Are you a techno-optimist? (A review of Tomorrowland)

Walt Disney released Tomorrowland. I brought my little family to see it and we had a blast.

(Warning: mild spoilers ahead.)

The movie has one message: let us be techno-optimists. Instead of being driven by fear, let us embrace new challenges. Let us go to Mars or beyond. Let us cure cancer. Let us live with large robots.

The movie has some brilliant elements:

  • Early in the movie, we see a young boy who has invented a jet pack. When asked about the purpose of his invention, he replied: “to inspire people”.

    This is a great and important answer. Almost all new inventions bring very little value on their own. That is true of even radical inventions. For example, if we could cure cancer, we would only extend our life expectancy by a few years (less than five if I recall correctly).

    Techno-optimism is the belief that pushing technology forward is good in itself, if only to inspire others.

    Yes, it may take decades or more before hospitals can print me a new lung or a new heart… so maybe I will needless die of a lung or heart disease in ten years… but I am still excited about 3D printing and steam cell research.

  • The cause of much of the misery in the world of the movie can be traced back to pessimism. Once you have convinced people to stop advancing (symbolized in the movie by the closure of a NASA center), the path becomes difficult.

    I have a lot of respect for conservatives like Nassim Taleb who advocate caution in all things. What if we are killing the planet? Should we not revert back to how our ancestors lived, just in case? What if genetically modified food is killing us? But the techno-optimist in me prefers to take the gamble. And, as illustrated in the movie, that is not necessarily any riskier.

    Before we had as much technology as we did today, people died horrible deaths. Earth was ravaged. That still happens today, of course… we are causing cancers, and polluting too much… but we are, as a species, far better off than we ever were. There are more of us (a good thing) and we are healthier, and smarter.

    The techno-optimist thinks that we should push ahead faster when the problems get more difficult. We should invest more in research and development when the problems are bigger, not less.

    And, yes, maybe by tempering with stem cells, we will create a Zombie virus that will wipe out humanity. But maybe these same stem cells will be able to rejuvenate our failing organs.

  • The movie shows a few marvellous inventions that can be used to differentiate the techno-optimists from the rest of the crowd.

    We have human-like “robots” that are genuinely indistinguishable from human beings, except for the fact that they do not grow or age. We have also a cure for aging. Indeed, we learn that the Tomorrowland scientists have cured aging, and all it takes is an orange juice a day… presumably the orange juice is fitted with nanotechnology that repairs the body and prevents aging.

    Most people around me are unwilling to consider these as possible inventions, even on the long term. Yet I believe that both are quite possible. I do not know yet why we would ever build human-like intelligence… but I certainly believe it will be quite possible some day.

    I do not believe that I will live forever. But I have always believed that preventing and reverting aging is a simple matter of technology. If I ever make it to an old age, will we have the technology to give me back my youth? It seems overly optimistic to think so, given that we cannot seem to make any progress against Alzheimer, and that we are probably not even close to curing cancer… But I nevertheless believe that it is simply a matter technology. And technology is accelerating all the time… so nobody can know what is possible in the medium term…

    Being a techno-optimist, I believe that we will soon significantly extend longevity. I do believe that in 20 or 30 years, they will be able to replace hearts and lungs with affordable replacement parts that are just as good (if not better) than the original. Two of my neighbours have artificial knees… and they mow their grass just as well as I do. (Admittedly, they do not do jumping jacks, but neither do I.)

    With all the money that people stand to make with it, I cannot imagine that in 30 years, we won’t be able to rejuvenate skin and muscles so that aging actresses can genuinely look as if they were just 30 or 40.

    Rejuvenating the brain, at least in some critical ways, should be commonplace in ten years. But what I really want to see is how we will extend the brain with electronics.

Of course, techno-optimism is a dogma. It is entirely possible that the net result of technology will be to shorten my life and that of my children, and makes us more miserable. But I have faith that we can find solutions through technology.

