ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"
Evolutionary Biologist, Charles
Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford
University; Author, The God
Final Scientific Enlightenment
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
Communication Will Become More Profound; Rationality Will Become
Ever More Romantic
optimism ought to suggest new precipices of fulfillment that surpass
mere responses to the many problems we already know about.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
JASON MCCABE CALACANIS
Entrepreneur in Action, Sequoia Capital
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.
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
— 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.
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."
Life Researcher; Creator of Lucy, a Robot Babay Orangutan;
Life and How to Make It.
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.
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.
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
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;
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
its own modes of thought, reason, and feeling. As flexible adaptive
we are wide open to a surprising variety of transformative bodily
tricks and ploys, ranging from the use of software, sports regimes
meditational practice, to drug therapies, gene therapies, and direct
I am optimistic that, stimulated by this
of transformative opportunities, we will soon come to regard our
constantly negotiable collection of resources, easily able to straddle
criss-cross the boundaries between biology and artifact. In this
vision of our own humanity I see increased potentials not just
but for empowerment, expansion, recreation, and growth. For some,
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
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.
our own learning environments so as to create artificial developmental
cocoons that impact our acquired capacities of thought and reason.
enhanced minds then design new cognitive niches that train new
of minds, and so on, in an empowering spiral of co-evolving complexity.
result is that, as Herbert Simon is reputed to have said, 'most
intelligence is artificial intelligence anyway'. New and emerging
technologies of human cognitive enhancement are just one more step
this ancient path.
Second, the biological brain is itself populated by a vast number
'zombie processes' that underpin the skills and capacities upon
successful behavior depends. There are, for example, a plethora
unconscious processes involved in activities from grasping an object
way to the flashes of insight that characterize much daily skilful
problem-solving. Technology and drug based enhancements add, to
standard mix, still more processes whose basic operating principles
available for conscious inspection and control. The patient using
brain-computer interface to control a wheelchair will not typically
just how it all works, or be able to reconfigure the interface
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
the sources and wellsprings of human happiness and human flourishing,
the findings of these studies must themselves be taken as important
points for the design and marketing of (putative) technologies
In sum, I am optimistic that we will soon see the end of those
and mostly ad hoc, appeals to the 'natural'. May we all have a
unnatural New Year.
Earth Catalog, cofounder; The Well; cofounder, Global Business
Network; Author, How Buildings Learn
Cities — Global
Population Shrinkage And Economic Growth
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
Director, Quality of Life Research
Center, Claremont Graduate University;
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!
Release 1.0; Trustee, Long Now
Foundation; Author, Release
Attention Of The World's Rich Will Turn To Solving The Problems
Of The Poor
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
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.
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.
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
Physicist, Stanford University; Author, The
Beyond Our Darwinian Roots
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.
Correspondent, Washington Post;
Author, Radical Evolution" The
Promise and Peril of Enhancing
Our Minds, Our Bodies — And
What It Means to Be Human
Human Response To Vast Change Will Involve Strange Bounces
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
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.