Making progress does not guarantee the survival of civilization. But not making progress fast enough is the surest way that civilization comes to an end.
David Deutsch argues humans are not unique in the sense that our civilization has no guaranteed future. Just like the vast majority of species that had existed before homo sapiens are now extinct, we are bound to face similar existential risks. Many successful civilizations have witnessed a catastrophic end such as Rome, Athens and even the vast majority of the human species 70000 years ago. Most civilizations came to an end either through plague, disaster or war and such civilizations faced death only because they didn't have sufficient knowledge or resources to prevent collapse.
But unlike most other species, Deutsch argues, we have the ability to unleash our creativity to solve problems that may arise. And the only way to make sure we have a chance at solving these problems is to create more knowledge and make more progress.
The objective of making progress is 3-fold:
a. Solve our pressing problems and improve welfare
We solve our current problems like high child mortality rate, poverty, climate change etc. We know for a fact that these problems are soluble, even though they are extremely hard. As Max Roser has suggested in this inspiring article with the example of child mortality, we have made sufficient progress in solving these problems but there is still a long way to go.
"The world is much better. The world is awful. The world can be much better." -Max Roser
But it is not just about solving the basic problems but also about improving human welfare. As Eli Dourado argues, the Great Stagnation has reduced productivity and increased the costs of goods wherever we have failed to innovate. This has meant increasing costs in healthcare, housing and education.
b. Protect us from what's unknown.
The universe is a hostile place, just as the Earth was until we developed sufficient technology to sustain ourselves such as clothing, housing and farming. For all we know, there is so much worse that could happen. A pandemic far worse than Covid19, a stellar explosion in our intergalactic neighbourhood, a nuclear war or even a natural calamity that could severely affect civilization. We can never know for sure what problems out there, natural or man-made, may severely impact us.
And the only way out is through progress.
"Either we create knowledge to conquer problems or the problems will conquer us." - David Deutsch
Thanks to Katalin Karikó who persisted through the development of mRNA technology despite receiving very little support, mRNA vaccine technology proved to be remarkably efficient and indispensable in combating Covid19. Had the required knowledge for the mRNA technology had not been furthered, the fight against Covid would have been very different.
c. Build an inspiring future
"The point of technological progress or doing a startup after all is to build something money can't yet buy." Balaji Srinivasan
A trip to Mars. Or a neural implant. And in the not-too-distant past, an air ticket across the ocean or a smartphone didn't belong to things that any amount of money could buy. Max Roser argues, "Many of the services and products that give us comfort but we take for granted such as the device you are reading this on, the electricity that powers it, the furniture around you, the toilet that is nearby, the sewage system it is connected to, the food delivery system or the car that you drive weren't available not too long ago."
Let's aim to not only fix climate change, cure cancer, end poverty and solve other pressing problems of today. But also become a space-faring civilization, cure ageing, create AGIs and build a resilient system for the future.
Is there a limit to Progress? David Deutsch's phenomenal vision for progress reaches infinity. And more importantly, he asserts, if we are to make infinite progress, not only are we now at the very beginning of it, we always shall be.
He argues that the quest for good explanations is at the crux of all progress humans have been making since the Enlightenment. And with good explanation comes the knowledge to transform resources and create wealth.
Humans have sought to transform resources since the dawn of civilization, be it through alchemy or by chance. Most transformations failed until we sought the right explanations to transform resources.
As Brett beautifully explains here, most resources remain useless until human knowledge converges upon them. Just as we converted lithium salt into lithium batteries, mixed nitrogen and hydrogen to produce fertilizers, used fossil fuels to create energy and leveraged penicllin to cure diseases, humans have the capacity to transform resources that can be extremely valuable.
Needless to say, fossil fuels have caused damage to the planet and lithium extraction comes with its own challenge. But fixing them is also part of problem-solving.
Deutch calls us the universal problem solvers. With the right knowledge and resources, we can continue to solve problems and make progress indefinitely. While the resources on Earth are finite, for all practical purposes the Universe has infinite resources that we could leverage in creating more progress and hence the reach of progress is infinity. In other words, to say infinite progress is possible is to convey progress is unbounded.
But if infinite progress is possible what's hindering progress? There are 3 major bottlenecks:
a. Bad Philosophy
An overwhelming section of Western society tends to be anti-technology and romanticizes the past; the past they never lived. What Balaji calls anarcho-primitivism, the belief that primitive life is paradise, humans are bad and technology is evil.
Society has been plagued by the notion of rejecting technological innovation and embracing de-growth: The idea that we need to shrink the economy and redistribute the pie. There are far-reaching consequences of such an idea: from not having children (dropping fertility rates) in fear of increased environmental damage to stifling innovation(cultured meat) so as to preserve traditional and barbaric lifestyles.
