"What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?"
Last December, following an annual tradition, the Edge Foundation asked a select group of intellectuals, researchers, artists and visionaries to reply to this brief question. Their answers, totalling 151 contributions and an estimated 107,000 words, are posted online at the Web site of the World Question Center under this year's heading: "What will change everything?"
Since 1998, the Edge Annual Question has been bringing together some of the world's finest minds to reflect on a specific matter chosen for its relevance or thought-provoking potential. It has sometimes implied a bold challenge, like 2000's question, "What is today's most important unreported story?," and at other times the exercise has been more theoretical, like last year's "What have you changed your mind about?" This year, the topic proposed for consideration is about the ultimate breakthrough that shall have a radical and permanent effect on life as we know it.
This collection of answers, which, as did its most recent predecessors, will surely find its way to printed publication in a few months, not only serves as a precise sketch of the current state-of-the-art in future studies; above all, its separate viewpoints and differing emphases converge to weave a consistent panorama of what the near future will very probably look like.
Everything will change if we work our way up to Kardashev 1. The most optimistic respondents coincided in echoing the prophets of the Singularity, the qualitative leap in technological development that is expected to take us beyond all currently imaginable standards of innovation, productivity, efficiency and affluence.
Bacteria modified to synthesize fuel will boost our energy sustainability while giving the atmosphere a much-needed relief. The mastery of fusion under controlled conditions will supply us with endless clean energy. And with affordable nanoreplication devices in each home, manufacture of any commodity --or even food-- will become a mere pastime. The tenets of economic theory will collapse under this post-scarcity scenario.
Alas, since the Singularity lies by definition beyond the conceivable horizon, it's easier to imagine what dreams we'll fulfill once there than how we're going to reach it. For example, space exploration and colonization are inspiring prospects, and may someday prove indispensable to our survival, but the degree of progress needed for such endeavors still seems unattainable.
Some of the proposed paths toward that goal involve upgrading our computing power to the point where digital intelligence is capable not only of self-awareness and meaningful communication, but also of studying and improving itself in an accelerating feedback loop that will make it truly superhuman.
There is already a distributed community of millions of individual computers that can provide the physical infrastructure for the nascent AI. The current trend in semantic Web is toward enabling the machine to transcend the mere storage and processing of information and advance towards recognizing and making sense of it. A synthetic brain, encompassing the whole world, aided by our progress in mathematics and thinking at the quantum level, won't be too far from meeting our definition of omnisapience.
Everything will change if life as we know it loses its traditional connotation. A sizable portion of the academics consulted by the Edge Foundation speculated on the possibilities open to synthetic genomics, astrobiology and neuroscience. Each of these holds the key to bypassing the barriers imposed upon us by the contingencies of evolution.
Genomic medicine will offer each patient a tailor-made treatment fitted to his or her genetic profile. Artificial lifeforms will help us understand the mechanisms that brought life into existence, as well as the secrets of aging and degenerative diseases. By thus extending our lifespan, we will be freer to explore the potential of human creativity, curiosity and self-realization. Being human --indeed, being alive-- may soon need redefinition.
The simplest sample of alien life would settle at once a host of burning questions. Even an independent lineage of organisms on Earth itself would support a vision of a universe where life is welcome to arise. For us, the most immediate cultural consequence of such a discovery would be a deepened sense of brotherhood with all lifeforms, including those made in our laboratories or emerged from our electronic minds.
The boundaries between us and not-us shall gradually shift. We could engineer ourselves to be smarter, healthier, or just prettier. If we manage to overcome the first wave of prejudices, the use of embryonic cells (some even with hybrid DNA) and robotic body parts could put an end to most inherited diseases and nearly all disabilities. When brain-machine interfaces and neural modelling reach the point where the whole content of a mind can be run in a digital medium, uploads will be the ultimate release from death.
Revolution, sans the blood
For some respondents, new times will demand new manners and conventions. The trend toward global decision-making is sure to defy the presuppositions we are used to living under. Institutions and laws, traditions and standards cast in the shape of times gone, will prove irrelevant for our coming preoccupations. This change will be most evident as it influences creative solutions to ethnic conflicts, economic inequality and other social concerns. If we learn to cooperatively address our real problems instead of engaging in endless arguments over who's to blame, who must pay, or who owns which piece of the cake, everything will change.
The proposals among the Edge Foundation respondents, though varied, speak of a common sentiment: humankind as a whole entity, with an essentially good nature that survives the cruelest enmities, and whose heterogeneous elements are not a potential for chaos to be feared, but a source of power to be embraced. The risk of wishful thinking remains, but the consequences of inaction are much worse; and only coordinated effort can succeed in addressing critical issues as nuclear proliferation, climate change, and financial instability.
Even without reaching such extremes, there are areas where a cooperative approach cannot but be beneficial. One interesting idea within this collection involves using wireless Internet to bring the best education resources in e-book format to every remote village under the guide of connected tutors. Simple schemes like this can have profound long-term effects.
The nature of change
Not everything needs to turn out so well. Catastrophe was another common theme in this series of essays. It may be a hurt nature taking its revenge, or a critical increase in our already unsustainable population, or an accidental nuclear detonation that sparks the next great war. The potential collapse of our industrial civilization is a real possibility we have to live with, and the authors who decided to treat this subject would prefer us not to forget it in the midst of our optimism.
Everything is changing. Or has already changed. Or won't. Or it doesn't matter. Change, as another group of authors pointed out, is in the eye of the beholder, and what "changing everything" means depends as much on our concept of "change" as on our concept of "everything." The next radical change to come may imply a redressing of the same old trends and values, or a complete reengineering of our way of life; and "everything" can mean the cultural climate of our time as well as the very fabric of existence. Change is natural, and is always occurring. And the selection made by the Edge Foundation for this year is an excellent and absorbing anthology of the best informed judgments on what is to come.