Comments on Social Progress and Technological Progress

This short essay is intended to explain what is meant by the term “techno-social dilemma” as it is used in the Human Energy Project literature.

In summary, we humans are facing a looming crisis because we are unable to deal with the challenges presented by the rapidly accelerating technological development and the accumulated advanced scientific knowledge.

As you’ll see from the chart to the right, technological progress, as measured, in this case, by major inventions, started accelerating rapidly very recently (when looked at in the context of the overall history of the human race). For thousands of years, technological progress was relatively steady and slow enough such that humans were able to comfortably adjust to the changes, and manage and take advantage of them without having to deal with existential moral/ethical dilemmas such as the ones we face today: consider the existential problems posed by AI, genetic manipulation, and rapid destruction of the environment.

During that early phase, people were able to understand and predict the impact of these developments because they were slow enough when measured by the lifespans of several generations. How can humans cope today (have good understanding and predictable moral answers) in a world where emerging technologies happen at rapid rates (measured in years rather than decades or generations). In addition to the rapid rates of development, these technologies are complex to understand, their long term impacts are very difficult to evaluate, and some have innumerable potential permutations that are virtually impossible to predict and evaluate.

In addition, scientific knowledge, including evolution, cosmology (and the origin of the universe), relativity, and quantum theory has resulted in the concepts of a random universe and purposeless evolution. These concepts have caused the traditional stories of the universe which most civilizations were founded on to be seriously questioned. These traditional stories gave people certainty and stability and were the foundation for their faith and morality — the old stable society with infallible rules and clear answers is no longer credible and the new scientific-based knowledge of a random universe and purposeless evolution provides no firm foundation and no optimistic direction.