Does technological progress have natural limits?

Justin Swanton

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Duplicating a post from SFF World:

It's some thing I've been thinking about a lot lately: the fact that there appear to be natural walls that eventually bring all lines of technological development to a cloying halt.

Take a look at macrotechnology, in particular power and transport. All forms of generating power to drive a techno-industrial complex were developed by the 1950's: oil, coal, gas, hydroelectricity, solar panels, wind, nuclear fission. Absolutely nothing new since then.

As regards transport it's ditto. Cars were developed in the late 1800's but have not significantly changed in performance since about the 1950's, though they've had a few refinements added that make them more economical on fuel along with some microtechnological additions like inbuilt computers.

Air travel was invented in 1903, made commercial in the 1920's with big closed-cabin biplanes then monoplanes, got fast in the 1950's with commercial jets - and has remained with commercial jets ever since. The Concorde, an attempt at supersonic jet travel, just wasn't economical enough. Big jets like the Airbus A380 are also not working financially and we are settling back to smaller, subsonic, twin-engine jets like the A320 which are, in big terms, hardly different from the Boeing jets of the 1960's (also still in use).

Look at the time scale:

1903 - first successful aeroplane flight

16 years later:

1919 - first closed-cabin commercial flights using Handley Page aircraft

33 years later:

1952 - First commercial jet flight in a Comet

65 years later:

2017 - No change!

Microtechnology also seems to be getting stuck in the mud. Moore's Law - that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years - has nearly reached its sell-by date, and the computing power of PCs is not longer increasing as rapidly as it used to, and will stop increasing altogether by about the year 2025. This is a problem, as a military simulation programmer told me, since computer programmes constantly increase in size and complexity and it is now beginning to become an issue finding affordable PCs to run them.

But my main point is space travel. The Soyuz-FG that boosts Soyuz TMA-02M ships into orbit (the ones that supply the ISS) is basically the same design as the R-7 Semyorka that put Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961. The US Shuttle - which was supposed to be the next leap beyond disposable launchers - was a technological and financial failure, and nothing has replaced it. Space X are trying to develop reusable launchers, but they are not as reusable as all that, even if they land successfully. A single rocket launch costs between $100 million and $260 million. Space X, claims to the contrary, does not actually succeed in bringing that price down.

And then the Mars mission story. NASA has admitted it can't afford it. Elon Musk has tacitly admitted he can't either, not unless a lot of people come on board. And all this is nearly 50 years since man stepped on the Moon. Mars One of course is a joke.

Bottom line - we have already made the big strides and are now at the point where all we can do is cross the t's and dot the i's, improving a bit what we have but without developing anything dramatically new, dramatic enough, say, to enable someone to buy a return ticket to Mars like he would buy one to Majorca.

And now let me dive for cover...
 

Harpo

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The number of space stations is increasing, and will continue to do so

f9512ffa509b45535136908b6858bc0f.png
 

Serendipity

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Duplicating a post from SFF World:

It's some thing I've been thinking about a lot lately: the fact that there appear to be natural walls that eventually bring all lines of technological development to a cloying halt.

Take a look at macrotechnology, in particular power and transport. All forms of generating power to drive a techno-industrial complex were developed by the 1950's: oil, coal, gas, hydroelectricity, solar panels, wind, nuclear fission. Absolutely nothing new since then.

As regards transport it's ditto. Cars were developed in the late 1800's but have not significantly changed in performance since about the 1950's, though they've had a few refinements added that make them more economical on fuel along with some microtechnological additions like inbuilt computers.

Air travel was invented in 1903, made commercial in the 1920's with big closed-cabin biplanes then monoplanes, got fast in the 1950's with commercial jets - and has remained with commercial jets ever since. The Concorde, an attempt at supersonic jet travel, just wasn't economical enough. Big jets like the Airbus A380 are also not working financially and we are settling back to smaller, subsonic, twin-engine jets like the A320 which are, in big terms, hardly different from the Boeing jets of the 1960's (also still in use).

Look at the time scale:

1903 - first successful aeroplane flight

16 years later:

1919 - first closed-cabin commercial flights using Handley Page aircraft

33 years later:

1952 - First commercial jet flight in a Comet

65 years later:

2017 - No change!

