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Am I a Technological Optimist? You Bet!

July 14, 2013, 12:00 PM

I think you have a very different perspective on the future when you consider the exponential growth of information technology.  Information technology is not just these little gadgets we carry around, as cool as they may be, it ultimately is going to affect everything we care about, including energy, including all our resource issues, including our health and longevity, everything is going to be transformed by this. 

And if you look at the implications of exponential growth, it creates a very different picture of the future and it’s not intuitive.  I mean, that’s why this is difficult, because, you know, I have these debates with other scientists who are just using their intuition and saying, “Well, we made this much progress in the past year, we solved 1 percent of the problem,” that was what happened with the genome.  We did 1 percent of the genome in the last 7 years, that was the observation halfway through the genome project.  So as we said, this is going to take another several hundred years, at that rate.  I’d ignore the exponential progression, you know, 30 steps linear only gets you to 30, 30 steps exponentially gets you to a billion.  And the linear perspective is hardwired in our brains, that’s our sort of untested about the future.

And this is not, people accuse me of being an optimist, and they’re actually right, I am optimistic, but I’m not at all oblivious to the downsides of technology, I’ve written extensively about the downsides of these technologies and a lot of the debate about them actually is based on what I’ve written about the negative consequences or possible negative consequences. 

I think the right focus for people is to, first of all, realize that exponential growth and information technology is happening. It’s going to introduce new problems.  There are things we can do about those new problems, we better give that a priority.  So it’s a different set of priorities, you know, people are sort of wallowing in this negative mindset, that things are getting worse.  I mean, I have all kinds of graphs showing very smooth progress in things like education.  We have over the last 40 years more than doubled the amount of education we’re giving children everywhere in the world, both the developed world and the developing world.  Poverty is going down dramatically in the world, even casualties in war are going down.  Why do people think things are getting worse?  I’ll tell you why.  Because there’s another trend, we have better information about the problems.  It's maybe painful to see all these problems, but it’s actually a good thing.  Because when we see these problems, we tend to do something about them.



Am I a Technological Optimi...

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