I don’t believe, as some people fear, that economic growth has come to an end.
This is equivalent to saying that we’ll never be any richer, more prosperous or more technologically advanced than we are right now; that you and me, the people alive today, are living through the zenith of human civilization. I find this implausible. Innovation and change have been churning away for thousands of years, and it’s unlikely that we just happen to be living in the one era when it’s all about to come to a screeching halt. This sounds suspiciously like a violation of the Copernican principle.
Even if we don’t end up in a post-scarcity utopia like the Culture, the well of human ingenuity is far from tapped out. But what I do find plausible is that we’ve already solved all the easy problems.
Any problem that has a simple, single cause, we’ve most likely solved already. The scientific and technological challenges of the future will be chaotic, interdependent, nonlinear: things like the climate, or cognition and the brain, or the human microbiome. These are all natural phenomena that have not just one cause, or several causes that can be teased apart and studied in isolation, but a network of overlapping causes and feedback loops where we have to understand the totality of the system to understand any part of it.
To solve hard problems like these, we’re going to need all the brainpower we can get. Fortunately, we have that in abundance: 7.4 billion humans and counting, all of whom have brains that are just as good as ours. Unfortunately, many of those people aren’t able to help, because they’re preoccupied with other tasks.
It’s such a waste to have millions of people grubbing in the dirt, forced to expend most of their energy on brute survival. Or worse, to have millions of people engaged in pointless political intrigues and stupid, wasteful wars, as well as other zero-sum conflicts where people devote their intelligence to the sole purpose of canceling out others who are doing the same.
Take the case of Évariste Galois, a brilliant Revolution-era French mathematician. In his teens, he solved a mathematical problem that had been outstanding for 350 years. His work laid the foundations for two entire branches of mathematics, group theory and the fittingly named Galois theory. But that’s all he did, because at the age of 20, he died in a duel – a duel! Of all the absurd and wasteful tragedies. Who knows what else he would have come up with if he’d lived another sixty years?
Or take Lise Meitner. She was born in Vienna in the 19th century, when women were forbidden to attend public universities. But she studied privately and persevered, earning her doctorate in physics. When she tried to become a professional scientist, she faced exclusion and bigotry at every turn. The famous physicist Max Planck, whose lectures she attended, initially refused to teach a woman. When she collaborated with the chemist Otto Hahn, she initially had to work unpaid. When she emigrated to Stockholm after the Nazis annexed Austria, she was given laboratory space but no collaborators or equipment. But Meitner pressed on, and made major strides in physics – in particular, she was the first to discover nuclear fission in uranium and give a theoretical description of the process, while her more-esteemed colleagues were scratching their heads. (Predictably, she was snubbed when the Nobel Prize was awarded.)
Even today, when we like to think these stories are a relic of the past, there are new examples all the time: like Yu Jianchun, a Chinese migrant worker who apparently solved a computer-science problem that had long stumped experts.
How many more unsuspected geniuses are out there, toiling away in obscurity? How many people have world-changing ideas locked up in their heads that they’ll never get the chance to bring to fruition because they spend their days in drudge work?
This is why it’s so self-defeating to leave millions to struggle in poverty, to lecture them about how they need to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. We, the citizens of the rich nations, don’t just have a moral obligation, we have a straightforwardly self-interested case for helping them. We should urge more STEM education in the developing world. We should welcome artificial intelligence and mechanization. We should call for more public investment in infrastructure and job training. Any innovation that brings more brains “online” – that makes it possible for more people to devote their minds to biomedical research or robotics, rather than subsistence farming or manual labor – will benefit all of us, in ways we can’t yet even begin to imagine.