An interesting opposing dogma is what I call “biological determinism”. These people believe that we are fundamentally limited by biology. Thus, for example, we should not perturb the Earth with our technology for fear of causing irreparable harm. These people believe that the future looks bleak for people who “aren’t smart enough”…

I believe that we have been, and will continue to extend biology. It is true that people who aren’t smart do not seem to have room in Tomorrowland… but, to me, the obvious solution is to make people smarter. We can use genetics, brain augmentations… As for pollution, I think we can develop technologies that pollute less, as well as better techniques to clean toxins.

Of course, maybe techno-optimists are wrong. However, they can at least hope to be wrong in interesting ways.

15 thoughts on “Are you a techno-optimist? (A review of Tomorrowland)”

  1. At a wine-tasting event, chatting with a Physicist from LLL, who in the normal course of his job has access to all sorts of extremely dangerous materials, and the knowledge to make full use:

    “Don’t you wish you could do the Mad Scientist thing, just for fun?”

    His answer: “YES!!!”

    Of course, folk like he (and I) are entirely civil, and would never cause harm to other good folk. Which is why that combined access and knowledge is just never a problem.

    But sometimes you wish you could play…

    I tend to be somewhat conservative (in an engineering, not political context). For a time, I thought that might translate to some resonance with labelled conservatism in politics. Over time, I found this was more about the psychology of differing personality types, rather than political philosophy.

    We have a large group of folk who are fearful of change, and foolishly pessimist. Of this sort, a large part are guardians – who by nature protect and maintain social and physical order. We need the guardians, though not in the lead.

    We have another large group who are hopeful, seek change, and are foolishly optimistic. Easy to dismiss these folk, for their foolish notions.

    Over time found that though I tend toward conservatism, I prefer the optimists, however foolish.

    My self-description is optimistic realist. I know very well that things can go wrong, but still want to push for the hopeful goals. I also firmly believe that what we are capable of achieving is massively greater than what our current social confusion allows.

    At work: “He wants to build products for customers.” (Exchange between two managers, in my presence, referring to me.) My response: “That is right!!” (Seems that in large companies local optimizations tend to replace larger goals. Locally, customers become irrelevant.)

    Plentiful energy with limited use of fossil fuels? Very possible. (Through nuclear fission.)

    Better healthcare, and effective medical science? Possible. (Not where we are now.)

    Aggressive exploration of the solar system, and beyond? Lunar colonies? Mars? Possible. (Project Orion tech. Yes, there are problems, solvable.)

    I suspect there is a point where medical tech will extend human life (more than just preventing disease), there will be a generation where the tech will keep ahead of aging, and their lifespan may be far less finite. My guess … I will not live to see this, but my children might.

    I am 57 now. A lot of the folk my age have slowed, considerably. At work, found I have no trouble keeping up with the younger folk. (The more recent writings on neuroplasticity might apply.) More accurately, I never have to “keep up”, as rather I tend to be a bit ahead.

    If I were told my life could be extended, but at the same biological age, I would be fine with this age. Yes, my eyes are less flexible, and I need different glasses for near and far vision. I may soon need to have my natural knees ripped out, and artificial replacements (which get better each decade, and will allow me to *increase* my physical activity beyond what I can do now).

    The tricky problem is what to do – when life can be extended – with average (and lesser) folk. We will reach that choice, in not too many decades.

  2. “History is littered with civilizations that have been utterly destroyed. Everywhere, the self-assured confidence of priests, scribes and intellectuals has been mocked by unexpected events, leaving all their prayers, records and treatises wholly forgotten unless they are retrieved from oblivion by future archaeologists and historians. Sudden extinction of ways of life is the human norm”

    John Gray, The Soul of the Marionette

  3. @Preston

    I think we will soon have ways to boost the intelligence of most people. The first applications would probably be to help people recover from strokes and problems like Parkinson. That is, we will get better at healing the brain… but the next logical step will be to boost the abilities of the brain, either by electronics or by adding new neurons… couple that with advanced training techniques…

    Genetics will certainly play a role on the long term. Human beings will rewrite their own genome. In time.

    1. (Saw the movie, today. Thus revisiting your old topic.)

