In defence of space budgets: Bold steps may accidentally solve humanitarian problems
From the time of the (European) industrial revolution onwards, the old adage that "need is the mother of all invention" became ingrained in our psyche so we either consider that we should put money into researching something because we clearly need it or that we don't clearly need it so we shouldn't fund it. But I really feel like the rules have changed.
Human needs will always exist so there is always the need for ways to manage those needs. But sometimes it is not necessarily clear how need could be filled, especially for complex needs, such as the need for human rights or the need for self actualisation (as Maslow would put it).
In some cases, serendipitous investments in technological pursuits seemingly worthless in terms of humanitarian benefit have accidentally revealed potential for a derivative technology that would benefit people. I see technologies like Google Earth and the world wide web as examples... (I love any excuse to talk about Google Earth!)
We didn't need the WWW or its origins in ARPANET. It was devised to ensure USA world domination would remain intact in the case of strategic bombing of communications lines – hardly a humanitarian benefit unless you are American, but a military benefit.
Nor did We need Google Earth, although no doubt NASA and the USA defence force had some military need for the satellite photos which sustain it. Yet Google Earth is more and more becoming a tool which is not just a cool web-app, apparently useless in terms of bettering humanity, but a technology which turns out to be very helpful indeed. And let's not forget that if it wasn't for the amount of money originally spent on space programs to put the photograph-taking satellites into orbit we wouldn't have Google Earth today!
In such cases it seems like innovation and invention are the parents of totally new ways of thinking and doing things. And, in time have potential to provide genuine humanitarian benefit.
Ages ago, I blogged about a guy in Italy who pinpointed an ancient Roman ruin by observing the area near his house on Google Earth.
Now, two new stories. The first is of a group of farmers near Mumbai using Google Earth to prove they deserved more compensation from the government who acquired their lands for a state government project.
The second is a bit closer to home. Researchers at Wollongong Uni are using Google Earth to spot the sites of mega-tsunamis, possibly caused by kilometre-wide comets hitting the earth. I'm not sure how if is directly useful to humankind, but I sense that being able to predict the likelihood of a mega-tsunami would save a lot more lives than were lost in the recent Aceh tsunami disaster!
Any more cool uses of Google Earth for human development or generally helping people, please pop a link in the comments.
But just one final comment from me to see what comes out of it...
It could be argued that the world wide web and Google Earth are here today thanks to a consistently generous budget for the US defence department. Imagine if that generous research budget was instead controlled by the Indian department for agriculture, or another country's department for education or department for environment, or the Australian communications and IT department (I wish)... What inventions, serendipitously useful to human development and wellbeing, could we have expected to see by now?
Maslow's hierarchy of needs image courtesy of Hillary.ca blog; Volleyball in the sky image thanks to Hughes.
Categorised as: philosophy, technology
Technorati Tags: human need, human development, innovation, future, invention, research, humanitarian benefit, space program, Google Earth, Abraham Maslow, satellite, Mumbai, University of Woollongong