Cassandra has moved. Ugo Bardi publishes now on a new site called "The Seneca Effect."

Thursday, December 21, 2017

The Golden Rule of Technological Progress: Innovation Doesn't Solve Problems, It Creates Them

Image from RealPharmacy

See that thing up there? It is an autonomous security robot, something that's becoming fashionable nowadays. Obviously, for every problem, there has to be a technological solution. So, what could go wrong with the idea that the problem of homeless people can be solved by means of security robots? After all, they are not weaponized.... I mean, not yet.

There is something badly wrong with the way we approach what we call "problems" and our naive faith in technology becomes more and more pathetic. And now we are deploying security robots all over the world. Surely a "solution" but it is not so clear what the problem is.

The story of this silly robot made me think of a post that I published a few months ago where I stated what I called "the golden rule of technological innovation: "innovation doesn't solve problems, it creates them". And the more I think about that, the more I think it is true.

From "Cassandra's Legacy", May 24, 2017

The Coming Seneca Cliff of the Automotive Industry: the Converging Effect of Disruptive Technologies and Social Factors

This graph shows the projected demise of individual car ownership in the US, according to "RethinkX". That will lead to the demise of the automotive industry as we know it since a much smaller number of cars will be needed. If this is not a Seneca collapse, what is? 

Decades of work in research and development taught me this:

Innovation does not solve problems, it creates them. 

Which I could call "the Golden Rule of Technological Innovation." There are so many cases of this law at work that it is hard for me to decide where I should start from. Just think of nuclear energy; do you understand what I mean? So, I am always amazed at the naive faith of some people who think that more technology will solve the problems created by technology. It just doesn't work like that.

That doesn't mean that technological research is useless; not at all. R&D can normally generate small but useful improvements to existing processes, which is what it is meant to do. But when you deal with breakthroughs, well, it is another kettle of dynamite sticks; so to say. Most claimed breakthroughs turn out to be scams (cold fusion is a good example) but not all of them. And that leads to the second rule of technological innovation:

Successful innovations are always highly disruptive

You probably know the story of the Polish cavalry charging against the German tanks during WWII. It never happened, but the phrase "fighting tanks with horses" is a good metaphor for what technological breakthroughs can do. Some innovations impose themselves, literally, by marching over the dead bodies of their opponents. Even without such extremes, when an innovation becomes a marker of social success, it can diffuse extremely fast. Do you remember the role of status symbol that cell phones played in the 1990s?

Cars are an especially good example of how social factors can affect and amplify the effects of innovation. I discussed in a previous post on Cassandra's Legacy how cars became the prime marker of social status in the West with the 1950s, becoming the bloated and inefficient objects we know today. They had a remarkable effect on society, creating the gigantic suburbs of today's cities where life without a personal car is nearly impossible.

But the great wheel of technological innovation keeps turning and it is soon going to make individual cars as obsolete as it would be wearing coats made of home-tanned bear skins. It is, again, the combination of technological innovation and socioeconomic factors creating a disruptive effect. For one thing, private car ownership is rapidly becoming too expensive for the poor. At the same time, the combination of global positioning systems (GPS), smartphones, and autonomous driving technologies makes it possible a kind of "transportation on demand" or "transportation as a service" (TAAS) that was unthinkable just a decade ago. Electric cars are especially suitable (although not critically necessary) for this kind of transportation. In this scheme, all you need to do to get a transportation service is to push a button on your smartphone and the vehicle you requested will silently glide in front of you to take you wherever you want. (*)

The combination of these factors is likely to generate an unstoppable and disruptive social phenomenon. Owning a car will be increasing seen as passé, whereas using the latest TAAS gadgetry will be seen as cool. People will scramble to get rid of their obsolete, clumsy, and unfashionable cars and TAAS will also play the role of social filter: with the ongoing trends of increasing social inequality, the poor will be able to use it only occasionally or not at all. The rich, instead, will use it to show that they can and that they have access to credit. Some TAAS services will be exclusive, just as some hotels and resorts are. Some rich people may still own cars as a hobby, but that wouldn't change the trend.

