Read the goddamn budget announcement: "Orszag said that in addition to research and development, NASA’s proposal invests in 'advance robotics and other steps that will help to inspire Americans and not just return a man or a woman to the Moon but undertake the longer range research that could succeed in human spaceflight to Mars.'" 
Yes, the US has gotten unambitious in spaceflight. Yes, there's been nothing more inspirational than repeating what happened in the 60s. Yes, yes yes. That's the whole point!
The shuttle was canceled because it's stupid to turn NASA into the federal "send shit into Low Earth Orbit" department. We've done that, we've been doing that for half a century now, it's no longer innovative. What NASA should be doing is what no private enterprise can do: highly unprofitable risky space pioneering that inspires the human race. Let's take away money from boring and put it into interesting! How can anybody be against this?
Honestly, this is the reason we have politicians. Can you imagine how long we'd be running expensive useless shuttle missions if it was decided by popular opinion?
I do not know if SpaceX will make it; I'd personally bet against that timeframe, though I wouldn't bet against the goal in general. But I will guarantee this: Barring a major political turnaround in the US, SpaceX will make a manned mission to Mars happen before NASA possibly could at this point. They don't have to make sure at least one part is sourced from each Congressional district, they aren't beholden to a Congress that on space exploration time scales blunders about like a drunken sailor, and they aren't a 53-year-old sclerotic bureaucracy.
Unprofitable they can do (and I mean that in both the good (research) and bad (blatant waste of funds) ways); they can not do risky. Unless you mean "risky because politics compromised the engineering process", which they can also still do. (Reading an honest history of the Space Shuttle is an eyeopener. Feynman and the glass of ice water was only the flashy tip of the iceberg. Google "Senate Launch System" for the latest.) It isn't in their genes anymore. You could put it back, but in the time that process would take, SpaceX will be there already.
There is no NASA apart from politicians. They are a wholly-owned subsidiary of Congress. That's not even a political statement, it's simply descriptive. If you can't trust politicians to drive our space policy, then you can't trust NASA to do it.
nobody will want to actually live there. if there is money to be made by mining Mars' resources, fine - but don't steal my money (via tax dollars).
Secondly, I'm pretty sure there are people who would love to live on Mars. At least give it a shot. Yes, in purely practical terms, it has a lot of downsides. But so does Antarctica, and many people have travelled there and some people actually live there at least some duration.
Third, there's good reason to believe, based on past experience with similar efforts, that the net economic effect for folks back on Earth is going to be positive, due to the side effects and fallout from R&D breakthroughs and engineering optimizations. That's what happened with the US-Soviet space race and the Apollo program. Also, since we're talking about SpaceX, which is a private company, it's possible that some, though almost certainly not all, of their funding comes from non-government sources, including non-US sources. It will probably be a mix. Mr. Musk personally put in a lot of his own money, which he made privately, to bootstrap it.
Fifth, one argument for establishing a permanent human presence on Mars is so that humanity has at least one outpost off Earth. So that if some disaster happens with Earth, not all of our eggs were in one basket. Paying even $100m to buy that seems like a pretty cheap form of insurance. Much much greater sums get spent on say NFL football merchandise, or pop music albums, each year. And certainly a couple orders of magnitude more have been spent on US military operations in the last decade, most of which could be argued were unnecessary.
Ninthly, because I cannot count: there are likely many economic benefits to you, the US and the planet to both setting foot on Mars and creating a sustained outpost there, in terms of the follow-on effects of inspiration and imagination and ambition, especially in children and upcoming generations. Surely if we could tip even 1m more children world-wide over into eventually becoming engineers, scientists and inventors, rather than lawyers, accountants, brokers or rap stars, the whole of humanity would be better off, on the net.
Eleventhly, I have no eleventhly. :)
don't get me wrong, I love SpaceX (and Elon), but most of this is folly.
Even terraforming Mars isn't realistic, it's a mostly dead planet whose core has cooled and now doesn't have any protective electromagnetic belts.
I think Stephenson's dead right about the effects of risk aversion, but I don't understand sentences like "In a world where decision-makers are so close to being omniscient, it’s easy to see risk as a quaint artifact of a primitive and dangerous past." The Lehman Crisis is only the latest evidence of Omniscient Collapse. The safety record of the Shuttle is another.
My current guess is that part of the problem is excess compartmentalization and excess complexity. These seem related to large-scale corporate organization. Believing that risk is a real if weird economic cost, I have to wonder if these enormous corporations really deliver their promised bargains of scale economy. It's certainly plausible to imagine their capital has to include a government backstop, and that maybe our institutions would be somewhat less enormous and stupid if we would just let their risks come to the fore.
