For Progress There Is No Cure

John von Neumann? R.L. Duffus? Albert Wohlstetter? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The remarkable recent advances in the field of artificial intelligence have produced feelings of excitement and foreboding. Power, hope, and danger are intertwined with technological discoveries. A famous scientist emphasized the inevitability of challenges:

For progress there is no cure.

Would you please explore the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: In the 1950s the editors of “Fortune” magazine invited several prominent individuals to predict future developments for the 1980s. The resultant essays were printed in the magazine and collected in the 1956 book “The Fabulous Future America In 1980”. The mathematician, physicist, and polymath John von Neumann penned a piece titled “Can We Survive Technology?” He discussed nuclear weapons, nuclear power, climate control, and automated systems. He believed that the difficulties and opportunities facing humanity were momentous. Boldface added to excerpts by QI:[ref] 1956, The Fabulous Future America In 1980, Introduction by the Editors of Fortune Magazine, Can We Survive Technology by John von Neumann, Start Page 33, Quote Page 46 and 47, E. P. Dutton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans) [/ref]

For progress there is no cure. Any attempt to find automatically safe channels for the present explosive variety of progress must lead to frustration. The only safety possible is relative, and it lies in an intelligent exercise of day-to-day judgment.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

In April 1956 a book review by R.L. Duffus in “The New York Times” examined the volume published by the editors of “Fortune” and discussed the chapter by von Neumann:[ref] 1956 April 8, New York Times, Some Sober Looks Ahead by R.L. Duffus, (Book review of “The Fabulous Future: America in 1980”), Quote Page BR32, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)[/ref]

Mr. von Neumann, himself a great technologist, asks in the title of his chapter “Can We Survive Technology?” He lets his mind run over some almost appalling possibilities such as “weather control and climate control.” He concludes that “For progress there is no cure.”

In 1964 political scientist Albert Wohlstetter published an article titled “Technology, Prediction, and Disorder” in the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists”, and he cited the words of von Neumann:[ref] 1964 October, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, Volume 20, Number 8, Technology, Prediction, and Disorder by Albert Wohlstetter, Start Page 11, Quote Page 15, Educational Foundation for Nuclear Science, Chicago, Illinois. (Google Books Full View) link [/ref]

John Von Neumann, who of all the scientists wrote most perceptively of our burgeoning technology and small, finite world, did not draw the utopian conclusions of many who cite him. On the contrary he wrote:

“It is unreasonable to expect a novel cure-all. . . . For progress there is no cure. Any attempt to find automatically safe channels for the present explosive variety of progress must lead to frustration.”

In 1980 the “Boston Sunday Globe” of Massachusetts published a piece titled “The Fabulous ’80s as seen from the Innocent ’50s” which reprinted a passage from von Neumann:[ref] 1980 July 20, Boston Sunday Globe, The Fabulous ’80s as seen from the Innocent ’50s by Nina McCain (Globe Staff), Quote Page A3, Column 5, Boston, Massachusetts. (ProQuest) [/ref]

The technology that is now developing and that will dominate the next decades seems to be in total conflict with traditional and, in the main, momentarily still valid, geographical and political units and concepts. This is the maturing crisis of technology . . . . For progress there is no cure.

In 2021 “The Economist” published a review of a new biography of John von Neumann called “The Man from the Future”. The final sentence of the review reprinted the adage:[ref] 2021 October 9, The Economist, Martian’s Landing (Book Review of Ananyo Bhattacharya’s “The Man from the Future”), Quote Page 82, Column 3, The Economist Newspaper Limited, New York. (Accessed Digital Images on October 10, 2021) [/ref]

He knew the depths to which humankind could sink, but he was by nature more co-operative than competitive. The man from the future had seen for himself that science could be used for both good and bad, and considered the only legitimate response to be the exercise of intelligent judgment. “For progress,” he wrote, “there is no cure.”

In conclusion, John von Neumann should receive credit for the words he wrote in the essay published in 1956.

Image Notes: Public domain image of two robots standing on a planet with a moon backdrop from kellepics at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to the anonymous person who read the book review in
“The Economist” and asked about the origin of the quotation. This inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

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