Greg Cochran has a short post up soliciting opinions on what will be the next big thing in science and technology. He is not fishing for the next smartphone app or medical cure. I think he means the big new field of study or technological advancement. It is one of those posts that is not intended to be interesting, but to get the readers noodling over the question. Judging from the comments thus far, that is the way his readers have read the post. It seems to be another stab at the topic he started the other day.
It is an interesting question as we do seem to have reached the point of diminishing returns with the microprocessor. E-mail was a huge game changer. The mobile phone was another big leap into the unknown. The web probably comes in third, but it still had an enormous impact on humanity. These inventions have changed the way humans interact with one another and continue to put stress on the organizational systems we have had in place since the Enlightenment. Donald Trump just won an election by mastering Twitter.
We have reached peak chip, so to speak. The low hanging fruit has been picked and we’re well on the way to commodification of technology. That’s not to say there is no more work to be done in tech. It’s just that the boom years are over and the industry is now mature. The next big ideas, the stuff that could alter society, will be coming from somewhere else. The temptation is to think it will be some new technology like genetics or nanotechnology. Those fields have the futuristic vibe futurists like.
Genetics does have the prospect of being highly disruptive. Just take a look at how 23andMe or Ancestry.com sell their products. Implicit in their pitch is that race and ethnicity are in your DNA. That means race is not a social construct. Ancestry disguises this by using multi-racial actors, but the implication is clear. Similarly, the ability to predict things about people at an early age, based on examining their DNA, could be very disruptive. Imagine what happens to insurance when you can test for risk of heart attack.
The thing is, a lot of this information has been available to us through other means. Humans have known for a long time that people are not the same across race or ethnicity and most people still know it, even if they don’t say it. Even so, it has no impact on public policy or on the howling of the multiculturalists. We’ve also known that the apple does not fall far from the tree. If the kid is born to losers, the kid will probably be a loser. How the kid is raised has little to do with it, but we still preach the morality of parenting.
A more promising area where something game changing could come is in the field of aging. Humans live longer and are healthier than ever and it has already had a huge impact on society. All of our pension and insurance schemes are broken mostly because people live too long. Long living has resulted in children maturing more slowly, in terms of social status. A century ago, a man went to work as a teen and had a family by the time he hit 20. Today, men live at home until 30 and start families well into their 30’s.
Imagine what happens if science finds a way to push the expiry date out a few more decades. Imagine if 100 becomes the new 65, in that the 100 year old is as vigorous as the typical 65 year old. Imagine that the golden years of retirement start at 110. This is standard stuff in science fiction, but it may not be too far off in reality. British researchers have figured out how to drastically slow the aging of mice. That opens the door for not only slowing the process, but arresting it. Forever young may not be too far off.
Even if that is beyond the pale, think about the impact of Viagra. Invent a pill to keep the needle pointing north and the world beats a path to your door. Imagine a pill to end gray hair or crow’s feet. Even if people don’t live to 150, just being healthier and more vigorous late into life could have a huge impact on society. Retirement, for example, would make a lot less sense if you had plenty of juice well into your senior years. Of course, retirement would become something radically different too. Our view of aging would radically change.
The reason to think that life extension and aging is the place to see great innovation in the near term is mostly economic. Penis pills made their makers very rich. A gray hair pill or a wrinkle cure would similarly make their makers billions. Just look at the number of men seeking out HGH from black market sources. The market for anything that extends life or extends youthful vitality is the market of all people. Is there anyone who would not buy a pill that makes you look as good as you looked in the flower of youth?