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Is science slowing to a standstill ?

  1. Apr 12, 2005 #1
    After decades of hype regarding how fast and how revolutionary scientific research was supposed to be, here we are in a world that is indeed almost identical to the one of 30 or 40 years ago. Yes we may have more "gadgets" but aside from the internet and only a few really new technologies or discoveries, all the hype surrounding science is revealing that it was only hype. Companies and governments spend less and less on basic scientific research, they prefer to create combination products ony to sell more like cell phones with cameras etc.
    All the revolutionary applications of computers haven't changed none of the fundamentals of the world, we still need gas to go around etc.

    It may be in general that the human mind is actually very limited in how much it can really manipulate matter. Maybe the mind sees reality through a false grid that can rarely let it really manipulate past a certain complexity or set of interactions matter in general. We still cannot even create a simple protein from scratch even though the first experiments were started in the early 50s,
    We have no idea how even 2 or 3 chemical reactions in the cells interact etc

    Progress is getting slower and slower. Artificial intelligence is just about where it was 30 years ago, and the chemical reactions circuits even in the simplest cells are barely understood.

    It may be that this is the most we will ever get; passenger jet planes at 800km/h, (concorde failed economically). Windows PCs with lots of pretty pictures and mpeg films, cars that will never fly etc. Maybe in the year 5,000,000 the world will look just like it is now without ever having progressed much more.

    It could very well be that our mind doesn't have the instruments to go any further, that maybe our use of logic and/or mathematics is flawed past a certain point. Who knows... maybe there are other instruments and science shouldn't use math....

    Bottom line: science can invent the theory of everything with all the formulas, particles, experiments and know everything, but the possibility to "manipulate" matter (applied science ) may just remain limited even though we may end up knowing everything. Knowledge without the possibility of manipulation may just end up being an elegant philosophy.

    I also think there are very strong ECONOMICAL - SOCIAL - CULTURAL - POLITICAL forces that greatly limit how and what we manipulate, alongside with the fact that we may never be able to reach any greater degree of manipulation. We went to the moon in 1969 and are still having a hard time getting back for example. In the same time spand it is hyped that our computers are a million times better.

    The question is very simple. I have a feeling that science is slowing down and can eventually just stop. Here I mean especially applied science / technology since as I said science as knowledge can expand forever but its practical applications may not. Knowledge is not the question, it is how much we can manipulate matter to our desires. There are 2 cases:

    1) we can't manipulate past a certain point: time travel is not possible, eternal life is not possible, visiting other stars is not possible, infinite pleasure is not possible etc.

    2) we can manipulate matter to any extent. All the above and more is possible.

    If the case is 1 then this means there are some fundamental limits in our mind as to how we understand and manipulate matter, if the case is 2 the sky is the limit.

    From the past decades everything is pointing to the case 1: we can't manipulate past a certain point.

    I would say that the fundamental physical limits are probably not important because before reaching those limits we could create perfect simulated and virtual realities hooked up to our brains capable of simulating everything conceivable, robots that are capable of carrying out all the work there is to do, 100 % control over all our biology, cell chemistry, mind circuits, and hundreds of other extremely perfected technologies to achieve anything etc. I don't think we will run into "physical" limits but into conceptual-logic-scientific limits in our understanding and capability to manipulate matter.
  2. jcsd
  3. Apr 12, 2005 #2


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    It's interesting to me that you dismiss the internet as being so trivial. I honestly can't imagine a world without it and it's fair to say that it plays a role in the majority of my life in one way or another. The same is true for most of the people I know. There are certainly walks of life in which its influence is less, but that's true of any technology.

    The same is true of computers in general. Even without the internet, they've played a huge role in my life, including both work and entertainment.

    I'm curious what you view as "fundamental" and why you think it should be changed by science.

    There may be some truth to this and I suspect that Physics is getting more difficult as it gets more abstract and distant from everyday experience. There are factors working in the other direction, however, including technology and the increase in the raw number of scientists. I think logic can take us a lot further yet, but the road is going to keep getting rougher.

    You're very selective in the things you talk about and I would really like to see some more sweeping proof of your claims of the slowing of scientific advancement. The advent of computers has been of little help in artificial intelligence because the standard design for a computer is not meant for that sort of thing. Rather, computers are meant to be fancy calculators that produce predictable results. Artificial intelligence has been slow developing, but what about cryptography, genetic mapping, and data handling? Do you think the Sloan Digital Sky Survey would have been possible without computers?

    Planes and cars haven't developed mainly because there are physical limitations, not because we don't understand them. I wouldn't expect a boom in these areas until we can cheaply launch people into orbit and/or we can get fusion to work. Both of these things will happen eventually. You have to understand that science isn't on call; that is, we can only do those things that are reasonable within nature's bounds.

