Technology and solving the big problems

Imagine being out on the street on the morning of 21 July 1969, and asking 100 people about humanity’s potential following the moon landing of the previous day. So, what next? Most people would have talked about cities on Mars, flying cars on Earth, and eradicating disease. You would have got nothing but blank looks if you had suggested that more likely outcomes would be the Internet, killer drones, and algorithmic DNA sequencing. Or as Jason Pontin of MIT Technology Review playfully puts it in his popular TED Talk, “we were promised Mars and we got Facebook.”

What emerges from so many reflections on the transformative power of technology is that the variance between what we want and what we get usually proves to be more about technology’s enhancing things we already do. With the Internet, drones and DNA sequencing, we have always been into talking, murdering, and processing information. But when we decide to shoot for the moon, at least half a dozen vital factors come into play if we expect technology to assist in meeting that challenge.

Jason Pontin mentions four of them: political leadership, institutional support, clarity on what precisely the technological problem is, and an acute understanding of that technology and how to apply it to the problem. To these he might have added the resource to dedicate to the challenge and a collective agreement on the cost/benefit analysis to enable the appropriate commitment of those resources.

Greater funding for intelligence research can only increase knowledge and lower costs and barriers to entry for governments and institutions that seek cooperative solutions. And in the meantime, we need to keep the killers away from the drones.

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