera. Hammerbach has embarked on a project with Mt. Sinai Hospital to apply tools for organizing and analyzing the overwhelming amounts of data gather by companies like Google and FaceBook to medical information in the hopes of spurring new understanding and treatments of diseases. The problem Hammerbach is trying to solve as he acknowledged on a recent interview with Charlie Rose is precisely the one identified by Herper in the quote above, that innovation in treating diseases like mental illness is simply not moving fast enough.

Hammerbach, is our Spiderman. Having helped create the analytical tools that underlie FaceBook he began to wonder if it was worth it quipping: “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads”.  The real problem wasn’t the lack of commercial technology it was the barriers to important scientific discoveries that would actually save people’s lives. Hammerbach’s conscientious objection to what technological innovation was being applied for vs what it wasn’t is, I think, a perfect segway (excuse the pun) to my third point the political and ethical dimension, or lack thereof, in much of futurists writing today.

In my view, futurists too seldom acknowledges the political and ethical dimension in which technology will be embedded. Technologies hoped for in futurists communities such as brain-computer interfaces, radical life extension, cognitive enhancements or AI are treated in the spirit of consumer goods. If they exist we will find a way to pay for them. There is, perhaps, the assumption that such technologies will follow the decreasing cost curves found in consumer electronics: cell phones were once toys for the rich and now the poorest people on earth have them.

Yet, it isn’t clear to me that the technologies hoped for will actually follow decreasing curves and may instead resemble health care costs rather than the plethora of cheap goods we’ve scored thanks to Moore’s Law. It’s also not clear to me that should such technologies be invented to be initially be affordable only by the rich that this gap will at all be acceptable by the mass of the middle class and the poor unless it is closed very, very fast. After all, some futurists are suggesting that not just life but some corporal form of immortality will be at stake. There isn’t much reason to riot if your wealthy neighbor toots around in his jetpack while you’re stuck driving a Pinto. But the equation would surely change if what was at stake was a rich guy living to be a thousand while you’re left broke, jetpackless, driving a Pinto and kicking the bucket at 75.

The political question of equity will thus be important as will much deeper ethical questions as to what we should do and how we should do it. The slower pace of innovation and discovery, if it holds, might ironically, for a time at least, be a good thing for society (though not for individuals who were banking on an earlier date for the arrival of technicolored miracles) for it will give us time to sort these political and ethical questions through.

There are 3 solutions I can think of that would improve the way science and technology is consumed and presented by futurists, help us get through the current barriers to invention and discovery and build our capacity to deal with whatever is on the other side. The first problem, that of distortion, might be dealt with by better sorting of scientific news stories so that the reader has some idea both where the finding being presented lies along the path of scientific discovery or technological innovation and how important a discovery is in the overall framework of a field. This would prevent things occurring such as a preliminary findings regarding the creation of an artificial hippocampus in a rat brain being placed next to the discovery of the Higgs Boson, at least without some color coating or other signification that these discoveries are both widely separated along the path of discovery and of grossly different import.

As to the barriers to innovation and discovery itself: more attempts such as those of Hammerbach’s need to be tried. Walls need to be better identified and perhaps whole projects bringing together government and venture capital resources and money used to scale over or even bust through these blocked paths. As Hammerbach’s case seems to illustrate, a lot of technology is fluff, it’s about click-rates, cool gadgets, and keeping up with the joneses. Yet, technology is also vitally important as the road to some of our highest aspirations. Without technological innovation we can not alleviate human suffering, extend the time we have here, or spread the ability to reach self-defined ends to every member of the human family.

Some technological breakthroughs would actually deserve the appellation. Quantum computing, if viable, and if it lives up to the hype, would be like Joshua’s trumpets against the walls of Jericho in terms of the barriers to innovation we face. This is because, theoretically at least, it would answer the biggest problem of the era, the same one identified by Hammerbach, that we are generating an enormous amount of real data but are having a great deal of trouble organizing this information into actionable units we actually understand. In effect, we are creating an exponentially increasing data base that requires exponentially increasing effort to put the pieces of this puzzle together- running to standstill. Quantum computing, again theoretically at least, would solve this problem by making such databases searchable without the need to organize them beforehand. 

Things in terms of innovation are not, of course, all gloom and doom. One fast moving  field that has recently come to public attention is that of molecular and synthetic biology perhaps the only area where knowledge and capacity is not merely equalling but exceeding Moore’s Law.

To conclude, the very fact that innovation might be slower than we hope- though we should make every effort to get it moving- should not be taken as an unmitigated disaster but as an opportunity to figure out what exactly it is we want to do when many of the hoped for wonders of science and technology actually arrive. At the end of his recent TED-Talk on reviving extinct species, a possibility that itself grows out of the biological revolution of which synthetic biology is a part, Stewart Brand, gives us an idea of what this might look like. When asked if it was ethical for scientist to “play God” in doing such a thing he responded that he and his fellow pioneers were trying to answer the question of if we could revive extinct species not if we should. The ability to successfully revive extinct species, if it worked, would take some time to master, and would be a multi-generational project the end of which Brand, given his age, would not see. This would give us plenty of time to decide if de-extinction was a good idea, a decision he certainly hoped we would make. The only way we can justly do this is to set up democratic forums to discuss and debate the question.

The ex-hippie Brand has been around a long time, and great evidence to me that old age plus experience can still result in what we once called wisdom. He has been present long enough to see many of our technological dreams of space colonies and flying cars and artificial intelligence fail to come true despite our childlike enthusiasm. He seems blissfully unswept up in all the contemporary hoopla, and still less his own importance in the grand scheme of things, and has devoted his remaining years to generation long projects such as the Clock of the Long now, or the revival of extinct species that will hopefully survive into the far future after he is gone.

Brand has also been around long enough to see all the Frankenstein’s that have not broken loose, the GMOs and China Syndromes and all those oh so frightening “test tube babies”.  His attitude towards science and technology seems to be that it is neither savior nor Shiva it’s just the cool stuff we can do when we try. Above all, he knows what the role of scientists and technologists are, and what is the role of the rest of us. Both of the former show us what tricks we can play, but it is up to all of us as to how or if we should play them.

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2 comments on “How Science and Technology Slammed into a Wall and What We Should Do About It

  1. […] we were making, and our ability to model those discoveries coherently, may be coming to an end almost as soon as it was identified. Artificial intelligence should allow us to make potent and amazing new models of the natural […]

  2. […] becoming truly universal, or from the exponential growth upon which this spreading prosperity rests being tapped out and proving a short-lived phenomenon- it is, after all only two centuries old. Should rising powers […]

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