In Sapiens, Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari argues that it was the exploratory mindset that led to European dominance over the world. Other empires, such as the Chinese and the Ottomans, had far greater military and economic power in the 18th century. Yet, it was the Europeans quest for understanding that made the difference. To explore, you first need to come to terms with your own ignorance. We find the accomplishments of men like Columbus and Magellan so impressive precisely because they didn’t know what they were getting into. Yet they still had the the courage to sail boldly into the unknown when no one else dared to venture forth.
Today, scientific exploration is what fuels the modern world. We look at an iPhone and see the genius of Steve Jobs, but forget about the work of men like Maxwell, Faraday, Einstein and Turing that led to it. So science budgets are cut and skeptical politicians grill researchers about the value of their work. Yet without exploration, there can be no advancement.
From Moonshots to Mars Shots
Today, the direction of conquest has long shifted to outer space. The Apollo missions in the 1960’s expanded our boundaries in a number of ways. We not only made it to the moon, but also stretched our capabilities to get there. The result was a number of breakthroughs that have made their way into technology we use everyday.
The next frontier is Mars. NASA is already actively planning a mission to go there by the 2030’s and it will certainly be the greatest exploration that humans have ever embarked on. Like the Apollo missions, we can expect the journey itself to produce important innovations, but we also have much to learn from the red planet itself.
For example, we know that Mars lost its atmosphere some time ago, what does that say about dangers on our planet? We also may find some form of life there. Will it be carbon based? Have DNA? Reproduce sexually? The answers to these questions will give us new insights into life on earth.
A New Human Genome Project
The Moonshot of the last generation was the Human Genome Project. Starting in 1990 and largely funded by the US government, scientists in 20 labs across seven countries worked to decipher the secrets of the genetic code. It was a massive undertaking, but it was completed two years ahead of schedule, in 2003.
It also ushered in the exciting new field of genomics. Today, doctors aren’t classifying disease only on the basis of symptoms, but on genetic characteristics. This is especially true in cancer treatment and the US is funding the development of a Cancer Genome Atlas to track the specific mutations that lead to various cancers so that targeted therapies can be identified.
A new technique called CRISPR allows the precise editing of genes and will allow us to engineer synthetic organisms that will act as cellular factories. By inserting the right genes in microorganisms like bacteria and algae, we will be able to create a variety products, including those now made from petroleum, like plastics.
Yet here again, these advances also reveal how much we still have to discover. First, our newfound understanding of our DNA has exposed how little we know about the proteins they code for, so that’s opened up a new area of research. Scientists have also embarked on an ambitious new project that will write, not merely read a human genome.
What will we gain by these new explorations? It’s impossible to know, but if history is any guide, it will be a lot. The first Human Genome project is estimated to have generated $796 billion off of an initial investment of $3.8 billion.
Moving Beyond Lithium and the End of Moore’s Law
Over the past 40 years, we’ve gotten used to the idea that ambitious young innovators can create exciting new companies in their garage. One force driving this phenomenon has been Moore’s law, the continuous doubling of the amount of transistors that we are able to squeeze onto microchips.
Another technology that has driven the digital era has been lithium-ion batteries. Every year, we can store more energy in a smaller space for lower cost. That’s what enabled our technology to get consistently smaller and more powerful. Without the improvement in batteries alone, our devices would be roughly six times larger and much more expensive.
Because engineers have been able to depend on these improvements in basic technologies, they’ve been able to continually come up with exciting new applications. However, the party will soon be over. Within ten years, improvements in lithium ion technology will slow to a crawl and Moore’s law will end altogether.
The future of innovation is cloudy at best.
The JCESR program at Argonne National Laboratory is exploring new battery technologies and making progress. At the same time, fundamentally new computing architectures like neuromorphic chips and quantum computing are gaining ground. Still, no one really knows how to use these technologies.
Clearly, mere tinkering will no longer suffice.
A New Era of Innovation
As I explain in my upcoming book, Mapping Innovation, we are entering a new era of innovation in which we will have to rededicate ourselves to exploring fundamental technologies, rather than merely relying on new applications based on old paradigms like Moore’s Law. We need to return to tackling grand challenges, rather than merely seeking to disrupt markets.
In 1945 Vannevar Bush wrote, “There must be a stream of new scientific knowledge to turn the wheels of private and public enterprise.” He foresaw that it was only through scientific exploration that we could truly advance and the scientific architecture he created made the United States a technological superpower. It is the envy of the world.
Today, we face unprecedented challenges. The world’s population is not only growing, it is also aging, leaving a proportionally smaller productive workforce to support the global economy. The planet is also warming, which is likely to reduce its carrying capacity in the years to come. We must do more with less and that will require technology far more advanced than we have today.
It has become fashionable to blame the private sector for our shortsightedness. “Quarterly capitalism” and stock buybacks are pilloried for favoring today’s short-term profits over long-term prosperity. However, as I explained in an article in Harvard Business Review, that is largely an urban myth. The private sector is investing at or above historical levels.
The real problem is the rest of us. Scientists make easy fodder for politicians because it plays with the general public. Today’s explorers are exposed to ridicule precisely because so few people today are willing to accept their own ignorance. We can only go boldly into the unknown only if we admit it is there and that it has something valuable to offer us.
We desperately need to regain our spirit of exploration.
image credit: nasa.gov