The impact of such a philosophy can also be seen in climate change protests where people seek a reduction in resource consumption and rejection of technological solutions.
The pejorative view of technological solutions and the romanticization of pre-scientific times are based on false premises. Just because the modern lifestyle is filled with stresses from long days at work or the prevalence of social media addiction does not mean that the past was any better. If anything, based on evolutionary and the little paleontological evidence we have the past was a far worse place.
"The fact that we exhibit behaviours of fear, desperation and violence at least to a genetically determined level means that such behaviours evolved through natural selection and therefore our ancestors exhibited them a lot." -David Deutsch
As Deutsch argues in this fascinating podcast, it is a mistake to look back at pre-historic times with envy. The human population didn't grow much, the child mortality rate was high, while famine, diseases and wars were widespread.
If we are to sustain progress and solve problems including climate change, we need to innovate and adopt better technological solutions that have the least impact. We need to create more and reduce the scarcity of resources. Or as Eli puts it: A growing pie is better for everyone as we don't have to fight for what's limited.
"Instead of trying to redistribute this scarce resource, ask how do we reduce scarcity." Vitalik Buterin
In fact, countries like the UK has shown that it is possible to reduce emissions while increasing GDP.
b. Stasis and Complacency
"Failure is acceptable but stasis and complacency are not." Chamath Palihapatiya
Stasis and complacency are not unheard of. The human species has been in a stasis mode for the vast majority of its existence(until continuous progress kicked off since the Enlightenment). Stasis and complacency have caused the downfall of civilizations, countries and even great sports teams.
In Complacent Class, Tyler Cowen claims we as a society are working harder than ever to avoid change. And that we are postponing change, due to our near-sightedness and extreme desire for comfort. Eli echoes Tyler's view that our cultural movements and politics have been largely dominated by the need to preserve neighbourhood character than unlock an increase in living standards.
This is partly reflected in the woke culture and as Tyler observes it has created a 'zeitgeist' of community-enforced social stasis:
Manifestations ranging from the NIMBY (‘Not In My Backyard’) mentality through to NIMTOO (‘Not in My Term of Office’), CAVE (‘Citizens Against Virtually Everything’) and BANANA ('Build Absolutely Nothing Anywhere Near Anything.')
As Balaji argues, if communism was about the redistribution of wealth, wokeness is about the redistribution of status. Playing indefinite status games is a sure shot attempt at trying to enforce authority, oppressing the notion of individual prosperity and invigorating stasis.
And if we are to ensure the survival of the Western Civilization and our species, stasis is not an option. We need to embrace innovation, focus more on progress (technological, scientific, cultural, economic) and reject wokism.
For all of today's problems, the world is a relatively better place with so many opportunities to grow wealth, widespread democracies and freedom of speech. We had rapid innovations happening in the 20th century, thanks to bold visionaries. Even before that, we made advances in science and technology because people were willing to take risks. Be it the first test pilots for aircraft or the clinical trial patients.
But today overregulation is stifling innovation and it's hard to emphasize how regulations are indeed holding back technological progress. While it is true that there needs to be a certain level of regulation and precautionary measures, the current regulatory systems have gone overboard and have proven to be one of the biggest bottlenecks in innovation. Erixon and Weigel claim “Western economies have developed a near obsession with precautions that simply cannot be married to a culture of experimentation."
This hinders progress. Balaji contends the FDA and other regulatory bodies regulate everything but themselves.
Just like special economic zones we need special jurisdictions where regulatory presence is minimized and early adopters can try new technologies or new medicines. This could come in the form of charter cities, cloud cities or network states. And as Balaji argues, there should also be incentives in place for people to take risks for the purpose of advancing technology.
We need to encourage more experimentation of technologies and we need special zones to do so: Gene Therapy, Supersonic Flights, Longevity Drugs, Psychedelic Treatments, Self-Driving Cars and more.
We spoke about the challenges in creating more progress but what’s the way forward? How do we sustain progress and drive techno-optimism?
i. Change in Philosophy
Conventional optimism and conventional pessimism are both ineffective in that conventional optimists undermine the problems created by technology while conventional pessimists disregard the merits of technology. David Deutch argues for a new definition of Optimism: All evils are caused due to lack of knowledge.
(Evil here includes all natural and technological problems, intentional or unintentional.)
This is a prophecy for failure and not success in that if we fail at eliminating a problem, it is due to a lack of knowledge. This is also what Jason Crawford argues for, namely, Solutionism that advocates vigorously advancing against problems, neither retreating nor surrendering.
