Infinite progress, Techno-Optimism and the Near Future

Infinite progress, Techno-Optimism and the Near Future

A rehash of ideas by David Deutsch, Balaji Srinivasan, Max Roser and Eli Dourado on progress and techno-optimism.

This is a condensed version of the original post. Infiniti ventures is about the progress of technology in advancing human potential and reach. I track deeptech startups that are revolutionizing industries at www.infinitiventures.io.

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. 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. As Max Roser suggests, we have made sufficient progress in solving these problems but there is still a long way to go.

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 neighborhood, 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

c. Build an inspiring future

"The point of technology 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.

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.

Infinite Progress:

Is there a limit to Progress? David Deutsch 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.

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.

There are 3 major bottlenecks that are hindering progress:

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.

b. Stasis and Complacency

Stasis and complacency are not unheard of. The human species has been in a stasis mode for the vast majority of its existence. Stasis and complacency have caused the downfall of civilizations, countries and even great sports teams.

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 and focus more on progress.

c. Regulations

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 over-regulation is stifling innovation and it's hard to emphasize how regulations are indeed holding back progress.

Just like special economic zones we need special jurisdictions where regulatory presence is minimized and incentives put in place for early adopters to try new technologies or new medicines.

Techno-Optimism

How do we sustain progress and drive techno-optimism?

i. Change in Philosophy

Conventional optimism and pessimism are both ineffective in that optimists undermine the problems created by technology while pessimists disregard the merits of technology. David Deutsch 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.

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.

This is why projects like Roots of Progress, Our World in Data and progress studies are of vital importance. 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. 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.

Near Future

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.

There are 5 key areas of technology that are radically transforming different industries: Energy, AI, Crypto, Synbio and Transportation.

  1. Energy

The most important and crucial aspect of progress is energy. Energy drives economies and sustains civilizations.

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.

While wind and solar energy have seen tremendous progress in cost and emissions reductions, the answer to the most efficient, clean and reliant energy source may lie in nuclear and geothermal.

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. Be it Tesla or SpaceX, it is the underlying software stack that is transforming the respective industries. And this trend is going to continue across healthcare, drug discovery, biomarkers, etc.

While software certainly has transformed industries, the hardware required to power the software has been lagging behind. To fully benefit from the software revolution, we need to upgrade hardware as well.

New computing paradigms like neuromorphic 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.

3. Crypto

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 purports to remove the reliance on custodians, intermediaries, or central planners such as governments, banks and lawyers. Beyond finance, crypto also aims to decentralize media, including social media, build decentralized governance systems and protect freedom of speech. And it is very much possible that the crypto-economy will also enable a decentralized network state, an idea driven by Balaji.

4. Biotech and SynBio:

Synbio is to redesign biological systems or organisms for useful purposes by engineering them to have new abilities. SynBio is already transforming low-tech industries into high-tech industries such as food, cosmetics and fashion.

Beyond industrial applications, advances in biotech are also revolutionizing Healthcare. The once ignored mRNA technology, CRISPR gene-editing and psychedelic treatments are all under clinical studies to tackle various health-related problems.

The industry that Biotech is taking by storm is Life Extension. 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. 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.

The other exciting trend in accelerating the Space economy is the industrialization of Space. The good thing about industrializing space is, besides the necessity to create a space supply chain, space through micro-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. But Mach 5 supersonic jets may soon be a reality within this decade. Other projects like flying cars, drone and robot delivery of goods, hyperloop project, self-driving cars, Boring etc. may completely transform the way we navigate and transport goods.

Conclusion

With so many innovations happening in parallel, it is certainly an exciting time to look forward to the future. Infinite Progress is possible and we need more techno-optimists that help us build a better future.

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