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Is there a limit to technological progress? - Clément Vidal


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Many generations have felt they’ve reached the pinnacle of technological advancement. Yet, if you look back 100 years, the technologies we take for granted today would seem like impossible magic. So — will there be a point where we reach an actual limit of technological progress? And if so, are we anywhere near that limit now? Clément Vidal consults Kardashev’s scale to find out.

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At first, it seems that we could imagine any future technological progress. But physics puts boundaries on our imagination. Physics allows to define progress with general notions such as energy or scale. Since the laws of physics apply throughout the universe, such a definition of progress may also apply to extraterrestrial civilizations and not only to planet Earth.

The Kardashev scale was proposed back in 1964, and it doesn’t look a day older. Energy is necessary for everything we do, and we do consume more and more of it. However, exponential energy use is hard to sustain! Energy specialists have argued that we are on the verge of a solar, or heliocultural revolution. Energy has been central in previous human revolutions, such as the industrial revolution. Historically, such energy revolutions go in concert with other revolutions: in human consciousness, science, technology, economy and society. What will these be in the case of the solar revolution? It is our role today to think about and to shape this transition.

Barrow’s scale was introduced in 1998, balancing the idea that only more energy matters for progress. Richard Feynman popularized the fact that small scales hold a great potential for future technologies, by giving a lecture entitled “there’s plenty of room at the bottom.”

Quitting the boundary of the Earth, Dyson has proposed to extract stellar energy with solar panels, and educator Clément Vidal has argued that active energy extraction from stars may also be an option. For more details about his work in this area, see his website, his book, and a video about the big future.

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TED-Ed Animations feature the words and ideas of educators brought to life by professional animators. Are you an educator or animator interested in creating a TED-Ed Animation? Nominate yourself here »

Meet The Creators

  • Educator Clement Vidal
  • Director Bálint Gelley
  • Script Editor Alex Gendler
  • Storyboard Artist Daniel Gray
  • Layout Artist Daniel Gray
  • Designer Lili Korcsok
  • Composer Gergely Buttinger
  • Sound Designer Zoltán Vadon
  • Narrator Addison Anderson

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