Have we backed away from greatness? Are we hiding from the future? Are we too pessimistic? SF writer Neal Stephenson thinks so. He points out a person traveling from 1900 to 1968 would be completely disconcerted, lacking the basic conceptual tools to understand that strange future. While a person traveling to our time from 1968 would get along pretty well, with few shocks. He calls on writers, scientists, and engineers to imagine and get to work on “big stuff.” He hopes we will be inspired to go beyond incremental change. One example he offers is constructing a Tall Tower, not a few feet taller than today’s buildings, but twenty kilometers high. That is truly “big stuff.”
My analyses of his comments are that “big stuff” projects should create a visible change that would impress folks from 1968. These projects need to be pervasive and known in the culture — with ramifications beyond the achievement itself.
What projects should be taken on? They should be achievable, without basic constraints (like time travel or faster than light travel). It’s okay, even desirable that they should require the work of a career to complete. They should have a practical purpose. It’s okay for the project to be a technological fix to a major human problem.
I think attempts at fusion power fit the model, but perhaps there is too much pessimism about this endeavor’s prospects. I’m not sure that should be a disqualifier. Certainly, taking on a trip to the Moon (or even powered flight) seemed impossible to many people. But I’ll set that one aside.
I can think of two candidates that almost work from my own experience. I started out in biotechology, and the great leap forward that spanned a good piece of my career was mapping the human genome. That project advanced the tools of genetic engineering, used across the life sciences, from agriculture to pharmacology to archeology. A lot of lives have been saved and improved directly though the use of human insulin and interferon, and indirectly through knowledge of how to modify pathways of genetic expression. And DNA analysis has become a mainstay of criminal investigations, especially of rape and murder. (These are widely recognized in the general culture to the point that they are an assumed part of cop shows and thrillers.)
Maybe not big enough. Maybe mapping the human genome will only be “big stuff” when its tools help us deliver a heard of resurrected wooly mammoths.
The other candidate is artificial intelligence. Our traveler from 1968 may find Siri understandable thanks to the interactions between the computer and Captain Kirk in Star Trek, but could he or she understand how this has led to hypercompetitiveness and constant changes to stock markets (and how these impact the wider economy)? Could our traveler comprehend how AI plays a role in detecting credit card fraud or the commercial value of datamining?
When Mr. Stephenson says, tongue in cheek, the best minds of his generation are making spam filters, I’m not sure he gives due consideration to how wonderful and dangerous AI is making the world (though perhaps invisibly). Stephen Hawking certainly sees AI as “big stuff.” He writes:
“One can imagine such technology outsmarting financial markets, out-inventing human researchers, out-manipulating human leaders, and developing weapons we cannot even understand. Whereas the short-term impact of AI depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”
So we may not be so poor in imagination, and that might not be something to celebrate without restraint. Still, are there targets, like Tall Towers, that need to be part of our vision? I’ll explore that with my next post.