Tom MacWright

Quick thoughts: on the introduction of technology

I watched the AlphaGo documentary yesterday and it brought to mind this passage from Atomic Awakening, a book about atomic weaponry, power, and science.

And so transpired the birth of the Atomic Age, at 5:29:45 in the New Mexican desert. It would be an interesting time to be alive, as the coming decades would be a hectic period, filled to capacity with new discoveries, new hardware, new physics, and a lot of funding. Nuclear power had been born backwards. Instead of looking down a long tunnel at the lamp of knowledge in the distance, there was a blinding flash, right at the entrance, after only a few years of intense theoretical speculation. As they say in nuclear engineering circles, if the first use of gasoline had been to make napalm, we’d all be driving electric cars now. - Atomic Awakening

This comes to mind a lot. There’s this certain aspect of technology, especially in computer science, where generality and specificity interact. We know that a chemical like gasoline has many uses, including napalm. Nuclear reactions can be a power source or a weapon. And machine learning can be a tool for cancer researchers, or an opponent in Go.

What if Bitcoin’s initial users were teachers accepting donations for classroom supplies, instead of nerds and criminals? How does Zuckerberg’s horrible VR stunt in Puerto Rico reflect the future of VR? Despite technology being general enough for many purposes, what it’s used for initially, and associated with initially, has an outsize impact on its public perception and, in many cases, future application.

I’m going to start more casual blogs again, with low production polish and so on. This could have been ‘Twitter storms’ but I’d like to narrow my Twitter scope and keep more of my content in my own domain.

The header image is from the Department of Energy’s Operation Plowshare: “Cut-away view showing an artist’s concept of the location of a number of nuclear explosives properly buried so that simultaneous detonation will excavate a ditch-like crater. c. 1966”

Thanks Kyle McDonald for mentioning the documentary and lending another interesting viewpoint.