Computers

Sensible optimism can help companies uncover next technological advancements

August 11, 2013 

If you’re in the tech business, you’d better cultivate optimism. That’s because an informed optimism – one that understands the limits of today’s knowledge but is open to the possibilities that might emerge tomorrow – can help companies get ahead of the curve to produce the next great product. Nobody truly sees into the future, but it’s possible to cultivate the imagination in ways that spur innovation and keep the flow of ideas moving.

Alfred Nobel wouldn’t have dreamed of the changes our planet has seen since 1900, the year the Nobel Foundation began bestowing a prize on those who, during the previous year, “shall have conferred the greatest benefit on mankind.” But endowments like Nobel’s, encouraging change but not predicting how it would develop, became a driver for discovery. Meanwhile, countless prognosticators have seen their forecasts shredded by events. Witness Paul Ehrlich, who predicted imminent catastrophe through overpopulation in the early 1970s and thought the U.S. by the end of the 20th century could sustain a population no larger than 50 million.

Ehrlich’s views, like those of Thomas Malthus in the 18th century, extrapolated from current events to a bleak future, but failed to consider what technologies might come along in the intervening time to change the outcome. It’s a mistake with many antecedents because we can’t know what knowledge we’re about to gain. The physicist Albert Michelson told the University of Chicago in 1894 that all the fundamental laws of physical science had already been discovered. Within two decades, revolutions in our understanding of the very small (quantum theory) and the shape of space itself (general relativity) would negate a great scientist’s poor prophecy.

Eye toward the future

So cultivate a sensible – not naive – optimism, and keep an eye on the efforts of those who are trying to uncover new directions for technology. Project Tomorrow, run by writer/futurist Brian David Johnson for Intel, is one such attempt. Johnson engages in global conversations with multidisciplinary audiences who are trying to find creative solutions to our problems.

You can see Intel’s perspective on this: The chip-making giant has to design its latest architectures years ahead of their arrival in the marketplace, so far ahead that in many cases they can’t foresee how they’ll be used. As chips get tinier, Project Tomorrow is looking into what the combination of “cloud” computing – where much of our data resides on someone else’s computers – and chips of microscopic size will portend. What products and services grow out of these changes, and what challenges to security?

Sci-fi helps

One way to get into these matters is through science fiction, a cultivation of which can spur originality and solutions outside the commonplace. That’s why the Tomorrow Project is now running a competition to elicit science fiction stories from young people that take particular technological changes and then insert them into imagined worlds to see how characters react. Science fiction isn’t any better than the rest of us at predicting the future – it missed the desktop computer revolution almost entirely – but Johnson, himself a science fiction writer, understands that it does cultivate a “what if” mentality that challenges complacency and makes us see our society and its tools in new perspectives.

Or consider Rachel Armstrong, who works in the area of sustainable resources not just in the natural world but also in architecture. Armstrong thinks that new materials will emerge from advances in synthetic biology and what is called “smart” chemistry that will allow future buildings to acquire some of the qualities of biological systems. She’s just inaugurated a Black Sky Thinking Prize to explore how such tools could be put to work in long-distance spacecraft even as she explores their application in easing the problems of Earth’s teeming mega-cities.

I don’t know Armstrong, but I’ll wager she’s a hard-headed optimist, and a science fiction reader to boot. It’s a potent combination that puts present problems into the context of future accomplishment.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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