Technological and Scientific Progress

In last week’s post I made the case for strong investments in big science, see here. On the web we see a culture clash between religious and often fundamentalist denialists on the one hand, and usually rational and usually atheist “believers” in science and the scientific method on the other. From my wording it is not hard to guess my position in this debate.

I will not advocate any links to the “Dark Side”, but good and often funny (and probably known to my readers) places to follow this debate are on Facebook: “I Feacking Love Science” (actually the title of the page is different, but I believe it would be filtered out as inappropriate language, so I use the same word as the URL), and on Twitter people like Bill NyeRichard Dawkins and Neil deGrasse Tyson.

The debates are around global warming, evolution, cosmology, stem cell research, just to name the loudest and most published of them. On a higher level the debate is about different paradigms of reality: Between on the one hand people who have ready stories of the world versus people who display continuous curiosity and ever deeper searching for how stuff works; but also a debate between people who hope for Armageddon versus people who care for the world we leave to humanity after us and who believe that we do make a difference. This last facet is nicely discussed by Christopher Hitchens in “God is not Great“, a recommended read for all who are interested in the debate between religion and atheism (God Is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything).

In the many debates we see strong emotions on both sides. On the side of the rationalists we see often a pessimistic fear that the influence of the religious fundamentalists will lead to a destruction of science, and therefore a destruction of the Earth. Though I sympathize with those emotions, the thought is incorrect and does not consider the evolutionary logic of scientific and technological progress.

As with many temporal catastrophes, it is good to take a historical perspective. Ray Kurzweil does a nice job at drawing this bigger picture in his book The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology. I will refer to Kurzweil again in later posts, he has a very optimistic but therefore inspirational view on our mid-term future.

Kurzweil claims that most scientific and technological progress show an exponential growth curve. The example in the figure on the right is from computing speed which is the well-known Moore’s Law, but he provides many more examples. Basically all forms of growth or development that show a more or less fixed percentage of increase per time unit are exponential growth processes. Exponential growth curves exhibit a number of interesting features.

The first is that they appear linear and quite flat in the early phases of the process. That is, until they reach what Kurzweil calls the “knee”, when the growth takes off to explosive growth rates. Until this knee is reached, we all seem to recognize a linear growth. And many of our predictions regarding the future are based on this perceived linear development rate. Kurzweil then argues that the development of a number of technologies are close to reaching this knee in their growth curve, and will reach explosive growth rates during the coming 20 to 50 years: in particular computing, brain science and cognitive science. He names this explosive growth phase “the singularity“, free after John von Neumann who coined the concept in the mid-1950s.

As indicated above, I guess Kurzweil can be criticized for his boundless optimism, and partially for being somewhat selective in finding evidence to support his claims, instead of using the scientific approach of critically searching for falsification. But then again he doesn’t claim his work to be a piece of science. Place it somewhere in between science fiction – which also provides mightily important inspiration for science and technology, just think of Asimov – and science. I actually see his work as part of the tradition of futurology, which is a form of quality speculation (and always fun to follow-up over the years). Futurologists make predictions about the future. But then again, isn’t that what science does? As long as we are comparing the predictions with what happens in the real world there is nothing wrong with this activity!

The second feature of many growth curves that Kurzweil presents is that they seem so very continuous. Maybe we see a little bump due to some world wars, maybe some small wiggles here and there. But in the big picture, think 70 years and more, these growth curves are very very continuous. My point here is that the growth seems to be driven by forces stronger than the Pope, Stalin, Hitler, Khomeini or the Tea Party.

On a regional scale developments may slow down for several decades due to political or religious obstruction, but globally not much changes. Brains follow the money! Many scientists escaped from Russia and Germany before WW2 to move to either the UK or the USA to continue their scientific and technological work. Many people of learning left Iran after the initial illusion of liberation by the Ayatollahs had faded. Unfortunately Iran pays good money to nuclear physicists, so too many of them stayed in the country! And there are examples of genetic scientists leaving the US after Bush II stopped the funding for stem cell research, see e.g. here. And stem cell research has continued in Europe and Japan, hardly noticing the obstruction in the USA.

Scientists are people with a mission (if you are a scientist and you don’t recognize this statement you may consider getting into a different business!). They will go where ever they can do their work. Think of the famous example of Wernher von Braun, the father of the V2 and of the Apollo program. Often this type of behavior  is considered amoral. Well, whatever. But it is the driver behind scientific and technological progress. Scientists will continue to do science and go where the money is and where the possibility exists to do their work. Scientists and technologists have moved for as long as written history exists: Thinkers went to Athens, Tycho Brahe moved away from Denmark after the funding for his Hven observatory was stopped by the new Danish King Christian IV, and found new funding by Bohemian king Rudolph II in Prague.

So Scientists continue to do science and  technologists will continue to develop technology. The exponential growth curves show it. Therefore I can now write this post on a PC with thousands of times more computing power than the Mainframe on which I did my first programming. Therefore we are beating AIDS. Therefore we are able to give pre-tsunami warnings to people in coastal regions. Therefore we are now progressing with treatment research for Alzheimer disease using stem cells. Because scientists do what they have to do: Science.

And no Congress, no Ayatollah, no Pope and no economic crisis can stop science and technology. Not on the larger scare, in the longer time. They can cause small dips in the curve. They can cause utter frustration with groups of dedicated scientists. But in the bigger picture these obstructionists of progress are irrelevant.

Therefore I am not so pessimistic about the future of our civilization. Not that there are no potentially catastrophic threats! There are! But the evolutionary forces of variation of ideas and survival of the most fruitful of those ideas is unstoppable as long as there is humanity. And that is a good thing!

Now don’t get me wrong: I strongly support efforts to stop the anti-progress zealots, I object to teaching creationism, I campaign against the Global Warming Deniers and in favor of strong action to reduce Greenhouse gasses. Those are necessary actions to prevent unnecessary human suffering. But I do not believe that even if we lose one or two of these battles it means the end of science and the end of the world. The evolution of progress and intelligence has too strong a logic to be stopped by human stupidity. Call me an optimist, I can live with that. Optimism and speculation about where we can go inspires us, and our children, to work on our future, in all it’s fascinating complexity and in all its surprising directions.

Where will this all bring us? Kurzweil and others have strong opinions about that, and some of those ideas are very thought provoking. What especially fascinates me is the concept of post-biological humanity. First of all because it is feasible. Secondly because it will solve some important obstacles to space travel. But I am now jumping ahead. This will be a topic I will come back to in the near future.