OXFORD UNIVERSITY PRESS, JANUARY 2015Imagine technologies so powerful they will transform society into something unimaginable. Today’s world has been spectacularly modernized by products and processes that save labor, entertain, and socially connect us. We savor ever more sophisticated smartphones, pin-size sensors, GPS, and notebook computers. We appreciate vaccines that have wiped out smallpox and almost done in polio. We enjoy clean water and hygienic food. All of this—this bounty of enriched and long lives—has been bestowed on us by science and technology.
Back in 1965 Gordon Moore recognized that the number of transistors that can be fit into an integrated circuit was doubling about every two years. He penned Moore’s law, predicting that this rate of change would continue for at least a decade. But he was wrong: He failed to fully imagine the possibilities. The exponential explosion in electronic complexity has been unceasing ever since. Technology seems to be following a never-ending slope of advancement that is less like walking up a hill than it is like jumping straight into the sky. Our future, if Moore’s law continues to hold, will be an era of technological sophistication that will continue to go beyond what our minds can now fathom. According to Ray Kurzweil, leading futurist and director of engineering at Google, within a generation we should see marvels such as robots redesigning other robots. Kurzweil, as he explains in his 2005 book, The Singularity Is Near, believes that by 2045 “The Singularity” that we will have achieved will be mind-boggling: “technological change so rapid and profound it represents a rupture in the fabric of human history.”
But is Kurzweil’s belief in the pace of scientific and technological advancement real or some overly exuberant fantasy? Kurzweil predicted the dot-com boom would continue, but it turned into a bust. So many of his other claims have collapsed that in an interview with the magazine the American Scientist, famed cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter characterized Kurzweil’s books as a mixture of “very good food and some dog excrement.” Some of Kurzweil’s doubters suggest that his forecasts are off by a few years; others argue that his extrapolations are off in the wrong direction.
Many are dubious about the pace and quality of modern scientific advancement including Tyler Cowen, whose thesis is clear from the title of his influential book The Great Stagnation (2010). While agreeing with Kurzweil about the speed of information technology advancement, Cowen demonstrates quite convincingly that in other sectors of science, progress appears to be lagging. And this slowdown, Cowen argues, is in good part for want of innovation.
Science and technology are moving too slowly for comfort in finding original solutions to society’s greatest threats. Unchecked, lack of affordable clean energy threatens to cause irreparable damage to Planet Earth and its inhabitants. Current fuel sources, most scientists argue, have wrought climate extremes and endangered species. Human suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, a scourge that affects 5 million in the United States and costs $203 billion annually, has no cure in sight. Science has also done little to crack the problems of emerging infections, water scarcity, cancer, and obesity.
It is not that science is neglecting these issues—simply that our approaches to address them are too often uninspired. Take obesity, a disease that robs its victims of 8–13 years of life expectancy. Scientists have spent a generation developing more and better diet and exercise interventions. But trying to reduce the size of big people has simply not worked—obesity continues to ravage one-third of all Americans. Meanwhile, large swaths of possibility lay unexplored. Consider this: a handful of Big Food processors, by adding sugar and fat to cheap corn and soy products, have been responsible for the majority of low-nutrient calories that now adulterate our diets. Science could change the food landscape by figuring out how to make Big Food’s manufacturing practices and supply chains healthier. Experiments could be designed to gauge the impact on Americans’ waistlines if corn-growing subsidies were reduced, fruits and vegetables were underwritten, and food labeling showed how calories equate to exercise. Or consider the idea that obesity is not just about calories. Christakis and Fowler in the New England Journal of Medicine (2007) suggested that weight gain resembles a contagion; perhaps social networks are the key. Finally, what about a few enticing reports that have linked obesity to a specific common cold virus, Adenovirus 36, or to the microbes that reside within our gastrointestinal tracts? The point is not that targeting the food environment or microorganisms will provide an answer to reducing obesity. The point is that science keeps looking for keys under the same old lamppost. To find the key to these alarming dangers, science must embark on risker adventures.
Amazing possibility on the one hand and frustrating inaction on the other—that is the yin and yang of modern science. Invention generates ever more gizmos and gadgets, but imagination is not providing clues to solving the scientific puzzles that threaten our very existence.
The purpose of this book is to try to explain this paradox. I will argue that today’s science has the greatest potential in the history of human existence for transformative innovation, yet science has become too cautionary to realize its promise.
Caution is obligatory to the sustenance of society and organizations, yet vigilance can go too far. Our desires to maintain economic productivity, a social status quo, and ethical purity, I believe, have enveloped us in an excessive wariness that suffocates disruptive creativity.
Creation and caution should be in equipoise, but currently they are not. Modern science has evolved a set of unintended limitations that are deeply embedded in its very fabric. This book is about how we can rebalance creation and caution. It is a proposal for reinventing the ecosystem so as to accelerate much-needed progress. It is about unleashing science’s disciples to maximize their imaginative possibilities.