Rediscovering progress

Why it’s time to revive the Y2K spirit

We’re entering an exhilarating period of technological development, but most of us haven’t noticed. Grim expectations for the future pervade despite our progress towards solving many of our most worrying problems and overwhelming improvements to quality of life. Recently, we’ve seen tremendous progress in biotech, green technology, and artificial intelligence. We need to update our worldview to match today’s reality because returning to Y2K-era optimism is crucial for us to continue building technological momentum.

Supply may no longer be a problem for organ transplants and blood transfusions. Doctors have recently successfully transplanted genetically modified porcine hearts into humans1, conducted blood transfusions with lab-grown blood2, and engineered and implanted artificial bioreactor kidneys3.

A cure for cancer is finally within reach. New treatments have dramatically reduced the risk of death for various types of cancer45, supply chain innovations are making treatments more accessible6, and mRNA technology used for SARS-COV-2 vaccines applies to vaccines for multiple types of cancer7.

Speaking of vaccines, mRNA vaccine technology has empowered us to develop vaccines against holy-grail viruses like Malaria and HIV, as well as left-field conditions like fentanyl8 and meth9 addiction.

Thanks to AI and synthetic antibiotics101112, we may be on the cusp of solving antibiotic resistance, frequently touted as one of the most significant risks to humanity, with multiple solutions currently in testing.

Wearables and artificial intelligence enable new types of diagnosis and treatment. Smartwatches can diagnose Parkinson’s disease up to seven years before traditional diagnosis13, warn wearers of cardiac emergencies, and monitor your sleep to treat PTSD-triggered nightmares14. With AI, we can predict viruses’ infectivity and variant evolution15, empowering us to better respond to future pandemics.

There’s a lot more on the health and biology front. Semaglutide seems to be a silver bullet in the obesity epidemic (and may be an effective treatment for other types of addiction16); electronic bandages can quickly heal grievous wounds17; with new developments in Yamanaka factors18, we may even be on the cusp of reversing ageing in humans.

We’ve also made massive progress in the development of green technology. The price of solar modules has declined by 99.6% since 197619, dramatically changing the economics of solar as a power source. New battery technology promises to deliver batteries, a crucial commodity for a carbon-neutral grid, without rare-earth minerals20.

Desalination is now as cheap as US tap water21, a significant step towards solving our fresh water supply constraints. Continued progress here will enable incredibly ambitious desert greening projects. The Kubuqi Desert is already one-third re-greened22.

We have technology to manufacture emission-free steel23, manufacture cement with 90% reduced emissions24, and reduce air conditioning emissions by 60%25. Companies are using the technology behind fracking for oil and gas to generate geothermal energy virtually anywhere — not just in places with natural reserves26.

We finally have commercially viable carbon capture projects27, and gene-edited trees promise to capture more carbon than their organic ancestors28.

With modern semiconductor technology, we finally have nanotechnology and manufacturing29. Transistors on Apple’s new iPhone are twelve atoms wide. Continued progress in semiconductor technology has enabled our recent AI revolution, dramatically making knowledge work, like programming, more effective. Soon, everyone with a smartphone will have access to a world-class doctor3031, lawyer, therapist, and a previously unfathomable wealth of general knowledge.

Supersonic jets are coming back32. Truly wireless power transfer is a reality33. We’re starting to understand the languages of whales, bats, and birds34. We’re preparing to mine asteroids3536. We’re returning to the moon, and then we’ll be on Mars. There are ambitious plans to tap Yellowstone to harvest energy and stop a future volcanic eruption37.

If you pay attention to the research, it’s undeniable that, despite our political problems, we’re in an era of technological acceleration. After years of stagnation, where information technology monopolised technological progress, we’re finally seeing progress in the physical world. And AI promises sustained digital progress. In the meantime, global poverty has continued to plummet. This improvement is primarily due to deploying and optimising existing technology, not new technology. The fact that, in an era of relative stagnation, we’ve managed to improve the well-being of vast swathes of humanity dramatically means we should be incredibly excited about what this new era of progress will bring.

But we are not excited. Most people seem to believe that the world is in decline. Surveys show that people generally think that global poverty and child mortality are worsening when both are improving. Americans are generally pessimistic about the future. Majorities believe living standards will decline over the following decades38, the environment will deteriorate dramatically39, and automation and AI will be a harmful force39. Only three percent of Australians believe the world is getting better38. Fifteen percent of non-parent Americans cite the state of the world and climate as reasons for not having children40.

