Progress is magical

September 1, 2009 in Technology

Scott Locklin writes an excellent and enjoyable blog, but I found his latest article for Taki Magazine extremely disappointing. Titled "The Myth of Technological Progress," it bemoans his perception that technology has not advanced in the last 50 years at nearly the same rate as in the previous half-century. (I know that the article plays directly into the paws of futurists like myself so, Scott, please forgive me for rising, most predictably, to the challenge.)

Not only do I strongly disagree, but I find the evidence tenuous at best - often hanging on subjective disclaimers and dismissals. This paragraph is particularly chafing:

Certainly, people can be forgiven for thinking we live in a time of great progress, since semiconductor lithography has improved over the years, giving us faster and more portable computers. But can we really do anything with computers now that we couldn’t have done 30 or even 50 years ago? I don’t think life is much different because of ubiquitous computers. Possibly more efficient and convenient, but not radically different, much like things got after the invention of computers in the ‘40s. Now we just waste time in the office in different ways.

I can do more casually on my iPhone than a computer could slog through 30 years ago. Moore's law suggests that in 50 years, the numbers of transistors on a chip would have increased by over one quintillion times (granted, there aren't that many transistors period) and in 30 years the transistor count has increased by more than one million times! This is before advances in manufacturing and cooling that themselves enhance performance, and while transistors most recently have not been accompanied by cycles, to make the claim that advances in computing power do not constitute monumental strides in technological progress is absurd. It rapidly becomes apparrant that Locklin is explicitly looking for devices which the world has never seen before; he dismisses refinements as somehow not worthwhile. He wants to see disruptive technologies.

But he is nearsighted in what he considers "disruptive." He states: "Telephones are better than they were in 1959, but the use of cell phones hasn’t really changed much." Moreover, "Surgical techniques are unarguably better now than 50 years ago, but they’re not terribly different either." Presumably, Sputnik's launch in 1957 would put modern satellite communications in the "better, but same" category as well. This viewpoint is unconstructive. Cell phones are no longer devices solely for hearing someone else's voice; they are multi-function computers that happen to make calls. Certainly, the core operational imperative is the same - but the process is much different. Surgery then, as now, involves the manipulation of internal tissue, but a modern cardiac or neuro-surgeon would use techniques unheard of 50 years ago. In fact, a robot might perform the operation.

He continues: "Are cars better? They are certainly safer, and it’s easier to buy a very high performance car than it was in 1959, but they don’t get much more efficient than they were in 1959." Yes, but now they can drive themselves! Isn't that worth something? In the next half-century, my grandchildren may be astounded to learn that I not only steered my own vehicle, but enjoyed doing so! (I recently saw a picture of my great-grandparents at the helm of an airborne "flying machine" that looked no more stable than a frame of cardboard tubes, and had just such a reaction.)

On planes: "The 747, a revolutionary passenger jet, was a concept in 1966. It was flying in 1968. The 787, which is not a revolutionary passenger jet, but one designed to be merely cheaper to operate, has been “in development” since 2004. It’s now 2009, and still no 787s." Let's not be hasty - the 747 was no more revolutionary than the recent Airbus A-380, so if you're going to include one you must include the other. In fact, the 747 is an example of planned obsolescence, as Boeing expected it to be rapidly replaced by supersonic jets. The 787, by contrast, constitutes a new paradigm of building jets, both physically (composite materials) and procedurally (various parts were built by other manufactures and recombined by Boeing). Never mind that its delays coincide with the worst crisis the airline industry has seen in a century - this is simply an unfair comparison.

It seems to me that Locklin's mistake here is to measure progress in terms of a one-dimensional attribute available in 1959 to that same quality in 2009. Progress in cars is not measured solely in "mpg"; progress in airplanes is not measured in "mph" (another example of his). It's a bit of a heuristical mistake, with the logic working like this: "In 1909, device X did not exist. In 1959, it did exist. In 2009, a certain component of it was not much better than it was in 1959. Therefore there was no progress." The clear counterargument is to identify things which either a) did not exist in 1959 but do in 2009 b) existed in 1959 and in 2009, but in radically different forms or c) existed in 1959 and in 2009 with the same core functionaltiy, but with vastly different ancillary processes or adoption patterns.

Examples of the first type include technology: GPS, satellite communications, fMRIs, email, flat-panel displays, Google, digital hard drives, fiber optics, etc. Examples of the second type include many physical devices: microprocessors, satellites themselves, fuel cells, skyscrapers, etc. Examples of the third type include many of Locklin's own: cars, planes, cell phones, surgery.

It may be that we have achieved many of our physical desires; and certainly those are the easiest to recognize the need for: I want to go here, do this, see that. It is unsurprising, therefore, that they have been checked off - the democratization of technology and the capital markets provides entrepreneurs in every arena. It is the refinement of those ideas that now takes hold, and the development of information technology which will overwhelm us. This may not appear as dramatic a change only because it is not as visibly different: as humans, we are basically information processors. Thus, the outsourcing of such processing to machines may not strike some of us as extraordinary. Sure, Google is great (you might say), but without it I could still look things up on my own. And that's probably the difference between the futurists and the pessimists.

Among my favorite quotes is this, from the late, great Arthur C. Clarke:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Is there not something magical about our connected, online world? About our astonishing advancements in the realm of genetics? About the vast flows of information that we tap into on a constant basis? To Locklin's point, it would be a eerily familiar world to a visitor from 1959. Certainly, they could function in it; but they would be at a severe disadvantage. If nothing else, the 1950's primed peoples' minds to accept that what was magical might actually be possible, and that attitude has jaded us ever since.

Finally, as for future developments that will change the world? I would list quantum computing immediately. More generally, the harnessing of entangled electrons could revolutionize communications and, dare I say, teleportation (or just action at a distance). Advances in cloaking technology are obviously going to be impactful, and despite Locklin's denials, nano bots will follow recent developments in self-learning, self-building robots. Autonomous traffic networks will certainly be disruptive, as will robotic caretakers (already in trial in Japan). The sequencing of the human genome provides limitless possibilities and stem cell research will yield unfathomable riches. Just this week, scientists created artificial eyes for blind tadpoles. Augmented reality is rapidly becoming a buzzword, but it will be a major force once implemented. Spaceflight is a given. Unmanned drones are performing our research and fighting our wars. Cheap water purification is transforming third world countries. HIV vaccine. Space elevators. Magic.

For another account of future progress on the information front, I encourage you to check out any novel the visionary Professor Vernor Vinge, in particular his recent work Rainbows End.

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