Can technology solve our problems?

Can technology solve our problems?

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The world is facing serious, seemingly intractable challenges: energy scarcity, incurable diseases, wars, poverty, shortages of clean water and food, management of climate impacts. These, and other problems, are a cause of anxiety or despair to many, exacerbated by disagreements among experts as to how to prioritize the problems and by the elusiveness of solutions.

Yet, some don’t see our trajectory as dire. They claim – like Marc Andreessen in his recent Techno-optimist Manifesto – that we have reasons for optimism because human ingenuity and ambition will bring technological solutions to our ills. Watching innovators and creators such as Elon Musk who is busy sending more rockets to space than NASA, planning the colonization of Mars, manufacturing more EVs than any other car company, and developing the Optimus humanoid robot assistant, it is easy to be persuaded by techno-optimism.

I do share Andreessen’s techno-optimism about the human capacity for ingenuity and for ambition. At the same time, I am concerned that we lack the right social condition for technological innovations to fully flourish: freedom.

As Matt Ridley observes in his book about the history of innovation, How Innovation Works: And Why It Flourishes in Freedom, innovations of all kinds don’t do well in controlled economies coordinated by bureaucrats. Instead, they are abundant when people are free to think, find solutions to problems, and to trade, such as during the Enlightenment period and the Industrial Revolution and in the mostly free countries today. Steam engines, antibiotics, computers, mobile phones, artificial intelligence, and blockchain were not developed in authoritarian North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Iran, China, or Russia but in England, America, and other mostly free countries (from which the totalitarian and authoritarian regimes stole and copied the new technologies).

Developing technological or other solutions to problems requires thinking: adhering to reality by the means of observation and logic. This is possible only when we are free. We cannot solve a math equation at the point of a gun, nor design a prosperous socialist economy. The mind cannot be forced to produce correct answers or to contradict reality when trying to solve problems.

The Techno-optimist Manifesto does not fully recognize the necessity of freedom. It lauds the free market and individual agency yet takes the prevailing mixed economy for granted as the ideal context for technological innovation. In a mixed economy, of freedom and government controls, the technological innovators and producers create wealth that the government taxes to pay for social welfare.

The view of the mixed economy as the ideal system is shared by techno-skeptics who want the government to regulate innovators and producers to protect us against any harmful use of technology and to “redistribute” these creators’ wealth to those who don’t produce, or produce less, for the sake of equity. In a mixed economy, the government regulators decide which technologies can be developed and which ones not. So far, the regulators have said ‘no’ to nuclear power and yes to solar panels and wind turbines. They have said ‘yes’ to electric vehicles and ‘no’ to gas-powered cars. They have said ‘yes’ to paper straws and ‘no’ to single-use plastics.                               

These decisions have made no difference to distribution of wealth or to climate change but have increased pollution, energy poverty, and the cost of living, hurting those with the lowest incomes the most. Rather than increasing human flourishing, government regulations have diminished it.

If we want to maximize genuine human flourishing with the help of technology, including increased prosperity for all and management of climate impacts, the mixed economy with its ever-expanding welfare state and government controls is an impediment. The mixed economy disincentivizes technological innovation because it does not protect the freedom of creators and their trading partners but violates it through regulations and “redistribution” schemes.

To let technological innovation truly flourish, we need a different social system where the freedom of individuals to think, produce, and trade freely is protected. That system is capitalism – where the government’s only role is to protect its citizens against the initiation of physical force and fraud. The government protects freedom by upholding individual rights to life, liberty, property, and the pursuit of happiness. It deters and punishes rights violators through the police and the law courts. That, instead of the regulatory and redistributive state of a mixed economy, is all what is needed to protect our freedom to think, produce, and trade – and to develop technological solutions to our problems and a prosperous economy for all.

We should say ‘yes’ to techno-optimism but ‘no’ to the regulatory state—and build a foundation of freedom that makes full technological and economic flourishing possible.

Photo by NASA on Unsplash

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4 Responses

  1. Technology often causes problems.
    For example, so-called ‘artificial intelligence’ often gives answers hazardous to health. It is as flakey as TheMouthX.
    AI’s problem is that it is no better than the programmers and database builders, a rather variable bunch as you know from the Internet.
    It is also facilitating unpaid use of IP.

    ‘Innovation’ needs entrepreneurial use of it – in contrast to China long ago where clever inventions were just curiosities and toys. Entrepreneurs were key to the Industrial Revolution in Britain.

    What’s needed is individual freedom supported by defense against initiation of force, not the definition of ‘capitalism’ understood by half of the population here: ‘ Karl Marx’.

    1. I agree that AI today can prove false answers (invent them). But it holds tremendous potential, including in medicine, where it can accelerate the discovery of compounds (in hours and days instead of years and decades) that lead to cures or (delays) of debilitating and fatal illnesses.

  2. One area of ‘technology’ that has advanced tremendously in my lifetime is medical.

    Vaccine against polio became available in my childhood. Development of vaccines has become much quicker since then, with further advances helping fend of the SARS2 virus. The couple who developed the mRNA vaccine distributed by Phizer were working on a vaccine against cancer! Early days but there is hope. (Yes, governments botched policies and protections, while some large care residences in Canada knew that a new virus emerging in Communist China would be here before long so immediately took action to better protect their residents. While a few governments integrated – recognized the harm to health of scattergun lockdowns so were quite selective.

    Organ transplants are now practical, I know a person who received one. Does take management by doctors and self afterward. Doctors were slow to recognize amount his heart had deteriorated (he was born with one heart valve not of normal shape).

    Other surgical techniques have improved, some using robotics to control motions. And general knowledge increases, over a century ago it finally sunk into many doctor’s head that sanitation in medicine saved lives. And long ago modern surgery greatly reduced death rate of babies and mothers.

    (Of course snake oil sales people are everywhere like rats, even some supposedly objective people fall for hype.)

    1. Thank you for sharing of your observations on medical innovations and technology. Couldn’t agree more that government regulation of these has slowed progress (and caused thousands of deaths).

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Jaana Woiceshyn teaches business ethics and competitive strategy at the Haskayne School of Business, University of Calgary, Canada.

She has lectured and conducted seminars on business ethics to undergraduate, MBA and Executive MBA students, and to various corporate audiences for over 20 years both in Canada and abroad. Before earning her Ph.D. from the Wharton School of Business, University of Pennsylvania, she helped turn around a small business in Finland and worked for a consulting firm in Canada.

Jaana’s research on technological change and innovation, value creation by business, executive decision-making, and business ethics has been published in various academic and professional journals and books. “How to Be Profitable and Moral” is her first solo-authored book.

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