Saturday, November 30, 2013

'I think anybody who believes that we are in a period of decline or stagnation probably hasn’t been paying attention...'

That's Sebastian Thrun, Google's top research scientist, at Foreign Affairs, "Google's Original X-Man: A Conversation With Sebastian Thrun."

A phenomenal interview:
There are people who feel that the prospects of life are diminishing and that the next generation is not going to have a better life than the previous one. Do you think your child’s life will be more interesting and exciting and filled with larger prospects than yours?

If you look at history, the fear that the next generation would be worse off than the previous one has been around for many centuries. It’s not a new fear. And it’s often due to the lack of imagination of people in understanding how innovation is moving forward. But if you graph progress and quality of life over time, and you zoom out a little and look at the centuries, it’s gotten better and better and better and better.

Our ability to be at peace with each other has grown. Our ability to have cultural interchanges has improved. We have more global languages, we have faster travel, we have better communication, we have better health. I think these trends will be sustained going forward, absolutely no question. If you look at the type of things that are happening right now in leading research labs, I see so many great new technologies coming out in the next ten to 20 years. It ought to be great.

So you disagree with the notion that innovation is dead, or that we’re in a great stagnation, or a period of decline?

I think anybody who believes that we are in a period of decline or stagnation probably hasn’t been paying attention. If you look at the way society has transformed itself in the last 20 years, it’s more fundamental than the 50 years before and maybe even bigger than the 200 years before.

I’ll give an example. With the advent of digital information, the recording, storage, and dissemination of information has become practically free. The previous time there was such a significant change in the cost structure for the dissemination of information was when the book became popular. Printing was invented in the fifteenth century, became popular a few centuries later, and had a huge impact in that we were able to move cultural knowledge from the human brain into a printed form. We have the same sort of revolution happening right now, on steroids, and it is affecting every dimension of human life.

A century or two ago, you had innovations such as steam, electricity, railroads, the internal combustion engine, the telegraph and telephone and radio. Those things had ramifications that fundamentally changed the structure of society, the structure of political organization. Is the information technology revolution going to have that kind of impact?
I think the impact will be greater. I don't want to belittle any innovation. I think the steam engine, the car, television, all the examples you mentioned are landmarks of history. But if you zoom out a little bit, most of these inventions come from the last 150 to 200 years. Very few are a thousand years old or older, and given that humanity is much older than that, you could say that almost all inventions are recent. I believe the full potential of the Internet has not been realized yet, and we're not very used to it. But a hundred years from now, we will conclude this was one of the biggest revolutions ever.

I believe we live in an age where most interesting inventions have not been made, where there are enormous opportunities to move society forward. I'm excited to live right now. But I would rather live 20 years from now or 50 years from now than live today. It's going to be better and better.