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Neal Stephenson: Innovation Starvation (worldpolicy.org)
264 points by jamesbritt on Oct 1, 2011 | hide | past | web | favorite | 121 comments



Grr! I like Stephenson a lot but I find this argument highly disingenuous. In fact, I find most of the reactions I've seen to "the end of US spaceflight capability" sickeningly short-sighted and hyperbolic.

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.'" [1]

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?

[1] http://www.spacenews.com/civil/100201-white-house-confirms-c...


"What NASA should be doing is what no private enterprise can do: highly unprofitable risky space pioneering that inspires the human race."

http://www.redorbit.com/news/space/1112392431/spacex-sets-it...

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.


Agreed. If there's a place where I can place a cash bet that SpaceX will be the first entity to put a man on Mars, I'd do it tonight. They have the people, the vision, leadership, philosophy, and just enough of a successful track record so far to put meat into it, and de-risk it. They have momentum.



ok. you get your man on Mars .. then what? do you see anyone clamoring to live on Antarctica? Mars is even more un-hospitable. Just to look around? that's an expensive sight-seeing tour.

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).


First off, I didn't say anything about someone living on Mars, as in, moving there permanently. That may or may not happen -- in the long run, probable. I just bet that SpaceX is probably the lead contender for who's going to put the first human footprint on Mars. It will likely be their tech, anyway.

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. :)


it's certainly possible that private money funds this, but highly doubtful. why? because it's mostly a money-pit operation. investors have an almost zero chance of getting a return on their money in their own lifetime. spaceX is mainly competing for gov't money either in the form of seed money for R&D or as their main customer for LEO trips.

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 part of the point is that NASA was pretty much flailing even just in the "send shit into Low Earth Orbit" department.


Well, at least we have Braid, that's a step forward in the gaming department. ;) (Or maybe this comment is lost on the wrong J. Blow)


But "send s* into LEO" was always stupid. IAMNA-NasaHistorian, but wasn't the Shuttle was built because NASA and its contractors had a massive infrastructure that none wanted to shrink? "We have to stay in space" had political plausibility, and the absence of a compelling science agenda wasn't noticeable to the Congressmen who _wanted_ a compelling agenda to justify maintenance of infrastructure in their districts.

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.


Let's take away money from boring and put it into interesting! How can anybody be against this?

How about we take it away from "boring" and give it back to the taxpayers from whom it was taken via coercion.


I'm from a different generation than Neal Stephenson. I grew up inspired by my parents' old IBM XT. The Apple II at school. My TI-83 programmable graphing calculator. Not space flight. I continue to be inspired every year by the innovations in tech startups, and that's just the field I happen to live and work in - the biomedical field in the last 10 years has made orders of magnitude of progress understanding the human genome in ways that I can barely understand (despite having a college degree in Quantitative and Computational Biology).

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.


Of all the things you mention, I think only Google, the Human Genome Project, and maybe Wikipedia belong on a list next to the great achievements Neal is talking about (human spaceflight, the invention of the computer, nuclear power). Most of those other things we spend so much time talking about make things more convenient, or less boring, or more efficient and are the results of innovation in business process or good product design rather than technology.


The gigabytes of wiki meta stuff will be fascinating for the future people. "Ghod almighty," they will say, "look at the hours and hours they spent talking about absolute nonsense!". Personally I'd put particle physics (esp LHC) in the list in place of wikipedia. Lists of fictional ducks and every Essex bus timetable for the last three years isn't that inspiring to me.


A library of everything about everything available to anyone has been one of the human dreams, from the Library of Alexandria to the Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy.


A library of everything about everything available to anyone

But that's not Wikipedia, nor, given its deletion policy, ever likely to be.


There are more lenient wiki providers out there, like Wikia. Whether these services will be around for the duration remains to be seen.


I forgot XBox Kinect - that's straight out of science fiction.


I doubt that any sci-fi writer wrote about you buying shoes and finding old friends.. which is the point of the article.


...except that one guy doing the screenplay for I, Robot.

:(


True, it's a different, less sexy form of innovation. My iPhone and iPad would have seemed like science fiction 10 years ago, though.


Nah, it's not really that big a stretch of the imagination between the Titanium Powerbook and an iPad/iPhone.


Go back to the 90s with an iPad... see what they think of it.

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.


I just tried that - the 90s said "Great, they finally made the Newton useable. Good to see Moore's Law has kept up the pace."


