Friday, 24 August 2012

Some remarks about Neal Stephenson

I recently attended a very interesting event down at the Watershed cinema - American science fiction author Neal Stephenson came to give a talk, centred around his new book, "Some Remarks". This a collection of non fiction essays on science, technology, history, gaming, and other such fun things. I've not the book yet - in fact I've only actually read one of Stephenson's books, namely "Diamond Age" -  but from what I know he's part of the interesting new wave of hard sci-fi that emerged in the last few decades.

The talk was certainly interesting. He spoke on various topics connected to the book, including an interesting comparison between the rise of modern internet technology in places like Silicon Valley, and the innovation of the 1850s, when Victorian scientists and engineers were making a big push to make the world a more connected place. A big part of this was the project to lay cables across the globe, to broaden the range and usefulness of the telegraph network. It turns out the act of cable laying is a lot more difficult that one might initially assume - the ocean floor isn't flat, so the speed of the ship needed to be constantly varied so that the cable would mold to the shape of the sea floor, as it touched the bottom several miles behind the ship. The whole thing proceeded in quite a hacky way, with engineers basically inventing the necessary technology as they went along - and at one point ruining a transatlantic cable by running 2000 Volts through it; so it makes an interesting contrast to the carefully designed and planned nature of large projects today.

Stephenson's fascination with science, both old and new, was quite evident, especially when he talked about the potential for what can and should be achieved - he spoke passionately about the need to move on from oil as a fuel source and fix some of the mess we made; this was balanced, and in part motivated by, an anger at avoidable catastrophes such as the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, and a frustration that we haven't managed to get beyond this kind of thing. The difficulties of actually stopping the leak and the vast resources needing to clean it up notwithstanding, I can certainly sympathise with this - after all, oil leaks are something we've been suffering for decades, and it's not exactly the best use of our time.
Massive cock-ups: haven't we got beyond this yet?

However, following on from this, there was one point with which I (and several others, it seems) profoundly disagreed. While discussing technology and innovation, he made the claim that technological progress has slowed down, and we are currently living in an age of relative stasis. This immediately struck me as odd - we appear to live in a golden age of futuristic shiny technology, the like of which has never seen before, with capabilities beyond the imagining of the science fiction of the recent past - so how could that be so?

Of course, being technologically sophisticated and having all manner of complicated machinery is not the same as progress, and just because technology of the past improved doesn't mean we are continuing to innovate and invent. Stephenson argued this point as follows: imagine taking someone from around the year 1900, sending them forward to the 1960s, allow them to experience the world as it is and see how it's changed; then send them back, and get them to describe what they saw to their peers. Chances are, they will be unable to make themselves understood, lacking even the basic vocabulary to convey the mysteries of the future. On the other hand, take a person from the 1960s and bring them forward to the present: they would see that we have cars with smoother curves, that we still fly in 747s, that telephones have got smaller, and computers have got faster. Progress indeed, but nothing that is so utterly inconceivable that they could never tell anyone, or that would be forever beyond their comprehension.

This might seem a reasonable argument on the face of it; but the more I thought about it, the less convincing it became. Admittedly, a number of the concepts present in the 1960s are still alive and well today, just smaller/faster/better/stronger/chewier. But on the other hand, we now have the internet, an idea likely to be almost completely alien to your average 1960s inhabitant. It's not just that we can send messages between machines fast and reliably: it's the previously unheard of idea that the wealth of human knowledge is instantly accessible by almost anyone; the way that we can communicate and interact with people on the other side of the world in complex ways in real-time; the way it has spawned entire new communities and ways of doing business. Then there's the rise of the smartphone, meaning that many people carry around in their pockets a device allowing them to be constantly connected to a vast network of friends and collaborators. We have become accustomed to these things now, but it is worth remembering that they are not just better ways of doing old things: they are fundamentally new ways of using technology and interacting with other people, which have undeniably changed society in innumerable ways. And it's not just communications technology that would astound our 1960s traveller: the sheer computing power that not only exists, but resides in our pockets; the ability to build detailed 3D models of the inside of a living person, and peer inside their bodies in real time; how almost continuously for the last several years, there has been a constant human presence in space. The list goes on.

Then again, I will concede one thing: as amazing as these advances would seem to the people of fifty years ago, they would probably still get the hang of it, more so than one from over a century ago. But I don't know if this is so much down to the nature of technology, as the way people think: the imagination of people in the 60s and their capacity to imagine the future would probably have been a lot better than their predecessors: impossible things were no longer quite so out of reach. I'd say that this increased ability to contemplate the improbable was helped in no small part by the science fiction of the time: people were willing to look to the future and seem something new.

"The space programme is dead".  No it isn't.
But this argument that Stephenson made was more than just about the slowdown of technological growth: it was about ambition and inspiration. He lamented that there were no big projects any more, and that the space program was dead. Seriously: he said this, while there is currently a robot the size of a car exploring the surface of Mars. The landing of the Curiosity rover, and audacious feat consisting of being lowered from a sky crane lofted by retro rockets, and controlled entirely by autonomous software, is one of the most impressive things I've seen this year, and looks like pure sci-fi. That we can do such things - and moreover, that we want to, and that it is capturing the imagination of so many people - shows that the space programme is alive and well. Not only that, but can all view full colour panoramas taken on the surface. The only reason NASA isn't doing more is a chronic lack of funding; but what it achieves with what it has is quite remarkable.
Go explore this 360° Mars panorama. Seriously, do it.

