ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"
String Theorist, Columbia University; Author, The
Fabric of the Cosmos
Power of Our Creative and Analytic Abilities
As I help raise my two year old son, I witness a basic truth familiar
to parents through the ages and across the continents — we
begin life as uninhibited explorers with a boundless fascination
for the ever-growing world to which we have access. And what I
find amazing is that if that fascination is fed, and if it's
challenged, and if it's nurtured, it can grow to an intellect
capable of grappling with such marvels as the quantum nature of
reality, the energy locked inside the atom, the curved spacetime
of the cosmos, the elementary constituents of matter, the genetic
code underlying life, the neural circuitry responsible for consciousness,
and perhaps even the very origin of the universe. While
we evolved to survive, once we have the luxury of taking such survival
for granted, the ability of our species to unravel mysteries grand
and deep is awe inspiring. I'm optimistic that the world
will increasingly value the power of such rational thought and
will increasingly rely on its insights in making the most critical
University of Texas, Austin; Author, The
Murderer Next Door
Future of Human Mating
one of us has descended from a long and unbroken line of ancestors
who mated successfully. They all found love or at least a liaison.
Evolution has forged a motivation to mate so powerful that it propels
us to surmount impressive, daunting, and demoralizing obstacles.
The first problem is prioritizing conflicting mate preferences, compromising
on some to attain others. Searchers must then sift through hundreds
of options, limiting pursuit to potentials within shouting distance
of attainability. Desirable mates bring out determined rivals, forcing
fierce competition. Complex and subtle attraction tactics must succeed
in unlocking minds and melting hearts. After making it through these
mine fields, there is no rest for the weary. Post-mating, sexual
conflicts erupt, undermining months or years of effort. Mate poachers
abound, threatening to lure our lovers.
Infidelity diverts precious resources to interlopers and rips families
Treachery runs rampant, spurned lovers rage, and divorce rates
rise. The modern world compounds these problems, from discerning
deception in internet dating to bridging cultural gaps created
by cross-continental mating. Despite the obstacles, both ancient
and novel, I remain optimistic that humans in every generation
will continue to succeed gloriously.
Engineer, USC; Author, Noise
Computers Will Let Data Tell More
Of Their Own Story
am optimistic that the rapid growth in computing power will let
measured data tell more of their own story—rather than tell
the story of the "model" that someone imposes on the
data. The slow but steady movement away from classical model-based
science tracks the growth in computers and digital processors.
traditional science and engineering has been model-based. Equations define
the simplest models or functional relationships among input and output variables.
Usually some super-smart thinker first makes an inspired guess at the model
equations. The grand examples are Newton's guess at the inverse-square
law of gravity and then Einstein's later and even bolder guess at the
non-Euclidean geometry of the spacetime continuum.
Most models have lesser scope and far humbler origins. The
modeler often guesses at a linear or quadratic or other simple
relationship between the inputs and outputs even though the world
itself appears to be quite nonlinear in general and often nonstationary
as well. A standard modeling trick is to let a random noise
term account for the difference between the nonlinear and largely
unknown world and the far simpler model. Thus the humble
noise or nuisance term carries much of the model's explanatory
burden. Then the modeler compares the model to some data
and looks for a pattern match to some degree. Other models
can compete with the first model based on their pattern matches
with the data.
science has produced most of our technological achievements. And it will
likely always be at the core of the science curriculum. But it does rely
on an arcane ability to guess at nature with symbolic mathematics. It
is hard to see a direct evolutionary basis for such refined symbol manipulation
although there may be several indirect bases that involve language skills and
A more immediate issue is that we tend to over-teach models in
the science and engineering curriculum. One reason for this
is that it is easy to teach closed-form equations and related technical
theorems. Just state and derive the model result and apply
it to examples based on numbers or on other equations. Equations
make for wonderful homework problems. And it is especially
easy to test on model equations and their consequences. It
is not so easy to teach or test on data-intensive problems that
can involve large tables of numerical data.
Another reason for over-teaching models is that so many of our
textbooks in science and engineering have their roots in the pre-computing
era surrounding World War II. That was the Shannon era of
great analytical minds and authors such as probabilist Joseph Doob
and chemist Linus Pauling and economist Paul Samuelson and many
others. Students performed computations with slide rulers
and then later with pocket calculators. Science and engineering
textbooks today still largely build on those earlier texts from
the pre-computer age where so often mathematical assumptions trumped
Rising computer power led to the first large break with the math-model
approach in various species of artificial intelligence. Computer
scientists programmed expert-system search trees directly from
words. Some put uncertainty math models on the trees but
the tree structure itself used words or text strings. The
non-numerical structure let experts directly encode their expertise
in verbal rules. That removed the old math models but still
left the problem of literally doing only what the expert or modeler
said to do.