But that would lead to more chaos that our corporate leaders and politicians would like. We've got a leadership class more interested in managing than accomplishing, and it's showing up in all sorts of places.
How about we take it away from "boring" and give it back to the taxpayers from whom it was taken via coercion.
Without Facebook I wouldn't have seen or spoken to lots of old friends until our 25th high school or college reunion.
Without Twitter I wouldn't have learned from and made connections with influential people in the tech world.
Without Google or Wikipedia or StackOverflow I would have to go to a library to learn anything new.
Without GitHub I would have to write my own software from scratch and spend a lot of time managing collaboration workflows.
Without AWS, Heroku, Ruby, Rails et al. I wouldn't have been able to launch my own startup without outside funding.
Without Zappos I wouldn't be able to buy size 15 shoes in whatever style or fit I want. I ordered shoes last week at 7pm and they arrived at 9:30am the next day. Seriously.
Without Kindle and my iPad I wouldn't be able to get any book in the world in 5 seconds for $10.
AirBNB, ZipCar, Apple, Dropbox, the list goes on, and this is in my (our) industry alone.
Neal Stephenson might not be able to fly to Mars in his lifetime, but I'm pretty excited about the innovations that will happen in the next 10 years; if they're half as good as the last 10, us geeks will be pretty satisfied.
But that's not Wikipedia, nor, given its deletion policy, ever likely to be.
We have artificial leaves that generate fuel by floating in sunlit water.
In a few short years most book stores (an industry centuries old) will have been closed and replaced with e-readers. You can get the next Harry Potter (or whatever replaces it) without leaving your couch.
We have 3d printers that will create a statue of your World of Warcraft character without a human ever touching a carving tool.
Aids is about to be a minor infection.
We live in a world of science fiction, but we refuse to acknowledge it because we make the miraculous into something mundane. Mostly we use our world to get porn and read Twilight, but that doesn't mean we're not making huge changes to the world.
"...without a human ever touching a carving tool."
Brrr... I got a vision of pig-fat humanoids permanently embedded in their couches that can't even hold a spoon with their degenerated clumsy hands :-)
Try to think back to what passed as extreme sports in the 80s and compare it to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_F9RJSPnf8A
I'm not sure we're headed into WALL-E chairs just yet.
On the other hand, take a look at increasing obesity rates and lack of skilled handyman in developed countries.
Obviously, the continuous stream of data from the internet makes it harder to concentrate on one thing, I think we can all agree on that (which is why HN implements 'noprocast' and such)
But IMO something is also happening on a deeper level. The focus on 'social' these days also means being flooded with opinions by others (whether something is feasible or useful or not, for example) which might discourage you from continuing on big, bold projects.
Somehow one gets addicted to "validation" by others, which is easier to get if you keep close to the status quo. This is similar to what he describes with the shareholders of a public corporation. The immediate feedback cycle causes a lot of people to "judge" what you're doing and of course, there will always be some that don't believe in it (as there is no immediate payoff yet) and block it.
On the other hand, the internet is great because it allows communication and working together of people with similar mindsets, which otherwise would never have found each other. So it also might unite people to work on (open source etc) and/or finance (things like Kickstarter are a beginning...) big projects. A mixed blessing :)
1) Science and engineering aren't chasing anything audacious and world-changing anymore.
2) The blame lies partly with the fact that we're living in a world changed by pervasive, cheap communications and networking technology that would have seemed unthinkably audacious just a generation ago.
There is an irony here that I would have expected him to see through instantly, but he seems entirely oblivious to it.
Science fiction famously anticipated some real-world 20th century innovations like atomic power, communication satellites, waldos, etc. But it's had a much worse track record with communications. There are no cell phones (or cell-phone-like devices) in Neuromancer. Stephenson's own Snow Crash features an international computer network with a virtual-reality interface that seems incredibly cumbersome and inconvenient compared compared to the actual web.
I think it must be harder to imagine how any given piece of technology will interact with the larger society than it is to make predictions about what the development of a technology will make possible. A VR type interface to the web wouldn't be much of a challenge (technically) by now, but nobody wants one. Second Life is withering on the vine. The video telephone that has been so long predicted by SF is possible now, but it turns out to be more trouble than it's worth except in exceptional circumstances. And when you make it available to just anyone, it turns into a TV show about penises.
There is the matrix though, which isn't a bad vision of the Internet; its global, all the big databanks are connected to it, commerce (banks etc) is transacted on it. I think that was doing a pretty good job at predicting future communications in 1984.
You are right about the lack of cell phones - there's a scene with payphones in Istanbul that seems really out of place in 'the future' now.
"Stephenson's own Snow Crash features an international computer network with a virtual-reality interface that seems incredibly cumbersome and inconvenient compared compared to the actual web."
