Technology is Not So Bad

When I started Seed, I had a fairly strong aversion to technology. Somehow, sometime, science and technology had become science-and-technology. Two worlds, dissimilar in many respects, likely linked in speech for the practical goal of raising funding and attention for basic research by showing the direct, immediate correlation with usable things. I felt then that the 'and' made science more perfunctory and less romantic. And that this was a bad thing on multiple counts.

In the last year, I've come to see the relationship between science and technology very differently. We have reached the point in physics and cosmology, neuroscience, and genetics at least where technology is quintessential to advancement. Technology is not merely making the practice of science faster, less mundane or, as with microscopes, helping us see the otherwise unseeable; it is a distinct yet complementary landscape from which we can advance our knowledge of the natural world.

A physicist at CERN said to me recently that they likely wouldn't have built a new $8 billion collider if there was a better way of moving the field forward. The Blue Brain Project is using supercomputers to construct a mind because the neuroscientists involved believe it is the best way of attaining an overall understanding of the brain. Robots, I now appreciate, are not simply novelty items or tools of automation, but can be a way of gaining unique insight into humans. From simulation to supercomputing, technology is now (or at least I now see) one of science's very best friends (I could say the same for the arts). And the design, magnitude, and complexity of these technological feats satisfy my (and our) need for romance in our pursuit of truth.

The sum total of all information produced in 2008 will likely exceed the amount of information generated by humans over the past 40,000 years. Science is getting literally bigger, but as these and other major experiments churn out pentabytes of data, how do we ensure that we are actually learning more? Visualization, and more generally a strong relationship between science and design, will be essential to deriving knowledge from all this information.