Adaptive fuzzy rule-based systems allowed experts to state rules
in words while the fuzzy system itself remained numeric. Data
could in principle overcome modeler bias by adapting the rule structure
in new directions as the data poured in. That reduced expert
or modeler input to little more than giving initial conditions
and occasional updates to the inference structure. Still
all these AI tree-based knowledge systems suffer from the curse
of dimensionality in some form of combinatorial rule explosion.
Feedforward neural networks further reduced the expert to a supervisor
who gives the network preferred input-output pairs to train its
synaptic throughput structure. But this comes at the expense
of having no logical audit trail in the network's innards
that can explain what patterns the network encodes or what patterns
it partly or wholly forgets when it learns new input-output patterns. Unsupervised
neural networks tend to be less powerful but omit more modeler
bias because the user does not give the network preferred outputs
or teaching signals. All these AI systems are model-free
in the sense that the user does not need to state a math model
of the process at hand. But each still has some form of a
functional math model that converts inputs to outputs.
Statistics has arguably been the real leader in the shift from
models to data --even though classical linear regression has been
imposing lines and planes on the world for over two centuries.
Neural and fuzzy learning systems turn out ultimately to have the
structure of nonlinear but still statistical approximators. Closed-form
statistics also produced Bayesian models as a type of equation-based
expert system where the expert can inject his favorite probability
curve on the problem at hand. These models have the adaptive
benefit that successive data often washes away the expert's
initial math guesses just as happens in an adaptive fuzzy system.
The AI systems are Bayesian in this sense of letting experts encode
expertise directly into a knowledge structure—but again the
knowledge structure itself is a model of sorts and thus an imposition
on the data.
The hero of data-based reasoning is the bootstrap resample. The
bootstrap has produced a revolution of sorts in statistics since
statistician Bradley Efron introduced it in 1979 when personal
computers were becoming more available. The bootstrap in
effect puts the data set in a bingo hopper and lets the user sample
from the data set over and over again just so long as the user
puts the data back in the hopper after drawing and recording it.
Computers easily let one turn an initial set of 100 data points
into tens of thousands of resampled sets of 100 points each. Efron
and many others showed that these virtual samples contain further
information about the original data set. This gives a statistical
free lunch except for the extensive computation involved—but
that grows a little less expensive each day. A glance at
most multi-edition textbook on statistics will show the growing
influence of the bootstrap and related resampling techniques in
the later editions.
Consider the model-based baggage that goes into the standard 95%
confidence interval for a population mean. Such confidence
intervals appear expressly in most medical studies and reports
and appear implicitly in media poll results as well as appearing
throughout science and engineering. The big assumption is
that the data come reasonably close to a bell curve even if it
has thick tails. A similar assumption occurs when instructors
grade on a "curve" even the student grades often deviate
substantially from a bell curve (such as clusters of good and poor
grades). Sometimes one or more statistical tests will justify
the bell-curve assumption to varying degrees — and some of
the tests themselves make assumptions about the data. The
simplest bootstrap confidence interval makes no such assumption.
The user computes a sample mean for each of the thousands of virtual
data sets. Then the user rank-orders these thousands of computed
sample means from smallest to largest and picks the appropriate
percentile estimates. Suppose there were a 1000 virtual sample
sets and thus 1000 computed sample means. The bootstrap interval
picks the 25th — largest sample mean for the lower bound of
the 95% confidence interval and picks the 975th — largest
sample mean for the upper bound. Done.
Bootstrap intervals tend to give similar results as model-based
intervals for test cases where the user generates the original
data from a normal bell curve or the like. The same holds
for bootstrap hypothesis tests. But in the real world we
do not know the "true" distribution that generated
the observed data. So why not avoid the clear potential for
modeler bias and just use the bootstrap estimate in the first place?
Bootstrap resampling has started to invade almost every type of
statistical decision making. Statisticians have even shown
how to apply it in complex cases of time-series and dependent data.
