Monday, July 11, 2005

A new technological dark age?

The general asumption most people have is that technological innovation is not only progressing steadily, but that it's actually accelerating. However, one expert's careful study suggests that may not be so:

Entering a dark age of innovation

[Jonathan] Huebner is confident of his facts. He has long been struck by the fact that promised advances were not appearing as quickly as predicted. "I wondered if there was a reason for this," he says. "Perhaps there is a limit to what technology can achieve."

In an effort to find out, he plotted major innovations and scientific advances over time compared to world population, using the 7200 key innovations listed in a recently published book, The History of Science and Technology (Houghton Mifflin, 2004). The results surprised him.

This outlook it quite possibly too pessimistic. But an awful lot depends on future developments whose arrival is very difficult to predict, and which may not even occur any time soon. Among things that probably must happen in order to sustain technological advance are
  • Finding cheap, abundant sources of renewable energy to replace ever more expensive fossil fuels.
  • Inventing entirely new computing technologies such as "quantum computers" to take over when semiconductor-based iterative procedural computers reach their apparent limits in 10 or 15 years.
  • Averting looming and potentially quite disruptive environmental problems such as global warming and dwindling fresh water supplies.
  • Discovering a biotech means to prevent a global pandemic of an infectious disease such as avian flu or SARS, which could easily lead to a long-lasting economic depression.

That is all without even considering obvious global political problems, such as religious and cultural clashes, the proliferation of nuclear, chemical, and biological weapons, and conflicts arising from the vast disparity in wealth between the least and most affluent countries. It's hard to imagine any technological fix for problems like these.

And technology may not bail us out in areas where it can potentially be effective, if indeed innovation is about to slow significantly because most of the low-hanging fruit has already been picked.

It may well be that other goals such as sending humans back to the Moon and to Mars will have little useful value in dealing with any of these problems. Certainly we're not going to be able to move large numbers of Earth's population off the planet before technologies we can't even really imagine at present are developed. Space travel is probably not anywhere near our top priority right now. (Has the still unfinished space station been, or will it ever be, good for much of anything at all?)

What we're really going to need most to develop is more like a vast, renewable source of good sense and good luck.


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