Daniel Lemire's blog

, 5 min read

Are you a techno-optimist? (A review of Tomorrowland)

Walt Disney released Tomorrowland. I brought my little family to see it and we had a blast. (Warning: mild spoilers ahead.)

The movie has one message: let us be techno-optimists. Instead of being driven by fear, let us embrace new challenges. Let us go to Mars or beyond. Let us cure cancer. Let us live with large robots.

The movie has some brilliant elements:

  • Early in the movie, we see a young boy who has invented a jet pack. When asked about the purpose of his invention, he replied: “to inspire people”.

This is a great and important answer. Almost all new inventions bring very little value on their own. That is true of even radical inventions. For example, if we could cure cancer, we would only extend our life expectancy by a few years (less than five if I recall correctly). Techno-optimism is the belief that pushing technology forward is good in itself, if only to inspire others. Yes, it may take decades or more before hospitals can print me a new lung or a new heart… so maybe I will needless die of a lung or heart disease in ten years… but I am still excited about 3D printing and steam cell research.

  • The cause of much of the misery in the world of the movie can be traced back to pessimism. Once you have convinced people to stop advancing (symbolized in the movie by the closure of a NASA center), the path becomes difficult.

I have a lot of respect for conservatives like Nassim Taleb who advocate caution in all things. What if we are killing the planet? Should we not revert back to how our ancestors lived, just in case? What if genetically modified food is killing us? But the techno-optimist in me prefers to take the gamble. And, as illustrated in the movie, that is not necessarily any riskier.

Before we had as much technology as we did today, people died horrible deaths. Earth was ravaged. That still happens today, of course… we are causing cancers, and polluting too much… but we are, as a species, far better off than we ever were. There are more of us (a good thing) and we are healthier, and smarter.

The techno-optimist thinks that we should push ahead faster when the problems get more difficult. We should invest more in research and development when the problems are bigger, not less.

And, yes, maybe by tempering with stem cells, we will create a Zombie virus that will wipe out humanity. But maybe these same stem cells will be able to rejuvenate our failing organs.- The movie shows a few marvellous inventions that can be used to differentiate the techno-optimists from the rest of the crowd.

We have human-like “robots” that are genuinely indistinguishable from human beings, except for the fact that they do not grow or age. We have also a cure for aging. Indeed, we learn that the Tomorrowland scientists have cured aging, and all it takes is an orange juice a day… presumably the orange juice is fitted with nanotechnology that repairs the body and prevents aging.

Most people around me are unwilling to consider these as possible inventions, even on the long term. Yet I believe that both are quite possible. I do not know yet why we would ever build human-like intelligence… but I certainly believe it will be quite possible some day.

I do not believe that I will live forever. But I have always believed that preventing and reverting aging is a simple matter of technology. If I ever make it to an old age, will we have the technology to give me back my youth? It seems overly optimistic to think so, given that we cannot seem to make any progress against Alzheimer, and that we are probably not even close to curing cancer… But I nevertheless believe that it is simply a matter technology. And technology is accelerating all the time… so nobody can know what is possible in the medium term…

Being a techno-optimist, I believe that we will soon significantly extend longevity. I do believe that in 20 or 30 years, they will be able to replace hearts and lungs with affordable replacement parts that are just as good (if not better) than the original. Two of my neighbours have artificial knees… and they mow their grass just as well as I do. (Admittedly, they do not do jumping jacks, but neither do I.)

With all the money that people stand to make with it, I cannot imagine that in 30 years, we won’t be able to rejuvenate skin and muscles so that aging actresses can genuinely look as if they were just 30 or 40.

Rejuvenating the brain, at least in some critical ways, should be commonplace in ten years. But what I really want to see is how we will extend the brain with electronics.

Of course, techno-optimism is a dogma. It is entirely possible that the net result of technology will be to shorten my life and that of my children, and makes us more miserable. But I have faith that we can find solutions through technology.

An interesting opposing dogma is what I call “biological determinism”. These people believe that we are fundamentally limited by biology. Thus, for example, we should not perturb the Earth with our technology for fear of causing irreparable harm. These people believe that the future looks bleak for people who “aren’t smart enough”… I believe that we have been, and will continue to extend biology. It is true that people who aren’t smart do not seem to have room in Tomorrowland… but, to me, the obvious solution is to make people smarter. We can use genetics, brain augmentations… As for pollution, I think we can develop technologies that pollute less, as well as better techniques to clean toxins.

Of course, maybe techno-optimists are wrong. However, they can at least hope to be wrong in interesting ways.