    That's true, of course. It always has been, but increased understanding does open up new possibilities, even if it's not always what you were expecting.

    Computers are not the primary issue in going to the moon, so advancement in that area doesn't help much. You're right, though, that those things do impact our development. Again, this has always been true.

    There will certainly be limitations, but we're not yet in a position to be sure if the ones you mentioned are examples of such limitations. I think infinite pleasure is out of the question, but I'm not even really sure what that means.
  4. Apr 12, 2005 #3


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    But, nameta9, increasing knowledge of how the world works allows us to manipulate matter more cheaply and effectively at all scales of nature, does it not? So if you agree that our knowledge of nature can grow arbitrarily large, what is to stop us from building better machines, cheaper machines, more delicate and refined machines, more massive and powerful machines, etc., to manipulate matter in ways that are currently impossible (or merely impractical)? In particular, if you want to just talk about our ability to manipulate matter, it seems you're gravely underestimating the huge impact nanotechnology will have, likely not too long from now.

    For an extended argument diametrically opposed to that of the original poster, see The Law of Accelerating Returns by Ray Kurzweil.

  5. Apr 12, 2005 #4
    You misunderstood what I wrote: the internet IS an example of a big discovery/application along with only a few others. Companies and governments worldwide all and all have a few trillion dollars at hand (and they could just create more debt if it was worthwhile) and yet very little of that money is really used for technology and research at all let alone basic research. Basic research would mean trying to understand all the chemical circuits in cells, AI research, truly automatic factory implementations, etc. That money just kind of sits around in banks waiting for some kind of great "return on investment" that is harder and harder to identify (aside from lending some to the poorer and asking large interests).

    Fusion energy seems to be out of reach and yet it has been studied for years for example. How do you envision the world in the year 5,000,000 ?
  6. Apr 12, 2005 #5
    reasonable within a society's ECONOMICAL-POLITICAL-CULTURAL bounds.
    Last edited: Apr 12, 2005
  7. Apr 12, 2005 #6


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    Most academic research is done through the universities and universities are as active as ever (probably more so). Why would you expect companies to be the ones breaking new ground in this area?

    Not to be overly pessimistic, but I think humans will be long gone by then. However, if they're not, fusion will likely be an ancient historical note. Even with modern physics, we can envision more efficient means of energy generation (including matter-antimatter collisions and black holes).
  8. Apr 12, 2005 #7
    I would expect companies and governments to invest heavily into applied science if they believed it would have any fundamental effect. They have cash and don't know what to do with it except buy and sell companies between each other and try to skim off some profit from the various monkey transactions (just look at the crappy hp mergers etc.).
    If they, with their army of technician and scientists knew that applied science could be used to create new results, they would definitely invest in it. They don't so that means they don't expect miracles of science anymore.

    I think what is also happening is an increase of the complexity of combinations in technology that slow everything down. Too much "new" information, new software, tools etc. too many combinations that in the end don't really add up to much.
  9. Apr 12, 2005 #8


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    The problem with doing new science through business is that it's an extremely inefficient use of money. Most scientific research that's done does not return anything profitable, so I'm guessing that they would prefer to let the academics worry about it and then jump on advances that appear to be useful. A good example of this is Silicon Valley. It would have been inefficient for a company to spend a lot of money researching the original invention and development of computers, but once the basic technology is in place, it becomes very profitable to run with it, developing smaller and faster versions of the same thing.

    The same thing will likely happen with other "booms" in the future. If fusion is ever worked out by the academics, I suspect the business world will jump on it and start making it cheaper and more efficient. It all depends on what you're trying to sell. I'd be curious to see a reference for the figures you're citing, as well as a graph of its dependence on time.
  10. Apr 12, 2005 #9
    Mine is just an impression. One good test though is this:

    Why hasn't the completely automatic factory come to age ?

    That depends mostly on computers (not like the moon) but we still have factories all over the world run by low paid workers. After many decades of hype about automatic factories, it seems that some are even moving out the robots and hiring cheaper workers.
  11. Apr 12, 2005 #10


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    Lack of AI and the fact that it's cheaper to pay third-world workers than it is to buy and maintain fancy machines.
  12. Apr 12, 2005 #11
    So there you go! All the talk of computers being a "million" times faster and cheaper ends up being HYPE on a practical level. And by the way, you don't need artificial intelligence to run a factory, just well tuned robots for very well tuned tasks. I think the japanese (and GM) studied this alot, but it seems that you can't really do it. HYPE demonstrated!
  13. Apr 12, 2005 #12


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    And Deep Blue beating Karpov? That was just hype too?