Microtechnology also seems to be getting stuck in the mud. Moore's Law - that the number of transistors in an integrated circuit doubles approximately every two years - has nearly reached its sell-by date, and the computing power of PCs is not longer increasing as rapidly as it used to, and will stop increasing altogether by about the year 2025. This is a problem, as a military simulation programmer told me, since computer programmes constantly increase in size and complexity and it is now beginning to become an issue finding affordable PCs to run them.

But my main point is space travel. The Soyuz-FG that boosts Soyuz TMA-02M ships into orbit (the ones that supply the ISS) is basically the same design as the R-7 Semyorka that put Yuri Gagarin into space in 1961. The US Shuttle - which was supposed to be the next leap beyond disposable launchers - was a technological and financial failure, and nothing has replaced it. Space X are trying to develop reusable launchers, but they are not as reusable as all that, even if they land successfully. A single rocket launch costs between $100 million and $260 million. Space X, claims to the contrary, does not actually succeed in bringing that price down.

And then the Mars mission story. NASA has admitted it can't afford it. Elon Musk has tacitly admitted he can't either, not unless a lot of people come on board. And all this is nearly 50 years since man stepped on the Moon. Mars One of course is a joke.

Bottom line - we have already made the big strides and are now at the point where all we can do is cross the t's and dot the i's, improving a bit what we have but without developing anything dramatically new, dramatic enough, say, to enable someone to buy a return ticket to Mars like he would buy one to Majorca.

And now let me dive for cover...

Me thinks there be small matter of Concorde - which flew from 1976 until 2003 - its closest rival was Tupolev 144 (which didn't really have much in the way of commercial flights in comparison). It was taken out of Service because it was no longer commercially viable - in effect 9/11 saw to that, by frightening passengers away.

Talking of supersonic passenger flights, there are a few big airplane manufacturers that have got designs for small luxury passenger supersonic planes on the drawing board, where the aircraft shapes have been designed to push the supersonic boom out of normal human hearing range.

There is also the Skylon space plane - one of the key technologies is the engine, which is being actively developed as we speak. It is a true reusable spaceplane, taking off from an airfield and landing on an airfield. The key to its potential success was that its engine took oxygen from the air to help fuel the engines until it reached Mach 5, when it would turn into rocket burners. Unfortunately, a study from Bristol University has shown it is less economic than the reusable rockets currently being tested. However, the designers have also got Lapcat - their supersonic liner design. Not sure what's happened to that.

At the end of the day the main limiting factor to the introduction of technology is whether it is economically viable in the market place. As a rule of thumb, the new product being introduced has to be 10% cheaper or 10% more effective.

After all, remember the Romans could have had a steam engine if they'd put their minds to it.
 

Harpo

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After the ISS is decommissioned (2020s or so) some of its modules will be used for OPSEK, which will be for constructing spacecraft in space, rather than having to launch them from Earth.
 

Justin Swanton

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The number of space stations is increasing, and will continue to do so

View attachment 40019

The Tiangong 1 is decommissioned and will burn up in Earth's atmosphere some time between December 2017 and March 2018.

The Tiangong 2 is tiny - less than half the length of the old Skylab and nothing like the ISS in size. It can support 2 astronauts for 30 days.

Genesis 1 is less than half the size of Tiangong 2 and is unmanned. It's effectively a satellite.

Genesis 2 is the same size as Genesis 1, is unmanned and is decommissioned.

That leaves the ISS. It can support a maximum of 6 astronauts and costs $3 billion a year to maintain. This is about 15% of NASA's entire annual budget. No, space stations are a dead end.
 

Justin Swanton

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Me thinks there be small matter of Concorde - which flew from 1976 until 2003 - its closest rival was Tupolev 144 (which didn't really have much in the way of commercial flights in comparison). It was taken out of Service because it was no longer commercially viable - in effect 9/11 saw to that, by frightening passengers away.

Bingo. The Concorde and Tupolev were on the very edge of commercially viable transport technology, i.e. it wasn't really profitable to carry fare-paying passengers at supersonic speeds but it wasn't ruinous either. Which means it becomes unprofitable if something upsets the turnover of passengers even to a fairly slight degree.

Talking of supersonic passenger flights, there are a few big airplane manufacturers that have got designs for small luxury passenger supersonic planes on the drawing board, where the aircraft shapes have been designed to push the supersonic boom out of normal human hearing range.

