December 10, 2014

1965. The Future of Humanity

The Flood of Knowledge
Source: "Apollo 17 astronaut Harrison Schmitt standing next to a boulder at Taurus-Littrow."

September 30, 1965


Anyone who has a child in school, who takes a Sunday drive in his car, or tries to make a dental appointment knows what the population explosion already is doing to our everyday life. And we've all read the (Malthusian) predictions of gloom and doom about the future of our children in the 21st Century, when there may be so many people around that the earth will be unable to feed them. According to some pessimistic population specialists, the female pelvis is a greater threat to civilization than the hydrogen bomb.

That there is genuine cause for concern over today's unbridled birth rate is generally undisputed. And more and more governments -- such as India -- are seeking ways to cut back their populations as a means of fighting poverty and raising their standard of living. But while the birth rate has been booming, another kind of explosion has been building in our modern societies which is having as much impact and far more promise for the future than the rocketing population problem.

It's an intellectual revolution which sometimes is called the "Information Explosion," and the flood of knowledge now being released on the world may provide many of the answers that our children will need to deal with the plethora of people scheduled to inhabit their future. In fact, illustrating the quantum-jump in man's knowledge during the past 2000 years are estimates from the National Education Administration. The NEA say that the total body of human knowledge has doubled in the period from Year One to the eve of the Industrial Revolution of the mid-18th Century.

In other words, it took about 1750 years of scientific and intellectual achievement for the early British and Dutch colonists who settled in America to develop twice the brain power of the Roman Legions who occupied Jerusalem under Pontius Pilate. However, it was the Industrial Revolution which really produced mankind's first explosion of technology through the invention of new machines and the power to run them. The NEA says that the body of knowledge doubled again in the 150 years between 1750 and 1900.

Then the process began to speed up. There was another doubling of human knowledge between 1900 and 1950, and then came the fourth, and biggest, "Information Explosion" of all, again doubling the available knowledge and technology in just ten short years between 1950 and 1960. The Information Explosion is still going on at an appalling rate, and no single human brain can ever hope to catch up with it all.

What it has all proved, thus far, is that the capability of the human mind is unlimited and infinite. What has not been proved is whether mankind has to good sense to survive its nuclear inventions or its passion for reproduction. As a somewhat cynical optimist, we have to believe that humanity has a better than even change to survive itself.

One of the reasons is that every technology, no matter how specialized, has what the scientists call a "spin off," a kind of scientific bonus wherein the new knowledge can be applied for the general use and benefit of the public.

The problem today is that there's so much scientific and technical know-how piling up -- particularly in the government's $15 billion a year research and development programs -- that the so-called "spin off" benefits, which might be of use to the American people, are in danger of being buried or ignored. This is the significance behind what President Johnson calls a "sleeper" bill which he signed several days ago called "The State Technical Services Act of 1965." The purpose of this new program is to diffuse the immense body of new scientific and technological information to business and industries throughout the country.

Technological information centers will be set up in colleges and universities across the land. The idea is to service the nation's business and industrial community, much as the government's Agricultural Extension Service promoted the development, science, and improvement of American farms -- a program which has made the nation's agronomy the envy of the world.

Probably one of the most common "spin-off" benefits Americans have adapted from the government's military experiments is the automobile seat-belt first proved out for safety but the fighter pilots of the air force. But the taxpayer is due to get many more returns for his scientific tax money the National Space Agency is spending.

For example, experiments made on the Mercury and Gemini astronauts already have provided the medical profession with the means of checking a patient's temperature, respiration, heartbeat, and even his brainwaves -- already a boon to surgeons in complicated operations.

And some day you may be able to check into a hospital where you will be plugged into a number of instruments which will provide more careful nursing around the clock than a whole platoon of nurses could give you now. The Space Age already has produced telemetered monitors for people with heart diseases. The instruments record or broadcast a warning if something is going wrong.

And for the future, other space scientists are working on ways of using the brain to put a person to sleep, or to wake him up to aid the astronaut during long journeys through space. And we're told that it may some day be possible to make people shut up just by pushing a button, like I'll do right now.

This is Bill Downs, substituting for Edward P. Morgan, saying good night from Washington.