When futurists predict that technology X will be developed, there is a common reply from people who do not know the history of technology. The replies are variations of “Technology X will be developed after we solve Y”. Y can be another technology or a societal problem.
Ridiculous to Not Start Getting a Technology Win While X Remains Unsolved
People usually have liked saying we need to solve world poverty or world hunger before we get technology X. Solutions for those problems are more important for humanity but developing new technology are not slowing down the pace for addressing those problems. China started industrializing in a major way about 200 years after the US and UK. Note: China’s industrialization lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty and reduced world hunger but increased air pollution and environmental impacts. There were steps forward and steps backward.
Is it reasonable to demand Google should not develop its search engine until after the Department of Motor Vehicles solved its long waiting line problem?
Is it reasonable to demand that large companies should not upgrade their data centers until after vaccinations are provided to every child in Africa?
There are 7.7 billion people in the world. There will be people who get things first and people who get things last. There will be people who solve a problem first and people who solve a problem last.
70% of the US enrolls in college after high school. 49% graduate with a college degree. Should there be some restrictions on who is allowed to attend college until college enrollment reaches 100%?
One less problem for one person is progress. The fact that many others still have many problems should not limit each person getting their own solutions as fast as possible.
Public sanitation increased life expectancy by several years. Vaccines and antibiotics increased life expectancy by several years. AIDS drugs boosted life expectancy by several years for those with HIV. Should I not get new heart medicine until after everyone gets AIDS treatment?
The range of life expectancy for different people goes from about 50-90. Health is unequal. Access to technology is unequal.
Centuries to Millenia Delays in Solving Problems or Adopting Technology
In the 1880s, coal was first used to generate electricity for homes and factories. Whale oil and kerosene were burned for lighting lamps. Wood was used for cooking and heating. Wood was also used to power some steam engines. Coal is still the major source of power for the world.
There has been over a century of overlap where the world still uses a lot of wood and coal while at the same time oil, nuclear power and renewables are developed. The world’s main biofuel is still wood.
Petroleum did not pass coal as the dominant global energy source until the 1960s.
Here is the history of US energy from 1775.
The US is using a lot more natural gas than the rest of the world and the US transitioned in a major way decades before countries like China and other countries in Asia and Africa.
Nuclear fission power was first used for commercial power in 1956.
The first successful drug for the treatment of the disease AIDS was approved in 1987. In 2017, 21 Million people receive drug treatment for AIDS out of 37 million people with HIV. In 2017, 1.8 million people became newly infected, and 1 million died of HIV-related causes.
The antibiotic penicillin was developed in 1928. There are still countries in Africa that have poor medical treatment.
Public health and sanitation systems were first developed by the Ancient Romans. Romans had latrines and systems for delivering clean water. Flushable toilets were invented in 1596 by Sir John Harington, an English courtier and the godson of Queen Elizabeth I. The first public toilet was in 1852. In 2017, 2.0 billion people still do not have basic sanitation facilities such as toilets or latrines. 673 million still defecate in the open, for example in street gutters, behind bushes or into open bodies of water. At least 10% of the world’s population is thought to consume food irrigated by wastewater.
Technology development did not stop after ancient Rome developed aqueducts while we waited for the world to adopt public health and sanitation.
China mostly industrialized from 1980 to 2010. There are countries that still have not industrialized.
Africa is still adopting cellphones, the internet and bank or financial accounts.
Brian Wang is a Futurist Thought Leader and a popular Science blogger with 1 million readers per month. His blog Nextbigfuture.com is ranked #1 Science News Blog. It covers many disruptive technology and trends including Space, Robotics, Artificial Intelligence, Medicine, Anti-aging Biotechnology, and Nanotechnology.
Known for identifying cutting edge technologies, he is currently a Co-Founder of a startup and fundraiser for high potential early-stage companies. He is the Head of Research for Allocations for deep technology investments and an Angel Investor at Space Angels.
A frequent speaker at corporations, he has been a TEDx speaker, a Singularity University speaker and guest at numerous interviews for radio and podcasts. He is open to public speaking and advising engagements.
10 thoughts on “Technology Progresses While Problems Remain Unsolved”
Except Brian didn’t write this article. His articles usually consist of many short two or three sentence paragraphs, and usually a few instances of subject-verb disagreement or improper articles. That’s understandable, and is part of his voice, and it doesn’t detract from his message.
When an article like this above is published, where the paragraph and sentence structures are more complex, and there are virtually no grammatical errors, then it means somebody else wrote this and Brian just posted it under his name. One, that would be plagiarism .. brian should note the author of any article when it’s not him. Second, he’s not responsible for deficiencies in the article .. he didn’t right it, so he can’t be accountable for problems with it.