It still tends to appear in statistics texts as a special topic
after the student learns the traditional model-based methods. And
there may be no easy way to give student scientists and engineers
an in-class exam on bootstrap resampling with real data.
Still the trend is toward ever more data-based methods in science
and engineering — and thus towards letting the data tell more of
their own story (if there is a story to tell). Math models
have tradition and human psychology on their side. But our
math models grow at an approximate linear rate while data processing
Computing power will out.
Chief News and Features Editor, Nature;
Author, Mapping Mars
not, by default, optimistic; it is an attribute that I take on
as a duty more than out of temperament. Left to myself I do not
look out at the world and see a hopeful place—and did not
do so even when the geopolitical state we are in was not so dreadful. But
I have been convinced over the years that an outlook that gives
play to hopefulness is by and large a better tool with which to
help improve the future than the alternatives. You are more likely
to find solutions if you believe they are there than not. The trick
for those of us without the sunny state of mind naturally suited
to such an outlook is to find objects for our optimism that make
the duty feel less dutiful.
optimism is for solar energy. The simple facts of the matter are
that the sun provides more energy to the earth in an hour than
humanity makes use of in a year. Of the non-fossil-fuel energy
sources, all the big players that are not nuclear—biomass,
hydroelectric, wind—are ultimately driven by the sun. I
am optimistic that direct solar conversion—photovoltaic
cells and their future analogues—will come to take its
place among and then surpass these more established technologies
a lot more quickly than most people outside the area currently
imagine. I'am hoping for at least a terawatt of solar by
2025, two if we're lucky, and dramatic cuts in carbon dioxide
emissions as a result.
locus for this optimism is California. A history of generous and
far-sighted subsidy has built up the silicon-based Japanese and
German solar industries over the past decades. Something similar
now looks to be happening on the West Coast, where newer technologies
are poised to benefit. There couldn't be a better suited
place: California, and in particular the Bay area, boasts a near-unique
concentration of world class research universities and national
laboratories and a large number of people well versed in the solid-state
trades who are ready and able to move from semiconductors that
deal with information to those that deal with energy. It is also
very well endowed with business angels and venture capitalists,
many of whom combine their desire to make money with an urge to
change the world. They largely share a network-first, build-from-the-periphery,
revolutionise-the-whole-shebang mindset well suited to (and shaped
by) the development of the Internet, an attitude which ports itself
easily to the idea of decentralised solar power generation. The
optimism to which I need to psych myself up seems to come naturally
to such people in such places.
materials and new material-processing techniques should allow the
cost of installed photovoltaic capacity to be halved in the next
few years, and there is room for considerable further improvement
after that: while wind power, nuclear power and dams are not going
to become radically cheaper to install, solar power capacity is.
It is also going to become more flexible, both physically and metaphorically,
with new applications on new surfaces, from windows to clothing.
Some of these applications may well be gimmicky and unsustainable,
but one of the great advantages of the coming solar power boom
is that it offers the possibility for a wide range of technologies
both to compete for the main prize—cheap domestic and light
industrial electricity in developed and developing countries alike—and
also to find and to create new niches.
boom will not just be a matter of lower cost manufacture or better
efficiency. System-wide solutions need to be found—new
ways of accommodating solar materials architecturally, new technologies
for storing energy, smart approaches to the electric grid, new
financial arrangements and instruments that will allow people to
get the benefits of solar electricity without necessarily taking
on the capital costs of installation themselves. The sort of imagination
that gets such things happening is far from unique to California—but
it is abundant there, and can be put to use.
is not essential to an acceleration in the already exponential growth
of installed solar capacity. The big breakthroughs may come in Germany
or Texas or China, and they will certainly have to be used in China
and India if they are to have the dramatic effect on carbon emissions
they could have. But it is in California that we see the most striking
collocation of public interest, political support, research capacity,
technological exuberance, entrepreneurial flair, a supportive business
ethos, smart capital—and, crucially, sunshine.
STUART A. KAUFFMAN
Director, The Institute for Biocomplexity and Informatics, The University of Calgary; Author, At Home in the Universe
Cancer Stem Cells and Novel Cancer Therapies
In the past few years evidence has increased that "cancer stem cells" play a fundamental role in cancer. Typically comprising about 1% or less of a total tumor mass, these cancer stem cells appear to have unlimited proliferation potential, and the capacity to drive cancer growth. In addition, cancer stem cells have been implicated in metastasis. Cancer stem cells have already been found in the leukemias, lung, colon, prostate, breast, skin, ovarian, and neural cancers. They may be present in all cancers. Their discovery may be the most important discovery in cancer biology in the past half century. Cancer stem cells are likely to afford entirely new cancer therapies in the modestly near future.