We weren’t always so pessimistic about progress, the future, and technology. But it has been a long time. Two decades ago, at the turn of the millennium, people were overwhelmingly optimistic about the future. Surveys show that despite a clear-eyed perspective on risks like epidemics, terrorism, natural disasters, and climate change, over 80% of Americans were optimistic about the future and attributed their optimism to technology41. In the Y2K era, virtually everyone valued technological innovation42 and economic development and anticipated a high-tech protopian future.

Attitudes changed after the tragedy of 9/11. By 2002, majorities in most nations felt the world was becoming a worse place and were unhappy with national conditions43. By 2006, seventy percent of people expected quality of life to worsen or stagnate for the next generation of Americans44. Global pessimism surged after 9/1145, and the global financial crisis and climate change panic exacerbated the negativity. In the US, trust in government has plummeted since the new millennium46, achieving new lows after COVID-19.

There is a cost to pessimism. Appreciation for our progress directly correlates with optimism for the future. People who obsess over the challenges of the last two decades tend to have negative outlooks for the future38. For some, this can be motivating. For most, it’s incredibly demotivating. This motion is a vicious cycle: motivation is perhaps the most crucial resource in the face of legitimate challenges like climate change or the return of imperial conquest. So pessimism demotivates us, breeds inaction, and worsens the problems causing our pessimism. Add this to the fact that we’re unaware of the many areas where our pessimism is entirely misguided and that online and social media tend to trend towards the negative. You’ve got a global psychological funk that is tough to escape.

Anyone who has faced a seemingly insurmountable challenge in their personal life or career knows how difficult it can be to overcome a spiral of demotivation. It’s especially hard when much of what you hear from those around you, from friends to trusted institutions, is overwhelmingly negative. Much of the world is collectively going through this right now.

The new millennium promised us technological solutions to all of our problems. Instead, it gave us terrorism, war, a climate crisis, the worst recession since the Great Depression, and very little progress beyond the IT industry. Given the circumstances, it’s not surprising that our Y2K exuberance quickly fizzled. But it’s not 2008 anymore. We made it through those challenges, and most of the technologies we expected are now arriving. We even reduced global poverty and child mortality along the way. Undoubtedly, the 2020s and beyond will come with new challenges. But we need innovation, diplomacy, and strength to solve these problems. And innovation, diplomacy, and strength are all downstream from motivation and optimism.

Maybe our excitement at the start of this millennium was not unfounded but simply premature. The evidence shows that we’re finally starting to see the promises of the Y2K era. So, perhaps it’s time to return to Y2K-style optimism, too, lest we blow this opportunity for advancement.

Footnotes

  1. Nader Moazami (2023): “Pig-to-human heart xenotransplantation in two recently deceased human recipients.” Published online by Nature Medicine. ↩︎

  2. James Gallagher (2023): “Lab-grown blood given to people in world-first clinical trial.” Published online by BBC. ↩︎

  3. Levi Gadye (2023): “Can an Artificial Kidney Finally Free Patients from Dialysis?” Published online by University of California San Francisco. ↩︎

  4. Andrew Gregory (2023): “Lung cancer pill cuts risk of death by half, says ‘thrilling’ study.” Published online by The Guardian. ↩︎

  5. Jim Lynch (2023): “Tumor-destroying sound waves receive FDA approval for liver treatment in humans.” Published online by University of Michigan. ↩︎

  6. Jie Zhang (2022): “A microbial supply chain for production of the anti-cancer drug vinblastine.” Published online by Nature. ↩︎

  7. Matthew J Lin (2022): “Cancer vaccines: the next immunotherapy frontier.” Published online by Nature Cancer. ↩︎

  8. Laurie Fickman (2022): “Fentanyl Vaccine Potential ‘Game Changer’ for Opioid Epidemic.” Published online by University of Houston. ↩︎

  9. Kamal Hossain (2020): “Vaccine development against methamphetamine drug addiction.” Published online by Taylor & Francis. ↩︎

  10. Jaimie Seaton (2023): “AI Could Quickly Screen Thousands of Antibiotics to Tackle Superbugs.” Published online by Scientific American. ↩︎

  11. James Gallagher (2023): “New superbug-killing antibiotic discovered using AI.” Published online by BBC. ↩︎

  12. Douglas M. Heithoff (2023): “A broad-spectrum synthetic antibiotic that does not evoke bacterial resistance.” Published online by The Lancet. ↩︎

  13. Michael Nolan (2023): “Parkinson’s Predicted From Smartwatch Data (seven years before clinical diagnosis).” Published online by IEEE Spectrum. ↩︎

  14. Nicholas D Davenport (2023): “A randomized sham-controlled clinical trial of a novel wearable intervention for trauma-related nightmares in military veterans.” Published online by PubMed. ↩︎

