Just this week the Senate had a hearing, ostensibly about speech on internet platforms. But what the hearing was really about was our continuing inability to figure out what to do with a technological infrastructure that gives every single person on the planet the ability to broadcast their thoughts, whether illuminating or poisonous. We know that solutions are elusive, especially in the context of our current electoral issues. But this is actually one of the less vexing conundrums that technology has dropped on our lap. What are we going to do about Crispr? How are we going to handle artificial intelligence, before it handles us? A not-encouraging sign of our ability to deal with change: While we weren’t looking, smart phones have made us cyborgs.
Here’s another example of a change that might later look more significant than our current focus: Late last year, Google announced it had achieved “Quantum Supremacy, ” This means that it solved a problem with its experimental quantum computer that couldn’t be solved with a conventional one, or even a supercomputer.
It’s a forgone conclusion that quantum computing is going to happen. When it does, what we thought was a speed limit will evaporate. Nobody—nobody!—has an idea of what can come from this. I bet it might even be bigger than whatever Donald Trump will do in a second (or third or fourth) term, or the civil disorder that might erupt if he isn’t returned to the People’s House.
A few days after the election, on that same West Coast trip, I had a random street encounter with one of the most important leaders in technology. We spoke informally for maybe 15 or 20 minutes about what had happened. He seemed shattered by the outcome, but no more than pretty much everyone I knew. He told me that he asked himself, should I have done more? Like all of the top people in the industry, he has since had to make his accommodations with the Trump administration. But as with all his peers, he has not relented on his drive to create new technology that will continue the remarkable and worrisome transformation of humanity.
The kind of people who work for him will keep doing what they do. Maybe they will no longer want to work for a company that’s overly concerned about winning the favor—or avoiding the disfavor—of a president who they think is racist, a president who despises immigrants (wife and in-laws excepted), a president who encourages dictators and casts doubts on voting. If things get bad in this country, a lot of those engineers and scientists will leave, and a lot of other countries will welcome them. The adventure will continue. Even if the United States as we know it does not last another generation, scientists will continue advancing artificial intelligence, brain-machine interfaces, and, of course, quantum computing. And that’s what our time will be known for.
Yes, a thousand years from now, historians will study the Donald Trump phenomenon and what it meant for our gutsy little experiment in democracy, as well as for the world at large. I am still confident, however, that historians will find more importance in learning about the moments in our lifetimes when science changed everything.
What I am not confident about is predicting how those future historians will do their work, and to what extent people of our time would regard those historians as human beings, or some exotic quantum Crispr-ed cyborgs. That’s something that Donald Trump will have no hand in. And why it’s so important, even as politics intrude on our everyday existence, to do the work of chronicling this great and fearsome adventure.