Given cancer stem cells, it becomes obvious that merely reducing the mass of a tumor without eliminating the cancer stem cells will almost surely lead to a recurrence of the disease. Thus, increasing numbers of investigators, including myself, are now focusing effort in three related directions: 1) Find means to selectively kill cancer stem cells. 2) Find means to stop cancer stem cells from proliferating. 3) Find means to induce cancer stem cells to differentiate—or change cell type—to non-malignant cell types.
While it is simply foolish to think cancer is simple, I believe it is a realistic hope that work on cancer stem cell therapy has a strong chance to dramatically improve cancer therapy within the next few decades. There are a number of approaches to this attempt. Among them, it is now possible using a new discovery, siRNA, to "turn off" the translation of the messenger RNA of any specific gene into its protein product. In addition, using other molecular biology techniques it is possible to over express any gene. These molecular techniques mean that investigators can now try to perturb the activities of specific genes that control cancer stem cell behavior in an attempt to attain the three aims above.
Further, high throughput screening via robotics now allow small molecule and other chemical libraries of high diversity to be screened to search for molecular perturbations which, if applied to cancer stem cells, achieves selective killing, cessation of proliferation, or differentiation to benign cell types. Our own laboratory and an increasing number of other laboratories are undertaking this work.
Differentiation therapy is already clinically effective in the case of treatment of acute myelogenous leukemia, AML, with vitamin A. The cancer cells differentiate into normal blood cells that do not proliferate. In addition, a research group recently screened a mere 1700 chemicals and found eight that caused AML cells to differentiate to or towards normal non-proliferating blood cells. Thus it is not improbable that by screening chemical libraries with thousands to hundreds of thousands of distinct compounds, molecules capable of selectively killing, shutting down proliferation, or inducing differentiation of cancer stem cells will be found in the modestly near future.
These approaches, however, must, as ever, be viewed with cautious optimism. For example, it may be the case that other cancer cells in a tumor can differentiate back into cancer stem cells. If so, they would require treatment, perhaps making cancer a chronic disease. The "same" cancer from diverse patients may typically have accumulated different subsets of gene mutations, rendering the hope of finding a single magic bullet good for all cases of that cancer moot. Conversely, vitamin A is widely useful in AML, raising the hope that a modest number of compounds might treat most cases of the "same" cancer in diverse patients. Further, the relation between cancer stem cells and normal adult stem cells remains to be clarified. A treatment that eliminated both cancer stem cells and normal stem cells of a given tissue could have untoward effects. Elimination of leukemic cancer stem cells might eliminate normal blood (hematopoetic) stem cells and affect the normal processes of these normal stem cells in blood formation. Conversely, one can hope that techniques will be found that can sustain the patient during therapy and regenerate normal, here blood, stem cells from other stem cells in a patient, transplant them into the patient after cancer therapy, and overcome the normal stem cell loss induced by therapy. And for some tissues, prostate, ovaries, uterus, loss of normal stem cells may not be grave.
The potential implications of cancer stem cell therapy are enormous. And the world scientific community is rapidly grasping the potential significance. It is important to stress that this effort will be "big biology", for techniques such as high throughput screening and tests of patterns of gene activities using genetic microarrays are very expensive. Adequate funding will be required. Overall, I am deeply optimistic as a doctor and biological scientist that we will, at last, find subtle ways to treat cancer either as stand alone therapies, or in conjunction with familiar surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
Harvard Medical School & Harvard University’s
Mind/Brain/Behavior Initiative; Author, Survival
of the Prettiest: The Science of Beauty
Hedonic Set Point Can Be Raised
people are pretty happy and the rest distribute into the very
unhappy, pretty unhappy or very happy categories. Wherever they
fall on the happiness scales, people keep pursuing happiness.
They want more. Can they get it? I offer a cautiously optimistic
I'll admit that the initial yield from the new science of happiness
did little to support my optimism. It showed that happiness levels
are durable, withstanding sweeping changes in health and wealth.