      Quibble – adding unorganized neurons to the brain might prevent loss of ability, but does not necessarily increase intelligence. How you *use* your mind makes a massive difference. Those neurons have to get wired up and programmed. If you did not do well with your initial set neurons, likely a new batch is small help.

      Would an active mind usefully incorporate a significant increase in new neurons? No idea.

      Implanted electronics are … tricky. Retrieval of raw information seems safe enough, but as a boost in intelligence? Do you want a software vulnerability to mean someone else can hack your mind?

      On the flip side – re-writing our DNA – I think that future is arriving a lot faster.

      1. Quibble – adding unorganized neurons to the brain might prevent loss of ability, but does not necessarily increase intelligence.

        Presumably, it would if you lost intelligence due to neuronal damage.

        Implanted electronics are … tricky. Retrieval of raw information seems safe enough, but as a boost in intelligence?

        I submit to you that our computers already increase our intelligence. Increasing the bandwidth between computers and biological brains could be a net win.

        Do you want a software vulnerability to mean someone else can hack your mind?

        People mocked the aeroplane as being fundamentally unsafe.

        Risks can be addressed.

  4. I’ve always liked the image of the conservative scientist, skeptical and probing, first assuming every interesting result is a measurement error; all while expanding the reaches of human knowledge, deep down an optimist that this process leads to great things.

    I’m bothered when people reject technology, that we can do no better than we have it, that the status quo should not be challenged.

    But I’m also bothered by a very common thread of techno-optimism that the future will solve all our problems. You see it in discussions of oil usage: we debate the green house effect and health benefits of different energy supplies and geopolitical implications, but you almost never hear anyone mention the fact that the oil we use today is no longer available for future generations: economics as discussed is about efficient distribution of resources among the living, with few advocating for the fair share generations hence.

    I think we assume that the future will either be a global apocalypse or a future utopia, that nobody 100 years from now has any need for oil: they’ll be fusing hydrogen and building Dyson spheres or extinct. But that may not be so, our future may very well be impoverished by the present.

    Techno optimism as a reason to try new things, to expand our knowledge, to build great works and revolutionize life is a wonderful, valuable way of approaching the world that isn’t praised enough. It’s one of my favorite human traits. Techno optimism as an excuse to ignore today’s problems, to leave out safety mechanisms and proper review of dangerous technology because ‘of course we’re headed to a better future’ is incredibly worrying.

  5. @Paul

    you almost never hear anyone mention the fact that the oil we use today is no longer available for future generations

    A significant difference between a techno-optimist and other people is that the techno-optimist views technology as a way to extend the pie, massively.

    My gamble is that future generations would much rather have nanobots curing them of horrible diseases like Alzheimer’s and super efficient nuclear engines rather than smelly oil.

    What would be sad, for future generations, is that we decide to stop exponentially improving our technology…

    our future may very well be impoverished by the present

    Evidently, our hunter-and-gatherer ancestors burned very little oil. However, they did, apparently, hunt to extinction many animals to feed their families once they got their act together.

    So really, we would need to go back to an era where human beings were spread thin in Africa and mostly disorganized. Then human beings were doing little to exhaust Earth’s natural ressources.

    Another take is that a wealthy and urbanized civilization (or even a space faring one) can do a lot to protect, and even extend, natural ressources.

    Clearly, you can use technology to kill yourself. There is ample evidence of that… Instead of curing cancer, we may very well kill ourselves by releasing killer nanobots… technology is always a gamble… but, often enough, we win…

    Techno optimism as an excuse to ignore today’s problems, to leave out safety mechanisms and proper review of dangerous technology because ‘of course we’re headed to a better future’ is incredibly worrying.

    Techno-optimists do not ignore problems. Quite the opposite. They ask “what can we invent to solve them?”

    The rest of society (the majority) objects: “won’t that be dangerous?”

  6. My gamble is that future generations would much rather have nanobots curing them of horrible diseases like Alzheimer’s and super efficient nuclear engines rather than smelly oil.

