neil_gershenfeld's picture
Physicist, Director, MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms; Co-author, Designing Reality

Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." That's what I'm worried about.

2001 has come and long since gone. Once upon a time we were going to live in a science fiction future, with visions of flying cars, wrist communicators, and quantum teleporters. Oh, wait, all of that stuff is here. You can today buy cars with wings, smartphone watches, and, for those so inclined, single-photon sources to make entangled pairs. But the future brought the past with it. We can now create life from scratch, and model the global climate, yet battles rage over the teaching of evolution or human impact on the environment that Darwin or Galileo would recognize as challenges to the validity of the scientific method.

There is a cognitive dissonance in fundamentalists using satellite phones in their quest for a medieval society, or creationists who don't believe in evolution receiving a flu shot based on genetic analysis of seasonal mutations in influenza virus. These are linked by workings that are invisible: deities behave in mysterious ways, and so do cell phones.

We're in danger of becoming a cargo cult, living with the inventions of Ancestors from a mythical time of stable long-term research funding. My word processor is good enough—I don't need radical innovation in text entry to meet my writing needs. The same may be happening to us as a society. If the technologies that are already available can provide adequate food, shelter, heat, light, and viral videos of cute kittens, invention is no longer the imperative for survival that it once was.

The risk in seeing advanced technology as magic is failing to see where it comes from. The ability to distinguish which is which matters for recognizing the difference between progress and nonsense. We do have magic spells—I'm sure that Gandalf would be impressed by our ability to teach sand to play chess (in the form of silicon transistors), or be terrified by our ability to destroy a city with a lump of (uranium) metal. But these incantations came from building predictive models based on experimental observations, not declarations of beliefs. Accepting the benefits of science without having to accept the methods of science offers the freedom to ignore inconvenient truths about the environment, or the economy, or education. Conversely, anyone who's done any kind of technical development has had to confront an external reality that doesn't conform to personal interpretation.

Rather than seeking to hide the workings of technology, we should seek every opportunity to expose it. The quest for technologies that work like magic is leading to a perverse kind of technical devolution. Mobile operating systems that forbid users from seeing their own file systems, touch interfaces that eliminate use of fine motor control, cars that prevent owners from accessing maintenance data—these all make it easier to do easy things, but harder to do hard things.

The challenges that we face as a planet require finding highest rather than lowest common denominators. Learning curves that progress from simple to difficult skills should be sought, not avoided. My understanding is that wizards must train for years to master their spells; any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology.