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Evolutionary Biologist, Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford University; Author,
The God Delusion

The Final Scientific Enlightenment

I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein's dream and discover the final theory of everything before superior creatures, evolved on another world, make contact and tell us the answer. I am optimistic that, although the theory of everything will bring fundamental physics to a convincing closure, the enterprise of physics itself will continue to flourish, just as biology went on growing after Darwin solved its deep problem. I am optimistic that the two theories together will furnish a totally satisfying naturalistic explanation for the existence of the universe and everything that's in it including ourselves. And I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.

Computer Scientist and Musician

Interpersonal Communication Will Become More Profound; Rationality Will Become Ever More Romantic

An extravagant optimism ought to suggest new precipices of fulfillment that surpass mere responses to the many problems we already know about.

One extravagant idea is that the nature of communication itself might transform in the future as much as it did when language appeared. This is not easy to imagine, but here's one approach to thinking about it: I've been fascinated by the potential for "Post-symbolic Communication" for many years. This new style of interpersonal connection could become possible once large numbers of people become virtuosos at improvising what goes on in Virtual Reality.

We are virtuosos at spoken language. Adults speak with what seems like no effort at all, even though everyday chats might be the most complicated phenomena ever observed. I see no reason why new virtuosities in communication could not appear in the future, though it's hard to specify a timeframe.

Suppose you're enjoying an advanced future implementation of Virtual Reality and you can cause spontaneously designed things to appear and act and interact with the ease of sentences pouring forth during an ordinary conversation today.

Whether this is accomplished by measuring what your body does from the outside or by interacting via interior states of your brain is nothing more than an instrumentation question. Either way, we already have some clues about how the human organism might be able to improvise the content of a Virtual World.

Some of the most interesting data from VR research thus far involve Homuncular Flexibility. It turns out that the human brain can learn to control radically different bodies with remarkable ease. That means that people might eventually learn to spontaneously change what's going on in a virtual world by becoming parts of it.

That aspect of the brain which is optimized to control the many degrees of freedom of body motion is also well suited to controlling the many degrees of freedom of a superlative programming and design environment of the future. It is likely, by the way, that the tongue would turn out to be just as important in this type of communication as it is in language, for it is the richest output device of the human body. (I have already done some work on through-the-cheek tongue measurement to test this idea.)

Why bother? It's a reasonable hunch. Words have done so much for people- so alternatives to them with overlapping but distinct functions ought to lead to new ways of thinking and connecting.

An alternative to abstraction might arise — the possibility of expression through a fluid and capable concreteness. Instead of the word "house" you could conjure up a particular house. How do you even know it's a house without using the word? Instead of falling back on whatever the word "house" means, you might toss around a virtual bucket that turns out to be very large on the inside- and contains a multitude of house prototypes. In one sense this "fuzzy" collection is more precise than the word, in another, less so. It is different.

If all this sounds a little too fantastic or obscure, here's another approach to the same idea using more familiar reference points. Imagine a means of expression that is a cross between the three great new art forms of the 20th century: jazz improvisation, computer programming, and cinema. Suppose you could improvise anything that could be seen in a movie with the speed and facility of a jazz improviser. What would that mean for the sense of connection between you and someone you love?

There's a little book by James P. Carse with a wonderful title, Finite and Infinite Games. Some of the passages are bit too New Agey for me, but the core idea, expressed in the title, is clear and useful. A finite game is like a single game of baseball, with an end. An infinite game is like the overall phenomenon of baseball, which has no end. It is always a frontier.

So many utopian ideas are about Finite Games: End disease, solve global warming, get people to be more rational, reduce violence, and so on. As wonderful as all those achievements would (will!) be, there is something missing from them. Finite Game optimism suggests a circumscribed utopia, without frontier or mystery. The result isn't sufficiently inspiring for me- and apparently it doesn't quite grab the imaginations of a lot of other people who are endlessly fascinated by dubious religious and political utopias. The problem is heightened at the moment because there's a trope floating around in the sciences, probably unfounded, that we have already seen the outline of all the science we'll ever know, and we're just in the process of filling in the details.

The most valuable optimisms are Infinite Games, and imagining that new innovations as profound as language will come about in the future of human interaction is an example of one.

Entrepreneur in Action, Sequoia Capital

Eudaemonia: The Third form Of Happiness

Capitalism has become more aligned with the forces of good ( i.e. philanthropy) than greed. As the polarization of wealth peaked over the past decade the press and public became obsessed with "greed is good" meme in the 80s, and the "rules don't apply to the rich" 90s (think Enron, Worldcom, dotcom). However, the real story was brewing and we read it first on Edge and witnessed it in Ted Turner's gift to the UN.

