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John von Neumann's 1955 paper, Can We Survive Technology?

It is hard to refute the claim that John von Neumann is likely the most intelligent person who has ever lived.

On the 8th of February 1957, at 53 years old, humanity lost one of the most brilliant minds in recorded history. 

It is hard to refute the claim that John von Neumann is likely the most intelligent person who has ever lived. By the time of his death in 1957 at the modest age of 53, the Hungarian polymath had revolutionized several subfields of mathematics and physics, made foundational contributions to pure economics and statistics, and had a crucial role in the invention of nuclear energy and digital computing.

Known now as "the last representative of the great mathematicians," John von Neumann's genius was legendary in his lifetime, but sadly, he faded into obscurity after his death.

The sheer breadth of stories and anecdotes about his brilliance, from Nobel Prize-winning physicists to world-class mathematicians, abound.

von Neumann's 1955 paper, Can We Survive Technology? is one of the most brilliant and prescient future forecasts ever written. He wrote:

"The great globe itself is in a rapidly maturing crisis—a crisis attributable to the fact that the environment in which technological progress must occur has become undersized and underorganized. Literally and figuratively, we are running out of room. For the kind of explosiveness that man will be able to contrive by 1980, the globe is dangerously small, its political units dangerously unstable."

In summary, von Neumann claims an inherent limitation in "technology's relationship to geography." Setting up this argument, he proposed that the industrial revolution consisted of three main improvements:

  1. More and cheaper energy;
  2. More straightforward controls of human actions and reactions;
  3. More and faster communications;

"Each of these three developments increased the effectiveness of the other two." The result, according to von Neumann, was not efficiency improvements but rather leveraging and enabling geographical expansion:

"Increased speed did not so much shorten time requirements of processes as extend the areas of the earth affected by them."

The reason for this, von Neumann argued, is that improvements in the 'time to do something' are inherently limited by human reaction times, habits, and other physiological and psychological factors. 

Given this (assumed) limitation, accelerating technological progress instead enabled expansion in the "size of units—political, organizational, economic, and cultural— affected by technological operations." 

Instead of performing operations in less time, larger-scale operations were performed in the same amount of time following the Industrial Revolution. Herein lies the core of von Neumann's claim:

"Technological progress leads to expansion rather than increasing efficiency."

Although von Neumann did not mention computers by name in his 1955 essay, he did devote space to the rapidly progressing technologies of automation, writing:

"In our century, small electric amplifying and switching devices put automation on an entirely new footing. The last decade or two has also witnessed an increasing ability to control and discipline large numbers of such devices within one machine."

In von Neumann's view, the consequence of these improvements would be "explosive." One potential future industry he predicted might emerge as a consequence is climate control or possibly weather modification.

"One phase of this activity is 'rain making.' While it is not easy to evaluate the significance of the efforts made thus far, the evidence seems to indicate that the aim is an attainable one".

Global Warming

"The carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere by industry's burning of coal and oil-—more than half of it during the last generation—may have changed the atmosphere's composition sufficiently to account for a general warming of the world by about one degree Fahrenheit."

Under the headline "Awful and more awful," von Neumann concludes his essay more or less as follows:

"Present awful possibilities of nuclear warfare may give way to others even more awful. After global climate control becomes possible, perhaps all our present involvements will seem simple. We should not deceive ourselves: once such possibilities become actual, they will be exploited."

"Experience also shows that these transformations are not a priori predictable and that most contemporary 'first guesses' concerning them are wrong. For all these reasons, one should take neither present difficulties nor presently proposed reforms too seriously."

"The one solid fact is that the difficulties are due to an evolution that, while useful and constructive, is also dangerous."

von Neumann's essay was later republished in his collected works: von Neumann, J. 1963. Collected Works Vol. VI*. Pergamon Press.

In 1955, at the age of 51, Von Neumann was diagnosed with what was likely either bone, pancreatic, or prostate cancer (accounts differ on the diagnosis).

Nobel Prize in Physics winner Hans Bethe said in 1967, "I have sometimes wondered whether a brain like von Neumann's does not indicate a species superior to that of man."

von Neumann was worthy of the accolade. He worked alongside and collaborated with some of the foremost figures of twentieth-century science. He went to high school with Eugene Wigner, collaborated with Hermann Weyl at ETH, attended lectures by Albert Einstein in Berlin, worked under David Hilbert at Göttingen, with Alan Turing and Oskar Morgenstern in Princeton, with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen and was close with both Richard Feynman and J. Robert Oppenheimer at Los Alamos.

About the Author: Greg Twemlow is a Sydney-based Social Enterprise Founder | Startup Mentor | CEO | Writer | Speaker | Designer at The Skills Studio