I like how you just ignored every other argument the OP mentioned just to make your snarky comment.


Well, saying that anyone in the 90s would be surprized by an oversized PDA is also kinda snarky, no?


"You can get the next Harry Potter (or whatever replaces it) without leaving your couch."

"...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 :-)


Dystopia is always a possibility... but in the near future I think we're reasonably safe.

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.


That's really extreme! Most people are not doing that.

On the other hand, take a look at increasing obesity rates and lack of skilled handyman in developed countries.


His "Galapagan isolation" / "large continent" hypothesis is interesting. I've noticed similar things.

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 :)


I enjoy Stephenson's writing, and I think he must be a really smart guy. Which is why I'm puzzled by this reasoning:

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.


"But it's had a much worse track record with communications. There are no cell phones (or cell-phone-like devices) in Neuromancer."

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.


It seems tautologous to say that innovation happens in innovative areas, but that seems to be the substance of the problem expressed in the premise.

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.


I'm in good company when I say that the pace of innovation has accelerated to ludicrous speed. Last week I read about scientists who knocked out a rat cerebellum and replaced it with an artificial one - and it worked. A few weeks ago I read about gamers, over the course of a few weeks with FoldIt, discovering how to fold a protein crucial to AIDS research that had eluded scientists for years.

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.


There's a story on CNN right now about a woman with (at least somewhat) successful hand transplants. Both of them.

Somewhat successful because while she has feeling and movement, she doesn't have normal dexterity.

That feels pretty sci-fi to me.


It's debatable whether Jurassic Park is "great scifi" but Ian Malcolm says:

"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-... )


It's just a qualitative feeling, but the accomplishment of putting a man on the moon with 1960's technology seems much more significant than similar steps forward since.

Although the sequencing of the human genome and the persistence of Moore's law are also impressive.


Was WWII similarly significant in your "feelings"? Because that's what I feel putting a man on the moon with 1960s technology was similar to: a war effort, dangerous, expensive and ultimately, hard to justify. (Though of course peanuts in comparison to WWII.)


The fuckery is in the details.

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.


I think it's wrong to say that there has been little improvement in software, in both our techniques of building it and the body that is in existence. I think the advance from the disconnected dumb home microcomputer of 1985 to the globally connected iPad of today is comparable to the advance from the telegraph to television. I think it's easy to underestimate how far we've come when you've lived through the change. The salience of the contrast over time is lost, because you're too close to it, and the change seems almost imperceptible; recognizing how far we've come needs some perspective.

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 agree for the most part. I video skyped with my mom today. It boggled her mind that we're able to do this. This is something that was only possible in cartoons in the 70s. She only just discovered Skype, whereas I've been using it for years and have seen it evolve.

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.


Exactly. If you could travel back in time and bring an iPad back to 1985 (and somehow keep internet connectivity with the present) and showed it to someone, they'd probably consider it magical to the point that it must have been made by aliens. It's far too facile for someone in the present to dismiss it as an incrementally improved piece of technology that is no better, fundamentally, than what already existed in 1985.


lol, no, we would not have considered it magical. Based on television shows like Space:1999 we fully expected to have a large moon base and ray guns by 1999. My 1985 self would have looked at the iPad and said "That's all? The battery only lasts for a few hours, it's only two-dimensional, and I can't roll it. What happened, was there a nuclear war initiated dark age?"


I doubt that.

The iPad is an amazing technical leap over consumer electronics circa 1985 (Pong, Pacman, grainy color TV).


Nonsense. In the previous decade we had gone from the introduction of LED watches to personal computers - by 1985 we had the Apple IIE, which is a bigger leap from what was available in 1975 than the IIE to the iPad. Kubrick included iPad-like devices in 2001 because he thought we would have them. I would have been surprised to see them earlier than 1995, but 2010? Late.

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.


When my grandfather was born cars were so brand new they weren't mass produced - they were only toys for rich people. By the time he was my age he saw the introduction of flight, jet flight, and space flight. He saw the introduction of radio and television. He saw the first effective treatments for bacterial infections.

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.


Judging our pace of progress against technology imagined in a science fiction movie doesn't seem valid to me.

It seems to me that the pace of progress is accelerating everywhere, all the time. As it has throughout human history.


Pong was old school in 1985. Atari 5200 had been released a few years earlier.

It wasn't exactly caveman days, ya know.


