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Center for Responsible Nanotechnology
Two competing views of near-future technological change vie for ascendancy. The first is that although scientific breakthroughs will continue to occur and new applications of cutting-edge technologies will bring changes to society, overall those impacts -- while remarkable -- will remain evolutionary, not revolutionary. The second view is that a discontinuity of some kind is coming. Whether from genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, or nanotechnology, the extent of change that occurs will be so transformative that society -- and perhaps humans themselves -- cannot be the same afterward.
July 16th, 2007
Sudden Step or Gradual Rise?
Two apparently conflicting views of near-future technological change compete for ascendancy.
One view, held by what appears to be the majority of scientists, politicians, business leaders and other commentators, is that although big scientific breakthroughs will continue to occur and new applications of cutting-edge technologies will push significant changes on and into society, overall those impacts -- while remarkable -- will remain evolutionary, not revolutionary.
The other view, supported by a fairly small fraction of observers, is that a discontinuity of some kind is coming. These people, many of them researchers, educators, or entrepreneurs, contend that an ever accelerating rate of scientific, technological, and societal change could result in a disruptive break in "business as usual." Whether it is genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, or nanotechnology that acts as the catalyst, the extent of change that occurs will be so transformative that society -- and perhaps humans themselves -- cannot be the same afterward.
What I propose is that those two positions, while seeming to contradict one another, can both be accepted as correct, at least in some respects.
Few would argue that rapid technological progress is almost certain to continue. Some in the second group described above will say that the pace of change could soon increase to the point that change itself will be the disruptive force; we've been hearing about this idea since the publication of Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, if not before, and today "singularitarians" like Ray Kurzweil press its merits. But for now, let's stipulate a relatively steady upward climb in technical progress as projected by the first group described above.
So, how do we reconcile an evolutionary perspective of change with the revolutionary expectations of less conventional future analysts? An approach toward integrating both views into a single cohesive outlook begins with distinguishing between rates of technical progress and corresponding levels of societal change. I submit that these should not be confused; moreover, if both are plotted on a graph, it's not necessary to expect them to look the same. Impacts of technical advances can vary significantly, from negligible to extreme.
For example, the Internet was around for a long time before it began to have any appreciable effects on society. It was only after the development of the World Wide Web in the 1990s that more than a handful of people were affected by the Internet. The technical background for today's web-dependent society existed far in advance of its eventually pervasive influence. It took a catalyst -- in this case, Tim Berners-Lee's invention of the Web -- to yield the huge changes we now observe.
|Technical Progress vs. Social Impacts|