Future Inventions

In “The Poverty of Historicism” Popper makes the point that the future state of society will be influenced by the knowledge available to it. Since we cannot predict the future growth of our knowledge by rational or scientific methods, we cannot predict the future course of human history. This is fine, and it rules out all claims about history moving towards an inevitable outcome, whether it be the triumph of any particular class, race or nation.

That said, in my doctoral thesis, published as “Trial and Error and the Idea of Progress,” I attribute more to human motivation than Popper does. Not only does it influence which theories we retain or discard, depending on how much they help us, but it also influences the future course of knowledge. Put bluntly, we try to achieve the things we want, and it influences our research and our future knowledge.

I incline to the view that technology is a more effective solution to many of our problems that trying to bring about behavioural changes. I return to a theme I’ve visited before, setting out some of the technological advances that would benefit us, if they could be invented and developed. We do not know if they can, and we cannot predict accurately if they will, but perhaps they will be more likely to come about if people set to work developing them.

I will present a few lists of inventions that I would like to see developed, they are not here yet but if they could be they would be game changers. Below is the first such list; there will be others.

1. I anticipate advances that make mining easier, less life-threatening to its participants, and with less environmental impact — bugs or nanobots spefically tailored to gobble up the coal, copper, manganese or whatever, and sent down to extract the desired material. They will then be flushed out, the desired resource extracted, and all organized by scientists and technicians in white coats who are not exposed to the hazards associated with conventional mining, all without the impact it has on landscapes.

2. Trees engineered to grow exceptionally quickly, so that they mature in a few years instead of decades. Maybe a team will be able to isolate the growth factors and accelerate them, or maybe incorporate the genetic material from fast growing plants into traditional forest trees. The advent of cultured meats raises the prospect of far fewer acres being needed for animal husbandry, and more available for reforestation. It would be good to be able to see extensive tree cover achieved rapidly where we want it, and of course it would constitute a carbon sink.

3. A cancer-inhibiting molecule that recognizes cancerous cells and zeroes in on them and prevents them from growing. Work is already being done on this several microbiology laboratories, and a Nobel prize awaits the team which can do it, along with the gratification of humankind.

4. Genetically engineered bugs that can digest material we would prefer not to clog up our landfills. Some years ago there was a campaign against disposable nappies, such that many local councils employed ‘real nappy officers’ to persuade parents to use cotton nappies instead, despite the energy, bleach and detergent involved. It would be more environmentally friendly to have organisms that can eat up the disposable nappies in landfills. Similarly there are other materials out there that could be mopped up by organisms created for that purpose.

5. A really efficient, low-energy osmotic desalinator. There is plenty of seawater on the planet, but the shortage is of sufficient fresh water where it is needed. With such a machine, anywhere within range of a coast could produce all the fresh water that is needed. It could be piped, as oil and gas are currently piped, to where it is required. We already have thermal desalinators, but they are energy hungry. And present osmotic ones tend to be energy intensive and to clog up with sludge and require expensive maintenance, so we need some new membrane technology to do it efficiently and cheaply.

I will list more of these ‘future inventions’ that might be developed, given human creativity, ingenuity and purpose. All of them would be of huge benefit to humankind, which itself is a good reason in itself for supposing that they might come about.