The most successful businesspeople in the world have decided to put their brains and bank accounts toward fixing the world, leaving politics and politicians on the sidelines. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, John Doerr, and Pierre Omidyar — among many others — are demonstrating that the true goal of winning is giving. The brass ring has moved from private aviation and mega-yachts, to making a mega-pledge at Bill Clinton's annual summit.

Edge's ongoing discussions on happiness are clearly documenting (contributing to?) the trend. As psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman noted in his 2004 Edge feature, "Eudaemonia, The Good Life": "The third form of happiness, which is meaning, is again knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying those in the service of something you believe is larger than you are. There's no shortcut to that. That's what life is about."

Artificial Life Researcher; Creator of Lucy, a Robot Babay Orangutan; Author, Creation: Life and How to Make It.

The Strong Possibility That We've Got Everything Horribly Wrong

The thing I'm most optimistic about is the strong possibility that we've got everything horribly wrong. All of it. Badly.

Once, when I was a young child, I accompanied my father on a car journey around some twisty back lanes in England. Dad wasn't familiar with the area, so I helpfully took the map from him and navigated. Things seemed to be going pretty well for the first half hour, until we found ourselves staring helplessly at a field gate that should have been a major road junction. It turned out that I'd been navigating from entirely the wrong page of the map, and it was sheer coincidence that enough landmarks had matched my expectations for me to believe we were on track.

I learned a lesson from this. Science sometimes learns these lessons too. Thomas Kuhn put it much better than me when he introduced the concept of a paradigm shift. Sometimes we manage to convince ourselves that we have a handle on what is going on, when in fact we're just turning a blind eye to a mass of contradictory information. We discard it or ignore it (or can't get funded to look at it) because we don't understand it. It seems to make no sense, and it can take us a while before we realize that the problem doesn't lie with the facts but with our assumptions.

Paradigm shifts are wonderful things. Suddenly the mists clear, the sun comes out and we exclaim a collective "aha!" as everything begins to make sense. What makes me so optimistic about science right now is that there are plenty of these "aha" moments waiting in the wings, ready to burst energetically onto the stage. We've got so much completely wrong, but we're starting to look at the world in radically new ways – dynamical, nonlinear, self-organizing ways – and I think a lot of our standing ideas and assumptions about the world are about to turn inside-out, just as our much older, religious ideas did during the Enlightenment.

My guesses for prime candidates would include quantum theory and our understanding of matter, but those aren't my field and it's not my place to judge them. My field is artificial intelligence, but I'm sad to say that this subject started on the wrong page of the map many years ago and most of us haven't woken up to it yet. We keep our eyes firmly on the route and try not to look to left or right for fear of what we might see. In a way, Alan Turing was responsible for the error, since his first big idea in AI (that something vaguely reminiscent of human thought could be automated) turned out to be such a stonkingly good one, for other reasons entirely, that it eclipsed his later, more promising ideas about connectionist systems and self-organization. Since then, the digital computer has dominated the AI paradigm, through failure after dismal failure.

My great white hope for AI lies in neuroscience. The only working intelligent machine we know of is the brain, and it seems to me that almost everything we think we understand about the brain is wrong. We know an enormous amount about it now and just about none of it makes the slightest bit of sense. That's a good sign, I think. It shows us we've been looking at the wrong page of the map.

Let me try to illustrate this with a thought experiment: Suppose I give you a very complex system to study – not a brain but something equally perplexing. You discover quite quickly that one part of the system is composed of an array of elements, of three types. These elements emit signals that vary rapidly in intensity, so you name these the alpha, beta and gamma elements, and set out eagerly to study them. Placing a sensor onto examples of each type you find that their actual signal patterns are distressingly random and unpredictable, but with effort you discover that there are statistical regularities in their behaviour: beta and gamma elements are slightly more active than alpha elements; when betas are active, gammas in the same region tend to be suppressed; if one element changes in activity, its neighbours tend to change soon after; gammas at the top of the array are more active than those at the bottom, and so on. Eventually you amass an awful lot of information about these elements, but still none of it makes sense. You're baffled.

So allow me to reveal that the system you've been studying is a television set, and the alpha, beta and gamma elements are the red, green and blue phosphor dots on the screen. Does the evidence start to fit together now? Skies are blue and tend to be at the top, while fields are green and tend to be at the bottom; objects tend to move coherently across the picture. If you know what the entire TV image represents at any one moment, you'll be able to make valid predictions about which elements are likely to light up next. By looking at the entire array of dots at once, in the context of a good system-level theory of what's actually happening, all those seemingly random signals suddenly make sense. "Aha!"

The single-electrode recordings of the equivalent elements in the brain have largely been replaced by system-wide recordings made by fMRI now, but at the moment we still don't know what any of it means because we have the wrong model in our heads. We need an "aha" moment akin to learning that the phosphor dots above belong to a TV set, upon which images of natural scenes are being projected. Once we know what the fundamental operating principles are, everything will start to make sense very quickly. Painstaking deduction won't reveal this to us; I think it will be the result of a lucky hunch. But the circumstances are in place for that inductive leap to happen soon, and I find that tremendously exciting.