Life changes, it suggests, but you don't. It showed that there
is a substantial genetic component to happiness. People have a
personal baseline of happiness that is influenced by stable personality
traits such as extroversion or neuroticism that are partly heritable
The happiness baseline has been likened to the body weight set
point, leading some to believe that adding permanent points on
the happiness scale is as likely as offloading pounds permanently
from the weight scale. You've got a battle on your hands with a
formidable opponent: yourself. Short of a biological fix, happiness
interventions seemed doomed to formidable recidivism rates.
But the extreme picture of the human happiness baseline as a fixed
set point and of adaptation to life events as inevitable and complete
is wrong, and it's being revised rapidly While the "average" person's
happiness may bounce back to baseline, the happiness of many individuals
does not (about 1 in 4 people show a change of 2 or 3 points
on a 0-10 scale with 9% showing changes of 3 or more points and
even stable people show an average of a 1 point change in a recent
study). Personality is much less stable than body weight,
and happiness levels are even less stable than personality.
I said "cautiously" optimistic because, so far,
for every person who shows a substantial lasting increase in happiness,
2 people show a decrease. Discarding the set point idea for a more
malleable happiness baseline means that we will uncover vulnerability
as well as hope.
am also optimistic that we will uncover diverse ways that people
can find sustainable happiness. But we'll need to dig
beneath the surface and resist "once size fits
all" formulas. I'll give one example. Some often-cited
research suggests that married people are happier than "singles" (the
never married, divorced, widowed, co-habitors). The latter group
is large and getting larger. As of 2002 there were 86 million
single adults in the United States; more than 40% of adults over
18 are single, up from 28% in 1970. Is this massive demographic
shift dooming us to increasing unhappiness? Should we encourage
people to marry to increase their happiness?
People marry for many reasons, but here, lets just consider their
happiness. The newest research follows large groups of people over
long periods of time. It finds that the average person adapts to
marriage; after the first year or two, she is not any happier than she
was before marriage (an alternate analysis of the data suggests that
adaptation is incomplete but that happiness is increased by
a tiny amount , .115 on a 0-10 scale). Looking beyond averages to
individuals, the data show that some people return to their
former happiness levels, some end up much happier and about an equal
number end up significantly less happy than they were before they
Although this data will dismay some passionate advocates of marriage,
I think it is good news both for the married and for the single.
The idea that that marriage should make you permanently happier places
a large burden on the already burdened state of marriage and unrealistic
expectations on partners. But the fact that it can and it
does for some, by a large amount and for very long a time is a thrilling
The data suggests that the demographic trends we are seeing away
from marriage do not portend an increasingly unhappy society. Along
with other evidence, it suggests that what is important for happiness
is the quality of a relationship and not its civil status.
Finally, forget optimism, I know this for sure: we will always form
passionate bonds with others, and through them find joy, solace,
comfort, love, amusement, sympathy, and moments of ecstasy, and we
will know in them the awe and wonder of being alive.
Computer Scientist; 1st
Generation Artificial Intelligence Pioneer, Stanford University
optimistic about the sustainability of materil progress, but
since I'm known for that, I'll refrain. Instead I want to express optimism
about world politics, especially about world peace.
World peace is what we have. There are only minor wars and no
prospect of a major war threatening western civilization and its
present extensions to the actually developing countries. Only Africa
and the Arab world are in bad shape.
Contrast this with the time between 1914 and 1989, when there
serious attempts at world domination accompanied by at least three
Admittedly something bad and surprising could happen. 100 years
in 1907, no-one predicted such troubles as happened. Even in April
1914, Bertrand Russell could write:
us, to whom safety has become monotony, to whom the primeval
savageries of nature are so remote as to become a mere pleasing
condiment to our ordered routine, the world of dreams is very
different from what it was amid the wars of Guelf and Ghibelline.
Hence William James's protest against what he calls the "block universe" of
the classical tradition; hence Nietsche's worship of
force; hence the verbal bloodthirstiness of many quiet literary
men. The barbaric substratum of human nature, unsatisfied in action,
finds an outlet in imagination. In philosophy, as elsewhere, this
tendency is visible; and it is this, rather than formal argument,
that has thrust aside the classical tradition for a philosophy
which fancies itself more virile and more vital."
for Arab jihadism, I think they'll get over it as soon as a new generation
matures to oppose their parents' slogans. If not
Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.
