Daniel Lemire's blog

, 3 min read

The case for techno-optimism

I define techno-optimism as the belief that technology makes us healthier, richer and smarter at an accelerated rate. Anyone working in information technology cannot help but to be a bit techno-optimist. My wife’s latest Samsung phone is a technological marvel that can replace dozens of expensive devices from ten years ago (phone, camera, pda, …). Google’s voice recognition software has finally become good enough. Here is what I did just now:

– Ok Google

– Where is Denmark?

And it showed me a map of Denmark. Keep in mind that I have a thick French accent.

My 9-year-old son comes by (his English is even more approximate) and he says “Ok Google. Who is Mario?”. And sure enough, it worked.

A common objection to techno-optimism is that it only works in information technology. For example, there seems to be a widespread belief that medicine or education is standing still.

It is true that if you go in your doctor’s office, it might feel like traveling back in time to the 1970s. But let us keep in mind that, in the future, most things will still look the same. Except for my wicked flat TV, my living room would not surprise someone from the 1950s. A wall is a wall: we just made it much cheaper and faster to build walls. A desk is a desk: they have just become much cheaper. Paper is still very useful: we have just learned how to cost-efficiently replenish our forests. Moreover, it will always be true that the future won’t be uniformly distributed. Even today, one out of eight people never use the Internet. This cannot be helped. There will always be backward places and people.

But really, medical progress is fast and furious:

  • A paraplegic woman, Jan Scheuermann, can feed herself using a robotic arm controlled by her brain. This has been commonly done in monkeys for many years.
  • There is now a medical speciality called resurrection. In forward-thinking hospitals, “dead” patients have their blood artificially oxygenated. In this manner, patients can remain dead for hours before being brought back.
  • We can restore partial sight to the blinds using retinal implants. Researchers expect to start human trials in the next few years using a stem cell therapy to repair retinal damage.
  • AIDS is a devastating but “manageable disease”. Infected people must take expensive and harsh drugs. But it looks like we might finally defeat AIDS using gene therapy. We found out that some people were naturally immune to the AIDS virus. We identified the gene responsible, and we simply edit the corresponding gene in the cells of infected people. This actually works in real people. Moreover, at least one patient has been cured from AIDS (back in 2008) thanks to stem cells transplants.

In education, progress is equally amazing. Let us not forget that the web itself is probably the greatest learning tool ever invented. It is orders of magnitude superior to previous alternatives. For example, many of colleagues have substantially improved their English through online services. They are both more effective and much cheaper than human tutors. To help my kids with their spelling, I have created a set of small web pages. The scripts in the web pages speak out the words (in French!) and my sons have to write the words correctly. This alone would have sounded like science fiction ten years ago: a little script in a web page can speak out words in any language! Yes, what actually happens in the classroom might be stuck in time… but progress is everywhere. You just have to know how to look.

And that is what it comes down to. Progress happens at first mostly in pockets. It then propagates at an uneven pace. But eventually, it touches nearly everyone… in ways that we often do not notice until later if at all.

That is why techno-optimism is not a common stance despite the overwhelming evidence… good technology is nearly invisible. So people greatly underestimate what can be done given a few decades.