Monday, July 05, 2010

H.B. Phillips - Forseeing the Future of Technological Progress

I came across a truly interesting quote from a mathematician, H.B. Phillips, who, in an article published in October of 1948 in American Scientist, said:

Advances will be most frequent when the number of independent thought centers is greatest, and the number of thought centers will be greatest when there is maximum individual liberty. Thus, it appears that maximum liberty is the condition most favorable to progress.

Phillips understood, as does every scientist and academician, that science and academia revolve around communication of ideas. When trying to solve the toughest problems in the most difficult realms of human thought and experience, even the Newtons and Einsteins of the world need to 'stand on the shoulders of giants' who lived or worked prior to themselves. Knowledge, ideas, problem solving, and innovation are mass produced industries - individuals can spark new, original ideas, to be sure, but to do anything with those ideas requires support from others. Even brilliant individuals need to learn about their area of work and interest, and learn what has already been done. This requires access to knowledge and previous thoughts and ideas about the subject (although the other avenue to discovery is the 'accidental' discovery).

In Phillips's day he would have had access to journals, book, conferences, personal correspondence using traditional 'snail' mail, and some telephone, telegraph and radio communication. The phone and radio networks, however, would have been more limited, of course, prior to global hook-ups and networks. Large information packets would have taken days or weeks to be passed along between individuals, as whole books and articles would have had to been physically delivered. He did not possess the Internet, fax machines, teleconferencing, virtual anything, or global satellite communication. But he understood the concept that is at the heart and soul of academic, technological and theoretical progress. Difficult problems involving complexity need multiple brains working on them to make progress in figuring out the complexity. His term 'thought centers' is, in my mind, a broad statement that presently could refer to any one of a collection of entities: individuals on the Internet, think tanks, research groups, R&D departments of industry, academic departments in universities, blog groups, and generally any type of grouping of people who are collaborating to figure something out.

The Internet provides unprecedented access to information. And anyone can plug into that information. Strangers communicate and bounce ideas around every day and instantly with each other. Information and progress have, as a result and as Phillips foresaw, exploded exponentially as the number of 'thought centers' increased. And what is perhaps most important, the free exchange of information and ideas that the Internet provides has been key to this progress. Innovation, creativity, and problem solving now have tools available to anyone with access to the world wide web to see rapid and original progress, as interconnectivity runs to all regions of the planet.

As crazy as the rate of progress has been over the past decade (as personal computing has blossomed), there is room for even more progress. The second condition Phillips talks about is 'liberty.' This would seem to indicate that there is a need, in present times, for individual freedom and access to information, as well as the continued free exchange of that information, outside any type of censorship or restrictions to information. We see such restrictions to access and to personal freedom in many countries around the world, with the obvious major example of China. What will happen when China alone gets to the point where some 1.6 billion more people have unfettered access to the Internet, journals, and other forms of information access, trying to solve the plethora of problems the world is facing? Time will tell, but I do appreciate when deep-thinking individuals identify trends and 'see' where the future is headed.

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