I was there, in 1985.

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.


Video skyping is a victory of hardware development, not software. The software methodologies are not fundamentally different from the 1970s -- they are faster, and (arguably) easier in certain ways, but code is still written one line at a time, building logical constructs that have been around for decades.

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 think you're overlooking the many algorithmic advances in video & audio codecs in that time period too. It certainly has NOT been case of the software guys sitting around since the 70s waiting for the hardware guys to catch up.


The 'advances' in video & audio codecs require more hardware to encode and decode them. It's not like I can decode a blue ray disk on a Pentium 4.


> code is still written one line at a time

I take it you have never used IDEA to write Java code? :-P


> the disconnected dumb home microcomputer of 1985 to the globally connected iPad of today

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.


Extremely few C64s and Amstrad CPC 464s were globally connected; that's the class of machine I had in mind. If you think this is just incremental, then I'd say that putting a man on the moon is just an incremental improvement in bomb-making, the culmination of the controlled release of chemical energy; a matter of slow refinement over centuries.


Think about this.

The first cell phone was developed in 1947 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_mobile_phones

The Internet starts in 1950 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_the_Internet

Tablet computers were prototyped in 1968 http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dynabook

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.


And gunpowder was invented in China centuries ago. That's the kind of technology that put a man on the moon, in the same relation that your examples have with an iPad.

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.


Gunpowder is not even remotely close to "the kind of technology that put a man on the moon". That's absurd.

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.


The moon example is advances caused by technological improvement, though, where something previously technically impossible (going to the moon) eventually became possible.

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.


There are innumerable things that are technically possible today that were not technically possible in 1985. What I'm really objecting to is this veneration of explosively moving a certain weight of flesh over a certain distance as a thing, an achievement, which we are lacking now.

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.


Unfortunately, this is one of those points where the two opposing camps are generally not able to come to any sort of agreement. I grew up reading Cosmos and straining my eyes through a bad telescope and looking up and wanting to be there instead of stuck here.

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.


I tend to think of it like this: keeping all humans on one planet and expecting long term survival is like keeping all of one's servers in one data center and expecting 100% uptime. And that data center has a tendency to be hit by extremely large rocks going very fast every now and then.


Yep, but just FYI, the common counter-argument on HN is that the survival of the species doesn't matter to the individual, so they still don't think it's worth spending money on.


Yeah, I never really figured out how to argue against that... it's kind of a built in urge for me, and it's not strictly logical except from a "I'm partly driven by my genes, which have been optimized to protect my tribe" standpoint. I figure most people have that, but if someone doesn't, you probably can't really make them care.


Mass production and magnification is a qualitative change.

Neal Stephenson knows better than he shows in this article.

The


It may be that all the low-hanging was picked, and progress seems slower because we're now working on the harder problems. But I think there's plenty of world-changing advancements on the way in the next decades:

- 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.


> 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.

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.


The proliferation of cell phones is huge, and the smart phone revolution is another gigantic social change.

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.


Female emancipation was even bigger social change, but it wasn't the article's point. If we restrict ourselves to realm of technology, smartphones are not that much of a breakthrough. I had my Nokia and my Palm back in 1990s, it wasn't really that much different.


Your Palm in the 90's had a 16 Mhz processor and 1 MB of memory. An iPhone has a 1 Ghz processor and 32 GB of memory. If that's not "much different" you have a strange understanding of scale. And that was only 15 years ago, not 50.


The internet connectivity and storage changes are utterly radical changes in terms of what they enable. That iPhone gives you Wikipedia and Britannica and Project Gutenberg and the Kindle bookstore and Spotify and the iTunes music catalog and Netflix, all right in your pocket. Most people seem not to notice, but this is one of the most radical changes in history.


Agreed.

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.


My Palm had a graphic touchscreen and handwriting recognition. A decent organizer package, and a thriving market of 3rd party applications. I could use it to surf the web, do email, IRC, or remote control my TV.

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.


It seems to me that the relative stagnation in space exploration is that there is no reason to move forward. Commercially, there's practically no incentive to move beyond geostationary orbit. Militarily, probably not either. And those are the two most powerful motivators around.

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.


I have been having similar lamentations recently.

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.


It takes much less time to build a new bridge from scratch than to replace half of a bridge in-place. From the Bay Bridge FAQ (http://baybridgeinfo.org/faq):

"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."


