Societal & Scientific Innovation

Human innovation spans both scientific and societal realms, driving technological progress and societal evolution hand in hand, ultimately shaping the course of future technological revolutions.

One of the most quintessential features of humans is our ability to innovate both socially and scientifically. We can alter both our physical environment and change how we organize ourselves to accomplish complex goals. No other species on earth can do both. Animals that do manage to craft tools (such as chimpanzees) are fascinating academically but compared to humans, we can conclusively say that only we do these things with any significance. Societal innovation is the more critical and the driver behind technological revolutions that’ve led to great leaps in population, and economic prosperity. Societal and cultural changes (or lack of them) will define future technological revolutions as well, such as the emergence of machine intelligence.

When we discuss innovation it is scientific discovery that comes to most peoples' minds (for simplicity we'll use 'scientific' for both 'science' and 'engineering' as the distinction is not critical for this article) - controlling fire, hand tools, the wheel, steam engine, computer, manned flight, transistors to name only a few. Yet, how we communicate, organize, and govern ourselves is also technology, and it drives the explosive growth and application of scientific knowledge. Only humans can decide to change how we operate socially and change how we communicate with each other. These do change for other animals over time, but it is a function of evolution, not deliberation.

Transforming how we organize ourselves (societal innovation) is messy stuff to create and manage. Ultimately, we all agree on social structures that define 'people, power, and purpose.' Who belongs in our society and who does not, who's in charge, and what are we here to do together. War, famine, and disruptive technologies are some of the things which upset the balance of and create anxiety around 'people, power, and purpose.' The innovation of new social orders must reestablish equilibrium among all three. If that balance is not renewed, then there will be no technological revolution. If we want to realize the full potential of a machine intelligence revolution, then we need a societal structure that supports a productive post-disruption society. And that societal structure must lead, not follow, the revolution.

For centuries conventional wisdom has been that disruptive new technology spurred social upheavals resulting in a new social order. The reverse is actually true. Innovative societal structures lead to a proliferation of technological discovery. For example, the invention of the modern corporation, limited liability, and shared risks and rewards, combined with the emergence of liberal democracy are what allowed the first industrial revolution to occur. Those societal innovations permitted Britain (later Europe and the United States and others) to commercialize and put into use the steam engine, mechanized factories and other modern methods of production. Some people may immediately point to examples where countries managed to industrialize without those things. Those examples will always be in the tail of the industrial revolution, and they didn't really industrialize until they reformed their societies to de facto include the necessary social structures.

This happened as well in the neolithic agricultural revolution which was not so much a function of advances in irrigation, agriculture or other feats of science and engineering as it was a function of the innovations of organized religion and rule by a divinely empowered monarch. For example, in ancient Egyptian society, religion was fundamental to daily life. One of the responsibilities of the pharaoh was as an intermediary between the gods and the people. There is a minor but growing opinion that people did not start farming first and then establish cities, organized religion, and monarchies. They started creating a new social order and belief system and then started innovating on how to have enough food locally without leaving their temples and settlements unprotected while they were away foraging and hunting, thus the rise of agriculture and the science and engineer that followed.

This brings us back to today. What will it take for a machine intelligence revolution to emerge? How will we innovate culturally and socially to bring forth the next great leap in technology? It's never a given that any new technological discovery's potential will be fully realized, culture and social enablers are critically important, and we all would do well to pay attention to that. Whether intelligent machines lead to nothing special, or a bump in productivity or to a technological revolution depends on human cultural and social adjustments. Just assuming that we will produce technology and then positive, productive things will happen automatically, is not a recipe for success. Throughout history, a little luck and a lot of innovation brought humanity to this point today and averted existential threats on more than one occasion. We may be at another fork in the road. Stew Friedman said that - We have no time to waste. Investing in technologies and companies that enable cooperation to solve global challenges is an urgent necessity. Stew is right.


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