Can Innovation Save Us From Ourselves?

SUMMING UP Can technology save the world from its most pressing problems? James Heskett's readers aren't overly optimistic.
by James Heskett

Summing Up

Do We Need to Give More Attention to the Dark Side of Innovation?

Innovation may be able to help us deal with problems such as famine, pollution, and even global warming. But unless it can prove to be just as effective in combating destructive human traits such as greed, it will have failed to live up to the billing it is currently receiving from some inside and outside the tech communities. Worse yet, the price to be paid for progress in innovations such as artificial intelligence may be greater than the benefit without work on innovative ideas to control its potentially negative outcomes. That’s the sense provided by responses to this month’s column.

“Seems like humans have learned to control the world but not themselves,” wrote Akn1307hbs in a concern shared by others. “Unfortunately, we have not yet figured out (how) to incentivize people to work for social good on the same scale as working for material wealth.”

Subrata Chakraborty put it this way: “Our problems are ours, created by us. To solve those we need to look within, not outside.” The real question is, he added, “how to imbibe humanism and to put it into effective action through our own deeds?’”

Ed Hare gave the idea a more dramatic twist: “The true innovation mankind needs is to eliminate the behaviors stemming from the Seven Deadly Sins Pope Gregory outlined in 590 A.D… greed, wrath, envy, sloth, pride, gluttony and lust.”

The notion that innovation will provide solutions to problems of a global nature came in for its share of skepticism. As pablo asked, “What does ‘to extend life from the organic realm into the inorganic’ really mean? Robots will have ‘life’? Sounds like a voluntarist ‘technoptimist,’ which evade the real ‘wisdom’ question … are we able to bring rampant inequalities to a tolerable level?” Ramji commented, “(I) think it is human vanity with some highly optimistic predictions…”

Other comments took on an even darker tone. MichaelA wrote, “Homo Deus brings round the basis on which Humanism was first expounded. The concept is not new… H.G. Wells foresaw where humanity was heading. As a supreme humanist he wrote accurate predictions of future impacts of technology. His last book was one of despair: ’Mind at the end of its tether.’ “Innovation will take us forward into new areas for both good and evil. However I wonder if the Anthropocene era will be the shortest of them all.”

Quoting Elon Musk, “who perhaps knows as much about AI (artificial intelligence) as any business practitioner in the world,” a reader used Musk’s words to remind us that, “’AI is a fundamental existential risk for human civilization, and I don’t think people fully appreciate that.’ So I say let’s get Musk off of the ‘Hyperloop tunnel train’ and on to the ‘Save humanity from its robot overlords’ problem.” This raises the question of what it would require to redirect the efforts of people like Elon Musk to anticipate and mitigate the effects of innovations that represent “fundamental existential risk for human civilization.”

Do we need to give more attention to the dark side of innovation? What do you think?

Original Post

Every year about this time McKinsey Quarterly publishes a list of books being read by select CEOs. If a book comes up frequently on the list, it may serve as the subject of this column—last year, Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book The Seventh Sense was the centerpiece of the August column. While we can’t assume that CEOs endorse what they read, it’s nevertheless interesting to know what they are thinking about.

This year, one book was mentioned twice (Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind), and its author, Yuval Noah Harari, was listed a third time for his new book, Homo Deus. Both Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have applauded Homo Deus, which reflects the expansive thinking, unbounded optimism, and innovative tendencies of many in the tech sector.

In Homo Deus, Harari picks up on the notion that we are in a post-Holocene epoch in which humans have brought humanity’s “three great enemies”—famine, plague, and war—under control. Having been subject to the ravages of environmental and other threats, some of their own making, humans have attained the knowledge, the will, the organization, and the mechanisms to subjugate every other species on the planet to their will.

In Harari’s words, “Since the appearance of life, about a billion years ago, never has a single species changed the global ecology all by itself... Now humankind is poised to replace natural selection with intelligent design, and to extend life from the organic realm into the inorganic.” Hence a title meant to signify the elevation of humans into gods. This in itself should be enough to evoke a storm of controversy ranging from the political to the religious.

Whether one regards this book as science fiction, a political polemic, heretical, or now within the realm of possibility, it builds on scientific thinking. It subscribes to a belief advanced by Paul Crutzen, an earth scientist and Nobel Laureate, that we have witnessed the end of the 10,000-year-old (or more) Holocene epoch and are in what Crutzen terms the Anthropocene epoch. It is one dominated by the impact of humans on the earth’s environment through such things as the rivers we dam, the things we burn and consume, the way we use land, and the materials such as plastics that will remain as evidence of our presence on the earth for thousands of years to come. His work is grounded in science and little of it is judgmental, although many of his findings could be regarded as bleak.

If we are entering such a new epoch, others see it as one that presents unbounded opportunities. Diane Ackerman expresses hope in her book, The Human Age, that,“Our new age, for all its sins, is laced with invention … we’re revising our fundamental ideas about exactly what it means to be human.” The implication is that our ingenuity will help mankind throw off the yoke of inevitability that has been associated with such things as destruction and even universal death. (Of course, this could trigger other dilemmas.) For example, at Google there is a task force (Calico) whose objective is to develop the means for people to live productive lives of 500 years. At Harvard, a project is underway to transform an elephant’s genome into that of the extinct woolly mammoth, literally to bring back an extinct species, in part just to show that it can be done.

Clearly, both pure and applied scientists at the leading edge of this effort see an epoch in which even the most immense problems will be solved, even if the outcomes for all of us remain uncertain.

If this is the kind of work that is on the radar of Gates and Zuckerberg, what does it portend for the future? Will we witness the unimaginable? Or is this just further evidence of the hubris of scientists with some new tools and a lot of money at their disposal? At this point, is anything possible? If so, should we even be concerned about such things as global warming or even death? Can innovation save us from ourselves? What do you think?


Diane Ackerman, The Human Age: The World Shaped by Us (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2014)

Paul J. Crutzen and Hans Gunter Brauch (Eds.), Paul J. Crutzen: A Pioneer on Atmospheric Chemistry and Climate Change in the Anthropocene (Switzerland: Springer International Publishing, 2016)

Yuval Noah Harari, Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (New York: HarperCollins, 2017)

Joshua Cooper Ramo, The Seventh Sense: Power, Fortune, and Survival in the Age of Networks (New York: Little Brown & Co., 2017)

Wesley Yang, Is the ‘Anthropocene’ Epoch a Condemnation of Human Interference—or a Call for More? The New York Times Magazine, February 19, 2017, pp. 9-11.

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