The benefits and risks of new tech will decide the future
The future we will live in will largely be a function of balancing the benefits that new technology brings with the risks and downsides it inevitably causes.
Why it matters: The pandemic has demonstrated both the value of accelerated technology and the penalty when it's held back by red tape and regulation — lessons that would be smart to take for a future that demands innovation.
- But every innovation has its dark side, and it will be up to us to manage that minefield.
The big picture: In my first item for my first Axios Future newsletter nearly two years ago, I wrote, "if we properly harness threatening technologies and mature as a species, we could not only survive the 21st century, but thrive in it."
- I still believe that, and the experience of the pandemic has only deepened that conviction.
- While we now obsess over the waning efficacy of our vaccines against the new Omicron variant, we shouldn't forget the scientific marvel they represent. At the start of the pandemic, an optimistic timeline for developing a new vaccine was four years, but we had the first mRNA shots in arms in barely a year.
Between the lines: If anything, I've come to believe that from pandemics to climate change to human development, what we need, in the words of economic policy analyst James Pethokoukis, is innovation "faster, please!"
- Innovation — of both products and ideas — is primarily what has raised much of humanity from the grinding poverty and stasis that was our baseline state for most of human history.
- To fight climate change, to extend prosperity and energy to the billions who still lack it, we need to focus aggressively on accelerating innovation and dismantling the political obstacles that stand in its way.
- In other words, we need more of everything — and we need it now.
Yes, but: If I've come to better appreciate the benefits of faster innovation, I haven't forgotten the dangers it presents, both in the social disruption it can cause and in the possibility that new technology might be used — purposefully or accidentally — for malign purposes.
- We still don't know if the COVID-19 pandemic resulted from the accidental lab leak of an engineered pathogen, as some scientists allege — but we do know that new biology tools will make it increasingly easy to create dangerous bugs.
- Artificial intelligence is primed to take off and could be a vital contributor to productivity growth in the future — but its current uses already carry the threat of intrusive surveillance and forced unemployment, and as it matures, it could lead to dangerous autonomous weapons or worse.
- Geoengineering might represent our last-ditch option to avert catastrophic climate change, but at the price of fiddling with an impossibly complex natural system.
The other side: It can be easy to see people who are against building more housing or constructing new renewable power projects or expanding genetically modified foods as enemies of progress, but there's a cost to accelerated innovation that goes beyond the risks of misuse.
- Human beings often have a vested interest in the way things are, and innovations that might improve us in the aggregate — like denser housing in cities — can still make some worse off at the individual level.
- The continual struggle to get tens of millions of Americans vaccinated against COVID-19 demonstrates the limits of even the best technofixes if they aren't accompanied by social policy that addresses those fears.
What's next: A better future, hopefully.
My thought bubble: To me, that would require reclaiming the idea of progress itself as a good thing, a concept that has fallen out of favor in recent decades as the environmental, economic and social side effects of technology have become harder to ignore.
- But progress is a race we can't stop running, both because many haven't yet had the chance to enter the competition and because we still need to outrun the threats to come.