Are we stagnating?

Thoughts from a viral article and hopes for our world

Recently, there’s is a viral article written in Chinese, called “The Great Technology Stagnation (Ji Shu Da Ting Zhi), by an author with pen name Zi Shui Dong Liu (Zi). Zi is a Chinese professor in electrical engineering. He suggests that the low-hanging fruits in human intellectual exploration are all picked, and the rest of the mysteries yet to be solved are of great complexity. Human haven’t had major breakthrough in fundamental science for the last forty years, and it’s an alarm for the stagnate future ahead of us.

I find this article an inspiring observation, and it resonates with the thoughts of some well-known intellectuals. I would like to share their ideas on what our current situations is, and how should we build the future.

The long article can be disseminated into four parts: proof of stagnation, reasons of stagnation, problems of stagnation, and possible solutions. I’ll briefly summarize the author’s argument below.

Summary of “The Great Technology Stagnation

  1. Proof of Stagnation
  • Our current way of living is based on the inventions in early 20th century. Examples:
    - Airplane: travel time between New York and London has not been improved in last forty years.
    - Space travel: forty years after sending human to the Moon, we are not even close to send human to the Mars.
  • No major breakthrough in fundamental science. Examples:
    - Nuclear fusion: it’s yet to be successful after decades of research effort.
    - Solar power: it’s still expensive due to the high production cost of solar panels. [Note: it’s a hugely debated topic. As per US Energy Information Administration’s report in April 2017, average Solar PV and Solar Thermal cost are still more expensive than coal-based energy]
    - Biology: more than 40 years after the discovery of DNA, we still don’t know how DNA controls body.

2. Reasons of stagnation

  • High complexity of unsolved problem
    The remaining problems are harder and harder.
    E.g. most people can learn to do basic arithmetic, less people can learn probability, and much less people understand calculus.
    The time needed to solve current problems might be larger than the most productive and creative years in human life. E.g. scientists nowadays in their mid 30s, would grasp only a small fraction of knowledge in their own field.
  • “Academic game”
    In order to survive in the academia, scholars nowadays need to produce a lot of trivial researches.
  • Homogeneity
    Globalization and internet greatly eliminates the difference in people around the world. People’s values and wishes are more similar than ever before. But innovation happens by random chance when someone thinks differently.

3. Problems ahead of us

  • Energy exhaustion and lack of alternatives

4. Solution

  • Rule of evolution
    Encourage diversity to increase our chance of breakthrough

These arguments are not new. Economist Tyler Cowen proposed the similar idea from a perspective of an economist. In his book “The Great Stagnation” published in 2011, he argued that the current recession since 2008 is rooted from the bottleneck of technological development. Other than computer, Cowen said, we didn’t have much breakthrough since 1950s. We are living the similar life as people in 1950s. Same tools, just improved.

The major development in past few decades were focused on IT industry, but Cowen argued that it didn’t create that much opportunities for the society as a whole. The IT industry created huge amount of profit with only a very small portion of manpower. Internet makes us happier without paying much. But the free-ness is also hurting the industries that need real profit.

Peter Thiel, the founder of PayPal, mentioned in his book “Zero to One” that “Since 1971, we have seen rapid globalization along with limited technological development, mostly confined to IT.” We might overlook the slowdown in technological development just because of the rapid growth in the last 200 years. But Thiel stated that in most of the human history, the whole society is rather stagnated. It’s not until recently that people start to anticipate a perpetual growing society.

So, what do we do? Zi, in his article, was rather pessimistic about the coming decades ahead of us. He thinks we have entered a plateau of technological development, and our current oil-based way of living is not sustainable. The lack of breakthrough in substitute energy source in the last few decades is an alarm that the problem would not be solved any time soon. Without substitute energy, we also can’t travel far into space. The unreachable sky may actually be our limit.

Unlike Zi’s more pessimistic view on human future. Peter Thiel shed a little brighter light on the situation. He figured that there are only four ways to anticipate the future: recurrent collapse, plateau, extinction, and takeoff.

Recurrent collapse is unlikely. Knowledge and education are so widespread nowadays, that entering a “dark age” is unlikely. Plateau is what we usually think would happen. That is, most countries in the world develop toward the richest countries today. Though, the scenario might not be sustainable with limited energy source. Extinction is what we want to avoid, but if it happens, “there is no human future of any kind to consider”. So indeed, making the next technological breakthrough, taking off toward a much better future is the only option that we can hope for.

Thiel called for more innovations that goes from zero to one. Cowen and Zi, both concluded that scientific research is the solution. Cowen called for elevating scientist’s social status. Zi hoped for a more divergent society where more different ideas and thoughts would thrive, and with the random chance, a major groundbreaking idea might emerge.

Talking about scientific breakthrough, I reminded of the sci-fi novel “The Three Body Problem”. (Spoiler alert!) Human’s technology stagnate for 200 years only because of the particle accelerators were interfered by the “smart-proton” sent by aliens. Without fundamental change in our knowledge of the world, major technological breakthroughs are impossible. Although “smart-proton” is just in sci-fi, but it’s possible that one major scientific findings could take us off. Just as the simple equation E=mc^2 opened the door to nuclear fission and fusion.

The next advancement will not happen automatically. We should create an environment that encourages more people to push further our boundaries of knowledge. It’s hard, but there is no reason we do not try to get better. To bravely solve the unsolvable, that’s our best hope.

Further Readings