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May 28, 2013 12:11 PM   Subscribe

I've noticed that most of what I read about science and technology is universally optimistic about the pace of knowledge (if not necessary its use). From tech journalists to science fiction writers everyone seems to believe that the possibilities of technology are boundless and the pace of scientific discovery is, if anything, accelerating and always will be. My question is: Is anyone credibly arguing the opposite?

So the opposite would probably look something like one of the following:

1. The current pace of scientific discovery and technological innovation is for some reason abnormal or unsustainable. That we're in a discover bubble.

2. There is some kind of "hard cap" of what it will be possible to learn or to do. Maybe it's faster than light travel, or boundaries of computer processing, or limits to medicine; but basically that some things simply won't be possible.

(I'm not necessarily suggesting this is the case by the way.)
posted by 2bucksplus to Science & Nature (12 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
I'm hoping for someone more informed than me to answer, because this is a fascinating question, but offhand I think it depends on the field. I heard recently that the field of Genetics is doubling its knowledge every 18 months. Some other fields are advancing, but it seems like they are tackling the hard problems that take much longer. I'm thinking of Astronomy, Applied Mathematics and Physics. It seems like a lot of the break through announcements in those fields tend to be formal proof of something articulated decades ago.
posted by dgran at 12:25 PM on May 28, 2013

Best answer: Previously (not directly on your question, but closely related). The original article, here, examines the possibility that the economic benefits of technology experienced over the past few centuries was a one-time event.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 12:25 PM on May 28, 2013

Best answer: For science fiction, Vernor Vinge's A Deepness In The Sky explores worlds stuck in "The Slow Zone", where advanced AI, lightspeed travel, etc., are impossible. There is, in fact, an "Age of Failed Dreams" where humanity fails to achieve all those advances, and finds itself stuck in a never-ending cycle of advancement and decline. The other novel is A Fire Upon the Deep, which shows the rest of the galaxy outside of the Slow Zone, where there's advanced nanotechnology, faster-than-light travel, and godlike AI.

More factually, a physicist notes that exponentially growing demands for energy probably mean that economic growth cannot last forever at an exponential rate. It's perhaps unclear how far out the something-that-cannot-go-on-forever has to stop; I'm somewhat more optimistic.

The economist Tyler Cowen has argued that we are in a Great Stagnation, though he attributes some of the slowdown to social/political factors, and sees some hope in some nascent technologies of today (assuming that the social/political factors don't screw it up).
posted by chengjih at 12:30 PM on May 28, 2013 [2 favorites]

Gödel and Turing were pretty harsh buzzkills for mathematicians in the 1930s, and helped define the foundations of computer science -- ironically by proving what you can't do rather than what you can! No wonder computer scientists are pessimistic...

It's a pretty big question though, and really boils down to will humanity evolve into a posthuman state and transmogrify into pure energy (or colonize the universe, or whatever?) Or will we screw up the planet and economy so bad that scientific and technical progress declines, and go back to the stone age.

Credible arguments for both sides. The least credible argument, I think, is that we'll truck along at the present pace indefinitely.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 1:12 PM on May 28, 2013

I'm a believer in The Singularity, so I think rather than a bubble we are on the way to the next big huge mid blowing wave.

The tech and the energy it uses will be smaller and more integrated into our lives, especially Artificial Intelligence and nanotechnology.

For every slowdown (sales of desktop PC processors) there are several ramp ups... you can get your genes sequenced for $99 now by 23&me, we carry smart phones that have one dollar apps that can credibly emulate the computers we learned on.

There are plenty of credible people on the left and the right that hate all of this stuff and are preaching doom if we don't turn back. Some for ethical reasons, some because they believe we are on an unsustainable path, and some because they think tech might be something we aren't ready for yet.

start here.

While I am glad there is open debate about it... it seems to mostly happening amongst the privileged, educated and wealthy... but guess what? rich people and poor people are still having babies and we have a pool of resources that can only be extended via technology or a horrible worldwide disaster.

We have to start wrapping our heads around machine sentience, smarter than human AI and a collective curated consciousness that will not be owned by a corporation.

Ray Kurzweil predicts it will happen in our lifetime... I think maybe within 50 years.

