Science: The Challenge Ahead
For centuries, science has contributed to human development, both economically and socially. The curiosity of humankind constantly stimulated science. Man, using superior abilities, discovered more and more of what surrounded him. He also elaborated ways of thinking that led to a highly effective social organization.
Nevertheless, the social and economic development distribution was not equal, as it created highly developed regions and impoverished and undeveloped areas, with the West ruling the rest of the world. The progress, but also the significant imbalance, is because of three elements, according to what historian Jan Morris believes: biology, the humans are the more intelligent animals, they are more able than others to extract energy from the environment and turn it into a usable form. Humans are curious, creative, and able to develop ideas that pile up, producing development. The transmission of ideas delivers better ideas because of the second element: sociology. Social development and social organization favor confrontation of people and act as a catalyst for moving upward. When the political and social organization limits the social confrontation, there is stagnation and possibly decline. The third element is geography. This element was relevant in the past: the regions with mild climates enjoyed a positive evolution of cultivation and the presence of races of animals that humans domesticated. The result was more food and more people; consequently, more development. The geographical advantage had a long-term impact with a consequent hegemony of populations in or from those regions. The status consolidated over time, and the social and economic progress principally benefitted the West. The gap between developed areas and underdeveloped ones enlarged constantly.
What is the role of science on human development? In the beginning, science had mainly an indirect (but essential) contribution. The aim of science was far from the practical use of discoveries. Scientists found answers to the many whys without thinking or being motivated by the problems of ordinary life. For this reason, they were, by definition, ethical, as double motivations did not drive their action. Indeed, there are examples of inventions by scientists motivated by warlike necessities, such as, for example, the invention of Archimedes’ mirrors which he used during the siege of Syracuse to burn Roman ships. There were at least 24 large flat mirrors, with the central mirror reflecting the sun’s beam onto a ship; the side mirrors converge on the same point, thus multiplying the burning effect.
Another example is the invention of gunpowder, the oldest explosive used by man, attributed to a Chinese scientist. It consists of a mixture of sulfur (S), carbon (C), and potassium nitrate (saltpeter, KNO3). Sulfur and carbon (coal) act as fuel, while the saltpeter is the oxidant. Because of its inflammatory properties and the heat and gas it generates, it served as a propellant for firearms.
In short, the initial phase of science was finding answers to the whys, and technology much later used these answers for practical and hopefully valuable applications for the development of humanity.
The temporal separation between scientific discoveries and their practical use was essential because it allowed scientists to operate without constraints. In addition, the science costs were very low and did not require citizens’ contribution to support the scientist’s activity.
The research in the golden age of science (the renaissance of science) required financial funding as experimental verifications had to support the studies. Patronage by a king, emperors, and sometimes rich bourgeoises satisfied those needs. Therefore, even in that period, the citizens’ involvement almost did not exist. Bright scientists worked without constraints and discovered the fundamental laws of chemistry, physics, and electricity. The scientific advancements created a solid basis for social and economic development, but still, the effect was indirect. Science was the catalyst of the industrial revolution.
An essential consequence of human progress is the increasing use of energy. Ancients used foodstuff and wood to survive; for some activities, they used mills or sails, exploiting the low- density energy. Nevertheless, in the beginning, the energy source was mainly animals (muscles of humans or domesticated animals); only later humankind begins to exploit other types of energy stored by nature in various chemical forms. The energy or “energy capture” increased steadily from 4 Kilocalories/capital/day in prehistoric times to more than 40 Kilocalories/capital /day in the 20th century.
From the second half of the 20th century until now, humankind enjoyed an incredible economic and social development acceleration. The acceleration was undoubtedly due to the vast benefits of electrical, electronic, and computer science. Nevertheless, two anomalous factors initiated the advancements: war and space competition.
A dramatic event determined the end of the Second World War: dropping two atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki on 6 and 9 August 1945. The construction of the bombs was made possible because of the contribution of the scientists of the Manhattan Project, engaging Robert Oppenheimer, Enrico Fermi, and a group of European scientists who took refuge in the United States. On the other front, there were studies on long-range missiles, and the studies of Werner von Braun enhanced that activity. Contingent needs drove science, and the result was, for some, positive as the war ended abruptly. Indeed, the approximately 200,000 dead Japanese citizens and, I suppose, many others in the world do not agree.