That’s fair, but I’m not trying to say that there aren’t good arguments and bad arguments, merely that the arguments take different forms. I have no clue whether the cost/benefit/risk considerations come out better in anti-aging research than they do in cancer research. But it certainly seems like a legitimate argument to assert that one is better than the other.
On the other hand, arguments like “we should solve world hunger before we invest in space travel” (to name a perennially silly one), are largely non sequiturs.
Solve cheap, clean energy and you’ll solve all the problems.
Except on your form ‘2’, there’s the likelihood that in any field of research, there will be some lower-hanging fruit of progress that can be made, while investing the same amount in a more heavily researched area might give little or no benefit.
Cancer research certainly seems to fit that model, as we’ve been investing in it heavily for many decades and progress has been slow. Relatively little has gone into anti-aging, and while it hasn’t yielded any provable lifespan gains, it does appear that fundamental understanding of aging has been gained. This seems, to me, to argue to invest across a spectrum of ‘competing’ research targets, and ramp up investment in fields that show the most rapid progress.
Also, for that specific example, since younger people have lower incidence of cancer than older people, it seems likely that achieving anti-aging could reduce or delay cancer.
I was about to say much the same thing.
I think it would be clearer if Brian gave some examples of what he was writing about, instead of describing it is vague terms and hypotheticals.
Should we help build 10,000 more coal power plants so all the third world people can choke on the soot like the early industrial cities’ occupants? Everything does not have to mimic the same trajectory. Humanity can learn from the past and develop the undeveloped world in far superior ways.
And using wastewater to grow food is just fine as long as it is sterilized to some degree. In fact, this is superior…provided modern chemicals and heavy metals and such are removed or never enter the wastewater. Our flushing all those nutrients down the toilet and out to sea is unsustainable.
But, yes, there are many dubious things people present as barriers to change. Bit of a straw man though to liken someone saying “We need to solve our massive footprint problem before we allow population to double in a few decades if no one is dying of aging diseases” to: “Is it reasonable to demand Google should not develop its search engine until after the Department of Motor Vehicles solved its long waiting line problem?”
No, it’s reasonable to have to defend the advocacy of radical life extension. To think about and address possible effects. That just comes with the territory.
That said, we are very capable of accommodating radical life extension without going to the negative extremes dystopian nuts present like forced euthanasia after X years, or forced sterilizations, licenses to have children, etc. And our environmental impact can be a very small fraction of today, with more people/stuff.
There are three different forms of these “Y before X” arguments:
1) One where there’s judgment of the relative value of Y over X. This is mostly what’s being discussed above, and I tend to agree that these ultimately turn into a silly form of whataboutism.
2) One where Y and X are competing as solutions to one or more problems. It’s perfectly reasonable to have a discussion about whether anti-aging or cancer research is a better use of investment dollars. It’s also perfectly reasonable to argue that research into anti-aging is pointless if everybody then dies from cancer in about the same amount of time as their lives would be extended.
3) Finally, there are issues of dependency, where Y is necessary to develop X efficiently. For example, I can make a good argument that the money we spent on fusion research in the 80’s, 90’s, and 00’s would have been better spent developing and commercializing high-temperature superconductors. If it had, we’d be building a version of ARC in Cadarache instead of ITER, and it would likely have cost about a quarter as much.
Yeah, that’s human ingenuity at large. It’s slow, but it works as long as it is allowed and it’s our best reason to have hope in the future.
Radical advances are slow to become widespread, sometimes even to be accepted as real. But after a while they are absorbed by a few experts and driven into commercial applications for humanity’s benefit and consumption.
That’s the magic of free markets, division of work and specialization, which have allowed humanity to reach much greater heights than would be possible for any single human, in terms of gained abilities and powers.
That’s why it’s a happy occurrence that space launchers and travel start becoming more about a service and about who can pay for it, than about who ‘deserves’ to go by earning enough votes and political whims to their favor.
Its not an major issue outside of the obvious idiots.
However perfect is the enemy of good enough.
If the environmentalists says global warming will kill us all so spam build nuclear reactors and brace for the meltdowns would strengthen their cause a lot.
You identify an major and an minor danger and focus on the major even if it increase the minor.
However they turn around and protest against wind farms because they are noisy and kill birds.
In effect they believe global warming is an minor effect, so they are more global warming deniers than I.
Or rater they live in an fantasy world who is unlike most fantasy worlds as they are pretty grim places compared to today.
I didn’t know this was such a widespread problem, aside from the governmental related “no Mars missions when the money could be better spent alleviating the worst affects of poverty”.
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