The fallacy of stalled progress

Medicine is the true progress measure

2017 version

There is a group of people who believes that progress is slowing down or is even stalled. This is not something really new, and most of the arguments go as far as 1950 to point where things "stopped happening". The arguments are many, from "nothing really new is invented or discovered since then" to "the last decades are more of the same, with only fancier cover".

It goes on: Computing is basically the "same" since the microchip was invented. Medicine can't cure anything important since penicillin was discovered, we went to the moon and nothing more or new came from it. We are all content with the smartphones on our hands to see that we still live on the same society for decades, and a small computer that can make calls and send messages change nothing.

Others accept some technological improvements, but argue they are pointed to the 1%, and the majority of people will never see or feel them.

It is a sad and grim vision not only about our past, but our future. We evolved all the way to the early 20th century to stagnate?, and it will keep on going achieving nothing but cosmetics? But the saddest part is that there are people who believe that.

What is progress, really?

"MEDICINE is the one true focal point of all progress"

The first thing that most people completely fail to understand is what is progress. What is the ultimate goal of science and technology. No, it is not "having a moon base", its not having bigger planes and faster computers, self-driving cars or powerful gadgets that fit your pocket. 

Humanity started exploring its intellectual capacity for one reason alone: To improve its life, its health, its well-being. MEDICINE is the one true focal point of all progress. What is the point of going to the moon, traveling the skies, calculating the trillionth decimal number of pi or enjoying a self-driving vehicle if we are still dying from cancer, suffering depression, and fighting diabetes? 

To really measure progress, we should not look at how faster our computers got or how cheaper a Li-ion battery is, but rather, how much better our lives are. The real pointers are in research like SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence), DALY (Disability-adjusted life year) and psychological improvements in our Quality of Life, or even the proposed GPI (Genuine progress Indicator) to replace GDP. Everything else are commodities and dressing.

Are we really stalled?

If we take a sampling from 1950 onwards, we are clearly living on the most advanced (and advancing) stage of history. Both explicit and consequential analysis show that things are progressing steadily, if not exponentially, in every field (except, unfortunately, psychology).

Life expectancy grew from 46 worldwide in 1950 to over 70 today (confirmed 68 at 2010), which is a consequential effect of the improvement in life quality and medicine. In fact, Life expectancy grew so much that we now talk about DALY - Disability adjusted life year, in which we don't calculate how long a person will live, but rather how many days of life he will lose to disability (including disease) and early death.

The world understood the dangers of tobacco and started to fight against it. We understood that it is carbohydrates (sugar), and not raw calories, that are the main danger for obesity.

The DNA was discovered, then the whole human genome was mapped in a 10-year effort that can now be replicated in less than 3 days under U$1000, paving the way to a new generation of treatments that will cure diseases once thought incurable like Cancer and Neuro-degenerative diseases in at most 2 decades. MinION can sequence any DNA in a few hours and is the size of a smartphone.

Anesthesia and Analgesia became common place (can you believe there were no general anesthesics until 1946?), so did Laparoscopic procedures, which were rare until the late 80's.

We saw lethal diseases being eradicated by vaccines, including Polio, which vaccine was only developed in 1952, and measles, which could be eradicated by now if it were not for retarded celebrities and misinformation. And that, thanks to progress in computing and networking, which allow anyone to spread any information he or she sees fit. The same sharing of information now allows research and developers to work together across the globe and share data instantly, while a hundred years ago could take days or weeks to reach all peers.

We once had a lack of information, now we have too much information.

Organ transplants became commonplace, from the first Kidney transplant in 1954 and Heart Transplant in 1967. Not only that, but we have now Total Artificial Hearts and Kidneys that can temporarily replace the organ and soon might even pave the way to cybernetics (as soon we get better batteries).

The Contraceptive pill was invented, Benzodiazepines discovered, Stem Cells were not only discovered, but we learned how to make more (IPC), allowing us to start growing organs.

The mind-blowing CRISPr Gene editing technique was developed and is already being used in trials to cure cancer or neuro-degenerative diseases.