Of course, all that is a vision of the future and the future is always difficult to predict. But something that we can say about the future is that when changes occur, they occur fast. In this case, the end result of the development of individual TAAS will be the rapid collapse of the automotive industry as we know it: a much smaller number of vehicles will be needed and they won't need to be of the kind that the present aotumotive industry can produce. This phenomenon has been correctly described by "RethinkX," even though still within a paradigm of growth. In practice, the transition is likely to be even more rapid and brutal than what the RethinkX team propose. For the automotive industry, there applies the metaphor of "fighting tanks with horses."

The demise of the automotive industry is an example of what I called the "Seneca Effect." When some technology or way of life becomes obsolete and unsustainable, it tends to collapse very fast. Look at the data for the world production of motor vehicles, below (image from Wikipedia). We are getting close to producing a hundred million of them per year. If the trend continues, during the next ten years we'll have produced a further billion of them. Can you really imagine that it would be possible? There is a Seneca Cliff waiting for the automotive industry.

(*) If the trend of increasing inequality continues, autonomously driven cars are not necessary. Human drivers would be inexpensive enough for the minority of rich people who can afford to hire them.


  1. The problem was very simple - The people that ran the center didn't like to look at the homeless. The animals inside the shelter were worthy of food, water, and a home. The homeless needed to be driven off. Since setting the dogs on them would have been harmful (to the dogs) they decided instead to use a faceless technology - because no one is allowed to complain about the lack of compassion from a machine in the modern world.

    1. It seems to me no one is allowed to complain about the lack of compassion from our fellow human beings, either. At least in most of this bereft-of-all-that-is-decent wasteland known as the U.S.... Disgraziato...

  2. Ugo

    This whole approach seems to me typical of the the way science and technology is used today by the elites, for the purpose of maintaining an archaic social order and the attitudes linked to it.

    Consider the following thought experiment "Why did the Titanic really sink?" There have been explanaitions covering various particuliars. It occured to me that if the question is adressed from the point of view of universals, a clear answer emerges the Titanic used technology from the age of Thomas Alva Edison to build a floating Medieval Disneyland. In it you had the three orders of Medieval society, the aristocrats in the first class, the clerics and the bourgois in the second, the laboring classes in the third deep inside the bowels of the ship along with the bulk of the crew. Captain Smith had to defer to the aristocrats like some sort of medieval stablemaster, Thomas Andrew the shipbuilder ended up fussing more about the decor of the first class cabins than about building a stronger more seaworthy ship. The crew themselves were hired and fired as if they were seasonal field hands and bigger part of the crew was there to serve the aristocrats. The ships rudder was too small and there too few lifeboats because the priorities of Molière's L'Avare were made to decide crucial desiegn decisions.

    So the result was an unseaworthy ship with a poorly trained crew, a captain who wasn't standing watch on the bridge and kept the ice warning in his pocket because he was too distracted by the gossip of the Kardashians in the first class, there were just two guys on watch looking for ice, they had no binoculars, let alone seachlights, there were no other lookouts backing them, so the ice wasn't seen in time and the ship couldn't turn fast enough and the rest is history.

    I look at the Western Civ user manual and see things like Economics, Adam Smith, this guy lived and died before electricity, jet airplanes, the Internet, the Nuclear Genie. this guy knew nothing about the world you and I live in and it is not a medieval craft market. In politic it is the Frederick the Great's Grenadiers except that the grenades were redesigned with the help of the Nuclear Genie and they can never be thrown far enough not to kill the thrower and the grenade user manual was rewritten by Il Generale Buttiglione. Our head of state live in somptuous and very corrupt Medieval Courts and so on.

  3. The cascading problems created by synthetic nitrogen

    The seemingly God-given solution to the problem of nitrogen created by bad farming practices turns out to make all the problems worse.

    Don Stewart

  4. I'm interested in how that autonomous security robot works. Surely a thing like that could be easily dispatched by a few people with crowbars?

    1. This one was knocked down once. In another incident, its sensors were covered with barbecue sauce before throwing a tarp over it. I'm sure we'll see some smashed with bats or set on fire before too much longer.

  5. In my experience as a software developer in automation, there are two ways that all technology can go: empowerment and marginalisation.

    Digitalization today is assumed to go the path of automation, freeing labor, increasing unemployment. This is not my experience. Most large companies today, rather invest into "compliance", which is another word of implementing tools of control and oversight making people replacable by marginalizing them. In social theory this is today discussed as a trend towards digital taylorism, and most projects I have seen follow these ideas.

