The reasonable man adapts himself to the world: the unreasonable one persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the unreasonable man.
― George Bernard Shaw
We appear to be living in a golden age of progress. I’ve come increasingly to the view that this is false. We are living in an age that is enjoying the fruits of a golden age and following the inertia of a scientific golden age. The forces powering the “progress” we enjoy are not being returned to our future generations. So, what are we going to do when we run out of the gains made by our fore bearers?
Progress is a tremendous bounty to all. We can all benefit from wealth, longer and healthier lives, greater knowledge and general well-being. The forces arrayed against progress are small-minded and petty. For some reason the small-minded and petty interests have swamped forces for good and beneficial efforts. Another way of saying this is the forces of the status quo are working to keep change from happening. The status quo forces are powerful and well-served by keeping things as they are. Income inequality and conservatism are closely related because progress and change favors those who benefit from change. The people at the top favor keeping things just as they are.
Those who do not move, do not notice their chains.
― Rosa Luxemburg
Most of the technology that powers today’s world was actually developed a long time ago. Today the technology is simply being brought to “market”. Technology at a commercial level has a very long lead-time. The breakthroughs in science that surrounded the effort fighting the Cold War provide the basis of most of our modern society. Cell phones, computers, cars, planes, etc. are all associated with the science done decades ago. The road to commercial success is long and today’s economic supremacy is based on yesterday’s investments.
Without deviation from the norm, progress is not possible.
― Frank Zappa
Since the amount of long-term investment today is virtually zero, we can expect virtually zero return down the road. We aren’t effectively putting resources into basic or applied research much as we aren’t keeping up with roads and bridges. Our low-risk approach to everything is sapping the vitality from research. We compound this by failing to keep our 20th Century infrastructure healthy, and completely failing to provide a 21st Century one (just look at our pathetic internet speeds). Even where we spend lots on money on things like science little investment is happening because of the dysfunctional system. One of the big things hurting any march toward progress is the inability to take risks. Because failure is so heavily penalized, people won’t take the risks necessary for success. If you can’t fail, you can’t succeed either. It is an utterly viscous cycle that highlights the nearly complete lack of leadership. The lack of action by National leadership is simply destroying the quality of our future.
Restlessness is discontent — and discontent is the first necessity of progress. Show me a thoroughly satisfied man — and I will show you a failure.
― Thomas A. Edison
Take high performance computing as an example. In many respects the breakthroughs in algorithms have been as important as the computers themselves. Lack of risk taking has highlighted the computers as the source of progress because of Moore’s law. Algorithmic work is more speculative and hence risky. Payoffs are huge, but infrequent and thus risky. Effort might be expended that yields nothing at all. There shouldn’t be anything wrong with that! Because they are risky they are not favored.
We can only see a short distance ahead, but we can seeplenty there that needs to be done.
― Alan Turing
A secondary impact of the focus on computers is that the newer computing approaches are really hard to use. It is a very hard problem to simply get the old algorithmic approaches to work at all. With so much effort going into implementation as well as being siphoned from new algorithmic research, the end product is stagnation. Numerical linear algebra is a good example of this terrible cycle in action. The last real algorithm breakthrough is multigrid about 30 years ago. Since then work has focused on making the algorithms work on massively parallel computers.
Progress always involves risk; you can’t steal second base and keep your foot on first
― F.W. Dupee
The net result is lack of progress. Our leaders are seemingly oblivious to the depth of the problem. They are too caught up in trying to justify the funding for the path they are already taking. The damage done to long-term progress is accumulating with each passing year. Our leadership will not put significant resources into things that pay off far into the future (what good will that do them?). We have missed a number of potentially massive breakthroughs chasing progress from computers alone. The lack of perspective and balance in the course for progress shows a stunning lack of knowledge for the history of computing. The entire strategy is remarkably bankrupt philosophically. It is playing to the lowest intellectual denominator. An analogy that does the strategy too much justice would compare this to rating cars solely on the basis of horsepower.
A person who makes few mistakes makes little progress.
― Bryant McGill
The end product of our current strategy will ultimately starve the World of an avenue for progress. Our children will be those most acutely impacted by our mistakes. Of course we could chart another path that balanced computing emphasis with algorithms, methods and models. Improvements in our grasp of physics and engineering should probably be in the driver’s seat. This would require a significant shift in the focus, but the benefits would be profound.
One of the most moral acts is to create a space in which life can move forward.
― Robert M. Pirsig
What we lack is the concept of stewardship to combine with leadership. Our leaders are stewards of the future, or they should be. Instead they focus almost exclusively on the present with the future left to fend for itself.
Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.
― Martin Luther King Jr.