How many workers died during the original construction?


Obviously I was too subtle, so I'll answer my own rhetorical question: there were between 23 and 28 fatal accidents during the original construction of the Bay Bridge, depending on how you count them.

This rate of industrial accidents simply isn't acceptable these days, and improved worker safety slows construction.


It's becoming frighteningly obvious in recent years that hardcore innovation is being stifled in the names of 'too risky', 'not enough ROI', 'politically incorrect', and $current_political_battleground. It's also frighteningly obvious that the status quo of new-flavor-of-entertainment-as-innovation has ardent defenders.

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.


There is very little cultural innovation either - popular entertainment nowadays consists of reboots, prequels, sequels, and karaoke hits (American Idol and the like). It's part of the same symptom I think of stagnant, litigious, bottom-line driven, risk-averse management Stephenson talks about - and it's strangling not only our technological innovation but all forms of creativity.


> Drop the entertainment ideas, and work on something good for the world.

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 can sympathize with this. But I also think it's wrong on many points. Feynman's point that "there's plenty of room at the bottom" is extremely relevant to the modern age; most of our marvels are now Small Stuff rather than the Big Stuff that Neal calls for.

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?


>Feynman's point that "there's plenty of room at the bottom" is extremely relevant to the modern age; most of our marvels are now Small Stuff rather than the Big Stuff that Neal calls for.

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.


> We haven't sped up the pace of drug development

http://fold.it/portal/info/science

> haven't developed nanomechanical computers

micro:

http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2007/LC/b70876...

nano:

http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/5229

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

Transparent aluminum:

http://www.physorg.com/news167925273.html


>> We haven't sped up the pace of drug development > >http://fold.it/portal/info/science

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 > >micro: > >http://pubs.rsc.org/en/Content/ArticleLanding/2007/LC/b70876.... > >nano: > >http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/news/5229

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.


> what actually gets approved is longer lasting pecker perkers and yet another blood pressure medication

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.

teaching:

http://www.hitl.washington.edu/projects/scripps/

drug prototyping:

http://boingboing.net/2011/09/26/chemistry-of-the-future-3d-...

> 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 problem is competition (or lack thereof).

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.


I think that Stephenson is on a false trail blaming the dissemination of information for lack of big innovation. Most corporations run in fear of the unknown just a much as previous failures are shutout - if the accountants can't imagine the market, or if the market isn't a sure thing then it's also avoided.

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.


In my opinion, Stephenson is focusing on "getting big stuff done" and, more pointedly, achieving large and perhaps lofty goals. He's not disparaging all the incremental advancements that add up to something really big. I think he's saying we've lost the will to aim really high, take real risks (loss of life included), to achieve something that seemed insurmountable. I think he's saying we've grown too fearful of risk and failure. We've prioritized safety over achievement. While his examples were space-based, I don't think that's what he's ultimately aiming at.

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.


I am only about halfway through the article, but the "failure of society to get big things done" thesis is falling flat.

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.


You missed the point about cell phones. The technology is over 60 years old, but it took FOREVER to commercialize it. The reason: telecom was controlled by monopolies, and the government owns the spectrum. In fact, the government is still wasting massive amounts of wireless spectrum-- given away free by Congress to their broadcaster crony contributors.

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 don't think it's starvation, it's just a big slow patch. Innovation, just like evolution doesn't work on a smooth continuum but in jumps and bursts of flowering. Neal Stephenson is being observant but unfortunately shortsighted himself by complaining about the natural cycles of innovation.

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.


Neal makes some good points about western nations, but some of the more authoritarian governments aren't restricted by citizen initiatives or environmental laws. China is a poster-boy for this sort of growth. If they continue to increase prosperity faster than democratic western nations, their style of government might become the template for the future.

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.


China's haste to build deadly boondoggle projects is not something that any democratic nation, eastern or western, desires to emulate:

http://www.npr.org/2011/09/26/140703132/from-progress-to-pro...

http://www.washingtonpost.com/business/subway-train-crash-in...


Actually, those aren't boondoggles, those are exactly the sorts of risks the author is talking about. To make big gains, you have to take big risks.

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


High speed rail is not a big risk technologically. The technology has existed since the 60s. At this point, the technology is advancing incrementally with incrementally improved materials and technology, not "big risk game changing" technology. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/High-speed_rail#Technology

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.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wenzhou_train_collision


What makes them boondoggle projects? You don't think a city the size of Shanghai needs a large subway? Isn't a subway more cost effective and a more efficient way to move people in a large city?

