Limiting Progress

 

Though I am only 26, I am beginning to notice my age. Just the other day, one of my favorite songs from my childhood was played on the radio’s “Throwback” station, and I took a moment to feel some strange emotions that I had not expected to be feeling at my age. It brought me back to a time when I had a small $20 mp3 player that could record the radio – which is exactly how I got my music back then. I remember having files upon files with names such as “recording223.mp3”, and I knew which song was which even though there were hundreds. I remember the first time I saw a flip phone that could access the internet, thinking that the future had arrived and I was witnessing it. I remember when going to the local Blockbuster was the highlight of my week, hoping that they would have the movie I wanted.

Now, we have Spotify and Apple Music streaming (and the songs are even titled accurately for no confusion!). Now, we have little pins the size of a sticky note that can not only browse the internet but also find the answers for you. Now, Blockbuster is a distant memory, long since shadowed by companies such as Netflix or Hulu. 

Yes, some things are easier nowadays, but is that not what we want for future generations? I for one sure am glad that the inventor of air conditioning wasn’t turned away, and that I can write this article in the cool temperature of 68 degrees while it is hot and humid outside. But that same sentiment is not heard throughout all, as I routinely hear “Well back in my day…”. 

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Intergenerational Resentment: A conflict between age groups where older generations harbor negative feelings towards younger ones, often due to perceived differences in values and the belief that younger people have it easier (frequently aggravated by economic and technological changes). This can lead to criticism and a desire for younger generations to experience similar hardships.

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Has it always been this way, with those who had it harder wishing that others also experienced their hardships? Turns out, the answer is yes. 

“If men learn this, it will implant forgetfulness in their souls. They will cease to exercise memory because they rely on that which is written, calling things to remembrance no longer from within themselves, but by means of external marks.Who do you think said this? Reading this, you would think the speaker is worried about AI and its futuristic implications, or maybe even the brain implants that Elon Musk has been working on. No, the speaker quoted above is Socrates, as recorded by Plato in the dialogue “Phaedrus” in 350 B.C., stating that the invention of paper would certainly doom civilization by eliminating the need to remember information. 

Ok, but surely Plato is an outlier – not everyone is resistant to technological breakthroughs, right? Well, while we are on the subject of paper, let us check in on the printing press. 

The Gutenberg Bible was the first book to be printed on the printing press, with hopes of allowing the masses to finally have access to scripture. Not long after, Pope Alexander VI  threatened to excommunicate anyone caught printing books (not just Bibles) without the church’s permission. The Pope was not the only one who opposed the printing press, as a widespread fear permeated the masses that scribes would lose their jobs and be replaced by the new technology. Because of this fear, it took almost 50 years for the printing press to gain public acceptance and usage. 

So, we should always accept progress in technology, right?

 

Unchecked Progress: The rapid advancement of technology or development without sufficient oversight, regulation, or consideration of potential consequences.

In a race between the World’s powerhouses, the US, Germany, Soviet Union, and Japan each had their eyes on technological advancement in atomics. August 6, 1945, and August 9, 1945, are two days that many wish we would have not accepted progress in that technology. Though the exact number is unconfirmed, somewhere between 129,000 and 226,000 people died, most of whom were civilians. Though some argue that circumstances were dire and that this was the correct course, the undeniable is this: Had the scientific community and world leaders opted to halt or slow the advancement of atomic studies, the ominous shadow of nuclear warfare might never have loomed over humanity. Without the creation and subsequent use of atomic bombs, the Cold War might not have escalated into a tense standoff of mutually assured destruction, and the perpetual fear of nuclear conflict could have been avoided. This restraint might have led to a world where diplomacy and conventional conflict resolution took precedence over the threat of annihilation, fostering a more stable and secure global environment.

Though not quite the scale of nuclear warfare, imagine how many lives we could have saved or improved had we not put lead into common paint and gasoline, used mercury for medical equipment, or even used PCBs in electrical equipment. What about automobiles? Well, before the widespread implementation of seatbelt laws in the 1980s, the U.S. saw tens of thousands of automobile fatalities annually. For example, in 1950 there were about 50K auto deaths among the 152 million people that populated the US, whereas in 2020 there were 36K among the 330M population.

 

Quantum Computing: The Next Frontier

(For those unfamiliar with Quantum Computing, I encourage you to watch this video for a crash course)

As we stand on the brink of the next technological revolution, quantum computing, we are faced with a similar dilemma: how to embrace this groundbreaking technology without falling prey to its potential pitfalls. Quantum computers, leveraging the principles of quantum mechanics, promise to solve problems that are currently intractable for classical computers (such as the one you are using to read this). They have the potential to revolutionize industries from cryptography to pharmaceuticals, and climate modeling to financial markets.

However, with great power comes great responsibility. The sheer computational power of quantum computers could render current encryption methods obsolete, posing a severe threat to data security. Governments, corporations, and individuals could find their sensitive information at risk, necessitating the development of new, quantum-resistant encryption techniques.

Economically, the introduction of quantum computing could lead to significant shifts in various industries. Companies that are early adopters of quantum technology could gain substantial competitive advantages, potentially leading to increased inequality between those who can afford to invest in this technology and those who cannot. Additionally, there may be job displacement as certain tasks become automated or obsolete due to quantum advancements.

Ethically, the use of quantum computing raises questions about privacy and surveillance. The ability to process and analyze vast amounts of data at unprecedented speeds could be used for both beneficial and nefarious purposes. It is crucial to establish ethical guidelines and regulations to ensure that quantum computing is used in ways that respect individual privacy and promote the common good.

Striking the Balance

The history of technological progress teaches us that we should not reject ideas merely because they are new, nor should we accept them uncritically. The challenge lies in striking a balance: embracing innovation while being cautiously aware of its potential risks. As we advance toward a future shaped by quantum computing, it is imperative to foster a culture of responsible innovation.

Policymakers, technologists, and society at large must work together to create frameworks that encourage the beneficial uses of quantum computing while mitigating its risks. This could include investing in research and development for quantum-resistant encryption, ensuring equitable access to quantum technologies, and establishing robust ethical guidelines for their use.

By learning from the past and approaching new technologies with a balanced perspective, we can harness the potential of quantum computing to drive progress and improve lives while safeguarding against its possible dangers. In doing so, we can ensure that technological advancements serve humanity’s best interests and contribute to a more secure, equitable, and prosperous future.