A second element that brought science and political demands closer and closer was space competition. It is natural for humankind to feel superior in some discipline. Some are satisfied with superiority in sport, football, for example. Instead, two superpowers, the USA and the Soviet Union challenged each other in the pursuit of ever-greater space successes with missile launches, satellites, moon landings, and exploration of planets of the solar system in the period between approximately 1957 and 1975, trying to prevail over each other.
An important impact of the two events is in the ethics of science. While previously ethical aspects were not even to be considered, after the involvement of science in warfare and the struggle for hegemony, it became evident that part of science was corrupted by specific interests and did not work for the good of all humanity.
Since the development benefits only a part of the world, it depends on political reasons, also driven by hegemonic cravings. Consequently, we must distinguish between two opposed facets of science: one that seeks the answers to the whys and another with specific and medium or short-term purposes. This second category includes, however, peaceful development research or applied research.
A second effect is a dramatic increase in the cost of science. Scientific progress (which has mainly become technological) increasingly depends on money. Poor scientists, while intellectually excellent, become obsolete and no longer appreciated by the scientific
community. Acquiring copious research funds is appreciated and considered great merit. Making increasingly expensive experiments becomes a source of respect and pride.
The significantly accelerated development of the last decades has corresponded to the affirmation of the so-called knowledge society, in which the role of knowledge assumes a central role in the societal processes from an economic, social, and political point of view. Therefore, knowledge is the basis for growth and competitiveness through research and innovation. The new form conforms the knowledge economy, studied by Peter Drucker, that involves investments in Research and Development (R&D) and in marketing activities, with lower and lower quotas for production and production techniques. Competitiveness comes from information and knowledge. Investments concern sectors defined as strategic with public resources to universities to fund applied research. All to foster innovative high-risk businesses with venture capital firms.
The point is that only in totally democratic societies is knowledge available to any citizen with the real opportunity to contribute to the development of socially shared ends. This attribute is not entirely valid within individual societies, but even more so between different societies. In addition, the concept of a knowledge society involves competition and prevalence. As a result, the gap between ruling countries and underdeveloped regions increases.
The recent developments in genetics, robotics, nanotechnology, and computer science, have led to a level of change and consequences that deserve careful consideration. People’s appearance had gotten better than they were when they were young. Parents can choose the characteristics of their children and discard fetuses that do not correspond to their wishes. Advances in biology have led to the construction of artificial cells in the laboratory. Genetic manipulations allow the development of new diagnostic techniques and therapeutic skills, improve the cultivations, but also, sadly, create viruses that are dangerous to humans.
The military has also exploited scientific advances. DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency), for example, finances, among others, the Brain Interface Project aiming to create biocompatible and implantable neuronal networks for having computers and the brain communicate directly. The application is that those devices could be implanted in the heads of the soldiers to make them more effective.
Robots are now machines whose programs do not concern deterministic and repetitive solutions but use algorithms based on various artificial intelligence techniques (genetic algorithms, fuzzy logic, machine learning, neural networks) to perform humanoid tasks.
Nanotechnology and computer science allow enormous processing capacities, such as executing programs of unimaginable complexity until a few years ago.
The development in recent years is almost exclusively due to science, which has put itself, becoming technology, at the service of business and politics. Ethics becomes fundamental since doing science could mean doing good or bad for humanity.
A further aspect of economic and social progress is the enormous increase in energy use. Energy capture has practically doubled since the birth of information technology. In the west, however, it is more than twice the “energy capture” in the east. The consequence has been an amplification of wars for energy sources and, at the same time, the push towards containment of energy use in emerging regions. The initiatives linked to climate change (of claimed anthropogenic origin) are functional to this objective.
Those involved in science know that when a parameter grows continuously, it is a sign of instability. Indeed, the accelerated growth of what we call progress seems to lead to social instability. We can say that science, as it was understood until a few decades ago, no longer exists; its products are now used immediately for applications, which can be positive or negative. They can widen or decrease the social-economic gap in the world, favor or not the hegemony of some.
The above is the challenge. The carefree scientist looking for answers to whys is a distant memory. Scientists of all disciplines must be ethical. Now and in the future, they must be directly responsible and not follow the ruling class. In the electrical and electronic fields, scientists must primarily contribute to effective energy transformation and optimize its use since energy is the development engine. Science will continue to exist if it works for the harmonious well-being of all humanity.
Author: Franco Maloberti, IEEE Division I Director