Almost daily, advances in STEM subjects capture our admiration and awe for what humanity can accomplish. Higg’s “God particle” is finally discovered; a microchip the size of a finger nail can contain several billion transistors and other electronics; architects can design buildings one-half mile high; one-atom thick “graphene,” the thinnest yet strongest material ever discovered, paves the way for bionic devices connected directly to neurons; entirely new organisms with DNA sequences created on a computer are used to produce food. These accomplishments and the associated “politico-academic” rhetoric about education and research around the globe give us the impression that the future of the world is dependent on the progress of everything STEM.
But it cannot be so. Unless we begin recognizing that the same pace of discovery in STEM fields needs to be applied to our very humanity, we will end up as dull, ignorant automatons, our humanity lagging behind our scientific-mathematical brains. If science and technology advance our capacities to do ever-greater actions, we must learn from them and advance our capacities to think ever greater thoughts. We must use both capacities of our brain.
Let me give an example of what we can learn from STEM—take Moore’s law. In 1965, Gordon Moore, co-founder of Intel, forecast that the progress of miniaturizing transistors would proceed at an exponential rate in the future. His projection—that the number of transistors on an integrated circuit would double every year (which was later revised to every two years, and then to every 18 months)—seemed preposterous to imagine. What gave Moore the confidence to predict what he called “circuit and device cleverness”? How could humans achieve such a technological feat given the unimaginable hurdles that would have to be surpassed to make it happen?
Yet, we did it. Human minds made the discoveries and invented the technologies necessary to go further than ever imagined. Moore’s law has proven to be largely true, thanks to the brilliant work of many who improved the thinness and performance of circuits, who reduced their size, who learned how to pack more and more on ever smaller wafers. In 2014, bioengineers at Stanford even developed a circuit that simulates 1 million brain neurons with billions of synaptic connections. Scientists are now pondering whether Moore’s law might also apply to the rate of advancement in Artificial Intelligence, while the public debate and the number of movies are growing about the consequences if and when computers become capable of designing computers and robots better than themselves, exceeding human intellectual capacity and control.
In the meantime, however, our humanity has seen an enormous increase in global problems. Since Moore’s forecast in 1965, international, national, regional conflicts and wars continue to kill and claim millions of innocent civilians. Billions of dollars are spent on increasing the effectiveness and efficiency of war machines. Religion-based conflict destroys not only people but also humanity’s earliest settlements and historical treasures. While prosperity has reached millions of people around the globe, creating enormous new middle classes, billions more still live in abject poverty. Millions of children die each year from preventable diseases. Thousands die on the ships of human traders in the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean. Our cities are teeming with social ills and archaic infrastructures while hope for a better life attracts more desperate people to them. And we are consuming the resources of the Earth without a global strategy to halt human impact on the climate.
The chasm between how the STEM field flourishes and our progress as humans is shocking and sad. If we can land a Rover on Mars, transplant organs, build self-driving cars, and translate a paragraph from Swedish to Tagalog in about 30 nanoseconds, can we not make equal progress to lift billions from ignorance and poverty; save innocent children from war, famine, and disease; protect girls from genital mutilation; learn how to solve geopolitical and religious conflict without guns and bombs; and all else that humanity must do to keep our planet from succumbing to our own failings?
In my view, we can learn a lot from the advances our researchers in STEM make, because they teach us lessons about our humanity. For every new scientific, technological, engineering, and mathematical notion or discovery, I submit to you that there is a corollary humanities discovery to reclaim. Moore’s law, for example, tells us that we might begin to think that, yes, we can attempt to double our human capacities every few years, too. While we cannot measure this progress in any type of quantitative way, the metaphor of doubling our human qualities in a short period of time can act like an objective we set for ourselves in the same way that Moore’s law has inspired the competitive tech industry to chase Moore’s prediction for 50 years. We can indeed seek out new strides to grow our humanness and reduce our baser tendencies of aggression, greed, and ignorance. We can achieve the seemingly insurmountable barriers to bring prosperity, education, good health, and peace to every single human on Earth if we apply Moore’s law to our human progress.
There is every reason that the advancements in science and humanities must go hand in hand. According to the American Association for the Advancement of Science, a 21st century liberal education should empower individuals and prepare them to deal with complexity, diversity, and change. We cannot accomplish these goals through STEM alone. We can look to Moore’s law as a metaphoric driving force in this regard— an inspiring goal that we set for ourselves in everything humans do. Just imagine if our capacities to be open-minded and free from dogma, preconception, conscious of our opinions and judgments, reflective of our actions and aware of our place in the social and natural worlds would double every 18 months. Of course, Moore’s law is just one of many STEM advances that I believe we can apply to reclaim our humanity. More will come.
About the author:
Dr. Johan Roos is Dean and Managing Director of Jönköping International Business School (JIBS), where he also holds a professorship in strategy. From 2009 to March 2011 he served as President of Copenhagen Business School.