I think this is a little unfair.
I always thought the point of the Metaverse in Snow Crash was for real time human interaction; Hiro has his virtual office, librarian, and 'Earth' as interfaces for high speed information retrieval.
The metaverse, as described, is limited, in some ways, but that's by design.
I'm reminded of the bit in Snow Crash where Stephenson talks about Juanita building the software that maps real life facial expressions onto avatar facial expressions, and how important that is for business.
This is something that's still unsolved. Humans have a lot of hardware that allows high bandwidth face to face communication; we pick up on very subtle facial cues, for example.
But no one has really cracked the problem of such 'high emotional bandwidth' Internet hangouts. We see things like the Google+ hangout feature - but they don't really work, as hangouts.
Where do you go online if you want to hang out, and communicate with other humans? Yahoo chat? Facebook? Are these really optimal forms of human communication? I don't personally believe so.
I think Stephenson sketched his metaverse as a virtual reality interface that's solving human communication problems that the web still hasn't come close to solving.
Not only does disruptive innovation not happen where we expect it to, it usually refuses to happen where we will it to. Not only solar (and fusion) power, but things like making the kind of artificial intelligence we wanted. It seems like they were just not solvable with any amount of cleverness. Maybe we picked the wrong build tree, but maybe we were just hand-waving when we extrapolated to flying cars.
I think part of the problem is not seeing sustaining innovation, like nearly all of the space program, as the mostly-linear kind of innovation it is. I mean, it sure seemed like we were creating new dimensions of technology when we increased the "number of men on the frickin' moon" statistic above zero. But how much of the innovation required to get there was really Freeman Dyson level stuff? To me, the 25-year line from V-2 to Apollo (with stops at satellites and ICBMs) seems pretty straightforward given the resources involved. Am I just too jaded by retrospective?
It seems the fault lies more in our expectations than in our imaginativeness.
Like William Gibson said, he now writes novels about the present because the present has caught up in many ways with science fiction. Not that we have flying cars or heroic robots, not that we have the future they predicted, but every week in the New Scientist you can read about stuff that would have been pure sci fi fifty years ago. We are inundated with magic.
I think the space program stood out more because it was channeled through the media that way. Everyone was watching the same thing and the same scientists. Today we have as much science to admire as we have viewing options on the internet.
Somewhat successful because while she has feeling and movement, she doesn't have normal dexterity.
That feels pretty sci-fi to me.
"You know what’s wrong with scientific power? It’s a form of inherited wealth. There is no humility before nature. And because you can stand on the shoulders of giants, you can accomplish something quickly." - that's in the book, not the movie!
I think what Neal Stephenson laments is not that we can't innovate, but that we haven't achieved our potential. Achievement is a world apart from raw data.
(Ironically, I only had to copy-and-paste the quote... http://manas.tungare.name/blog/jurassic-park-what-the-movie-... )
Although the sequencing of the human genome and the persistence of Moore's law are also impressive.
I, too, wonder why so much of technological progress seems to have stalled. In a single century we went from the mass production of the automobile all the way to space; from telegraph to television; from typewriters to microcomputers. What an amazing period of technological development! There had been nothing like it in our history. Like the perhaps somewhat apocryphal Renaissance, we may not even realize the significance of this age for a very long time.
So, what happened? Software has not, really, improved very much in many years. Our computers and phones and other devices have mated and borne tiny little offspring. But, these still feel like iterative changes on revolutionary designs.
And, of course, there is the faltering space program.
...Except, Armadillo Aerospace and SpaceX and others are right around the corner, I hope.
I think I've noticed a pretty ubiquitous pattern in certain kinds of projects: the sorts of projects that are huge in scope, with immediate deadlines, and a clear focus, and full of talented people whose responsibility it is to figure out how to reach the project goals as quickly as possible.
They grab every available technology, and they make amazing advancements in combining it and putting it together, and in the end, if they reach their goal, they end up with something that works, but is inelegant. They build an enormous, amazing, beautiful ... hack.
After that, if the progress is to continue, it's up to an entirely different kind of approach: the fucking about with the details.
It's not enough just to put a human and some supplies in space; now the goal is to do it sustainably. Now we have to build reusable ships and things capable of lifting tremendous payloads into orbit while sipping their energy through a tiny straw and not costing anybody very much.
And that's where the development is going right now. It requires tons and myriad tiny little developments in a huge array of sciences: in energy production and management, and in materials science especially. Like Intel, our space program has had its "tock"; now it's time for a "tick".
At least, I hope that's what's happening. I'd hate to live in a world in which humans had given up on exploring and pushing against their boundaries.