Even if we eliminate everything that is problematic today, new problems will inevitably arise either from what is known or unknown, natural or man-made. Therefore, it is necessary that we look at problems from the perspective of eliminating them (including the consequences created by the solution) rather than as technological fixes.
“Progress comes only through piecemeal, tentative improvements. I think the world will never be perfected, even when everything we think of as problematic today has been eliminated. We shall always be at the beginning of infinity. Never satisfied.” David Deutch
ii. Understand Progress
If we want to continue making more progress, we need to understand what is progress and also understand how we have been making progress.
"Progress means solving problems. This makes it necessary that anyone who wants to contribute to solutions needs to study both:
If you care about problems you need to study progress. The progress we achieved gives us the opportunity to learn how we solved problems in the past and – most fundamentally – to know that progress is possible.
If you want to make progress you need to study problems. Every problem we identify is an opportunity to make progress. To make the world a better place the first step is to understand the problems we are facing today.”
- Max Roser
This is why projects like Roots of Progress, Our World in Data and progress studies are of vital importance in our understanding of progress and continuing to make more progress. As Patrick Collison observes in this insightful interview, we haven’t figured out how to meta-maintain progress:
"The period of the early twentieth century was an era of building in the broadest sense, from universities to government agencies to cities to highways. The byproduct of this period of building is maintenance and we haven't figured out how to meta-maintain -- that is, how to avoid emergent sclerosis in the stuff we build." Patrick Collison
The goal of understanding progress is not just to solve problems but also to figure out how best can we make progress, how do we sustain progress and also how can we accelerate progress.
iii. Evangelize technology and progress:
While understanding progress is crucial, Max argues most of us are wrong about how the world has changed. And being poorly informed leads to having a cynical view of the future. And this affects the way we perceive problems as a society.
Therefore, it is extremely important that we evangelize the need for progress. And with it comes the need to evangelize technological solutions. The conventional media is lost in cultural wars and click baits while becoming largely anti-tech. There are countless examples. This is why Balaji argues for the need to consciously build a parallel tech-driven decentralized media ecosystem that makes the case for technological progress.
"In this, we will have allies around the world. Only the very richest people can afford to be cynical about the merits of technological progress. The billions of people who just got their first smartphone have had their lives dramatically improved as a consequence, and are too pragmatic to romanticize the past." - Balaji Srinivasan
Technology, driven by innovation, after all, is a tool that can help reduce scarcity. Just like the Haber-Bosch process or the assembly-line technique allowed us to produce more with less, we have the capability to build technologies that can free our time, while enabling higher living standards.
While it is a prophecy to predict how the future would look like, it is well within our reach to work on problems and solutions that are right in front of us. Some of the pressing problems that we face from climate change to poverty are indeed soluble.
There are 5 key areas that are being revolutionized today and are radically transforming different industries: Energy, Artificial Intelligence, Crypto, Synbio and Transportation.
Innovations across these 5 areas will help us solve problems and continue on the path to progress.
The most important and crucial aspect of progress is energy. Energy drives economies and sustains civilizations. Energy powers cellular functions at the microscopic level to the sun that powers life on Earth at the macroscopic level. But human utilization of energy has come at a cost.
CO2 and other GHG emissions play a huge role in driving climate change and according to Our World in Data, the production of energy is responsible for 87% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Energy powers everything including carbon-capturing (removing CO2 from the atmosphere) and negative emissions technology.
To end climate change, GHG emissions need to be brought down towards net-zero which means we need to accelerate the production of clean energy sources. While wind and solar energy have seen tremendous progress in cost reduction and emissions reduction, the answer to the most efficient, clean and reliant energy source may lie in nuclear and geothermal.
As Eli argues, we need a shift in mindset, instead of trying to do more with less, we need to try to do things that actually use more energy that is cheap and safe.
Solving the energy problem is a dual win scenario. On the one hand, providing clean, safe, reliable and cheap energy increases productivity and prosperity and on the other hand, it solves the major bottleneck in tackling climate change.
The correlation between energy use and GDP per capita is an indicator of how access to energy increases the welfare of society. But it is also important to note that the developed world produces the most emissions. Therefore, increasing welfare across the globe while providing access to more energy implies the need to make clean energy sources abundant.
But the transition into a sustainable energy system requires not merely clean sources of energy production but also energy storage. As we are heading towards electrifying everything including cars and trucks, building eVTOLs and switching from non-renewable to renewable resources, we need better grid and battery storage solutions as well.
