We now have a robot winning Jeopardy, cars that can speak to us, and countless options for wireless communication. Since discovering the structure of DNA, we’ve sequenced several genomes, engineered genetically modified organisms for research and food, and made substantial progress in illuminating the molecular basis of many diseases.
Not to mention ongoing efforts in creating alternative energy, improving cancer treatments, promoting the health and development of third world countries, figuring out how we are related to everything else in the universe, and countless other important and exciting initiatives.
In the midst of all this innovation, I think it’s interesting to ponder where we are headed, as science is growing increasingly more interdisciplinary while the world is becoming more interconnected.
In an article by Jonah Lehrer in The New York Times, Lehrer describes a potentially pessimistic view of the future of innovation, based on the ideas of theoretical physicist Geoffrey West:
“Because our lifestyle has become so expensive to maintain, every new resource now becomes exhausted at a faster rate. This means that the cycle of innovations has to constantly accelerate, with each breakthrough providing a shorter reprieve. The end result is that cities aren’t just increasing the pace of life; they are also increasing the pace at which life changes. ‘It’s like being on a treadmill that keeps on getting faster,’ West says. ‘We used to get a big revolution every few thousand years. And then it took us a century to go from the steam engine to the internal-combustion engine. Now we’re down to about 15 years between big innovations. What this means is that, for the first time ever, people are living through multiple revolutions. And this all comes from cities. Once we started to urbanize, we put ourselves on this treadmill. We traded away stability for growth. And growth requires change.'”
When we begin to slow down this cycle of growth and innovation as we run out of resources to fuel our innovation, West fears that our cities and our society will start to collapse. I’m reluctant to accept this view. I would like to imagine that innovation is fueled by fixing problems, so there is no limit. Any change that we produce or discovery that we make leads to some associated or newly discovered problems to resolve, and as long as we’re able to tackle the problems we create in addition to making new discoveries, what is there to limit? As long as there are problems, there will be ingenious people around who will try to fix them, and as the world grows more complex, we can work together to get new insights, and time will wait for us. Maybe if we run out of people who have new ideas for solutions, we’ll create computers and robots who can help, or we’ll look to nature.
I would like to believe that the world is too complex for limits. What do you think?