The Pope (and many others) are hoping it never happens because when it does... well, you can imagine.

posted by bobdow at 1:30 PM on May 28, 2013

re: Singularity, you might chase these Wikipedia articles and related pages (and fiction) for the optimistic and pessimistic scenarios.
posted by RobotVoodooPower at 3:09 PM on May 28, 2013

It may be a bit left field given the question, but a mate of mine [smart guy] used to swear by horror and sci-fi movies. He said they indicated the greatest fears of society, expressed through popular culture.

Godzilla in the 50s. Radiation lizard representing the unknown power if atomic energy.

Alien in the 70s. Space exploration discovers a more advanced civilisation hellbent on consumption.

Logan's Run as a reaction to ageing populations and the nascent awareness of resource conflicts.

Silence Of The Lambs in the 80s as psychology running amoke, as part of the serial killer motif. Candyman as the sociology of a racially motivated serial killer.

The Ring in 2000 as an example of a amateur media's power to control, terrorise, and potentially kill.

28 Days Later on weaponised genetic engineering run amoke in densely populated urban areas.

Saw being the realisation of torture.

And then there's the obvious Enemy of the State (techno society and omnipotent government), Hunger Games (wealth inequality), and finally that granddaddy of them all The Matrix (do you actually exist?)

And a whole host of others in there. And whilst these are not indications of the limits of technological progress, they are examples of the fears of human's (or non-humans) use and capabilities with technology.

For example, the increasing ability of people to live in dense cities where serial killing becomes easy. Killers can appear and disappear silently. Overall that speaks to the increasing power if the individual leveraging technology.

It's a fascinating vein of investigation with regards to technology, for it doesn't represent a specific group that believes in a lack of technology limitations, but rather the common fear that technology will continue to develop, giving more power to smaller groups of people, who then hold unfair advantage over everyone else.

And as far as Harry Potter goes, a suitably advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. In a world where a few elite live lives so divorced from the normal person, the options available may well seem magical to everyone else.
posted by nickrussell at 5:17 PM on May 28, 2013

Best answer: Some have argued that even now technological progress is slowing down. The key work here is Jonathan Huebner's "A possible declining trend for worldwide innovation," who argues that technological progress peaked in 1873.
posted by crazy with stars at 6:04 PM on May 28, 2013

Best answer: The January 12th issue of The Economist includes an article on Innovation Pessimism; Tyler Cowen, mentioned upthread, and Robert Gordon both get mentions. Despite the title, the Economist piece argues both sides of the question and presents evidence for both innovation pessimism and innovation optimism.
posted by kovacs at 6:40 PM on May 28, 2013 [1 favorite]

In David Brin's Uplift Universe, there is a civilization comprising innumerable alien races, aeons old, which spans the Milky Way and several other surrounding galaxies. Alien races don't develop technology and culture, or even evolve, on their own but are almost invariably bioengineered from animals or simpler organisms by another alien race that passes on cultural and technical knowledge to them, including an internet-like Library that serves as a repository of all of the the information ever discovered extending back one billion years.

In the Galactic Civilization technological development is accomplished by researching and replicating techniques documented in the Library rather than by scientific theorizing and experimentation. Consequently, when humanity (which as a species that evolved to sentience on its own is unusual) makes contact with the Galactics, although in most cases human technology is vastly inferior and we are hampered by a lack of expertise in exploiting the Library, some of our knowledge is absent in the outside world: for example, the Galactics are unaware of higher mathematics such as calculus because they've always had access to incredibly fast computers able to achieve similar results via enormous amounts of computation using only arithmetic and algebra.

You also might find some interesting things in the history of science:
The seminal anecdote in the debate on the future of science occurred over a century ago in 1894. American physicist Albert Michelson (1852-1931) gave a speech in which he said: "An eminent physicist has remarked that the future truths of Physical Science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals." At the end of the nineteenth century, some scientists believed that they had solved most of the important problems and that future scientists would only be able to provide minor corrections to existing theories.

                                                                                       —Moti Ben-Ari, Just A Theory: Exploring the Nature of Science
posted by XMLicious at 8:28 PM on May 28, 2013

daniel quinn, ishmael series.

the thesis is that the current techonological boom (since agriculture, about 10,000 years ago) may come crashing down like all the other (shorter) ones that evolved independently.
posted by cupcake1337 at 11:59 PM on May 28, 2013

David Graeber's article, 'Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit' may be of interest.
posted by knapah at 7:55 AM on May 29, 2013

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