2. AI/ML and Compute Solutions:
Marc Andreessen wrote a powerful post in 2011 on why software is eating the world. It couldn't be more true today. We see the impact of advances in machine learning across various industries. From streaming movies on the internet to DeepMind solving the protein folding problem, and from software-enabled aircraft autopilots to health tracking biomarkers, machine learning algorithms have seeped through the economy.
This is true even for two of the boldest visions undertaken at SpaceX and Tesla by Elon Musk. Steve Jurvetson illustrates this point well in this fascinating podcast on how the value at both SpaceX and Tesla resides in the system-level engineering of a product around software modalities. Or as Paul Graham puts it, Tesla is a software company that sells cars. Even at SpaceX, the success of landing a rocket booster can be attributed to the combination of software and sensors. Without software, particularly machine learning, the advances in hardware innovation that we are seeing across the globe would be next to impossible.
"Every company you start today is a software company. You can call it Tesla, you can call it SpaceX but the basis of competition is a software stack. The reason a customer will buy a Tesla 5 years from now is 100% because of the autonomous driving stack. Every company today starts with software at its roots." Steve Jurvetson
And this trend is going to continue with a greater impact across healthcare, drug discovery, biomarkers, etc.
While software certainly has transformed industries, the hardware/compute resources required to power the software has been lagging behind. To fully benefit from the software revolution, we need to upgrade hardware as well.
ML and AI have completely transformed the way chips are designed. The traditional Von-Neumann architecture has started to show limitations. While the chips have become faster, the waiting time for computing cycles is getting extremely long. This poses a problem as it takes time for information to travel from one chip to another.
New computing paradigms like neuromorphic computing and quantum computing are expected to take over high-performance computing in the coming decades. But they aren't viable yet.
In the near term, the solution may lie in heterogeneous computing in embracing high-performance applications.
"Software ate the world so completely that now the large tech companies have to deal with the actual hardware that underlies their stack." Doug O’Laughlin
Doug argues that traditional software giants have picked up the mantle to push the limits of hardware. Companies like Google, Tesla have been developing their own chips where they are packing all required components densely on the same chip aka System-on-a-chip. This enables them to build high-performance chips for specific applications. Instead of tailoring the software to generic chip designs with limited effect.
If we want self-driving cars, general-purpose robots and other high-performance AI applications to soon become a reality, advances in heterogeneous computing and other paradigm-shifting architectures is the way to go.
Naval eloquently illustrates humans as a network species and how crypto can help re-organize networks based on merit. Amidst the explosion of DeFis and the craze of NFTs, crypto at its core aims to build an open-source and efficient financial system.
"Digital currency will bring about more innovation, efficiency, and equality of opportunity in the world by creating an open financial system."
- Brian Armstrong
A crypto-based system intends to enable consensus-based voting mechanism, decentralize certain key aspects of the economy and distribute power from the unsolicited monopolies or duopolies to multiple parties. Or as Balaji would put it: from a 2-party system to an N-party system. And in this process, a crypto-based system purports to remove the reliance on custodians, intermediaries, or central planners such as governments, banks and lawyers.
While the traditional financial system seems to operate fairly fine in Western society despite its drawbacks, the immediate impact of crypto may yet be visible in countries plagued with poor financial systems. From inflation to lack of access to a provably fair financial system, from long transaction times to high transaction fees, from banks not working on weekends to banks offering negative interest rates, the challenges are numerous. One just needs to look at Zimbabwe or Venezuela to understand why we need alternate systems.
Crypto also provides an equal opportunity for everyone to generate wealth, unlike the traditional banking systems which provide interest only if there is money. The hope for crypto is also to enable micro-payments across the globe and perhaps even compete with traditional VCs through decentralized investing.
But beyond finance, crypto also aims to decentralize media, including social media, and protect freedom of speech.
"No single company should be able to enforce its version of morality on the entire internet or to track users. That’s not how freedom works." - Muneeb Ali
While Bitcoin maximalists will argue that Bitcoin fixes everything, it's important that there are alternative projects that compete and innovate.
4. Biotech and SynBio:
Biology is the oldest form of knowledge on Earth. It constitutes molecular repositories of instructions required to build any life form. 'Synthetic Biology or synbio is to redesign biological systems or organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities. It is basically using DNA(software) to write simple LEGO like functional components (hardware) and run them in a cell. Now through the natural process of replication, the software is able to create its own hardware.
SynBio is already enabling us to transform low-tech industries into high-tech industries such as food, cosmetics and fashion. And this is possible because of a combination of advances in Machine Learning, automation, DNA sequencing and synthesizing. Humans have leveraged biology as technology in the past and we have now started to expand the possibilities. Eg: Fermentation of organisms like yeast has been used to make bread and brew beer for centuries and today companies are using fermentation to create fabrics such as artificial spider silk.