It's true that humanity is less in the game of building pyramids, dramatic edifices of might to be looked upon in wonder, but I suspect much of that was grandstanding in a global cold war, rather than driven by need or even a genuine striving for achievement. Our focus has moved in a more democratic, consumer-oriented place, where it is simultaneously less visible as a monument, but where its leverage, the number of lives it affects, is higher than ever.
Space exploration doesn't make a whole lot of economic sense, until there are resources beyond our planet for which the demand exceeds supply such that the price level justifies the effort. I don't have any romantic fantasies of travelling across the galaxy, much less universe; without FTL technology (which will probably never exist) or greatly lengthened human lifetimes, it isn't realistic to focus on it. If it was really necessary to go to the moon again, I'm confident it could be done much more cheaply and safely than it was last time, but I wouldn't vote for public funds to be spent on it.
I imagine it's like watching your nephew grow up. Don't see him for a few years, and suddenly, it's like, whoah! You're huge! But if you see him every day, maybe the difference isn't as dramatic.
I would also note that those more dramatic motives you discuss regarding things like the pyramids, space exploration, etc, may not exist today, which further decreases the dramatic level of today's technology.
The iPad is an amazing technical leap over consumer electronics circa 1985 (Pong, Pacman, grainy color TV).
Stephenson is right, but he doesn't go far enough. It's not just the big things - since 1970 the pace of progress has been slowing down across the board.
There hasn't been any period of time like that recently. Progress hasn't been accelerating. The reason we thought we'd have fusion power and moon bases and a cure for cancer is that's the trajectory we were on. So no, progress isn't accelerating at all. It's slowing down, and more perceptibly every day.
It seems to me that the pace of progress is accelerating everywhere, all the time. As it has throughout human history.
It wasn't exactly caveman days, ya know.
I don't think I would have thought it magical, or invented by aliens, just a neat bit of hardware.
And it would have beat the krep that Kirk was forced to use on Star Trek.
What has changed is the amount of code that a device is capable of executing per second, and that is what has enabled things like video decoding.
I take it you have never used IDEA to write Java code? :-P
But the microcomputer of 1985 was globally connected too! And that did seem like quite a technological advance: here in one's own home, a machine that, via phone lines, can exchange messages worldwide!
I agree that the number of people globally connected has increased, but it seems more incremental; a matter of economics and incremental improvements, bringing down the prices and upping the speeds, so now many more people can experience that magic of global connectivity in your own home.
The first cell phone was developed in 1947
The Internet starts in 1950
Tablet computers were prototyped in 1968
It's the economic improvement since that created the iPad. iPad is not in anyway comparable to the technological innovation in 1960 that put a man to the moon.
It's like someone using VS2010 and C# 4.0 seeing the SICP book for the first time, or a chance encounter with LISP. And you would know we didn't improve that much since the days we put a man on the moon.
If you really think that Lisp by itself embodies all the technology that is in C# 4.0, rather than merely being able to encode and implement such technologies, then I don't think you know what you're talking about. To get Lisp to do everything C# 4.0 can do, you'd have to write a compiler for it in Lisp macros. That Lisp has a macro system that can do this is, to me, no more interesting than that I can also write a compiler in assembler.
Lisp might not have everything that C# 4.0 does, but so what? Most of the world still runs on C. Hell, for that matter, a depressing amount of the world still runs on Fortran and COBOL. C, Fortran, COBOL ... they are adequate, if not exactly fun, tools that can generally be used to get there from here. I promise you that there is nothing you can do in C# 4.0 and WTF 11.12 that I can't do in C.
But just go ahead and try to get to the moon using gunpowder.
By contrast, I think much of the global connectivity improvement, at least at the basic level of connectivity, is social/economic. The technology existed in 1985 to hook people up with at least basic global connectivity; unlike going to the moon in 1920, it was not technologically out of reach to get on Usenet in 1985. And many people did get hooked up to various kinds of global messaging. That many others didn't was mainly a matter of price, education, and interest, imo, not a technological issue. It's certainly technologically conceivable to have an alternate-reality 1980s where the average home had a C64 or AppleII, and dial-up access to a global messaging/email service, using no technology that didn't exist in 1985.
Clearly, sending a man to the moon captured the imagination of a certain generation, a generation that is growing older. But it didn't capture my imagination particularly strongly; it was before my time, and now it seems to me like an massive achievement in the same way as the pyramids were massive achievements. Literally massive, in that the scale is impressive, but monuments essentially without purpose other than aggrandizing those who achieved them.
So I don't see them as a big thing that was done in the past that is lacking in the present. I don't see a need for them. You might as well ask why we haven't built a bigger pyramid than at Giza.
