In Arc 1.3: Samuel Arbesman says, Let’s be proud of our clever machines

3 Oct

In the future, machines will make discoveries beyond the ken of mankind. In his foreword to Arc 1.3, Samuel Arbesman thinks this merits a big hug. Here’s an extract of what he’s written for Arc 1.3, out now.

Soon, we will no longer be able to understand a large fraction of the knowledge we have generated. In Scientific American in 2010, Danny Hillis made a similar point. Speaking about the world that we ourselves have created – an unbelievably complex anthropic society, complete with computer networks, manufacturing systems and transportation structures – Hillis argued that we have moved from the Enlightenment, a period where logic and reason could bring understanding, to the Entanglement, where everything is so unbelievably interconnected that we can no longer understand systems of our own making.

Should this matter? Perhaps we are simply following the same trajectory we have been tracing for thousands of years, in which fewer and fewer people are able to understand the most complex parts of our world. For a great deal of our history, the vast majority of humanity has understood its surroundings according to the knowledge of the day. From the four elements to the workings of the screw and the pulley, a significant fraction of our world’s knowledge was within the grasp of most individuals. As our world has become more complex and knowledge has increased rapidly, a smaller and smaller fraction of society has felt it has a true-enough understanding of everything.

In order to comprehend any advanced topic, one must learn all the foundational knowledge first, thereby recapitulating society’s creative process. In general, novel contributions to a field only come from those who have a firm grasp of the field’s foundations. As society’s knowledge increases, it takes longer and longer to acquire enough mastery of the basics to say something new. As our knowledge increases, and the amount of time necessary to spend learning foundational knowledge becomes prohibitive, fewer and fewer people will invest the time and effort necessary to make new discoveries – or, indeed, to understand them. We may eventually reach the point where discoveries require quantities of time and understanding beyond the capacity of any single human being.

Samuel Arbesman is a Senior Scholar at the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation and a fellow at the Institute for Quantitative Social Science at Harvard University. He is the author of The Half-Life of Facts (Current, September 27).

Read more in Arc 1.3, a digital quarterly about the future, made for e-readers, tablets, phones and computer screens; also available in a collectible print edition. Visit for details.

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