    That’s exactly my point. Right now we use natural gas to produce fertilizer, which goes a long way to feeding the world. There’s some tradeoffs, but this is basically a working system. In the future we may have new methods for producing huge quantities of fertilizer without the use of carbon based fuels. Or we might genetically engineer plants to be so efficient fertilizer is no longer needed. Or the future generations may be vegetarians and enlightened and we’ll eliminate all the waste from the food system.

    Or maybe we’re only able to bump up efficiency 5-10%, and we don’t come up with a better fertilizer process, and human nature is human nature, and starvation strikes the land.

    I’m an optimist, so if I had to put a wager down, it would be “we work something reasonable out”. But I’m also pragmatic, so “let’s burn this bridge down, somebody’s bound to build another one in time” sounds crazy to me.

    Techno-optimists do not ignore problems. Quite the opposite. They ask “what can we invent to solve them?”

    Scientists and engineers and researchers and thinkers ask “what can we invent to solve problems.” I’ve met some who are optimistic about the future and some who are pessimistic. Most people who are techno-optimists do nothing about making the future better, they just assume it will be.

    To return to your point about the future preferring disease curing nanobots to oil, so very rarely is that remotely the tradeoff being discussed. I understand the importance and costs of maintaining an advanced civilization, that you can’t pay the costs of the internet to inspire a young genius but not to provide cat pictures; but I’m certain we could have an advanced society at a fraction of current resource usage. If we’re using techno-optimism to increase investment in basic research, to fight bureaucracies defending the status quo for its own sake, to spread education to increase the number of individuals contributing to a positive future, great! But if we’re using it as an excuse for why owning two fridges or not facing current social ills or flying across the world on vacation couldn’t possibly have negative repercussions, then I think it’s clouding important risk/reward discussions we should be having. If the future has to be good, then nothing we can do now is bad. If the future could be wonderful, but not inherently, then it’s our duty to mitigate all the risks we can for a bad future while simultaneously encouraging the good future.

  7. @Paul

    This is addressed in the movie and in my review. No doubt, you would also consider frivolous space exploration and jet packs.

    Crazy men, centuries ago went across the ocean for… spices. Not magical spices. No. Spices that had just one purpose: make food taste better.

    More recently, we extended the Internet and the Web to the whole general public. Why couldn’t we keep it to serious people, like academics and the military? Instead, we went ahead with Facebook and YouTube… Ah… but we got Google Scholar, MOOCs, TED talks, Wikipedia, the explosion of open source software…

    Lots of things sound a bit frivolous at first… but if they, at least, inspire us to keep going, they serve a vital purpose.

  8. @Daniel

    Space exploration is extremely important and underfunded in my opinion. The creation of colonies, the resources available in asteroids, just the knowledge we have already obtained and will continue to obtain doing experiments in the vacuum or studying distant phenomena, all make any efforts in that direction very valuable.

    Jet packs, a little frivolous.

    And exactly right on the internet, I’m certainly not advocating for some sort of academic-military establishment where everybody wears labcoats and disdains fun. Science is serendipitous: you don’t know what will work or who will achieve what. Getting knowledge and tools into as many hands as possible is a great way to move ourselves forward.

    Another example: The Oculus Rift is largely being touted as a gaming device, but it’s another leap forward in virtual reality, and who knows how much that could help education, engineering, or medicine. I’d never advocate having some bureaucracy think about nixing that because it lacks gravitas.

    So to the extent that we’re talking about the value of engineering and research and serendipity, I don’t think there’s much disagreement between us. My point remains that prophecy is horribly unreliable. That when we make choices today because we “know” the tools the future will have, we’re risking making bad choices.

    Another example: Star Trek portrays a post-racial world. I’m inclined to believe that’s a likely future. If we use that as a goal, something to work today towards today, great. But if we use it as an excuse to ignore injustice, because “it’s getting better, racism will be gone in 500 years one way or the other”, then it’s making that better future less likely. I think it’s very easy to slip from “here’s an imagining of one unlikely future: what can we take from it to improve the real, unknowable future?” to “here’s an imagining of the future: ok, these problems from the present are gone, so let’s just ignore them now”

  9. @Paul

    My point remains that prophecy is horribly unreliable. That when we make choices today because we “know” the tools the future will have, we’re risking making bad choices.