And, unfortunately, it's all too common on HN that we can't have a discussion about value that doesn't involve a concrete measurement of actual dollars, and since I am not one of the three wealthiest people on the planet, I cannot quote any kind of significant figure for what I personally would be willing to pay to leave the planet in a permanent way.
But, I will say that historically, the populist argument against exploration has always been that it wasn't worth the cost, and that that argument has almost always turned out to be wrong. The technological improvements required to accomplish the exploration have always further benefited human technological development, to say nothing of inspiring later generations to continue pushing boundaries, or of showing us just how possible it is to break through certain boundaries, or of discovering unimagined treasures along the way.
I am steadfastly amongst those few remaining people who thinks that real space exploration is not only worth it, but is essential to our species.
Neal Stephenson knows better than he shows in this article.
- Nano-scale manufacturing, 3D printing
- Life extension
- Quantum computers
... to name a few off the top of my head.
The problem with the space program is that it's gotten about as far as it can go without propulsion and energy-generation systems an order of magnitude or two more efficient. Hopefully we'll see breakthroughs there in the coming decades as well.
Exactly! And, materials science. There's this huge problem of radiation in space that hasn't been solved yet without the use of a lot of thick, heavy ("costly") materials. From the little bit that I follow the field, this seems to be an even more challenging problem than propulsion.
> - Life extension
My money for the next great advancement in science is on biotechnology. All the signs are there -- the computing power has recently become available to crack some very difficult problems, imaging systems are better than ever, and we are rapidly developing new understandings of biology, including human biology. Scientists can print organs now! If I can survive long enough to become an old man, I think there's a good chance -- if I have enough money, sadly -- that I'll live to be a very very old man.
Conquering space in a meaningful way is a much larger problem than any of the leaps we've made technologically in the past 100 years.
Think about the explosion in digital artifacts we are producing for future generations (blogs, videos, music, etc.).
The entire historical record of human history is tiny compared to the historical record of the past 15 years.
The smartphones went a big way in usability and price department, but it's not any kind of qualitative difference.
This was the time when anyone expected VRML-based web and augumented reality just around the corner. If you told me back then about iPhone in 2010, I would have really struggled feigning surprize to mask the disappointment.
I heard a talk where it was suggested that the thing to aim for is to mine a small near-Earth asteroid for valuable ores. The hurdles are small compared to, say, going to Mars, and there's a commercial payoff. But even that requires a bunch of technology that doesn't exist and are at this point too far-fetched an investment for private development.
One obvious example: the San Francisco Bay Bridge. The original bridge was built in 1933; it took them less than 3.5 years to build it.
Now, they are just trying to replace the eastern span (the bigger one, but hey, less than the full bridge), with technology from nearly a century later. They have been "working on it" for 9 years. It is currently scheduled to run another 2 years from now (if it somehow gets done on time) and is 6 times more expensive than originally projected.
For a bridge. That doesn't have any more traffic capacity than the bridge it is replacing.
"One of the greatest challenges in performing any seismic safety work on the Bay Bridge is that traffic must be kept moving. This has required the construction of temporary structures, and shifting of traffic from the existing bridge to the temporary structures. Major construction and demolition work is often scheduled during nights and weekends in order to minimize disruption to commute-hour traffic. This elaborate scheduling has extended the length of time that it takes to complete the seismic safety work."
This rate of industrial accidents simply isn't acceptable these days, and improved worker safety slows construction.
As a society, almost nothing in the scope of the Big Ideas of the 1900s-1950 era has come to pass in the last 30 years.
Our science fiction writers write of hideous futures we don't want to live in. Our movies present soap operas in space, in the name of science fiction. The education system of the pre-50s, maligned as it is, produced better innovators and more good ideas than what is alllowed today.
Wake up and smell the tomatoes. Things are bad, and not getting better. Drop the entertainment ideas, and work on something good for the world.
A few weeks ago, Khan Academy was hiring.
That's one of the things that bugs me most about the job market, at least where I live: 95+% of the jobs are completely focused on entertainment or social media.
Sure, there are some interesting technical problems in those spaces, but once my student loans are gone and I can afford the risk (and pay cut) of going to work on something more likely to be good for the world, I plan to do so.
I'm crazy for space exploration, but unmanned exploration really is the stronger option at this point. I get excited over large trussed structures, but cheap handheld medical scanners which don't require an expert operator are going to do more to relieve human suffering. I'd love to see more innovation - but in spite of everything, there's more today than ever before.
It's hard to see sometimes because a lot of the big stuff is twenty years out or more. All it is today is a project in some academic lab, just a seed. But how else are you going to get your miracles?