— Hilaire Belloc, 1898, The Modern Traveller, part 6.
is important that the political causes of the 20th century disasters,
virulent and militaristic nationalism accompanied by letting
one man take power, do not exist in major countries today. Communism
is dead as a motivator of violence. The green movement is accompanied
by occasional minor violence, but a green Hitler or Stalin seems
it's hard to predict 100 years ahead. As Stephen Hawking advocates,
humanity would be safer if it expanded beyond the earth.
Scientist; 1st Generation
Artificial Intelligence Pioneer, MIT;
Author, The Emotion Machine: Commonsense Thinking, Artificial
Intelligence, and the Future of the Human Mind
Prospects of Immortality
Franklin: I wish it were possible... to invent
a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they
might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having
a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a
hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being
immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time,
then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country!
But... in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced,
and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought
in our time to its perfection.
—Letter to Jacques Dubourg,
life may come within our reach once we understand enough about
how our knowledge and mental processes are embodied in our brains. For
then we should be able to duplicate that information — and
then into more robust machinery. This might be possible late in this
century, in view of how much we are learning about how human brains
work — and the growth of computer capacities.
this could have been possible long ago if the progress of science
had not succumbed to the spread of monotheistic religions. For
as early as 250 BCE, Archimedes was well on the way toward modern
physics and calculus. So in an alternate version of history
(in which the pursuit of science did not decline) just a few more
centuries could have allowed the likes of Newton, Maxwell, Gauss,
and Pasteur to anticipate our present state of knowledge about physics,
mathematics, and biology. Thenperhaps by
300 AD we could have learned so much about the mechanics of minds
that citizens could decide on the lengths of their lives.
sure that not all scholars would agree that religion retarded the
progress of science. However, the above scenario seems
to suggest that Pascal was wrong when he concluded that only faith
could offer salvation. For
if science had not lost those millennia, we might be already be able
to transfer our minds into our machines. If so, then you could
rightly complain that religions have deprived you of the option of
having an afterlife!
we really want to lengthen our lives?
Woody Allen: I don't want to achieve immortality
through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.
discussing this prospect with various groups, I was surprised
to find that the idea of extending one's
lifetime to thousands of years was often seen as a dismal suggestion.
The response to my several informal polls included such objections
as these: "Why would anyone want to live for a thousand
hundred years? What if you outlived all your friends? What
would you do with all that time? Wouldn't one's life become
can one conclude from this? Perhaps some of those persons
lived with a sense that they did not deserve to live so long. Perhaps
others did not regard themselves as having worthy long term goals.
In any case, I find it worrisome that so many of our citizens are
resigned to die. A planetful of people who feel that they do not
have much to lose: surely this could be dangerous. (I neglected
to ask the religious ones why perpetual heaven would be less boring.)
my scientist friends showed few such concerns: "There
are countless things that I want to find out, and so many problems
I want to solve, that I could use many centuries." I'll
grant that religious beliefs can bring mental relief and emotional
question whether these, alone, should be seen as commendable long-term
The quality of extended lives
France: The average man, who does not know what
to do with his life, wants another one which will last forever.
immortality would seem unattractive if it meant endless infirmity,
debility, and dependency upon others—but here we'll
assume a state of perfect health. A somewhat sounder concern
might be that the old ones should die to make room for young ones
with newer ideas. However, this leaves out the likelihood that are
many important ideas that no human person could reach in, say, less
than a few hundred well focused years. If so, then a limited
lifespan might deprive us of great oceans of wisdom that no one can
case, such objections are shortsighted because, once we embody
our minds in machines, we'll find ways to expand their capacities.
You'll be able to edit your former mind, or merge it with parts
of other minds — or develop completely new ways to think. Furthermore,
our future technologies will no longer constrain us to think at the
crawling pace of "real time." The events in our computers
already proceed a millions times faster than those in our brain. To
such beings, a minute might seem as long as a human year.
How could we download a human mind?
we are only beginning to understand the machinery of our human
brains, but we already have many different theories about how
those organs embody the processes that we call our minds. We
often hear arguments about which of those different theories
are right — but those often are the wrong questions to
ask, because we know that every brain has hundreds of different
specialized regions that work in different ways. I
have suggested a dozen different ways in which our brains might
represent our skill and memories. It could be many years before
we know which structures and functions we'll need to reproduce.
such copies can yet be made today, so if you want immortality,
your only present option is to have your brain preserved by a Cryonics
company. However, improving this field still needs further
research — but
there is not enough funding for this today — although the same
research is also needed for advancing the field of transplanting
writers have even suggested that, to make a working copy of a mind,
one might have to include many small details about the connections
among all the cells of a brain; if so, it would require an immense
amount of machinery to simulate all those cells' chemistry. However,
I suspect we'll need far less than that, because our nervous
systems must have evolved to be insensitive to lower-level details;
otherwise, our brains would rarely work.
we won't need to solve all those problems at
once. For long before we are able to make complete "backups"
of our personalities, this field of research will produce a great
flood of ideas for adding new features and accessories to our existing
brains. Then this may lead, through smaller steps, to replacing
all parts of our bodies and brains — and thus repairing
all the defects and flaws that make presently our lives so brief.
