Dinner talk at is4si 2017

(On June 15 2017, I gave a dinner talk based on this text at the International Society for Information Studies conference at Chalmers, Gothenburg.)

Ladies and gentlemen

I have a question for you

I once had the honor of being a guest of the Royal Society Dining Club and as a guest you are asked to present a question over coffee to the illustrious members of the club. So I asked them, and I was very careful in formulating my question: “How can one explain why so many scientists almost as a reflex when the future comes up are quick to say something like “of course we cannot really know anything about the future”, when this is not only obviously false but also goes against the very essence of scientific research?” I was not asking if we can know anything about the future–I think that is obvious – but that is the question they heard and tried to answer, many of them repeating the standard silly answer.

From Newton’s mechanics to global warming one important task of science is finding laws of nature making it possible to explain past events and predict future events. When we talk loosely about the future it is almost always one or other aspect of the future we are interested in, like the future of work. Some such aspects are indeed so complex that they are very difficult to predict, but many are relatively easy. OK, so I was disappointed. But I will try again with another question that I now will pose to you. When I met the dining club there were 20 or so members around the table, including sitting next to me legendary computer constructor Maurice Wilks. Quite a few of them chipped in with an answer. You are almost 200 gathered here so it will not be possible for you to answer in plenum – and I will not use Kahoot. But maybe there will be a chance later this evening. I am really curious about this question.

If you talk to scientists in almost any field – well, perhaps every field, but I don’t know — they all say that the field is moving so fast now, that more has happened in the last five years, than in a long time. Sometimes you can hear mature scientists saying that the field has changed more in the last 5 or 10 years than in their entire previous career. Often they explain this by pointing to rapid development of scientific technology, mainly digital technology, but there are other factors contributing such as more rapid dissemination of research results and ideas, a rapidly increasing number of researchers in the ongoing globalization of research. Several years ago I saw a World Bank report claiming that there were 3 million researchers in the world in 1975, that they had doubled to 6 million, thirty years later, in 2005. The report then made the prediction, and the reasoning was alright, that in another thirty years, in 2035, there would be 40 million researchers, or perhaps we should say people in R&D.

In our own field, of course, the development has been impressive, often referred to as Moore’s law, because of the prediction made by Intel founder Gordon Moore already in the 1960s, and in a few different versions, saying that the number of transistors on a microchip will double every year. As more transistors are crammed into each microchip their capacity will increase and the price will decrease. And sure enough we have seen a fantastic increase in capacity and decrease in price.

Ray Kurzweil tries to show that Moore’s law applies to all technology, but we don’t have to accept his ideas of the singularity, to agree that technological development and diffusion is exponential. Let us take that as a fact. So what we notice today is that we are on a segment of the exponential curve when it is really getting steeper. The illustration with the chess board gives you a good sense of where continuing exponential change will take you or perhaps better the one with the little lake.

(If you place one grain of rice on the first square, then two on the second, and so on, nothing much will happen as you put rice on the first 10 or 20 squares, but after that you won’t believe your eyes. Similarly if lilies are growing on a small lake, doubling in number every day, nothing much will happen in the first few days, but one day half the lake will be filled with lilies, and the next day the whole lake will be covered.)

If we look at the political debate and society in general there does not seem to be much explicit awareness of the exponential growth of technology. But, of course, politicians know about this. They have been to Davos, they have met Ray Kurzweil. And yet nothing really happens:

1) Most governmental agencies are still focused on administration. Should they not be oriented instead towards change?

2) Economists go on making predictions based on industrial economy thinking? When will they see the importance of digital technology, of Moore’s law, of service abundance? All the central banks are trying hard to increase inflation not seeing that the deflation is caused by Moore’s law. GDP still underestimates most of what is digital.

3) Industrial investments with their long time horizon still dominates thinking. Investments in the electric grid are supposed to have a pay back period of 70 years, not taking disruption seriously. Similarly for buildings. Defense investments and investments in infrastructure have similar time frames.

4) All the issues of transhumanism and of genetic possibilities, should they not be taken more seriously?

5) We go on thinking in terms of linear development. Global warming has made even some scientists, who should know better, to argue in favor of zero growth in order to save the planet. This is ridiculous when we really should be preparing for exponential growth.

6) On a more mundane level the digital revolution will give us numerous challenges that we should prepare for. One example only: when oil prices start to rapidly decline, what will happen to the oil-producing countries?

If technology is moving exponentially ahead and on a steep curve getting steeper, why don’t our societies react to this? Do we need new sorts of institutions to cope with a rapidly increasing pace of change? Should the role of science be different, more future oriented? Science was born investigating nature and the ideas of natural science still dominate. But the modern world is a world of artifacts, as Herbert Simon so aptly observed already 50 years ago, so what we really need is artificial science, a science of the artificial. Experts understand this, politicians do too. So, why is so little happening?

The threat of global warming and the reluctance of politics to react is similar, but also different. Avoiding global warming seems to demand large expenses for achieving status quo. But the technological exponential development is filled with promises of gains. Prepare for change now and you come out a winner. So why is so little happening?


Bo Dahlbom