Pessimism about technological change is giving way to hope—much of it justified
对技术变革的悲观情绪正被希望替代——大部分是合理的

咆哮的20年代? The roaring 20s?-书迷号 shumihao.com

FOR MUCH of the past decade the pace of innovation underwhelmed many people—especially those miserable economists. Productivity growth was lacklustre and the most popular new inventions, the smartphone and social media, did not seem to help much. Their malign side-effects, such as the creation of powerful monopolies and the pollution of the public square, became painfully apparent. Promising technologies stalled, including self-driving cars, making Silicon Valley’s evangelists look naive. Security hawks warned that authoritarian China was racing past the West and some gloomy folk warned that the world was finally running out of useful ideas.
过去十年中的大部分时间里,创新的步伐让许多人兴味索然,尤其是那些可怜的经济学家。生产率增长乏善可陈,而最流行的新发明——智能手机和社交媒体——似乎也没有多大帮助。它们的恶性副作用,比如催生强大的垄断企业和污染公共舆论空间等,反倒已经清晰地显现出来,令人烦恼。包括无人驾驶汽车在内的一些大有可为的技术停滞不前,这让硅谷的传教士们显得太过天真。安全鹰派警告说威权主义的中国正在超越西方,还有一些悲观人士告诫称世界终于耗尽了有用的想法。

Today a dawn of technological optimism is breaking. The speed at which covid-19 vaccines have been produced has made scientists household names. Prominent breakthroughs, a tech investment boom and the adoption of digital technologies during the pandemic are combining to raise hopes of a new era of progress: optimists giddily predict a “roaring Twenties”. Just as the pessimism of the 2010s was overdone—the decade saw many advances, such as in cancer treatment—so predictions of technological Utopia are overblown. But there is a realistic possibility of a new era of innovation that could lift living standards, especially if governments help new technologies to flourish.
今天,技术乐观主义的破晓将至。新冠疫苗的研发速度之快令科学家万众敬仰。引人注目的突破、激增的技术投资以及疫情期间对数字技术的采用共同燃起了人们对一个进步新时代将至的希望。乐观主义者兴奋地预言一个“咆哮的20年代”。正如2010年代的悲观主义走过了头(那十年间取得了诸多进步,比如癌症治疗),对技术乌托邦的预测同样是夸大其词。但是,出现一个能提升生活水平的创新新时代的可能性切实存在,尤其如果政府能帮助新技术大展拳脚的话。

In the history of capitalism rapid technological advance has been the norm. The 18th century brought the Industrial Revolution and mechanised factories; the 19th century railways and electricity; the 20th century cars, planes, modern medicine and domestic liberation thanks to washing machines. In the 1970s, though, progress—measured by overall productivity growth—slowed. The economic impact was masked for a while by women piling into the workforce, and a burst of efficiency gains followed the adoption of personal computers in the 1990s. After 2000, though, growth flagged again.
在资本主义的历史上,快速的技术进步是一种常态。18世纪发生了工业革命,出现了机械化工厂;19世纪是铁路和电力;20世纪是汽车、飞机、现代医学,以及洗衣机带来的家务解放。但是,到了1970年代,以整体生产率增长来衡量的进步放缓了。这种经济影响一度被两件事掩盖:女性涌入劳动力大军,以及1990年代个人计算机普及带来的一波效率提升。但在2000年之后,增长再度疲软下来。

There are three reasons to think this “great stagnation” might be ending. First is the flurry of recent discoveries with transformative potential. The success of the “messenger RNA” technique behind the Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna vaccines, and of bespoke antibody treatments, shows how science continues to empower medicine. Humans are increasingly able to bend biology to their will, whether that is to treat disease, edit genes or to grow meat in a lab. Artificial intelligence is at last displaying impressive progress in a range of contexts. A program created by DeepMind, part of Alphabet, has shown a remarkable ability to predict the shapes of proteins; last summer OpenAI unveiled GPT-3, the best natural-language algorithm to date; and since October driverless taxis have ferried the public around Phoenix, Arizona. Spectacular falls in the price of renewable energy are giving governments confidence that their green investments will pay off. Even China now promises carbon neutrality by 2060.
有三种理由认为这种“大停滞”可能行将结束。首先是最近一系列具变革潜力的发现。辉瑞/BioNTech和Moderna研发的疫苗背后的“信使RNA”技术以及定制抗体疗法的成功都表明科学在继续提升医学水平。无论是治疗疾病、编辑基因,还是在实验室里种肉,人类都越来越有能力随心所欲地调控生物性状。人工智能终于在各种各样的场景中显现出令人瞩目的进步。由Alphabet旗下DeepMind公司创建的一个程序展现了预测蛋白质形状的杰出能力。去年夏天,OpenAI推出了迄今最好的自然语言算法GPT-3。自10月以来,无人驾驶出租车已在亚利桑那州的凤凰城附近运载民众。可再生能源的价格大跌令政府有信心它们的绿色投资会获得回报。甚至中国现在都承诺到2060年实现碳中和。