And the more we learn about how our brains work, the more ways we
will find to provide them with new abilities that never evolved in
Cosmologist, Lawrence Berkeley National
Laboratory; Recipient, The Nobel Prize For Physics 2006; Coauthor, Wrinkles
Domani e for peggio! — Courage for Tomorrow Will
Be Worse! (The Words of a Born Optimist)
assessment and years of experience that show that the long-term
future is most bleak: Entropy will continue to increase, and a
heat death (actually a misnomer as it means the degredation of
usable energy in a dull cooling worthless background of chaos)
is the very likely fate of the world. This is the fate that awaits
us, if we manage to work our way past the energy crisis that looms
as the Sun runs out of fuel and in its death throws expands as
red giant star likely to engulf us after boiling away the seas
before it collapses back to a slowly cooling cinder eventually
to leave the solar system in cold darkness.
This energy crisis will eventually spread to the whole Milky Way
Galaxy which will use up its available energy resources in a time
scale of roughly ten times the present 14 billion year lifetime of
our observed Universe. In that same time the accelerating expansion
of the Universe continually reduces what we can observe and potentially
access until in the distant future only the cinders of stars in our
own galaxy are left. Argument goes on whether a sufficiently advanced
intelligent society could manage to live (continue to have experiences
and process new information and create new things) indefinitely in
such an environment taking on the most carefully constructed and
extreme measures that are physically possible. The chances of success
look relatively low for even the most optimally managed and intelligent
this and the history of human society in cooperatively plundering
the resources of a meager but beautiful planet with currently abundant
resources, who can possibly be optimistic about the long-term future
of humanity? How many examples do we have of humans addressing
global problems in an efficient way and with enlightened self-interest?
Historical experience is that humans have generally been engaged
in warfare, exploitation for personal gain and religious strife.
Real issues are generally not addressed until they become serious
crises and often not even then. We could mention here, various
episodes of genocide, large-scale pollution, and ecological devastation,
which are often interrelated.
background the rise of culture and science is remarkable. That
is until we understand their usefulness. In our modern world it
is clear that material rewards and political power accrue to those
that have the most scientific and technological knowledge and the
educated workforce with the cultural background of hard productive
work as part of a larger system. Such societies have economic and
military success and large tax revenues.
this culture and knowledge that offers us hope to be at least as
successful as the dinosaurs which dominated the Earth for nearly
100 times as long as humans have held sway? It is often said that
the United States systematically underestimates the stubbornness
preventing the peaceful resolution of long-term ethnic and tribal
conflicts — perhaps because of being the melting pot of waves
of peaceful immigration
— less a few Indian wars. However, could humans share the planet
with reptiles? Or how about intelligent machines? Could they share
leaving cultural and religious value systems aside, let us move
to realistic assessment of the title "Courage for Tomorrow
will be Worse". Every physical process in the Universe follows
the second law of thermodynamics. That is in every process entropy
(a measure of disorder which equals loss of information and usefulness)
will tend to increase for the Universe as a whole. No process decreases
the entropy of the Universe. Only completely reversible processes
leave it unchanged. All living things and all man-made machines
operate with processes that increase the entropy of the Universe.
cannot live by the Hippocratic dictum "Do no harm". But
the best one can hope for is the weak mantra "Do minimal damage".