    Behind the ideas of "scientific management" written 1911 by Frederick Taylor lurks a reductionist and mechanistic worldview. Taylor believed that the "modern" worker is nothing but a cogwheel in the machine of the enterprise where all decisions are made by the manager who is entitled to total control. Scientific management is still teached in business schools today.

    Since the days of the greek philosophers the discourse about free will was always a discourse about power. A mechanist worldview, the believe that total control is possible, was always an elite worldview. Power itself strifes to take away free will fron its subjects as much as possible.

    With all technology we develop, this struggle towards either empowerment of the subject or its subjugation by marginalisation was always mirrored by this discourse about free will.

    Many of the leading sciences today still promote a mechanist worldview, against all evidence from what we know today about the quantum behaviour of our universe. As Richard Faynmann said:"The worls is not classical dammit!"

    Influencial Scientists in computer science, Ray Kurzweil or Hans Moravek promote the Idea that the human brain is nothing but a "machine made of flesh", a view that is also taken by many nueroscientists. The EU today finances the "human brain project" a "classical", reductionistic and mechanistic approach to simulate the brain in a computer. Economical science, especially the neoclassical approach, is reductionistic and mechanistic in essence. The theory of complex systems (as in the "Limits to growth" or the models of Steve Keen) are ignored.

    All that is discussed by the club of rome and in this blog rests on the idea that we live in a dynamic, complex world. It is from this perspective that we can view all technological progress to decide who it will benefit, the self entitled few or the global many and earth itself.

    1. In my experience the classical 18th century clockwork universe IS the institutional scientific view. Things like Quantum mechanics, relativity, electromagnetism, evolution and so on are treated as particuliars in a world still defined by the universals of Galilian space-time and fixed classes.

      The concepts on the subject of human nature are even more blinkered, any idea that would describe human beings as more that simply individual profit maximizers has been marginalized when not denounced as quackery.

      Example: Evolution as a particuliar turns into Social Darwinism, this means that the aristocrats decide who is fit to live. The questions that are carefully avoided is that of the fitness of the aristocrats themselves and the social structure that gives them power and privilege.

      Well I look at popular culture, the sort thet the elites sneer at, things like "You have to earn your crown anew every day", I think this sounds like evolution as a universal. Over the past generation there has been a wholesale replacement of universals at the popular level which is turning the masses into a new alien culture over which the elites have no hold except by fear.

      I read many years ago the program of the PNAC group. Nothing sounded more rationial and decent... but it failed utterly , chaos, destruction, endless no-win wars and wholesale loss of auctoritas of the government that implemente it. Game theory which turns treachery and tyranny into mathematical theorems. I haven't found a single game theory inspired policy that didn't turn into total disaster.

      If the elites are so confident the future is theirs why are they surrounding themselves whith razor wire, rent-a-cop and building bunkers for themselves?

    2. "I read many years ago the program of the PNAC group. Nothing sounded more rationial and decent.."

      Really? I read the documents just after 9/11 and for anybody else in the world the PNAC documents have been an open threat. The PNACs position was that USA (as last remaining super power) should bully anybody else into submission with its overwhelming military and economic power who might contest them on the exploitation of the worlds ressources. This position could be seen as rational in a cynical world i guess, but how can it be decent?

  6. First, I think we should replace the homeless people with robots. That would be far more efficient.

    Second, about TaS. I'm not sure were it will go, but it doesn't seem to display high social status in my eyes - unlike cellphones did in the early adoption phase. In any case we've had TaS for ages in a form called taxis, so I'm not sure the new version is all that different.

    1. "First, I think we should replace the homeless people with robots. That would be far more efficient."

      Love it.

      But why stop there. Obviously the real problem for anybody in power are the people, especially in democracies. It would bs so much more convenient for everyone to replace them with robots.

      We are doing so in the workplace, in the armies and at law enforcement anyways. So we dont need them for working, saluting us or protecting us, so why keep them around?

      Id say we give the word "voting machine" a brand new meaning.

  7. Ted Kaczynski (Unabomber) wasn't a big fan of technology either, I used to scoff at the idea. Ted's views have indeed been prophetic. A good synopsis here



Ugo Bardi is a member of the Club of Rome, faculty member of the University of Florence, and the author of "Extracted" (Chelsea Green 2014), "The Seneca Effect" (Springer 2017), and Before the Collapse (Springer 2019)