Is Science Slowing Down?
The short answer is No
It’s true that in some domains, like physics, discovery is nearing completion. Either we’ll find a Theory of Everything soon, or we’ll soon discover that we can’t find it. But either way, we’re closer to the end of physics than the beginning. And it’s the same with Moore’s Law. We’re closer to the end of processor innovation than we are to the start.
But in other domains, like computer science, we’re closer to the beginning. First, computer science has sub-sciences that are still in their infancy. For example, A.I. is literally only capable of creating sub-infant-level intelligences today.
The Atlantic article that is fueling the science-in-decline meme, focuses on return-on-investment. The ROI for science seems to be decreasing. But I believe that ROI depends on which science you look at. Furthermore, it also depends on what you mean by return. “Return” is one of those super-flexible terms, like “value,” “happiness,” and “success,” where you can bend its definition to nearly any context.
If I define “return” as “mind-blowing discovery or invention” then in my lifetime (I’m 36), I’ve witnessed the following great returns:
- The Internet
- Mobile Computers
These are all discoveries that our ancestors could have only imagined belonging to magicians. The Internet means everybody’s a split-second away from everybody. Wikipedia is a free global compendium of the world’s knowledge. Google can answer anything you want. Mobile computers are everyone’s companion portal. E-mail is perhaps as profound as the invention of the printing press.
It’s all a matter of perspective. What was more pivotal: landing on the moon or the invention of the Internet? We lament not knowing how to land on the moon anymore, but we forget that the only reason for landing on the moon was ego. The Apollo mission didn’t change everything the way the Internet did.
And if you want to talk about the “investment” part of ROI, the invention of the Internet didn’t take globs of research money. It just took a DARPA project plus Tim Berners-Lee. Wikipedia was started by a couple of co-founders. Google was started in a garage. And the iPhone was created by Apple Computers when it was much smaller than it is today.
So no, I don’t think science funding should slow down. Instead, we should question why we’re so pessimistic about science. Is it because the Internet was the last high-water mark for Great Invention, which now seems like a long time ago? Do we believe nothing on that level will happen again?
Here is a list of mind-blowing discoveries in the future that I expect to possibly happen in my lifetime. I’ve put an asterisk next to the ones that would be more profound than the Internet:
- The invention of AGI*
- The first successful cryo-revival*
- The end of cancer
- The end of Alzheimer’s
- The end of aging*
- A clean end to depression
- A clean end to anxiety
- Truly understanding happiness
- Truly understanding memory
- Truly understanding thoughts
- Truly understanding how the brain works
- The first mind-simulator*
- Explaining how the genetic computer works
Every one of those discoveries would at least be on the level of the invention of flight. A few would be even more profound than electricity, such as the invention of AGI or the end of aging.
We are forever dissatisfied, and that’s a good thing. If we weren’t, then we would have stopped innovating after the invention of fire. So no, science is not declining. Instead, Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns is just being out-matched by humanity’s Law of Accelerating Boredom.