I’m all for the future, you know. I am confident it is vastly better than the past and I believe in the potential of science and technology to solve real problems. It is, therefore, with real anticipation that I prepare to attend the day-long Singularity University session organized by Intesa SanPaolo in Milan on May 3rd (Our future is now: Singularity University – How exponential technologies impact our lives). I like the people who’ll speak there and I love to see so much passion for the potential of technology to change the world. In short, I am a techno-optimist.
But I am also disappointed.
I’m disappointed, because science and technology haven’t kept the promises they made years ago. And I want to see them keep those promises before making new ones.
We still have solar panels so ridiculously inefficient that we need to subsidize them with massive surcharges on other power sources, or taxpayers’ money.
We still have batteries that pack so little power that your iPhone drains them in less than a day.
We still have planes so slow that it takes longer to fly today between New York and London than it took ten years ago, when you could at least book a seat on a Concorde.
We still have cars so dumb that they crash, transport systems so poorly designed that we sit in traffic jams, robots with so little artificial intelligence that a mouse outsmarts them, chemotherapy so brutal that it nearly kills you, sanitation so poor that millions succumb to cholera.
I know each of these problems is on the brink of being solved – isn’t it? But this isn’t the future that science fiction writers sold us.
Social sciences aren’t doing any better: we still have perversely ineffective political systems, massive intransparency, and gigantic corruption. We still have slavery, war rapes, and acid thrown on women’s faces if they don’t behave. Numbers tell us that poverty is declining, but it feels like we’ve just moved to a slightly better off dystopia.
Never before have there been so many minds focused on solving the world’s great problems. (Some of those same minds, I understand, are busy pursuing the transhumanist quest for immortality, a rather more crackpot strain of Singularitarianism that Carole Cadwalladr’s piece in yesterday’s Observer does not challenge enough). And never have there been so many people who can manipulate exponentially accelerating technologies in the attempt to “positively impact the lives of a billion people”. So, I remain an optimist. But I’m cautious about the new promises. Remember, we haven’t kept the old ones yet.