GUEST POST from Greg Satell
On July 16th, 1945, when the world’s first nuclear explosion shook the plains of New Mexico, the leader of the Manhattan Project, J. Robert Oppenheimer quoted from the Bhagavad Gita, “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” Clearly, he was troubled by what he had unleashed and for good reason. The world was never truly the same after that.
Today, however, we have lost much of that reverence for the power of technology. Instead of proceeding deliberately and with caution, tech entrepreneurs have prided themselves on their willingness to “move fast and break things” and, almost reflexively, casually deride anyone who questions the practice as those who “don’t get it.”
It’s hard to see how, by any tangible metric, any of this has made us better off. We set out to disrupt industries, but disrupted people instead. It wasn’t always like this. Throughout our history we have asked hard questions and made good choices about technological progress. As we enter a new era of innovation, we desperately need to recapture some of that wisdom.
How We Put the Nuclear Genie Back in the Bottle
The story of nuclear weapons didn’t start with Oppenheimer, not by a long shot. In fact, if we were going to attribute the Manhattan Project to a single person, it would probably be a Hungarian immigrant physicist named Leo Szilard, who was one of the first to conceive of the possibility of a nuclear chain reaction.
In 1939, upon hearing of the discovery of nuclear fission in Germany he, along with fellow Hungarian emigre Eugene Wigner, decided that the authorities needed to be warned. Szilard then composed a letter warning of the possibility of a nuclear bomb that was eventually signed by Albert Einstein and sent to President Roosevelt. That’s what led to the American development program.
Yet after the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many of the scientists who worked to develop the bomb wanted to educate the public of its dangers. In 1955, the philosopher Bertrand Russell issued a manifesto signed by a number of scientific luminaries. Based on this, a series of conferences at Pugwash, Nova Scotia were convened to discuss different approaches to protect the world from weapons of mass destruction.
These efforts involved far more than talk, but helped to shape the non-proliferation agenda and led to concrete achievements such as the Partial Test Ban Treaty. In fact, these contributions were so crucially important that the organizers of the Pugwash conferences were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1995 and they continue even today.
Putting Limits On What We Do With the Code of Life
While the nuclear age started with a bang, the genetic age began with a simple article in the scientific journal Nature, written by two relatively unknown scientists named James Watson and Francis Crick, that described the structure of DNA. It was one of those few watershed moments when an entirely new branch of science arose from a single event.
The field progressed quickly and, roughly 20 years later, a brilliant researcher named Paul Berg discovered that you could merge human DNA with that from other living things, creating new genetic material that didn’t exist in nature. Much like Oppenheimer, Berg understood that, due to his work, humanity stood on a precipice and it wasn’t quite clear where the edge was.
He organized a conference at Asilomar State Beach in California to establish guidelines. Importantly, participation wasn’t limited to scientists. A wide swath of stakeholders were invited, including public officials, members of the media and ethical specialists. The result, now known as the Berg Letter, called for a moratorium on the riskiest experiments until the dangers were better understood. These norms were respected for decades.
Today, we’re undergoing another revolution in genomics and synthetic biology. New technologies, such as CRISPR and mRNA techniques, have opened up incredible possibilities, but also serious dangers. Yet here again, pioneers in the field like Jennifer Doudna are taking the lead in devising sensible guardrails and using the technology responsibly.
The New Economy Meets the New Era of Innovation
When Netscape went public in 1995, it hit like a bombshell. It was the first big Internet stock and, although originally priced at $14 per share, it opened at double that amount and quickly zoomed to $75. By the end of the day, it had settled back at $58.25. Still, a tiny enterprise with no profits was almost instantly worth $2.9 billion.
By the late 1990s, increased computing power combined with the Internet to create a new productivity boom. Many economists hailed the digital age as a “new economy” of increasing returns, in which the old rules no longer applied and a small initial advantage would lead to market dominance.
Yet today, it’s clear that the “new economy” was a mirage. Despite very real advances in processing speed, broadband penetration, artificial intelligence and other things, we seem to be in the midst of a second productivity paradox in which we see digital technology everywhere except in the economic statistics.
The digital revolution has been a real disappointment. In fact, when you look at outcomes, if anything we’re worse off. Rather than a democratized economy, market concentration has markedly increased in most industries. Income inequality in advanced economies has soared. In America wages have stagnated and social mobility has declined for decades. At the same time, social media has been destroying our mental health.
Now we’re entering a new era of innovation, in which we will unleash technologies much more powerful. New computing architectures like quantum and neuromorphic technologies will power things like synthetic biology and materials science to create things that would have seemed like science fiction a generation ago. We simply can no longer afford to be so reckless.
Shifting From Agility Toward Resilience
Moving fast and breaking things only seems like a good idea in a stable world. When you operate in a safe environment, it’s okay to take a little risk and see what happens. Clearly, we no longer live in such a world (if we ever did). Taking on more risk in financial markets led to the Great Recession. Being blase about data security has nearly destroyed our democracy. Failure to prepare for a pandemic has nearly brought modern society to its knees.
Over the next decade, the dangers will only increase. We will undergo four major shifts in technology, resources, migration and demographics. To put that in perspective, a similar shift in demography was enough to make the 60s a tumultuous decade. We haven’t seen a confluence of so many disruptive forces since the 1920s and that didn’t end well.
Unfortunately it’s far too easy to underinvest in order to mitigate the risk of a danger that may never come to fruition. Moving fast and breaking things can seem attractive because the costs are often diffuse. Although it has impoverished society as a whole and made us worse off in so many ways, it has created a small cadre of fabulously wealthy plutocrats.
Yet history is not destiny. We have the power to shape our path by making better choices. We can abandon the cult of disruption and begin to invest in resilience. In fact, we have to. By this point there should be no doubt that the dangers are real. The only question is whether we will act now or simply wait for it to happen and accept the consequences.
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