The second reason for optimism is booming investment in technology. In the second and third quarters of 2020 America’s non-residential private sector spent more on computers, software and research and development (R&D) than on buildings and industrial gear for the first time in over a decade. Governments are keen to give more cash to scientists. Having shrunk for years, public R&D spending across 24 OECD countries began to grow again in real terms in 2017. Investors’ enthusiasm for technology now extends to medical diagnostics, logistics, biotechnology and semiconductors. Such is the market’s optimism about electric vehicles that Tesla’s CEO, Elon Musk, who also runs a rocket firm, is the world’s richest man.
乐观的第二个理由是对技术的投资大增。2020年的二、三季度,美国的非住宅私营部门在计算机、软件和研发上的支出超过了对建筑物和工业设备的投入,为十年来首次。各国政府热衷于为科学家提供更多现金。在经过多年缩减后,2017年经合组织24个国家的公共研发支出实值又开始增长。投资者对技术的热情现在扩展到了医疗诊断、物流、生物技术和半导体领域。市场对电动汽车产业是如此看好,以至于特斯拉的首席执行官伊隆·马斯克(也是一家火箭公司的老板)已经晋升全球首富。

The third source of cheer is the rapid adoption of new technologies. It is not just that workers have taken to videoconferencing and consumers to e-commerce—significant as those advances are, for example to easing the constraints on jobseeking posed by housing shortages. The pandemic has also accelerated the adoptions of digital payments, telemedicine and industrial automation. It has been a reminder that adversity often forces societies to advance. The fight against climate change and the great-power competition between America and China could spur further bold steps.
欢欣鼓舞的第三个缘由是新技术迅速普及。这说的不仅仅是员工习惯了视频会议、消费者拥抱电子商务——尽管这些进展确实意义重大,比如缓解了住房短缺对求职的限制。疫情也加速了数字支付、远程医疗和工业自动化的采用。这场危机提醒了人们逆境常常迫使社会进步。迎战气候变化和中美间的大国竞争可能会激发更多大胆行动。

Alas, innovation will not allow economies to shrug off the structural drags on growth. As societies get richer they spend a greater share of their income on labour-intensive services, such as restaurant meals, in which productivity growth is meagre because automation is hard. The ageing of populations will continue to suck workers into low-productivity at-home care. Decarbonising economies will not boost long-term growth unless green energy realises its potential to become cheaper than fossil fuels.
可惜的是,创新并不能让经济体摆脱结构性问题对增长的拖累。随着社会变得更富裕,收入更多地花在劳动密集的服务业上,比如在餐馆用餐,而由于这些部门难以实现自动化,生产率的增长也十分可怜。人口老龄化将继续把员工吸纳到生产率低下的居家护理业中。除非绿色能源变得比化石燃料便宜的潜力得以实现,否则经济脱碳将不会促进长期增长。

Yet it is reasonable to hope that a fresh wave of innovation might soon reverse the fall in economic dynamism which is responsible for perhaps a fifth of the 21st century’s growth slowdown. Over time that would compound into a big rise in living standards. Perhaps still more is achievable because many service industries, including health care and education, would benefit greatly from more innovation. Eventually, synthetic biology, artificial intelligence and robotics could up-end how almost everything is done.
然而,有理由期盼新一波创新潮可能会很快扭转经济活力的减退——21世纪增长放缓或许有五分之一是因为这种减退导致的。在一段时间后这将累积成生活水平的大幅提高。也许它还能实现更多好处,因为包括医疗和教育在内的许多服务行业都将因创新增加而大受裨益。最终,合成生物学、人工智能和机器人技术可能会颠覆几乎所有事情的做法。

It’s not rocket science
并非难事

Although the private sector will ultimately determine which innovations succeed or fail, governments also have an important role to play. They should shoulder the risks in more “moonshot” projects. The state can usefully offer more and better subsidies for R&D, such as prizes for solving clearly defined problems. The state also has a big influence over how fast innovations diffuse through the economy. Governments need to make sure that regulation and lobbying do not slow down disruption, in part by providing an adequate safety-net for those whose livelihoods are upended by it. Innovation is concentrated among too few firms. Ensuring that the whole economy harnesses new technologies will require robust antitrust enforcement and looser intellectual-property regimes. If governments rise to the challenge, then faster growth and higher living standards will be within their reach, allowing them to defy the pessimists. The 2020s began with a cry of pain but, with the right policies, the decade could yet roar.■
尽管私营部门将最终决定哪些创新会成功或失败,但政府也需要扮演重要角色。它们应该为更多野心勃勃的“登月项目”承担风险。国家提供更多更好的研发补贴也很有用处,比如为解决明确定义的难题提供奖励。政府对于创新需要多久才能渗透整个经济也具有重大影响力。它们需要确保监管和游说不会拖慢颠覆的步伐,这在一定程度上需要为那些生计被颠覆的人们提供充分的安全网。目前创新集中在为数太少的公司中,要确保整体经济能利用新技术,就需要强有力的反垄断执行以及更宽松的知识产权制度。如果政府迎难而上,更快的增长和更高的生活水平就会触手可及,让他们证明悲观主义者错了。2020年代以痛苦的呼喊开局,但如果用对了政策,这十年仍有机会快意咆哮。