    Prophecy is a bit strong.

    We know that progress is accelerating. It has been accelerating for centuries.

    This means that if you take any range of 20 years, you can expect that the gains from the next 20 years will vastly exceed that of your original 20-year range.

    20 years ago, the public did not have the Internet. Something like YouTube was unimaginable. Heck! I could not imagine YouTube in 2003. I believed, in 2003, that the video-on-the-Internet thing was overblown and unpractical. Right now, Netflix is replacing TV stations…

    We know with high probability that computers will be massively faster, smaller and cheaper in 20 years.

    We know that communication tools will be massively better in 20 years.

    We know that scientists and engineers will be massively more productive in 20 years. There will also have many more of them (universities in China are still expanding).

    It is true that we have no idea what will come about. But we have a pretty good idea that technology in 2035 will be massively better than it is today.

    And please, note that we have virtuous circle so that you cannot just say “we invented 3 good things in 20 years so we will invent 3 good things in the next 20 years…” No… you have to multiply the progress we made in the last 20 years if you want to estimate properly the progress we will make in the next 20 years.


    Another example: Star Trek portrays a post-racial world. I’m inclined to believe that’s a likely future.

    I would argue that racism is much less of an issue today than it was 20 years ago. Hint: black president. Same with minorities (hint: gay mariage).

    It seems self-evident that racism will be even less of an issue in 20 years.


    But if we use it as an excuse to ignore injustice, because “it’s getting better, racism will be gone in 500 years one way or the other”, then it’s making that better future less likely. I think it’s very easy to slip from “here’s an imagining of one unlikely future: what can we take from it to improve the real, unknowable future?” to “here’s an imagining of the future: ok, these problems from the present are gone, so let’s just ignore them now”

    Again. I think that the movie addresses it.

    The first thing you need to do to build a better world is to imagine it. Not all of us need to imagine it… but some must imagine it.

    People think that Google is crazy to invest in substantially increasing human longevity (Callico). But if you cannot imagine a world where people over 75 are anything but decrepit useless sacks of rotten meat that we keep alive at great expenses… then how are you ever going to achieve anything?

    I’d love to be 95 and be running around the block. And the more people believe in this dream, the more likely it becomes.

    Sure, there is a real danger that you just talk about stuff and never get anything done… but that is where having a large population matters. You do not need 1 million medical researchers working non stop to prolong our lives… you just need a few clever ones that are well supported… but to get them, you first need a large and wealthy civilization.

    Google is a silly company. They sell ads. That is it, really. That is their business. But they are reinvesting their profits in countless forward thinking ventures.

    And Google is not alone, of course.

  10. Hey Daniel.

    You wrote “And, yes, maybe by tempering with stem cells, we will create a Zombie virus that will wipe out humility.”

    Did you not mean “humanity”?

    (Sincerely)

    BB the Poofreader

  11. First of all, an excellent review. I find the film is an odd bellwether of how people feel about the world and about the future. Those who subscribe to the apocalyptic vision for humanity seem to greet it with snark and outright anger. Some of us, however, greeted it with rather mad enthusiasm.

    The film is flawed, but I can’t think of a movie my wife and I discussed as much or as often afterwards. After seeing the film, I ran across some of the “Optimist” alternate reality game the Disney folks ran in California ran prior to the production of the film, and just for a tiny moment, went “OMG THIS THING HAS SOME TRUTH BEHIND IT!!!”

    No, alas, it didn’t.

    but

    There is, indeed, a NT7141903.org site (Tesla’s password in the “Optimist” ARG), which you have to ask to be let in (I did. It’s quite interesting). Seems some of us may have taken it more to heart than others. This pleases me.

    I, like you Daniel, am a techno-optimist. Elon Musk and his ilk are my heroes. After seeing “Tomorrowland” I decided not to get roped into the cataclysm factory that is modern media, to concentrate on those folks who were actually accomplishing things, not tearing them down.

    I find I’m much happier.

    French

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