Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Ben Franklin: "Sometimes I Regret I Was Born Too Soon"

I came across a great, partially prophetic quote in Ben's Compleated Autobiography today:
The rapid progress true science now makes occasions my regretting sometimes that I was born so soon.  It is impossible to imagine the heights to which the power of man may be carried over matter in a thousand years.  We may perhaps learn to deprive large masses of their gravity and give them absolute levity for the sake of easy transport.  Agriculture may diminish its labour and double its produce.  All diseases may by sure means be prevented or cured, not excepting even that of old age, and our lives lengthened at pleasure even beyond the antediluvian standard. 
So, 230 years on, how are we doing?

Power over gravity: check.  Well, sort of.  We can at least defy it for a while with the help of the Bernoulli effect, strong propulsion, or electromagnets.

Improved agricultural efficiency: check.  In the developed world, a small minority of the population provides a surplus of food at dramatically improved yields per acre.  This was made possible almost entirely by science and technology.  Now, if we can only make it more sustainable and environmentally friendly...

Curing all disease: not so much.  We've lengthened the life expectancy by a few decades in the developed world, and a large proportion of the developing world is catching up (in fact, maybe developed/developing world is becoming an outdated concept).  Infectious disease is well controlled by better hygiene, vaccinations, and antibiotics (for now...).  Chronic diseases like cancer and diabetes will take longer to conquer.

There have also been many surprises.  Franklin never saw Darwin, Einstein, Planck, Schrodinger, or Turing coming.  Sometimes I furtively imagine taking somebody from the 18th Century on a tour of all the technology and gadgets we now have thanks to paradigm changers like these, and it makes me appreciate my car or smartphone a little more.

What lies in the future?  Sustainable solutions to feeding the world's billions?  Hopefully.  True antigravity?  Genuine biological immortality?  Not likely in my lifetime, but we have 770 more years before Franklin's thousand are up.  Let's get on it.
O that moral science were as fair a way of improvement, and that men would cease to be wolves to one another and that human beings would at length learn what they now improperly call humanity!
Amen to that.  Still a long way to go on that front.

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