Friday, March 18, 2016

This Year’s Book – How Can We Get More Big Changes? – Part 2

Last week’s post was about Robert J. Gordon’s large, comprehensive, and stunning Rise and Fall of American Growth, which made the case that our country is economically and technologically leveling off, with almost all of the truly fundamental life improvements we have seen since 1870 already in place 45 years ago. 

There is no doubt that Gordon is correct.  If you look at one of the most important books by Herman Kahn, likely the leading futurist of all time, 1967’s The Year 2000 co-authored by Anthony J. Wiener, you will find, among many others, two related lists.  Most of the items in the first, “One Hundred Technical Innovations Very Likely in the Last Third of the Twentieth Century,” have come to pass at least partially, but almost none of the 25 in the second, “Some Less Likely but Important Possibilities,” described by the authors as “even money bets, give or take a factor of five,” have happened, even with 16 additional years.  The only two which have seen real achievement are “effective chemical or biological treatment for most mental illnesses” (not most, but some), and “practical laboratory conception and nurturing of animal (human?) foetuses” (not full-term development, but in vitro fertilization anyway).  There is no doubt that these most sober, thoughtful, and eminent prognosticators of almost 50 years ago, while having no concept of the Internet, would be shockingly disappointed at 2016 technology, and dumbfounded that, as Gordon points out, current apartments would be so functionally similar to typical 1940s living quarters.

Gordon wrote a section, the Postscript, with recommendations on how to implement major innovations.  Unfortunately I found that the weakest part of the book.  It read like a catalogue of a general, mostly liberal, public policy agenda, with connections to life-changing inventions almost all ranging from weak (more immigration) to nonexistent (a higher minimum wage, less prison time, a carbon tax).  If we keep the only idea there favorable to large life-changing technological improvements, a lifting of “regressive regulations,” what can we add to it?

The first move is to agree upon and realize the problem.  Per Peter Thiel, 140-character messaging is not as profound as flying cars.  Even if it were, there is evidence that Moore’s Law, the doubling of computing capability every 18 months, along with its commensurate price decreases, is ending at least temporarily, so it will help us even more to look beyond electronics. 

Second, we can combine that with an understanding of why predictions often fail.  As Joel Garreau wrote in 2005’s Radical Evolution, there are five major reasons for that.  They are more complications than originally expected, prohibitive costs, replacement by other new and unexpected technologies, negative experiences or perceptions related to the idea, and conflicts with cultural and other human behavior.  These have prevented, in the United States and elsewhere, a cancer cure, magnetic levitation trains, home mainframe computers, a nationwide identification database, and more extensive public transportation respectively.  Possible innovations should be checked against these standards, both to anticipate and possibly overcome future problems and to identify those with no real chance of becoming widespread reality. 

Third, we can agree, at least to some extent, on which inventions would be fundamental improvements and which would be only incremental.  For example, though I take issue with Gordon’s view that self-driving cars are not fundamentally different – they will have far-reaching effects on everything from alcohol and drug-consuming patterns to much of American manufacturing and on to our philosophical sense of what freedom actually is – we can develop a set of standards to determine who is right and differentiate the likes of electric power from such as the latest iPhone release. 

Fourth, we can then offer incentives for people and companies to create and develop large life-changing improvements with reasonable chances of widespread acceptance.  One way is through taxes, where research and development on such technologies should gather large breaks.  Another is by appealing to the wealthiest individuals and corporations, those accumulating amounts of cash so vast they explain why the money supply is growing much faster than inflation.  Even those with far less than Bill Gates’s $76 billion and Apple’s $178 billion will see the merit, once the above issues are reasonably settled, of offering some large prizes ($1 billion and up?) for widespread implementation of fundamental advances.

Fifth, we need to move space exploration out of the pure-science-at-taxpayer’s-expense stage and into industrialization.  That is the single most important area-specific change we can make.  Space travel, especially when involving humans, has long been not only a symbol for but a source of innovations, and more of it would help us move forward more than might make logical sense.  The National Aeronautics and Space Administration has served us well over its 58 years, but it is time for it to get out of the mission-originating business and become exclusively an advisor and technology resource for SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and literally thousands of other and future companies.  There are at least three large justifications for this change.  First, government is inherently too large and slow to excel at innovating with leading-edge technology.  Second, as we have learned since the Apollo moon landings, when space exploration becomes only another federal expense that makes it susceptible to budget cuts.  Third, there are so many possibilities for making large profits in space without governmental competition that companies will have great incentive to be involved there, especially if special tax reductions, as in general above, help them along.  One massive area almost certain to be technically viable is the harvesting of solar power in space, which, with the potential to end almost all of our energy needs cheaply, would certainly qualify as fundamental change. 

In the effort to resume large life improvements, there are two traps we must avoid.  First is cutting off or greatly inhibiting outer-space industry for environmental-protection reasons.  Space is incomprehensibly gigantic, and if manufacturing can be done freely there not only is it better in many functional ways but it can be much less damaging than on Earth, even if regulations are strictly limited.  The second is rewarding ideas instead of their implementation.  Ideas are not what we need.  From technical journals to science fiction to just-plain common knowledge, we have long had plenty, and there will be more.  It is time to focus on action.  We can get back on track, if we realize what we need to do and do it.   

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