  15. G. Wang (2023): “Deep-learning-enabled protein–protein interaction analysis for prediction of SARS-CoV-2 infectivity and variant evolution.” Published online by Nature Medicine. ↩︎

  16. Sarah Zhang (2023): “Did Scientists Accidentally Invent an Anti-addiction Drug?” Published online by The Atlantic. ↩︎

  17. Charles Q Choi (2023): “E-Bandages Lightly Zap—and Heal—Wounds.” Published online by IEEE Spectrum. ↩︎

  18. Jae-Hyun Yang (2023): “Chemically induced reprogramming to reverse cellular aging.” Published online by Aging. ↩︎

  19. Max Roser (2020): “Why did renewables become so cheap so fast?” Published online by Our World in Data. ↩︎

  20. Casey Crownhart (2023): “Form Energy and its iron batteries.” Published online by MIT Technology Review. ↩︎

  21. Steven Novella (2023): “Passive Solar Water Desalination.” Published online by Neurologicablog. ↩︎

  22. Charlie Campbell (2017): “China’s Greening of the Vast Kubuqi Desert is a Model for Land Restoration Projects Everywhere.” Published online by Time. ↩︎

  23. Akshat Rathi (2022): “Inside the startup cleaning up the steel industry.” Published online by Bloomberg. ↩︎

  24. Casey Crownhart (2023): “Sublime Systems and its clean cement.” Published online by MIT Technology Review. ↩︎

  25. Amy Nordrum (2023): “Blue Frontier and its energy-efficient AC.” Published online by MIT Technology Review. ↩︎

  26. James Temple (2023): “Fervo Energy and its geothermal power plants.” Published online by MIT Technology Review. ↩︎

  27. Peter Wilson (2021): “Is Carbon Capture Here?” Published online by The New York Times. ↩︎

  28. Cleo Abram (2023): “These Gene-Edited Trees Suck In More CO2.” Published online by Huge If True. ↩︎

  29. Carrick Flynn (2020): “The chip-making machine at the center of Chinese dual-use concerns.” Published online by The Brookings Institution. ↩︎

  30. Harsha Nori (2023): “Capabilities of GPT-4 on Medical Challenge Problems.” Published online by arXiv. ↩︎

  31. Eric Topol (2023): “The GPT-x Revolution in Medicine.” Published online by Ground Truths. ↩︎

  32. Guy Norris (2023): “Boom Supersonic Begins Overture FAA Certification Process.” Published online by Aviation Week. ↩︎

  33. Simon Hill (2023): “I’m Charging My Toothbrush With Wireless Power Over Distance—and It’s a Trip.” Published online by Wired. ↩︎

  34. Emily Anthes (2022): “The Animal Translators.” Published online by The New York Times. ↩︎

  35. Matt Gialich (2023): “Two steps closer to mining in deep space: Announcing two AstroForge missions for 2023.” Published online by AstroForge. ↩︎

  36. Abbey A. Donaldson (2023): “NASA’s Psyche Spacecraft, Optical Comms Demo En Route to Asteroid.” Published online by NASA. ↩︎

  37. Thomas F. Arciuolo (2022): “Yellowstone Caldera Volcanic Power Generation Facility: A new engineering approach for harvesting emission-free green volcanic energy on a national scale.” Published online by Science Direct. ↩︎

  38. Max Roser and Hannah Ritchie (2018): “Optimism and Pessimism.” Published online by Our World in Data. ↩︎ ↩︎ ↩︎

  39. John Gramlich (2019): “Looking ahead to 2050, Americans are pessimistic about many aspects of life in US.” Published online by Pew Research Center. ↩︎ ↩︎

  40. Anna Brown (2021): “Growing share of childless adults in US don’t expect to ever have children.” Published online by Pew Research Center. ↩︎

  41. Pew Research Center (1999): “Optimism Reigns, Technology Plays Key Role.” Published online by Pew Research Center. ↩︎

  42. Pew Research Center (1999): “Technology Triumphs, Morality Falters.” Published online by Pew Research Center. ↩︎

  43. Andrew Kohut & team (2002): “What the World Thinks in 2002.” Published online by Pew Research Center. ↩︎

  44. Tom Rosentiel and Paul Taylor (2006): “America’s Optimists: More Republican, But Fewer of Them.” Published online by Pew Research Center. ↩︎

  45. RJ Reinhart (2020): “Record-High Optimism on Personal Finances in U.S.” Published online by Gallup. ↩︎

  46. Pew Research Center (2023): “Public Trust in Government: 1958-2023.” Published online by Pew Research Center. ↩︎

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