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This Will Change Everything May 29, 2010

Posted by Amir Roth in books, climate, politics, science, society, technology.
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I have just finished reading “This Will Change Everything” edited by John Brockman. It’s a collection of 125 short essays—where short ranges from one sentence to about 2,000 words—that respond to the question “What game-changing event or technology do you expect to live to see?” This question was posed in 2008 on edge.org and the respondents are the leading thinkers of our time. Some of them are recognizable (Richard Dawkins, Freeman Dyson, Roger Schank, David Gelernter, Craig Venter). Others are not. About 110 had interesting things to say. And about 120 write incredibly concisely and elegantly. Or maybe that’s Brockman airbrushing.

I’m not and Edgie, but if I were asked, I would have answered with one of the following: i) we would (accidentally) create a conscious artificial intelligence that will quickly take over the world a la Skynet or the Program Smith—although I don’t actually think this will happen, ii) global warming will significantly change the face of the planet likely for worse, iii) the United States will elect a Jewish lesbian president from the Green Party, perhaps Rachel Maddow if she converted and switched party affiliations, or iv) the Eagles will win the Superbowl. I guess options number one and two were obvious, because some of the actual respondents went with them. Shockingly, no one chose doors three and four.

A little commentary about the actual responses. The most common theme by far was radical human enhancement including enhancement of the brain. I counted 17 essays on this topic. If I expanded the criteria just a little to include understanding and not strict manipulation, the number would have been 22. Juan Enriquez went so far as to call his essay “Homo Evolutis”, the continuously and consciously evolving species. Someone else predicted humans will be significantly more varied as a species than we are today. Who knows, maybe some of us will be 20′ foot tall, blue, with carbon-fiber skeletons and USB tails able to jack in to other forms of life. My favorite in this category was Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster who predicted that we will genetically engineer ourselves to be physically much smaller so that we consume fewer resources and that a human society that numbers in the billions becomes sustainable. Runner up was Alison “Scientist in the Crib” Gopnik who wrote that we will be able to maintain or even reintroduce high degrees of brain plasticity and therefore be able to stay in a childlike “intellectual sponge” state for significantly longer and maybe indefinitely.

Another high-frequency topic was contact with extra-terrestrial life. Eight entries here. I agree that this will change things, especially if this life happens to be technologically superior to us. But it’s far down on my list because I just don’t think it will happen. We might—I repeat might—via spectroscopic analysis discover the signature of life on some distant exoplanet, but making meaningful contact with this life will be nearly impossible. We will not establish actual “contact” with it.

There were five or six essays about Artificial Intelligence that will rival or exceed human intelligence. I am a computer scientist by training and so I am a little more familiar with this than I am with some of the other predictions. And I am skeptical. Real intelligence requires constructive models for semantics, i.e., what things mean, not just what they are. This is obvious and I am not sure how close we are to a computational equivalent of this. Maybe we are a few decades away. But I also think that real intelligence requires consciousness—it seems hard to be truly intelligent without being conscious—and that real consciousness requires emotion—this also seems plausible—and I am really not sure how close we are to having computational models of emotion. I don’t think we are anywhere near something like this. To me, the more interesting essays were the five or six about human-machine interfaces. Evidently, a few people see this coupling as becoming much tighter in the next half century, including the ability to upload ourselves into our avatars and to live forever in silicon. As long as we don’t live forever in Silicon Valley.

Climate change. Six essays and I’m cheating because I’m including essays about future attempts and successes at controlling climate. Sadly, this—the change part—is about as safe a prediction as we can get. We are already locked in to some pretty significant changes. Progress on the CO2 emissions front is alarmingly slow. Progress on the ice sheet melting front is alarmingly fast. Unless some serious geo-engineering takes place between now and when I die—NASA? hello?—I expect to see some serious shizz.

Six people foresaw personalized universally accessible education as the game changer. Amen.

Another five or six essays about the defeat of aging and chronic disease. Various estimates of average 2050 life expectancy in the developed world were 110, 150, and “essentially infinite”—given financial means—courtesy of the ability to replace and regrow arbitrary body parts.

A few of my favorite singletons. Discovering one or maybe more of the Klein-Kaluza additional dimensions of string theory—talk about “Fringe,” I hope in other other dimension I’m a Navi and “Fringe” is a better show. Carniculture—growing meat artificially rather than harvesting it from animals. Universal communication—jagshemash! Human-animal hybrids like the Island of Dr. Moreau—personally I would like to be hybridized with a dolphin. Also, I was disappointed that nobody suggested human-plant hybrids. And I don’t mean half-man/half-tree. Wouldn’t many problems be solved if humans could photosynthesize? Back to the list. Post-rationality—I think I’m already there. The need to bring the not-quite-developing world up to Western standards—triple Amen to that. Massive computer failure—oh no, whatever would happen to Bluejay? Detection and suppression of malevolence genes. A return to illiteracy as video replaces text. And finally, the notion that we just might become satisfied with technological progress and shift our collective focus from advancement and aggrandizement to enjoying our finite execution quanta—kumbaya.

There were about four or five essays I found completely incomprehensible. I couldn’t even parse the sentences. The one I could parse and found least interesting? Proving the Riemann hypothesis. Really? That will change everything? Name one thing. Seriously, the Eagles winning the Superbowl will change more lives.

P.S. The US patent system has several problems: it’s too easy to get certain kinds of patents, it’s too easy to artificially extend the lifetimes of certain patents, the patent review process itself takes too long—at least too long relative to technology advance—and patents are generally written and reviewed by non-experts but then attacked and defended in court by experts. But the biggest problem is that patents do not come attached with plain English extended abstracts that practitioners in the field can understand. I am supposed to be an expert in some field and I have quite a difficult time reading patents in this same field! What does this say about me?

P.P.S. Unreliable sources tell me that Bluejay was number 42 on this list.

P.P.P.S. Or not.

P.P.P.P.S. A must read if you’re a sports fan. Or even if you’re not. What is it? Bill Simmons guide to the Russian billionaire who bought the New Jersey Nets.

P.P.P.P.P.S. I am putting “The Black Swan” on my reading list. Not just because of the topic, which is fascinating, but because of Nassim Taleb’s obnoxious website, which is just as fascinating if not more so. I’ve just spent 45 minutes chasing down links on this thing.

P.P.P.P.P.P.S. Are we at a new record for (P.)+S.? I don’t know. I will have to go through the archive.

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