And now we are leveraging
Beyond industrial applications, advances in biotech are also revolutionizing Healthcare. The once ignored mRNA technology which gave us the vaccine against covid is now on the verge of being used to cure cancer and malaria. CRISPR gene-editing which is almost a decade old now is slowly gaining traction with at least 11 programs in clinical studies. These include treatments against target diseases such as HIV, sickle-cell anaemia.
Another field of healthcare that was once stigmatized but now slowly becoming a common theme is addressing mental health through psychedelic treatments. Mental health has plagued society and it is time psychedelic drugs are decriminalized and legalized for treatment purposes. Drugs like Psilocybin(DMT) and MDMA are already under clinical trials to find treatments for mental health issues.
The industry that Biotech is taking by storm is Life Extension aka Longevity. This field has recently gained a lot of attention and rightly so. The technological or biological point of view is that competing causes of death are more directly associated with biological aging (e.g., heart disease, cancer, stroke, Alzheimer’s, etc.). Even for Covid, aging and age-related diseases are the biggest risk factors. Naturally, tackling aging could cure most of these conditions. Rather than addressing one disease after another, tackling them one go is a gateway to longer and healthier lifespans. From an economic standpoint of view, delayed aging is an economically positive solution. Pension costs, age-related healthcare economic burden can all be brought down with delayed ageing and reduced morbidity.
Although the industry is still naive and decades away from actual entry into the market, the longevity field deserves far more attention and funding than what it currently receives.
5. Space and Transportation:
SpaceX, arguably, is undertaking the boldest mission: To preserve the light of consciousness by becoming a multi-planetary species. This is of paramount importance to ensure the survival of our species should anything catastrophic happen here on Earth. But it's not just the vision, what is also exciting about SpaceX is the rapid advances they have made in reducing launch costs drastically, making rocket boosters re-usable as well as building the largest and most sophisticated rocket.
Eli emphasizes how Starship will drive the next innovation in reducing launch costs as SpaceX intends to make the complete rocket re-usable and cheap. He argues Starship could put payloads into orbit at 10$/kg. That's a 500x reduction in costs from current Falcon 9 rates. At this rate, Eli claims orbit transfer would be at a cost similiar to sending payload from the US to Europe.
The other exciting trend in accelerating the Space economy is the industrialization of Space.
Historically, new cities were built alongside ports where trade and economy flourished. In the modern era, cities have thrived on industrialization. Most cities across the world became modern industrial capitals by building factories and supply chains. The same applies to Space. If the first big step towards becoming a space-faring civilization is building reusable rockets. The second is industrializing space. The good thing about industrializing space is, besides the necessity to create a space supply chain, space through micro-gravity, or low gravity, offers enormous potential in radically shifting manufacturing capabilities for certain products required here on Earth.
While transportation off-Earth has taken off, transportation on Earth has been stagnant over the last few decades. The last supersonic project, Concorde, retired almost two decades ago. Lack of innovation in the transportation industry, curtailed largely by regulations, is now starting to gain traction thanks to advances in new materials, design tools and software. Mach 5 supersonic jets may soon be a reality within this decade.
"Being able to go faster is super important because trade between any two parts of the globe is a function of the transportation costs, including the time costs of executives that are going back and forth. If you can cut the cost by 50%, you should be able to get twice the amount of trade between those two cities"
The other exciting idea is flying cars. With increasing density, traffic congestion and inexorably slowing commute speeds, point-to-point air travel makes logical sense. As much as multi-storey buildings and skyscrapers enabled cities to accommodate more people, a 3D transportation system - Airspace or underground tunnels - will enable faster mobility within cities. Regional air mobility(intercity) may take off before urban air mobility(intracity), considering business model and strict regulatory environment.
A confluence of technologies - including but not limited to autonomous vehicles such as drones and self-driving cars, more efficient batteries and advanced manufacturing techniques, processing and computing power, and advanced composite systems - drive the trend for the eVTOL market. There are more than 200 projects currently on the pipeline to develop electrically-propelled aircrafts with about 80 of them focused on urban air mobility.
Other projects like drone and robot delivery of goods, hyperloop project, self-driving cars, Boring etc. may completely transform the way we navigate and transport goods.
With so many innovations happening parallelly, it is certainly an exciting time to look forward to the future. Let’s make sure to continue on the road to infinite progress, accelerate progress with caution but not limit it by being overcautious and, more importantly, spread the word about progress.
Infinite Progress is possible and we need more techno-optimists that help us build a better future.