Why we aren’t wrong to be optimistic about technology | Mint – Mint

September 11, 2022

The covid vaccine, James Webb telescope and AlphaFold protein predictor make a case for optimism
The Thunderbolt Kid is one of the best books by Bill Bryson. It describes his life growing up in Des Moines, Iowa, and has this unforgettable opening line: “I come from Des Moines. Somebody had to.” As I reread it, what shone out was the sheer optimism of small-town America and the world in those years. Science and technology had seen the West triumph and there was unalloyed enthusiasm for technology as the means to make humanity happy and prosperous. The atom had been tamed, automobiles rolled down highways, humans were eyeing the Moon, vaccines had fought deadly diseases, and supply chains and industries had brought the world’s bounty to our doorsteps. Science and technology would make us conquer the world, space and even death itself.
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Cut to today’s dominant narrative, which seems to be about how stultifying technology has become. Atomic weapons are rearing their heads again, social networks seem to be hollowing out an entire generation and artificial intelligence (AI) threatens to unleash killer robots and autonomous weapons on cowering humans, or at least take away our jobs. While AI advances and autonomous vehicles fascinate us, they also fill us with dread. Will they replace human creative faculties? Destroy the last vestiges of our privacy and security? Ruin humanity itself? Big Tech appears to be taking over the role of governments as we increasingly become tax-paying subjects of their platforms, enslaved by network effects and recommendation algorithms. Recent tech advances seem disappointing. As investor Peter Thiel laments: “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters.” Amid such dispiriting talk, as I plough a lonely furrow as a tech optimist, I get asked what makes me an optimist, albeit a cautious one. In reply, I turn to three momentous advances, one of which saved humanity and another that could yet do it again.
The first such breathtaking discovery is the covid vaccine. Pandemics are our worst killers, rivalled only by an asteroid impact. The Plague of Justanian in the 6th century CE killed up to half the human population and the 1918 Spanish Flu killed 40-100 million people. The covid outbreak was equally virulent and could have led to hundreds of million deaths, but for heroes like Katalin Kariko, Ozlem Tureci and Ugur Sahin, who used human cells’ own mRNA protein to thwart the virus. These and other vaccines were created and scaled at blinding speeds through other amazing developments like DNA sequencing and custom AI to quickly identify spike proteins. However disruptive and disturbing the disease was, we are incredibly fortunate that these marvels have brought the planet back on its feet in a mere two odd years. Talking of marvels, my second cause of optimism is the incredible story of the universe being told through astonishing pictures taken by another great piece technology, the $10 billion James Webb Telescope. Launched into orbit by a giant Ariane rocket, it has allowed us to peer into the universe almost at its origin. We have seen Glass-z13, born just 300 million years after the Big Bang. It has revealed ‘nurseries’ where stars are born, shown us another star in its death spasms, shown the Stephen’s Quintet of galaxy clusters pirouetting together, and might one day uncover a planet with life forms as curious as us. Consider the complexity: the telescope has a mirror made of 18 separate segments that unfolded with clockwork precision after reaching orbit, along with a five-layered sun-shield the size of a tennis court to diminish heat from the Sun more than a million times.
Finally, there is this other staggering gift of science, which brought back my sense of wonder in technology in general and AI in particular. The deep learning AI company DeepMind announced that its AI engine AlphaFold 2 will predict the shapes of almost every protein in the human body. More than 100 million structures will be revealed in the next few months. This has the potential to alter medical science the same way that antibiotics or vaccines did. Proteins are our building blocks, and the way they fold determine what they do; if they fold wrong, they can cause life-threatening diseases. AlphaFold has so far predicted 36% of shapes with an accuracy correct down to the level of individual atoms, enough for new drug development.
With covid, war, global warming and recession currently casting the world in melancholy, it is unsurprising that many people don’t get positive vibes from technology the way Bryson’s generation did. But astounding stories like the three mentioned above again make me want to believe how technology can transform our world. I believe that technology is a force for good. Somebody has to.
Jaspreet Bindra is the founder of Tech Whisperer Ltd, a digital transformation and technology advisory practice
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