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.


You missed the much more important OB post: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2011/06/revised-growth-claim.h...

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.


China is starting from a different point to much of the West. What remains to be seen is whether their style of government will peak or surpass Western ones as it approaches the same quality of life, and it will be very informative whichever one it is.


I wouldn't worry too much: our generation is going to experience singularity, and unlike cars and cell phones it's not going to be nice.


Nice essay. Funny thing about the SF writers being inspiration.

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.


I totally agree with your comment on REAMDE and am glad I'm not the only one with this line of thought. It's the first novel of his that was stifled by its own realism. OK, maybe some of the handwavy spy technology was a little fanciful, but the entire concept of T'Rain was lifted from Azeroth and its many siblings, and none of the amazing imagination of his previous books.

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).


I would say the most rapid and important technological advancements happening right now are in genetic sequencing and analysis. In his TEDxBoston talk, Richard Resnick even draws a parallel to the space race, pointing out that China is ahead the US in this area[1].

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).

[1] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u8bsCiq6hvM


I find this piece to be a tad ridiculous. The "where's my space station?" feels like the magazine article I see every few years complaining "where's my flying car?". A space station is simply not very cost effective at the current time.

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.


While I agree with the basic premise of the article on complacency and lack of risk taking in innovation, there is another side to this argument that is well covered in Eric Ries's new book "The Lean Startup" on making both innovation and learning what works more efficient.

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.


The problem is that the will isn't there currently, I'm sure NASA could replicate the past moon landings at a vastly cheaper rate than the originals now. With the right level of funding how hard would it be to conduct a heap of controlled landings taking things similar to ISS modules to the moon, and then use similar tech to apollo to ferry astronauts to put together a base.

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 agree in principle, but it seems funny to me to read an article like this after watching a video of a surgical robot peeling a grape! Maybe the space program was the "big idea" of the 60s, but there are still some pretty fantastic innovations being developed, even if they are closer to home. But i agree that energy innovation is going to be the most important subject of the next decade.

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.


Yes, we really need grape peelers.

How about we figure out how to have a space program that can fuel on the go?


> Yes, we really need grape peelers.

Are you arguing that surgical robots are not a worthwhile innovation?


Very nostalgic article...Especially, since having grown up in india in the 80's my inspirations were similar. But given my history of being swayed by these type of articles, i am willing to suspend judgement/opinion about innovation for a couple of days and re-read the article..Maybe after re-reading http://lesswrong.com/lw/7e5/the_cognitive_science_of_rationa... :-)


I'm surprised that on such a great and lively thread as this no one makes mention of the possibility that technological expansion follows a cycle of innovation and incorporation, and the possibility that Stephenson is lamenting that the latter doesn't measure up to the former.

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?


I didn't read the whole article but all I saw was anecdotal evidence that there isn't as much innovation. Maybe it's hard to measure innovation, but at least try instead of saying "from my viewpoint as a 50 year old white man we aren't innovating." And then try to come up with theories why there isn't innovation when you haven't even come close to proving that there isn't.


Given that you could buy a ticket to fly from London to New York faster in the 70s than you can today, you'd have to admit he has a point in certain areas. On the other hand, I just sent this reply from my phone on a hydrogen powered bus in Australia...


And I just read it on a smartphone in my back yard in extremely rural Montana.

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.


sorry, i don't share his vision of technology grandeur.

- 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.


efficient energy and transportation systems aren't part of sustainable living? How quite sure how that fits.

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'.


your 10Bn will either grow (yet again) after another round of efficiency measures or collapse from disease/war. again, take the long view - where does this lead?

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.


So I’m more optimistic; the basic conflict human vs. vacuum may yet be won as private companies rightly take interest in the final frontier-c.f. SpaceX and their amazing ambitions. Also, if the powers that be are listening: sign me up for the first trip to Mars.


The comment about engineers and patent searches is pretty spot-on. I've seen many compelling efforts prematurely abandoned due to previous patents. Hearing this from Neal Stephenson strikes me as ironic given his employment at Intellectual Ventures.


The end of cheap oil says it all, but Stephenson seems to miss what happened. A stressed economy resulted, one which rewarded its best minds for heading to Wall St. and inventing new forms of toxic investments, instead of to industry or academia.


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