I notice the word "small". I don't know anything about the subject but I suspect this will be a niche service for a richer clientele, rather than a technological leap that enables regular voyagers to travel at supersonic speeds.

There is also the Skylon space plane - one of the key technologies is the engine, which is being actively developed as we speak. It is a true reusable spaceplane, taking off from an airfield and landing on an airfield. The key to its potential success was that its engine took oxygen from the air to help fuel the engines until it reached Mach 5, when it would turn into rocket burners. Unfortunately, a study from Bristol University has shown it is less economic than the reusable rockets currently being tested. However, the designers have also got Lapcat - their supersonic liner design. Not sure what's happened to that.

The Skylon cargo pod can carry a maximum of 30 passengers, with the rest of the ship filled up with fuel tanks. That would be even more of a niche commercial service than small supersonic jets and I somehow doubt it could pay its way - even less likely if Skylons are not economical.

At the end of the day the main limiting factor to the introduction of technology is whether it is economically viable in the market place. As a rule of thumb, the new product being introduced has to be 10% cheaper or 10% more effective

Which is the whole problem. New technology has to be relatively cheap to be a real breakthrough, otherwise it's just a white elephant. We have the technology to create antimatter but it can create only a few thousand antihydrogen atoms at a time. A curiosity but of no practical use. Eventually someone will pull the plug on the technology as it spends money to no purpose.

After all, remember the Romans could have had a steam engine if they'd put their minds to it.

They invented it after all.
 

hej

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Take a look at macrotechnology, in particular power and transport. All forms of generating power to drive a techno-industrial complex were developed by the 1950's: oil, coal, gas, hydroelectricity, solar panels, wind, nuclear fission. Absolutely nothing new since then.

We do have this
Lockheed Martin Compact Fusion Reactor - Wikipedia

So far Lockheed has nothing in production afaik.

Too, Tesla has semi-autonomous cars. I think we should expect trucks to follow within the next few years.
 

Justin Swanton

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We do have this
Lockheed Martin Compact Fusion Reactor - Wikipedia

So far Lockheed has nothing in production afaik.

Nuclear fusion: the bottom line seems to be that there is no easy and straightforward way of confining the deuterium and tritium plasma enough to maintain temperature and density. It can be done, but can it be done economically? And fine, even if scientists crack the problem, there is no conceivable next step after that. Antimatter cannot be produced cheaply enough and in sufficient quantities to become a viable fuel.

There appears to be a law about this: the more radically humans try to modify matter, the more difficult it becomes.

Using the laws of physics - which govern how objects interact with each other without actually changing those objects - is easy enough: I take a stick, find something to use as a fulcrum, and lever up a weight I couldn't lift on my own.

Chemical reactions need a bit more care. Fire is relatively straightforward but using controlled explosions requires ingenuity and labour. One man can lever a rock or make a fire, but one man cannot make a motor car (including finding and refining the oil to power it).

Nuclear fission is an entirely different ball game. It requires a lot of ingenuity, labour and money to work. One man is never going to build a nuclear reactor.

Fusion is one step above fusion and after decades thinking and trying it still can't be harnessed.

Antimatter is a whole new order. It is possible to create a few thousand atoms of antihydrogen but there is no conceivable way of mass producing and safely confining it.

The stock reply is that future scientists will figure out how to do all this and more. It's just a question of some smart individual getting a eureka moment. But there's a basic error in this assumption. Applied scientific progress went hand-in-hand with advances in scientific theory or the understanding of the nature of matter. Scientists were able to create an atom bomb once they understood how an atomic nucleus works. Problem is that for decades now our understanding of matter has far outstripped our ability to make practical use of that understanding. We can manipulate atomic nuclei, but we cannot manipulate antimatter in any way that is of use to us. Further understanding doesn't help. We know what quarks are (more or less) but we can do nothing useful with that knowledge. An increase in knowledge just means a better understanding of the more fundamental components and forces of the universe that are even more out of our practical reach. It becomes understanding for understanding's sake.

The second stock response to the lack of technological progress is that we don't have the motivation of a cold or hot war to drive technological development. But that's eyewash. NASA has called it quits on Mars, not because it lacks the backing of popular support that underlay the moon missions, but because Mars quite simply is way, way more difficult, and fifty years of research have done little to lessen that difficulty. It just is and always will be far more expensive to land on Mars than on the Moon.