We understand quite a bit more than we used to at that level, but there hasn't yet been a lot of tangible benefit. We haven't sped up the pace of drug development, and haven't developed nanomechanical computers (no Young Lady's Illustrated Primer). We haven't developed Drexler's universal constructors.
Of course, we do have see-through zinc oxide. So there's that.
> haven't developed nanomechanical computers
Not that either is going to replace transistors-in-silicon when it comes to density of processing power.
> no Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
Incidentally, the story describes a "Wizard of Oz" implementation. The more complex interactions of the primer are handled by a human actor behind the scenes.
> We haven't developed Drexler's universal constructors
Take your pick of DNA synthesis, chemical synthesis, nucleosynthesis, antihydrogen, 3d printing, two-photon fabrication - oh, and the 16 nm semiconductor process. Not quite magic goo, but pretty effective nonetheless.
> we do have see-through zinc oxide
Yes, and where is the drug? The world seems to be overflowing with "promising drug targets", but what actually gets approved is longer lasting pecker perkers and yet another blood pressure medication.
>> haven't developed nanomechanical computers
Well, okay, there has been some progress in the lab that seems to have led to not much practical. The microfluidics holds big promise. Just like it has for decades. Use this technology to make a closed-loop artificial pancreas... that will be progress.
>> no Young Lady's Illustrated Primer
> Incidentally, the story describes a "Wizard of Oz" implementation. The more complex interactions of the primer are handled by a human actor behind the scenes.
Heh. I'd forgotten about the actor. Must read that book again. Why oh why are they charging $12 for the ebook version of a novel published in 1995? More than the paperback?
>> We haven't developed Drexler's universal constructors
>Take your pick of DNA synthesis, chemical synthesis, nucleosynthesis, antihydrogen, 3d printing, two-photon fabrication - oh, and the 16 nm semiconductor process. Not quite magic goo, but pretty effective nonetheless.
That's a long, long way from magic goo.
I wasn't trying to say there's been no progress, just that the rate of technological progress is slower than it was. Most of what you've pointed out here hasn't made it out of the lab yet.
That's a problem with the industry and the government, not so much with the research. But I'd love to see improvements there.
Also, there are some fun tricks with augmented reality and chemistry.
> there has been some progress in the lab that seems to have led to not much practical.
MEMS has only been a thing for about a decade. Fancy sensors for your cell phone are more profitable, so they get industrial support and make it out of the lab faster.
It's not easy to get adequate funding for academic research, and it's a million times easier (more, really) to MVP a SaaS startup than it is to get innovative tech out of the lab. Industry is often 10-20 years behind academic research, sometimes more. Just look at the state of nuclear power plants.
The space race was not fueled by just wanting to set foot on the moon. Keep in mind the Soviets were trying to advance their space program as well, and prior to all of the space treaties this was a war for claiming new ground. Old Soviet schematics actually show some crazy designs, like satellites with (freakin') laser beams mounted on them.
Now, it does not really matter who gets to Mars first - its certainly not a competition any one person or company wants to risk billions of dollars on.
Even if you grouped together some of the most prolific VCs, their cumulative budget would be fairly small for taking on large scale problems.
The problem is that money has to come from somewhere to take on big problems, and no one wants to shell out.
This is also why actual direct competition is avoided in preference to non-innovative market/customer manipulation taking the form of techniques like customer lock-in plans, patent trolling, and planned obsolescence. Mostly narrow payoff innovation is pursued as the business community has focused around making short-term profit optimization the most accepted strategy.
The current internet is revolutionary, but wasn't achieved on some master plan. It grew incrementally and somewhat organically. Creating a planet-wide super high speed communications network to every house within 10 years as a concerted project might be closer to what he's thinking. Something like what Google plays around with, but on a huge scale. Software and computer devices are also amazing, but they too were not part of a well-defined goal or vision. They grew from smaller innovations.
There will always be good rational arguments about things being too costly or too impractical or just not as important as feeding and clothing everyone, but that's the "valley" that he spoke of getting past or over. It's hard to fly if you remain too firmly grounded.
What about cell phones, and the communication revolution in general? While I'm at the park in the US, I can call someone in Europe riding on a train. Or, I can take the same phone to Europe and call someone back home. That's pretty amazing, if you ask me.
What about free/open source software? Someone can start a business with almost no capital at all, and get an operating system, an office suite, a web browser, and sophisticated database management software. And they don't even need to tell anyone that they are doing it. And when they need something better, they can fix it themselves or hire someone to fix it; they don't need to deal with the original vendor. That's just the business side of things -- the educational aspects of free/open source software are just as compelling.
I guess the problem is that none of these things are as impressive to look at as a 500-ton rocket.
A lot of the problem, across the board today, is the U.S. litigation and regulatory state. So, the reality is that the cell phone revolution happened in spite of our national political leadership.
