The Roots of Progress

The plight of the poor

February 19, 2020 · 2 min read

Why do we need progress?

Aren’t we comfortable enough? We have abundant food, weatherproof homes, reliable electricity, cars and jet planes, antibiotics, a global Internet, and tons of cheap consumer goods.

Some point to the world’s poor to prove the need for progress. About 10% of the world lives on less than $1.90/day; they don’t have all these things. We need progress to pull them out of extreme poverty and give them the standard of living that the rest of the world enjoys. And that’s true—but it’s not enough.

We need progress not only because of the poor. We need it for everyone. Because we are all poor—compared to where we can be and should be in the future, if we can keep progress going.

We still get cancer and heart disease. We still waste time commuting and shopping—and we still die in car crashes. We still toil on farms and in factories. We still lose our homes to forest fires. We’re still largely confined to one planet.

Even the greatest triumphs of technology and industry have created new problems to solve (as they always have, and always will). An abundance of food has led to obesity; we need to crack the code of nutrition. A firehose of information has led to distraction and anxiety; we need better tools for focus, concentration, and calm.

We need genetic engineering. We need artificial intelligence. We need supersonic passenger jets. We need abundant, cheap nuclear power. We need 3D printing. We need space travel. We need self-driving cars. We need virtual reality. We need quantum computers. We need antivirals as effective as antibiotics. We need carbon nanotubes. We need anti-aging technology. We need bigger and better telescopes, particle colliders, and gravitational wave detectors.

These things may seem like futuristic luxuries, but the first generation that grows up with them, not knowing life without them, will wonder how we ever survived—just as we wonder in amazement how our ancestors survived without running water, central heating, paved highways, supermarkets, aspirin, refrigerators, or toilets.

And everything needs to happen faster, cheaper, and more reliably. Even the things that seem like solved problems, such as agriculture and manufacturing, could always be done at twice the speed and half the cost. And every time we do that, we save a little bit of people’s lives. It is compounding gains in productivity and efficiency, added up over centuries, that have given us the 40-hour work week (down from 60+), the 2-day weekend (up from 1), 2+ weeks of paid vacation (up from zero), and retirement at age 65 (down from never).

If the robots would just please keep taking more of our jobs, life will only get better. I expect in the future that retirement will begin earlier, work life will begin later (think “gap year”), part-time work will be more common, and people will routinely take 3–6 months of “funemployment” between jobs. And the work we do will continue to improve, as the robots take the jobs no one wants, and the human jobs continue to become less physical and less routine. Eventually we will all be poets and philosophers.

So let’s not grow complacent, or rest on our laurels. It’s still day one. We’ve only taken the first tentative steps down an infinite road. Life and the world can and should get far, far better. Let’s go make it happen.

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