Diagnostic medicine launched a new era with technological breakthroughs in all areas thanks to CAT/scan, PET/scan and improved blood screening. We can detect the history of diseases of a person (present and past) from a drop of blood (see VirScan), we can detect cancer from breath. 

Diabetes stopped being lethal to treatable with artificial insulin and insulin pumps. The median survival time for cancer patients increased more than 5 times. AIDS became a condition, not a death sentence (and we now even have a vaccine), much like how nobody even cares who have Herpes simplex  anymore (since almost 80% of people have it, and it is now mostly a flu-like disease) . Ebola went from "potential extinction of mankind" to also having a vaccine.

Bacteria evolved to be Antibiotic resistant, and then we started using virus and gene-therapy to root them out - in a few years antibiotics might be obsolete.

In 2017, diseases like Leukemia, Huntington's disease, Epidermolusis bullosa, Haemophilia, Sickle cell disease, and even type 2 diabetes were cured in laboratories! Alzheimer, ALS and Parkinson all had astonishing developments in the recent years, with Alzheimer poised to be treatable very soon.

No, progress is not stalled. It is literally the most impressive time to be alive. 

What the future holds then?

We don't need to conjecture on unknown progress and discoveries to already have an amazing next decade. Most of the cures and improvements on life that will take place are already being researched or even on final trial stages. Using only this information, we can see impressive achievements in medicine that will change the world a lot more than antibiotics once did (by taking TB from being the #1 killer in the late 19th century to out of the top killers today).

Diagnostic medicine will keep improving with tools like VirScan and MinION-like devices taking point, together with the first Tricorder-like (Star Trek anyone?) devices getting mainstream. From very early diagnostic, cure for complex diseases can be achieved without the need of complex techniques.

3D printing is already being used in some areas, and not only for the rich. Dentists worldwide are using the technology to make temporary implants on the fly.

Cancer (all of them), Alzheimer, Parkinson, Diabetes and Bacterial infections will all come to an end, as genomics and other like sciences fix the root cause of them (reprogram the genes involved in causing them), or reprogram simple viruses to attack sick cells. All of that in 15 to 20 years (most of these are already successful cases in research institutes around the globe)

Better diets and on-the-fly diagnostics will reduce cardiovascular death, and where the damage is severe, lab-grown organs will be available for transplants, or mechanical artificial versions that never fail will end the need for transplants all-together. 

Even physical damage like deaf and blindness will be treatable with implants, such as cochlear implants that already exist and fix a variety of deaf types.

As life-expectancy hits peak telomere capabilities, SENS research will soon enable us to fix such problem (the Hayflick limit). Current research has already developed self-healing DNA that can pad lost telomere in rats.

And all of that will be only sped up as more powerful computers, models and simulations become available, not to mention improved algorithms and A.I. specialized in solving tasks that humans are not fast enough to do. 

By 2030, all the top 10 killers of today will be surpassed by accidents and the one issue that society and research is ignoring for not being "profitable enough": psychological issues like Anxiety and Depression, which cause not only loss of life-days, but often lead to suicide. Almost 4% of death today is by Suicide, and as other causes are reduced thanks to medicine, this percentage will keep climbing.

Ray Kurzweil once said that if you live to 2045, you will live forever, as he believed that by 2045 all diseases will be cured, and senescence solved. He made such prediction in 2005, but by now, it is far more likely we will have the required technology a decade earlier.

One often argument on the stagnant nature of progress is that only the rich get the best of it. Not at all, the rich usually get the treatments earlier, when they are expensive and rare, but eventually it gets to everyone. Vaccinations are happening in poor countries more than in rich countries, genomics, while still expensive, will be as cheap as any other common medicine since it will be all automated from the diagnostic tool to the chemical dispenser, and once we solve senescence, it might as well all be moot. It is very important to remember that a person alive and active is a lot more economically attractive to everyone than a dead person.

If all that is not progress, I wonder what is. And we are not even including yet-to-be-invented/discovered events, which ... we didn't invent/discover yet.


Related: My yearly-updated predictions for the future