Isaac Newton once claimed that he'd done no more than stand on the shoulders of giants. He was being far too modest. It might be more accurate to say that he stayed down at child height, running between the giants' legs and exploring things in his own sweet way. That's what we Third Culturists are all about, and it's such a combination of artful playfulness and pan-disciplinary sources of analogy and inspiration that will turn our understanding of the world inside-out. I'm very optimistic about that.

Professor of Philosophy, Edinburgh University
; Author, Being There: Putting Brain, Body and World Together Again

The End Of The 'Natural'

I am optimistic that the human race will continue to find ways of enhancing its own modes of thought, reason, and feeling. As flexible adaptive agents we are wide open to a surprising variety of transformative bodily and mental tricks and ploys, ranging from the use of software, sports regimes and meditational practice, to drug therapies, gene therapies, and direct brain-machine interfaces.

I am optimistic that, stimulated by this explosion of transformative opportunities, we will soon come to regard our selves as constantly negotiable collection of resources, easily able to straddle and criss-cross the boundaries between biology and artifact. In this hybrid vision of our own humanity I see increased potentials not just for repair but for empowerment, expansion, recreation, and growth. For some, this very same hybrid vision may raise specters of coercion, monstering and subjugation. For clearly, not all change is for the better, and hybridization (however naturally it may come to us) is neutral rather than an intrinsic good. But there is cause for (cautious) optimism.

First, there is nothing new about human enhancement. Ever since the dawn of language and self-conscious thought, the human species has been engaged in a unique 'natural experiment' in progressive niche construction. We engineer our own learning environments so as to create artificial developmental cocoons that impact our acquired capacities of thought and reason. Those enhanced minds then design new cognitive niches that train new generations of minds, and so on, in an empowering spiral of co-evolving complexity. The result is that, as Herbert Simon is reputed to have said, 'most human intelligence is artificial intelligence anyway'. New and emerging technologies of human cognitive enhancement are just one more step along this ancient path.

Second, the biological brain is itself populated by a vast number of hidden 'zombie processes' that underpin the skills and capacities upon which successful behavior depends. There are, for example, a plethora of such unconscious processes involved in activities from grasping an object all the way to the flashes of insight that characterize much daily skilful problem-solving. Technology and drug based enhancements add, to that standard mix, still more processes whose basic operating principles are not available for conscious inspection and control. The patient using a brain-computer interface to control a wheelchair will not typically know just how it all works, or be able to reconfigure the interface or software at will. But in this respect too, the new equipment is simply on a par with much of the old.

Finally, empirical science is at last beginning systematically to address the sources and wellsprings of human happiness and human flourishing, and the findings of these studies must themselves be taken as important data points for the design and marketing of (putative) technologies of enhancement.

In sum, I am optimistic that we will soon see the end of those over-used, and mostly ad hoc, appeals to the 'natural'. May we all have a thoroughly unnatural New Year.

Founder, Whole Earth Catalog, cofounder; The Well; cofounder, Global Business Network; Author, How Buildings Learn

Cities — Global Population Shrinkage And Economic Growth

Proviso: If climate change shifts from gradual to "abrupt" during the next 20 years, that bad news will obliterate the good news I otherwise expect in the realms of global population shrinkage and economic growth.

Cities have always been wealth creators. Cities have always been population sinks. This year, 2007, is the crossover point from a world predominantly rural to a world predominantly urban.

The rate of urbanization is currently about 1.3 million new city dwellers a week, 70 million a year, still apparently accelerating. The world was 3% urban in 1800, 14% urban in 1900, 50% urban this year, and probably headed in the next few decades to around 80% urban, which has been the stabilization point for developed countries since the mid-20th-century.

Almost all the rush to the cities is occurring in the developing world (though the countryside continues to empty out in developed nations). The developing world is where the greatest poverty is, and where the highest birthrates have driven world population past 6.5 billion.

Hence my optimism. Cities cure poverty. Cities also drive birthrates down almost the instant people move to town. Women liberated by the move to a city drop their birthrate right on through the replacement rate of 2.1 children/woman. No one expected this, but that's how it worked out. As a result, there will be another billion or two people in the world total by midcentury, but then the total will head down--- perhaps rapidly enough to be a problem, as it already is in Russia and Japan.

Poverty in the megacities (over 10 million) and hypercities (over 20 million) of the developing world will be highly visible as the disaster it is. (It was worse out in the bush, only not as visible there. That's why people leave.) But the poor who were trapped in rural poverty create their own opportunity once they're in town by creating their own cities--- the "squatter cities" where one billion people now live. They recapitulate the creation of cities past by generating a seething informal economy in which everyone works. The dense slums, if they don't get bulldozed, eventually become part of the city proper and part of the formal economy. It takes decades.