I agree with his observation that we've become more short-term oriented, I don't agree with his extrapolation of that tendency to the future or the causality. We're not building big stuff because we've become shortsighted, we've become shortsighted because we've built most of the big stuff that was cheap to build with current knowledge. As soon as new avenues open up we'll have another burst of invention.
Fusion reactors have been "a few decades away" for the last 75 years so it's understandable that we don't have as many people interested in that. But I'll bet you that when they're finally made workable enough you will have enough applications of that tech to figure out for the next 50 years.
Same thing with manufacturing. You already have people printing gun parts on 3D printers and trading designs on-line. Research being done at this very moment on metallising printable materials or making stronger composites printable is going to turn manufacturing completely upside down.
19th century was figuring out the applications of mechanical automation, early 20th - the applications of electricity, late 20th - of electronic automation. Who knows what the 21st will be, but I'm sure we'll get out of this slow patch eventually.
From http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/12/china-ascendant.html :
The world has emulated Western policies mainly because those nations were high status, not because their style of law or government was obviously more efficient. Chinese styles are likely similarly efficient, and if China becomes higher status, the world will emulate it instead.
A generation ago, people in China were starving. Now they're the second-largest economy in the world. Last week they launched a space station. Of course China has problems, but their government seems to know how to grow quickly, and that increases their citizens' quality of life.
Far better is it to dare mighty things, to win glorious triumphs even though checkered by failure than to take rank with those poor spirits who neither enjoy much nor suffer much because they live in the grey twilight that knows neither victory nor defeat.
-- Theodore Roosevelt
The risk in high speed rail is primarily due to the scale of the implementation; the cost in terms of time, effort, and money of acquiring the rail right-of-way and physically building the infrastructure.
The big risk in the Wenzhou train collision referred to by the OP was not in the technology that was used or the building of the infrastructure, but was a system and management failure. The technology in the train system, when correctly implemented and used properly, is well known, well proven, and safe.
To be blunt, the failure was not due to "big gains big risk technology," but was due to the fact that the high speed rail system in China was a boondoggle.
The same argument can be made for HSR. Moving 1.3 billion people are now free to move about the country.
In the US, we're still arguing over building our first HSR.
Anyway, the unanswered, and currently unanswerable question, is what happens in China's future? (For the above post - does the increased variance continue even at higher wealth levels or is there a soft ceiling which means the authoritarian countries will not come to dominate?)
I've seen this game played before, and I'm skeptical China will be the exception: http://www.gwern.net/Notes#chinese-kremlinology
China, Russia, Japan, Singapore - all these countries had relatively low-hanging fruit by simply industrializing. But they aren't a 'poster-boy' until they equal or surpass the Western countries!
Take Japan, which was the China-before-China, and look at its per capita GDP: https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/List_of_count... No matter which of the 3 charts you look at, the USA is still 5-10+ countries higher than Japan. South Korea is even further down the list. Singapore doesn't do too bad, but if you know anything about the place, you know that that 'success' is not possible to replicate on larger scales.
> Now they're the second-largest economy in the world.
Which isn't very impressive on a per capita basis, when one is trying to make the claim that 'Chinese styles are likely similarly efficient'. If China reached a USA level per capita, its economy would be something like $61.1 trillion. As opposed to the current $5 trillion.
I'm actually reading his latest book right now, "REAMDE", and although it is well written and entertaining, it certainly doesn't provide anywhere near the fun 'mind stretching' that some of his previous books have. (Snow Crash being the obvious one there)
Really, REAMDE is a bit boring from a SciFi point of view, more akin to any number of suspense / thrillers that get stamped out every year.
On his larger point, I do wonder whether the reason the rate of real 'physical' breakthroughs recently, like the kind he had in his childhood is more just us starting to bump into the limits of physics and resources.
IE, cracking the atom was a pretty insane step forward in power generation, it is really hard to do a lot better. Oil is miraculously awesome as a transportable source of energy, it isn't for a lack of trying that we haven't found a replacement. Computing and processors are starting to hit the limits of physics.
Anyways, a good thought piece no matter what.
Today we innovate in software, not hardware, and soon the balances will tip again - to bio-interfaces, entirely passive computing, and the crazy stuff various think tanks around the world are cooking up (mostly so they can be featured in WIRED, but surely one of them will have a hit someday).
Energy is important too, and I think people are trying hard, but "energy" is an enormously difficult problem, and unfortunately the bar set by oil is very high. That is, if you want a viable alternative energy source it has to be as cheap, safe, portable, and effective as oil. Or else, government must ask everyone to begin making personal sacrifices in order to transition infrastructure away from gasoline and other oil consumption (the space race required comparatively little personal sacrifice).