On the other hand, reports of the demise of human space flight are, at least at present, fairly accurate. With the end of the shuttle programme the only country now capable of putting humans in space is Russia, using their trusty yet antiquated rockets. Moreover, our hypothetical 1960s time traveller would be shocked to hear that, while we reached the moon within a decade of first touching space, we've not been back in forty years - which is indeed a cause for some sadness and concern. It's worth remembering though that that momentous achievement took a big chunk of the resources of the most powerful nation on the planet, and was motivated by a dangerous game of one-upmanship with a rival superpower. It's incredibly impressive that humans reached the moon with 60s technology, but to do it repeatedly was simply not sustainable - we still need to find ways of doing it cheaper, safer, and without depending on the full support of an American president.

That's why recent developments in the private space industry are so exciting: individual companies are starting to get into space, from the development of Scaled Composites' SpaceShipTwo to the recent docking of the SpaceX Dragon capsule with the ISS*. This is important, since once private industry gets in on it, and finds it to be possible and profitable, then the human exploration of space can really start happening.  The exploration of space and other planets by government organisations is a fine thing and long may it continue - but there's no way space is going to become a new frontier for humanity if it is government controlled. It took a long while to get started, but as I'm sure you can imagine, the technological difficulties of building low-cost, reliable, safe spacecraft are pretty challenging, and it's taken a lot of advances in materials science, aeronautics, rocket science and computing to make it happen. Such things can't possibly happen overnight.

[*an aside: I love the way we can casually just refer to the ISS now, as if it's just some other piece of hardware... it's a freaking space station. In real life. In orbit. With people living on it. Yeah.]

Private space industry docking with the space station

This leads on to one of the reasons I think that it's easy to get the perception that technological progress is slowing down, and what might be behind some of Stephenson's remarks. Science, technology and engineering are still progressing at a fast pace, but there is so much more of it; and as discoveries are made, they become harder, as only the difficult things remain to be done. Then, with every discovery made, it opens up whole new areas of knowledge, and whole branches of science come into being that also need studying. Progress is being made all the time in all these fields all the time, but it's just that a breakthrough in one area can seem insignificant on the scale of the whole - and because it takes a large number of small breakthroughs before something radically new can be done. These things add up - for example the advances in display technology, interfaces, computing power and battery capacity that allowed devices like iPhone to be invented - but they all take time. There's probably some law that says even if discoveries are made at an exponentially increasing rate, that technology requires them in ever greater numbers, so the growth in technological sophistication won't just blow out of control (actually, I would just love to see what would happen if you put Neal Stephenson in a room with Ray Kurtzweil).

To explain this, it's useful to think of scientific research as the expanding edge of a circle. In the beginning there was only a small circle, where there weren't all that many things to work on; virtually any upstanding gentleman with a workbench and some magnets could make a discovery (as one questioner could put it, you would work for a while and discover ten physical laws), and make a noticeable dent in the circle. One person could even reach opposite edges of the circle. But as the circle gets bigger there is more of a front to work on, and any one person can only make a small contribution to its size, and only along a relatively small part of its length. There are more and more people working on expanding this circle as time goes on, but the circumference keeps getting larger, which means the area of the circle is increasing at a proportionately slower rate - so even though vast swathes of understanding are covered by even a small increase in radius, this doesn't look so big compared to the circle as a whole.

So I think it's an easy trap to fall into, to think that we're slowing down at progress - especially since we live in such a technologically advanced time, where we're used to things being amazing and expect new and faster gadgets on a regular basis. But difficult things take time, and the bigger projects depend on so many areas to make crucial advances that their overall progression seems unbearably slow. Neal Stephenson lamented the fact that we still haven't managed to devise a fuel to replace gasoline, or a way to efficiently capture solar energy: I'd argue that this is not so much due to a lack of imagination, but just the fact that these things are really hard, and we're really trying. Admittedly a big kick like oil running out or some political enthusiasm and guidance would spur things on, but it's not that people stopped working on it.

I can see where he's coming from when he laments the apparent stasis of technology, as we muddle on with our fossil-fuelled existence in a world without flying cars and moonbases. The dreams of so many sci-fi authors never quite materialised, and it's tempting, especially for someone whose job it is to imagine fantastic visions of the future, to think we've lost our way: that  humans stopped dreaming. But given the vast advances made in medicine, science, artificial intelligence, space flight, nano technology and so on in recent times, I don't think we have to worry about any sort of innovation drought; the big advances I've seen even in my lifetime remind me of what we can still do. Exploring the vast frontier of science isn't quick or easy - but it's certainly going to keep us busy.

Incidentally, I'm writing this on a Raspberry Pi - a computer costing £25 small enough to fit in a matchbox (if you have really big matches), with computing power several times that of some desktop machines I've owned. How's that for progress.