The Future is Vast, Yet Beautiful

Published: 2023-10-29
Tagged: essay progress

Thinking about the future is more complicated than I thought.

I find that surprising because people do it all the time. We daydream, buy insurance, watch science fiction, and, with a regularity bordering on religious, we check tomorrow's weather. Yet everyone around me appears to be in a mild state of shock about one new development or another.

I suspect it's because there are different types of futures and different ways of thinking about them. That sounds very abstract, so let's try a thought experiment.

Imagine you're living in America in 1975 and you're asked to predict how efficient cars will become in the future. Let's assume we're focusing solely on miles-per-gallon. Let's also assume, to be more more, that you're a well-educated engineer working in the automotive industry.

What kind of numbers would you give? How would they change as you look farther out into the future? And, most importantly, how would you even approach this question? Take a brief moment to ponder this.

Now, let's see what actually happened in the US:

Chart showing average car efficiency double between 1975 and 2020


Looking at just sedans, MPG doubled from 14 to an astounding 32. The EPA provides a full list of major developments that made this progress possible:

Engine technologies such as turbocharged engines (Turbo) and gasoline direct injection (GDI) allow for more efficient engine design and operation. Cylinder deactivation (CD) allows for use of only a portion of the engine when less power is needed, while stop/start systems can turn off the engine entirely at idle to save fuel. Hybrid vehicles use a larger battery to recapture braking energy and provide power when necessary, allowing for a smaller, more efficiently operated engine. The hybrid category includes “full” hybrid systems that can temporarily power the vehicle without engaging the engine and smaller “mild” hybrid systems that cannot propel the vehicle on their own. Transmissions that have more gear ratios, or speeds, allow the engine to more frequently operate near peak efficiency.

When I put myself in the shoes of that imaginary engineer, some ideas on the list seem fairly obvious. Turbochargers have been around since the 19th century, for example. 1975-me shouldn't have had too much trouble picturing a future where such devices are better, cheaper, and very common. Ditto for things like gasoline direct injection or cylinder deactivation--both of which sound like the obvious places to look for efficiency wins even to 2023-non-engineer-me.

But some of the other ideas look quite extraordinary. 1975-me would be, at the very least, incredulous about electric and hybrid vehicles as they are today. And I wouldn't be alone: none other than Vannevar Bush concluded in the early 70's that battery technology wouldn't be up to the task of powering cars and trucks. His money was on high quality, efficient, and quiet steam engines.

Now this Bush fellow was no automotive engineer, true. But he laid down the foundations of how modern research and development is done all over the world. And while he produced a few inventions himself, he is probably better known to the Internet crowd as the author of a 1945 (!) essay about the "memex", a machine that would help people think by allowing them to link pieces of information together--a sort of proto-Internet.

Bush was a brilliant, pragmatic, and forward-thinking person, who got the future of automobiles completely wrong because fifty years later a Prius gets 57 miles to the gallon while a more expensive Tesla is estimated to get between 75 and 140 MPG. That's a 4x - 10x improvement over average MPG in 1975.

But how could present-me explain this development to 1975-me?

At first, I suspect present-me would just state the big picture: high-capacity batteries, rigid aluminum frames, efficient motors, etc. But I bet that would instantly trigger disbelief in the listener as it would simply sound like science fiction. The inference gap would just be too large. So I'd have to switch to baby steps, and, more importantly, instead of going backwards, I'd have to start at the level of technology in 1975 and proceed from there. I suspect only that would provide solid-enough points of reference for 1975-me to build on top of.

This, I think, nails down why the future is so hard to imagine.

We train ourselves to think of it narrowly. We do that, of course, because it works most of the time: it allows us to finish college, pay off a mortgage, or introduce a new car to the market. But the same approach when applied to bigger, fuzzier things--ones with countless variables like climate change or the future of communication--will produce predictions only good for evoking a laugh at our naivety.

A winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics, Paul Krugman wrote in 1998, “The growth of the Internet will slow drastically, as the flaw in ‘Metcalfe’s law’—which states that the number of potential connections in a network is proportional to the square of the number of participants—becomes apparent: most people have nothing to say to each other! By 2005 or so, it will become clear that the Internet’s impact on the economy has been no greater than the fax machine’s.”

Progress along with the all the ways it influences society does not follow the neat categories defined within the halls of academia or industry. That's what makes it so easy for so many experts to dismiss ideas that exist at the boundaries of their fields. (Cars running on batteries? Get outta here!)

I bet that copywriters in 2013 weren't really thinking that within a decade a bunch of math PhDs and computer geeks would put together if/else statements in just the right way as to have programs produce B-grade college essays. More importantly, the majority of professionals working in the software industry as recently as 2020 didn't think of it either! And even today, we, makers of software, are shaking off the surprise.

All of this makes me extremely optimistic about the future. We have so many irons in so many fires: people all over the world doing research or prototyping or starting companies. Even if only 1 in 100,000 of these experiments works out, it will revolutionize a thing or two, broadly, for huge swatches of society. And because our monkey brains are wired to do things that win respect and awe and status, I expect these wonders to happen in realms like medicine, agriculture, and energy production instead of useless toys.

That's why I'm not all too worried about climate change, for example. Why wouldn't we find a way to make carbon capture 10x more effective or energy 10x cheaper? I mean, similar leaps have happened even in recent history.

I'm sure someone reading this will bring up the fact that technology, being merely a tool, can be used for great good or great evil equally. That's a polite way of telling me to temper my outlook by perhaps adding a few drops of dystopia into my morning tea.

But as I look around and try as I might, I can't take this pessimism seriously.

First, it seems that liberal democracies are where most technological progress happens today. Such environments appear to channel progress more often than not toward noble ends. And when they don't, it's clearly a mistake (think: cigarettes, fast food, social media) that then triggers a powerful backlash.

There's no way to avoid mistakes, sadly, which brings me to my second point: we're not all going to make. Because even if we, as a species, figure out ingenious ways to avoid death by climate change, AI, nuclear war, etc., it doesn't mean any single individual today is safe from such dangers--or the attempts to remedy them.

But there is no alternative that is not utopian in nature and thereby far more dangerous. At least with progress, the odds of living, and living a great life at that, are forever growing in our favor. Our environment is getting safer, making it less likely that any of us will die or get seriously injured while we go about our day to day business. So, for example, while I wholly expect the amount of death and suffering due to climate change to increase with time, I also expect a much greater decrease in death & suffering thanks to advancements in medicine and engineering.

Going back to the car efficiency thought experiment, it also strikes me that none of the progress there would have been possible without a huge amount of individual creativity. That is to say, there was no set path for progress back then and there is no such path now. If there was, it would make life and the future unbearably boring--just show up, turn the crank of science, and wait for the machine to dispense iphones and vaccines.

In reality, some really smart scientists and engineers laid down the ground work. They did so because some managers and executives created the right environment for that. And artists, writers, and politicians engaged in public debate that persuaded us, correctly, that we really ought to consider burning less liquidized dinosaur remains as fuel. Finally, a whole host of other people, from salesmen to truck drivers, made it possible for average people to get their hands on these newer, better vehicles.

So, contrary to a trope popular these days, all of us have some say in shaping the future. Perhaps any single person doesn't have a deciding voice, but that's only because the future is so vast. Thinking about it may be hard, but I can't imagine a powerful way of finding meaning in one's life.


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