Further, I find that innovation is happening so rapidly now that people simply take it for granted. But this doesn't mean it isn't happening, or that the changes aren't as big as they were in the 1900s. Science fiction writers in the 1920s or 30s could take a reasonable stab at what the world might be like in the 70s or 80s; those a few decades later at the 90s. But given how fast things are changing now, I find it difficult to have a solid idea of what the world will be like in just 10 years. Biotech, nanotech and genetics seem to be advancing at great speed, pushed by the inexorable advance of computing. The way in which people interact and work has transformed, and continues to do so; software allows a single person or a small group to do things that would take entire departments 30 years ago.
Which brings me back to the point of efficiency; why bother going through the tremendous effort required to construct a human-habitable space station now, when in 20 or 30 years, we will likely have the ability to remodel ourselves to a high degree, giving us the capability to adapt ourselves to space, rather than having to engineer complex and expensive systems and equipment to cover our shortcomings? Or perhaps a decade or two after that, the ability to "back up" ourselves might become a reality, allowing us to take greater risks or have multiple bodies (Ghost in the Shell, Culture books); or have nanotech suits that serve as a second, adaptable skin for any environment (Hyperion Cantos, Culture books).
As for the idea that science fiction inspires scientists and engineers to create the future, and its currently mostly dystopian stuff we'd rather avoid, I'd agree. Because currently, the direction we're heading for that's not dystopian is boring. The Culture books emphasize this; there's nothing interesting when you write about a future where things are going pretty well, where disease is not a problem, or nanotech manufacturing/3D printing type tech has lead to a post-scarcity or nearly post-scarcity society, or human backups and body replacement tech make dying outdated, and so on.
We seem to live in an increasingly stratified society: much of the work force has obsolete skills and too often a lack of incentive to retrain while a smaller number of people are pushing the envelope on learning new ways of running businesses and new ways to develop tech.
Given the budget is there really any tech that needs to be invented to do something like that? Astronauts could stay no longer than ISS stays so you wouldn't even need to push into new longevity of space travel.
Granted the a Mars mission would be a big step up, which makes incremental improvement that seems to work best in tech progression harder. Still I think it's mostly about the budget and the will of people to want to achieve this stuff.
I guess the reality is that things like globalization is making it impossible to ignore down-to-earth political-economic problems that we simply need solutions for, right now, more than we need other things. I have confidence that we are in a highly transitionary period of history, and eventually the pendulum will swing back te other way.
How about we figure out how to have a space program that can fuel on the go?
Are you arguing that surgical robots are not a worthwhile innovation?
This post leads me to wonder if Neal himself won't be surprised by what the next innovation phase has in store. Also, does the concern he expresses here have any parallels in Reamde?
The room for "physical" innovation is shrinking. But the importance of physicality is diminishing, especially location. Modern innovation seems more subtle and widespread today, than it was when we threw most of our energy at a few big goals.
Perhaps you can't transport your body around the world quite as quickly and easily as you could in the past. You can be there virtually in seconds and at almost no cost.
I'm not sure it's good for us as a species to have the ability to disconnect from the physical world so much. But that's where we are and it seems the disconnect is only going to get more pronounced.
- the moon and mars (let alone the other planets) are _not_ hospitable to humans. pure fantasy to consider fruitful colonization.
- the next stop outside of our solar system is lifetimes away, who would actually want to live in a moving space station? yuck
- more efficient energy and transportation systems - why? so we can cram even more people onto this planet? how many is enough (or too much)?
- more/better gadgets? games? sad - aim higher.
the big questions we need to solve are those pertaining to sustainable living (as a population). the only people giving this thought these days are crackpots.
we have significant peak-this-or-that issues staring us right in the face. if we don't stop farting around w/ 'golden age' SF fantasies, and start working on the real problems we face .. we'll be looking at another dark age rather than crying about not playing frisbee on Neptune.
The crackpots tend to be the "Everyone, back to nature! Let's all dress in mouldy sheep, mine mud, and eat fallen apples" variety.
True sustainability is about managing both individual impact, and global impact. Efficient energy systems, transportation, and food production might allow a global population of 10Bn to operate on a smaller whatever-footprint than where we are now.
Dealing with a population increase is going to be easier than convincing everyone what is, and how to maintain, a stable population. 1-child-per-family rules are unlikely to hold much sway in what we currently consider 'civilised countries'.
btw, i don't have the answer .. i don't want to go back to the mud, and i don't want to live in some kind of 'Logan's Run' scenario either. but i recognize that something has to give. the trajectory is alarming and my point is that technology won't be the answer because we ultimately live on a planet of finite resources.