The motivation for technological progress is huge. Our entire civilisation is built on the assumption that the future, thanks to technology, will get better. We will improve and refine our techno-industrial complex to remove its problems and create a better world for humanity. It is this optimism that motivates us into keeping the current system going despite the burden it puts on us (stress, anyone?). That motivation, however, needs real results. The people who sign the cheques have begun to realise that the Dan Dare vision of space travel is a pipe dream, and are reluctant to fork out enormous amounts of money for showcase ventures like a manned Mars mission that don't actually accomplish anything towards getting humanity off the Earth.
 
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Dave

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I disagree with the underlying idea. History shows incremental improvements upon designs, followed by blown out of the water, revolutionary moves forward that nobody had predicted. Just because we don't yet know the next revolutionary invention does not mean that it won't come soon. I can't tell you if Gribnos Power or the Jbosne Drive will be invented tomorrow, because I can't see the future. As you have pointed out, it does however, require a pressing need and an economic imperative for something to be invented - "necessity is the mother of invention." It also usually requires a vast amount of time, money and energy to be thrown at the problems. That is easy during wartime or prosperity, much less in times of austerity.
 

hej

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The motivation for technological progress is huge. Our entire civilisation is built on the assumption that the future, thanks to technology, will get better. We will improve and refine our techno-industrial complex to remove its problems and create a better world for humanity. It is this optimism that motivates us into keeping the current system going despite the burden it puts on us (stress, anyone?). That motivation, however, needs real results. The people who sign the cheques have begun to realise that the Dan Dare vision of space travel is a pipe dream, and are reluctant to fork out enormous amounts of money for showcase ventures like a manned Mars mission that don't actually accomplish anything towards getting humanity off the Earth.

Nice post, but I'll focus on the advance of technology.

At its very foundation, science is endless puzzle-solving. Like religion, it must ask (and explore) or cease to have relevance. Important to note that, at present, only about 13% of scientific grants receive funding, so in a certain sense, we already have science in a moribund state.

As for technology becoming better, I keep in mind that what is good is subjective. Is a world with iPhones better than the world without?

It all depends on your point of view.

Medical advancement is nice, but then, with food chemists' progress in tickling palates, we now have such a global overconsumption of food, that lifespans in developed countries may be (is?) shortening.
 

Dave

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I just remembered the quote (which apparently is not from William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, but from Albert A Michelson) "… it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established … An eminent physicist remarked that the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals" or, in other words, there is nothing new to be discovered, and all that remains is more precise measurement and refinement. I think this is the gist of what you are saying, and it just isn't true.
 

AnyaKimlin

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I work with cars - they are from stuck in the mud and are constantly moving forward. I'm looking into Auto Electrics or anything I know now will be obsolete over the next 30 years.
 

Justin Swanton

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I work with cars - they are from stuck in the mud and are constantly moving forward. I'm looking into Auto Electrics or anything I know now will be obsolete over the next 30 years.

Here's my point: A Model T in 1920 cost $350, a bit less than $4000 in contemporary terms. The ultimately basic, stripped-down car is the Tata Nano at $3000 and it is strictly no-frills. So a basic car costs about as much now as it did then.

The top speed of a Model T was about 72km/h. The top speed of a Nano is about 105km/h. Not a massive difference.

It seems a Model T in today's driving conditions can do 100 000km without major maintenance. The Nano needs servicing more frequently than that.

A Model T can do 40 miles to the gallon. This is comparable to the Nano.

IMHO what becomes obsolete in a car is not its basic performance for price but its refinements. A true technological breakthrough would produce a car that could do much more, much more reliably, for much less.
 

Justin Swanton

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I just remembered the quote (which apparently is not from William Thomson, Lord Kelvin, but from Albert A Michelson) "… it seems probable that most of the grand underlying principles have been firmly established … An eminent physicist remarked that the future truths of physical science are to be looked for in the sixth place of decimals" or, in other words, there is nothing new to be discovered, and all that remains is more precise measurement and refinement. I think this is the gist of what you are saying, and it just isn't true.

