The week science fiction became reality

Tomorrow’s world: Scientists have unveiled a raft of new technologies.

Does progress make us happy? Scientific innovations can make life longer, easier and more convenient. But some say that technological progress does not guarantee happiness.

The surgeon injects a needle into the patient’s arm, then leaves the room. Nothing seems to happen for hours. But when the patient wakes up, his cancer has been eliminated.

This might be the future of medicine. Scientists at Cornell University have invented moveable micro-robots that can be injected into the body and controlled by equally imperceptible lasers for precise, incision-free surgery.

It is just one of several astonishing inventions announced in the last few days.

In the US, Amazon has revealed a palm scanner, allowing shoppers to pay for products by hovering their hand mid-air.

In the UK, trials began for the Hydroflex: a hydrogen-powered train that zooms along the tracks without harmful emissions.

And in the Lake District, air ambulance staff have tested a prototype jet suit. Paramedics will glide across hills without touching the ground, reaching the injured at 20 times walking speed.

It took homo sapiens tens of thousands of years to invent the wheel, and a few thousand more to come up with a humble sheet of paper. But today technology seems to rush forward at an unprecedented pace.

“We won’t experience 100 years of progress in the 21st century,” wrote futurist Ray Kurzweil in 2001. “It will be more like 20,000 years.”

Many claim this progress is making us happier. Look at what science has achieved so far. Advances in medicine have almost eradicated horrific diseases like smallpox, polio and the plague.

We now live longer, healthier lives. In 1920, life expectancy in Britain was 59 for a woman and 55 for a man. Today’s lifespans are 83 and 79. Most people are happy to be alive — and thanks to science, many more people are.

Technology has vastly multiplied our choices, giving us more paths to happiness. We can travel anywhere in a matter of hours, talk to friends across the globe at will and find crucial information with the touch of a screen.

And it has also spirited away some causes of unhappiness. Automation has freed people from some dangerous jobs. Even a relatively simple household appliance, such as the washing machine, has increased our leisure time.

But critics might argue that progress and happiness do not always correlate. This is borne out by research.

Take Japan: between 1960 and 1990, it soared from poverty to become the paradigmatic high-tech country. But studies showed the Japanese felt no happier during that period.

New opportunities can bring new distresses. “Riches,” wrote 18th-century economist Adam Smith, “leave a man sometimes more exposed than before to anxiety, to fear and to sorrow.”

Our technological wealth does the same. Without cars there would be no car crashes. The Internet has connected us, but it has also fuelled loneliness, cyber-bullying and deepfakes.

So, does progress make us happy?

Quantum leap

Without a doubt, argue some. Human existence was once nasty, brutish and short. Thanks to science, it is more agreeable, peaceable and long. By empowering us to take on more satisfying work and spend more time at leisure, technology has granted many more greater liberty to pursue their own joy. Life might still have its bumps, but progress has made them softer than ever before.

Others argue that it is naive to put our faith in progress alone. It might broaden our opportunities for happiness, but it does not necessarily follow that we will be able to seize on them. Statistics suggest that people’s view of their own happiness can stay the same even in times of great advance. As science and technology surge forward, they also risk conjuring up new causes of unhappiness.

You Decide

  1. Is progress always a good thing for society?
  2. Should progress have an end point?

Activities

  1. In pairs, create posters depicting a new technology of your own invention. Pitch your invention to the class, fielding questions on its efficacy and usefulness.
  2. Imagine that you are a time traveller from 1920 who has been transported to the present day. Write a letter to your friends in the past explaining contemporary technology. Use descriptions that they would understand.

Some People Say...

“The real problem of humanity is the following: we have Palaeolithic emotions, medieval institutions and godlike technology. And it is terrifically dangerous, and it is now approaching a point of crisis overall.”

Edward O Wilson (b.1929), American biologist and pioneer of biodiversity

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that, since the Industrial Revolution, humanity has been undergoing a period of rapid scientific and technological progress. Although traced to the early 20th century, the idea has been further popularised by the rapid advance of computer and digital technology since the 1970s, particularly as devices initially developed for specialist purposes have been integrated into everyday life.
What do we not know?
One area of debate concerns when — or if — this period of mass technological change will end. Some thinkers have proposed that technology is racing towards the singularity, a hypothetical point of time when technological growth becomes uncontrollable and threatens human security. Others believe that a slowdown has already begun, and that recent digital advances are essentially refinements of 20th-century innovations.

Word Watch

Micro-robots
The medical robots are too small to be seen by the naked eye. Ten can fit into a full stop.
Homo sapiens
The scientific name for the human race, which first emerged in Africa between 200,000 and 300,000BC.
Futurist
Someone who attempts to envisage possible, probable or preferential futures, often in the belief that they can help steer societies in better directions.
Smallpox
A viral disease that often caused permanent scarring and blindness in survivors. It was eliminated through vaccination in the 1970s.
Polio
A viral disease that paralyses parts of the body. Cases have been drastically reduced since the development of vaccines in the 1950s.
Plague
A set of highly infectious diseases caused by a single bacteria. Its largest outbreak was the Black Death (1346–53), history’s deadliest pandemic, which killed between 30–60% of Europe’s entire population.
Automation
The creation of technologies that reduce the need for human intervention. Seventy-two per cent of Americans are worried about how automation might affect their jobs.
Paradigmatic
The most typical example of something, from a Greek word meaning “show side by side”.
Deepfakes
A fake piece of media, such as an image or a text, created using advanced computer techniques to appear as realistic as the genuine article. One famous instance replaced the face of Angela Merkel with that of Donald Trump.
Nasty, brutish and short
Part of a phrase written by the 17th-century English philosopher Thomas Hobbes (the original is prefixed by “solitary” and “poor”), who believed that humankind defaulted to a violent struggle.

Subjects

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