Globalization and urbanization accentuate each other. Medical care that couldn't reach the villages can reach slum dwellers. The newly liberated women in the slums create and lead CBOs (community based organizations, some linked with national and global NGOs) to handle everything from child care to micro-finance. If the city has some multinational corporations closely surveiled by do-gooders back home, their pay rates and work conditions will raise the standard throughout the city.

The sudden urbanization is a grassroots phenomenon, driven by the resourcefulness and ambition of billions of poor people busy getting out of poverty as fast as they can. Some nations help the process (China is exemplary), some hinder it (Zimbabwe is exemplary), none can stop it.

Psychologist; Director, Quality of Life Research Center, Claremont Graduate University; Author, Flow

We Are Asking And Answering

I am optimistic for the simple reason that given the incredible odds against the existence of brains that can ask such questions, of laptops on which to answer them, and so on — here we are, asking and answering!

Editor, Release 1.0; Trustee, Long Now Foundation; Author,
Release 2.0

The Attention Of The World's Rich Will Turn To Solving The Problems Of The Poor

Many of the venture capitalists I know are turning to environmental and energy investments; the more adventurous ones are looking at health care (not just drugs), low-end PCs, products for the masses. They are funding training schools in India — for-profit — rather than just donating to legacy universities in the US. The watch-word is "sustainability:" In plain English, that means making a profit so that more profit-seeking investors will enter and enlarge the market.

They will have a variety of motivations, ranging from altruism and the desire to solve problems, to a need for recognition or sheer belief in the profitability of doing so, but the result will be cause for optimism all the same. Millions of investors and entrepreneurs will apply their resources and talents to improving products, distribution systems, training and education and health-care facilities targeted at the billions of people at the bottom of the pyramid. In our fluid world of competition and fast-spreading information, some people will still get rich by being first and smartest, but most will get rich by implementing well and serving broader markets. For the first time in history, power is really moving to the masses, not as a power block, but as a market.

Of course, all those billions of people will also be producers...and a broader spread of education and productivity tools — ranging from water pumps to cell phones and PCs — will enable them to join the world economy as productive people.

Yes, this is an optimistic view and it won't all be simple, but the forces — from human dignity to human greed — are aligned. You asked for the optimistic view....and optimism will help make it happen!

Physicist, Stanford University; Author, The Cosmic Landscape

Going Beyond Our Darwinian Roots

I am optimistic about the adaptability of the human brain to answer questions that evolution could not have designed it for. A brain that can rewire itself to visualize 4 dimensions, or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, is clearly going way beyond the things that natural selection could have wired it for. It makes me optimistic that we may be able to go beyond our Darwinian roots in other ways.

Cultural Revolution Correspondent, Washington Post; Author, Radical Evolution" The Promise and Peril of Enhancing Our Minds, Our Bodies — And What It Means to Be Human

The Human Response To Vast Change Will Involve Strange Bounces

I am an optimist because I have a hunch Mark Twain was right when he portrayed Huckleberry Finn as an archetype of human nature.

In the pivotal moment of "his" novel, Huckleberry Finn considers struggling no longer against the great challenges arrayed against him. He thinks about how society would shame him if it "would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom":

"That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide, it ain't no disgrace. That was my fix exactly."

Huck decides right then and there to abandon a life of sin, avoid eternal damnation and for once do the right thing by society's lights. He decides to squeal, to write a letter to Jim's owner telling her how to recapture her slave.

Then he gets to thinking about human nature:

"I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking – thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time: in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.

"It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:

" 'All right, then, I'll go to hell' — and tore it up.

"It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog."

This line of rampant and pugnacious human perversity surfaces in our best stories again and again.

In "Casablanca," Rick is ensconced in a cozy world of thieves, swindlers, gamblers, drunks, parasites, refugees, soldiers of fortune, genially corrupt French police and terrifying Nazis. Rick's cynicism is his pride; he sticks his neck out for nobody.  His only interest is in seeing his Café Américain flourish. And then, of course, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Ilsa walks into his. The rest of the film concerns him betraying his own cauterized heart in service of a higher purpose. As Rick says, "It's still a story without an ending."
The most phenomenally successful film series of the recent era – the "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," "Matrix" and "Lord of the Rings" movies – are all driven by a faith in human cussedness, from Han Solo's grudging heroism to little people with furry feet vanquishing the combined forces of Darkness.

If the ageless way humans process information is by telling stories, what does our belief in this recurring story say?

It is an instinct that the human response to vast change will involve strange bounces.

This assessment of our species displays a faith that even in the face of unprecedented threats, the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity and humor will wend its way to glory.

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