More exactly, I'm saying that the last few decades have demonstrated that we have learned as much about the physical universe as we can make use of. We may discover more sub-atomic particles or come to a better understanding of the more fundamental laws of nature, but we cannot apply that knowledge in any practical way. Do you know how hard it is to make antimatter?
 

AnyaKimlin

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IMHO what becomes obsolete in a car is not its basic performance for price but its refinements. A true technological breakthrough would produce a car that could do much more, much more reliably, for much less.

Modern cars are less reliable because they do more. There is more to go wrong. In the UK there is talk of removing the MOT for older cars because they don't have on them many of the devices that are now required for the MOT in newer cars. Until recently the number of deaths on the road has decreased that is in part due to the changes in cars.

One example would be plastic bumpers that reduce the need for panel beating etc Cars can now be mapped using the ECU and that considerably improves performance. My 2012 Skoda Fabia has the capability of a much flashier car and the miles per gallon is far more economical than most cars. Plus we are now looking at self-drive, entirely electric and automated cars.

For basic performance and cutting edge then Formula One cars are where to look at the changes.
 

Justin Swanton

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Modern cars are less reliable because they do more. There is more to go wrong. In the UK there is talk of removing the MOT for older cars because they don't have on them many of the devices that are now required for the MOT in newer cars. Until recently the number of deaths on the road has decreased that is in part due to the changes in cars.

One example would be plastic bumpers that reduce the need for panel beating etc Cars can now be mapped using the ECU and that considerably improves performance. My 2012 Skoda Fabia has the capability of a much flashier car and the miles per gallon is far more economical than most cars. Plus we are now looking at self-drive, entirely electric and automated cars.

For basic performance and cutting edge then Formula One cars are where to look at the changes.

Without wanting to beat the subject to death, a Skodia Fabia starts at $16,490, i.e. more than four times a Model T. Its petrol consumption is 70.6mpg, i.e. a improvement of 176.5% on the Model T, or about 1 3/4 times more economical. Good, but not spectacular.

Self driving or automated cars are fine, but they don't go any faster and I doubt they'll be any cheaper. In ye olden days the self-driving unit of a car wore a uniform and cap ;).

Electric cars....they are far more energy-efficient than petrol/diesel cars. Electric motors are old hat - the real progress has to be in the batteries. Switching transport (and everything else) to electricity absolutely depends on the development of cheap super-batteries than can store many more watt hours per kg than contemporary batteries do, can be quickly recharged, can be recharged even if only half-empty without damage, can be recharged many times over without degradation, and are not affected by changes in temperature, humidity, etc. It looks promising.
 

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You are completely missing my point. Incremental improvements to ground cars are not important. They make no difference. You are not looking to the next discontinuity; the next blow your mind revolutionary improvement. I personally don't believe Transporters (Transfer Booths) will ever be possible, but what if they were invented tomorrow?

Your comments about supersonic flights being uneconomical, completely sidestep the real reason why they are no longer important - i.e. the improvements made in communications, by phone, radio, videophone. There is no longer the necessity to conduct business in person.
 

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I blame a loss of faith in science, myself. In the past, the general public had great respect for authorities and science and human progress. Now we've got people wallowing in every sort of anti-intellectual cesspool from anti-vaxxers to flat-earthism and outright science denial of every source. Maybe our loss of zest for technological progress is what has stalled us.
 

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One limit to technology is that our present instrument of science does not explain itself. More succinctly, science does not, and can not, explain why things are the way they are and no other way.

Science does not include other realms of thought that precede and/or came before it, e.g. law. We have laws of science, yes, but science does not explain how and why law emerged the way it did and why it had to appear in the way it did.

Moreover, scientists are confined to their boxes of knowledge. Many (most?) are unable to think in other fields -- a necessary requirement for understanding the whole of how science, law, economics, etc. work together and are built on what comes before them.

To wit, an oceanographer explained to me that his field still(!) can not explain the origin of waves. When I told him that they are the result of the flow of electrons (that form the H-O bond) through the countless water molecules, he laughed. I guess he did not recall the wave-particle duality of the electron. He offered no reason why my theory (not a hypothesis) was incorrect. He could not. He lacked the education and experience even to understand it. So, oceanography does not understand the origin of waves, because it can't.

For a more expansive example, science still has not linked gravity and quantum theory.

With these shortcomings of science, I do see a fetter on technology -- but not a halting of progress.
 

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