    As for your idea on factory automation, it's just uninformed. I've been there, and the reason we don't have 24-7 systems today is that they don't know how to make the programs respond creatively to the unexpected. I have the greatest respect for the people that have developed systems that can run unattended for even a little while.
  14. Apr 12, 2005 #13


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    I suggest you study up on the topic of artificial intelligence, as you don't seem to understand why conventional computers perform poorly in that arena, nor do you seem to understand their benefits in other arenas.
  15. Apr 12, 2005 #14
    I think the viewpoint of nameta9 is very refreshing and is a good antidote to the fantasies of star trek nerds who envision that almost anything is possible as long as you give it a fancy name. The fact is that a lot of the hopes we had of technology and science in 1950's and 1960's have not come to fruition. Robots in every house that do all the household chores for you? No. Fusion reactors? No. Settlements on the moon or other planets? No. Controlling and predicting the weather? No. Artificial intelligence near, at or beyond the level of human intelligence? No. Synthesising life from non-life? No. A quantum theory of gravity? No. On the other hand, there has been a lot of development in some fields like biotechnology, computer technology and materials science. But overall, nothing like the technological explosion that occurred in the first half or two-thirds of the 20th century.

    The only lesson that the past can teach you about the future is that the future is unpredictable, not that technology and science will continue to advance at an ever-increasing or exponential pace. So when thinking about the future we need to think about all the scenarios, including regression. We need to consider the following possibilities:

    1) Physics may not progress much beyond what we have now. For example, the problem of creating a quantum theory of gravity may lie unresolved forever because it might be impossible to test it in the vigorous way we tested quantum mechanics and relativity, and physics simply does not progress without the firm and guiding hand of experiment.

    2) Even if we do create a successful "theory of everything", that does not immediately translate to being able to create any technology we like or have unlimited control over nature. There will, for instance, remain the problem of explaining, predicting and controlling emergent phenomena. For example, we know the fundamental physics behind weather and climate, but we are barely any closer to predicting and controlling them then we were 50 years ago.

    3) There are length scales, energy scales and other technology limits that will always be beyond the reach of humans. For example, particle accelerators can only be so big; energy generators can only be so large; rockets can travel only so fast; materials can handle only so much pressure and stress. And so on. A point I wish to make in passing is that the fundamental limits of technology can be understood better by taking the underlying science more seriously (e.g. you can't have a serious opinion about the practicalities of interstellar rocket travel without first sitting down and deriving the equations of relativistic dynamics for yourself).

    If nothing else, considering the full range of possibilities will relegate the high-tech ultra-boosterism of Ray Kurzweil, Vernor Vinge, Frank Tipler and too many others to background noise or the junkyard of science fiction ... where it belongs.
  16. Apr 12, 2005 #15


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    perhaps science is progressing however it is not publicized like we expect it to be. perhaps there is technology that has been discovered but is "top secret". i think the discovery of electricity opened many doors for humanity to expand the scientific realm, had it not been for that at the particular time, we might be "set back" quite a ways still.
  17. Apr 13, 2005 #16
    Well then maybe the real limits, at least in not extreme technologies like "interstellar space travel" or "eternal life", are "mostly" politics and cultural choices and economical choices. It is often said an average worker now makes less money than in 1970 (example of going backwards) and it seems the working hours are longer (example of going backwards). There were alot more choices for car interiors and they were even nicer (just compare an oldsmobile 98 of 1970 with any luxury car today) (another example of going backwards). People are more into fundamentalist religion than science (an example of going backwards) and this list can go on and on. Why can't we have cars that drive themselves ? There are no complicated technologies involved just sensors on roads and wireless communications and computers, all things we have "advanced" in. Because we are not able to do it. If there are economic-political reasons than science will eventually just end and mostly be "fake". We will have loads of video games maybe......
  18. Apr 13, 2005 #17
    How can someone even think that science is slowing down, and that it will end stopping!!!!!!

    My thought:

    Science is like the universe.

    Growing, and accelerating!
    Last edited: Apr 13, 2005
  19. Apr 13, 2005 #18
    I would say the same about telecommunications generally. Twenty years ago mobile phones were only just being introduced in some countries, now most of the western world is heading towards >100% penetration.

    I think it is all too easy to underestimate the changes we have seen in our lifetimes.

  20. Apr 13, 2005 #19
    Yeah. We can't forget the impact that fibre optics had on the telecommunications industry. That is definitely one area where a scientific progression spurred growth on many fronts.

    At any rate, it can be difficult to see where scientific advancement can lead, even with the best predictions.
  21. Apr 13, 2005 #20
    The whole "failure" of cars to fly has always confused me. What do you think a helicopter is?

    Granted, not everybody can afford a helicopter, and it seems that's the way things shall remain for some time. But the insistance that a "flying car" must be a rectangle boggles my mind.
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