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Special Edition Magazine, Spring 2020: Beyond the Techlash

The Horizon Bias in Human Innovation

In an age that offers seemingly limitless technological promise, it makes sense to step back, suspend our credulity, and consider why we are so inclined to believe that what could happen will happen soon. We should remain hopeful, but also aware that nature will always be cleverer than we are.

WELLINGTON – We are beguiled by technology and what it can do for us, be it colonizing Mars, ending human aging, or connecting the entire world within a single network. But, especially in an age that offers seemingly limitless technological promise, we should step back, suspend our credulity, and consider why we are so inclined to believe that what could happen will inevitably happen soon.

Consider the case of cancer, that most vexing of diseases. Modern bio-, nano-, and other technologies promise us a “cure,” such that one can now easily imagine a “world without cancer.” And yet there is little reason to expect a decisive victory over cancer anytime soon.

To be sure, we already have therapies that can kill most cancer cells. The problem is that killing 99% of cancer cells is not the same thing as killing 99% of enemy soldiers in a war. The cells that resist the near-cure multiply, enabling the tumor to make up lost ground. And while we can address this problem with better targeting, there is a persistent gap between the near-cure and the cure. As Siddhartha Mukherjee shows in his best-selling “biography of cancer,” The Emperor of all Maladies, that is why the fight against cancer has been a long story of dashed hopes and overwrought expectations.

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