I was often bothered by this inevitable conclusion and tried to
see that if one could write a great work of literature, make art,
or most optimally a great science discovery could one objectively
leave the world better than one found it? Each
time I worked out an example, the impact was negligible however
great it was found by human culture compared to the damage done
by mere existence. The only discovery that would make a difference
called for repealing or avoiding the laws of probability or making
a whole new universe. Both of these are quite extreme. Perhaps
the discovery of extra dimensions would allow some leeway in what
otherwise seems an inescapable doom after a long period of unrighteous
degradation of the universe. We face a continuous downward spiral
of no return. This is not a moral or ethical statement only an
engineering evaluation though it is some indication of original
sin. So even living one's life as a vegetarian that only eats fruit
dropped into one's hand by a willing plant is only going so far
as to be very kind and considerate to other beings that are also
worsening the universe for the sake of a little more order in their
such sure knowledge of one's own impending demise as well as for
all humanity, how can one get up and face each day with any hope?
Well in science it is a central tenet to be skeptical and to question
and as certain as this seems, one could cling to a shred of hope
that there is some trap door of escape that will be found and opened
either because of the greatness and infinite flexibility of mankind
or our incredible ingenuity under extreme pressure. I suspect that
the odds of winning the lottery are higher
— much higher.
che domani sarà impossibile anche alla tua astuzia." (poet
"because you know that tomorrow it will be
impossible no matter how astute you are." (translation
by Jody Fitzhardinge & Lorenzo Matteoli)
one might look to the definition of courage and optimism and go
forth cheerfully and eagerly even when there isn't the smallest
sliver of hope and still do great and glorious deeds, build great
civilizations even in the face of their inevitable doom.
It takes real optimism and courage to go forth when the inevitable
course for the universe is downhill and knowing that all humanity
has done or is likely to do will probably have less impact than
a footprint on sand after a few dozen or thousand waves pass
from the very beginning an optimist and remain so right to the
time and effort into my work, my health and fund my retirement
write articles and spend much of my days training and educating
the next generation. Why do I do this? Because I think that the
future, on my human and longer time scale, can be very bright as
long as humans work well and intelligently.
I look forward to the immediate future as a part of the long human
slog towards a better culture and society in spite of the constant
flux of misguided craziness.
Managing Director, Intellectual Ventures;
Former Chief Technology Officer, Microsoft Corporation; Physicist, Paleontologist,Photographer,
Power of Educated People to Make Important Innovations
interesting that pessimism seems to be the conventional wisdom
— i.e. that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and
things are getting worse. In the short run pessimism is an easy bet.
The news media, for example, would be a terrible business if there
was only good news — shocking bad news sells more newspapers
(or generates more Neilson ratings, or internet clicks). Yet they
need not worry about there being a dearth of bad news — its
only a matter a time before some more bad news comes in.
I think that the focus on pessimism is hugely misleading. The
pattern of the last five decades is that by and large the most important
factors in human life have improved immensely. By and large there
better time to be alive than today, and any rational estimate is
will continue to be in a phase of continued improvement.
the biggest reason I am optimistic is that I am a huge believer
in the power of educated people to make important innovations.
The trends in China and India and elsewhere toward educating literally
millions of people with scientific, engineering and technical degrees
is tremendously positive. It is trendy in some US-centric circles
to bemoan the fact that China and India are graduating more engineers
the US — indeed the developing has the potential to graduate
more engineers than the US has people. I view that with tremendous
— at least on the whole. There will be negative consequences
to be sure, and some naysayer will whine about them. History is
clear that the negatives of bringing high levels of education to
heretofore under educated people are more than outweighed by the
Biologist, Rutgers University; Coauthor, Genes In Conflict:
The Biology of Selfish Genetic Elements
Long-Term Trends Toward Honesty to Others and Self
What goes up comes down, what goes around comes around, for each
action there is a reaction, and so on. Life is intrinsically self-correcting
at almost all its levels, including evolutionary, physiological,
historical and genetic. This permits a limited optimism. Wickedness
and stupidity are ultimately self-destructive and self-limiting,
so we need not trouble ourselves that any particular trend in that
direction will go on indefinitely.
On the other hand, the principle of self-correction also applies
to love, friendship and high intellectual powers. No movement in
these directions can proceed long without setting up counter-pressures
against their further spread.
we should neither be too despondent nor too elated at the trajectory
of current events. Sooner or later — and usually
sooner — they will be reversed.
Two questions arise.
Are there long-term trends we could feel optimistic about? Thirty
years of work on the evolutionary trajectory of cooperative strategies
suggest long-term trends (under a broad range of conditions) toward
greater cooperation, contingent on ever more sophisticated discrimination.
It seems likely that when similar models are produced for varying
degrees of deceit and self-deception, long-term trends toward honesty
to others and self will (at least under some conditions) be favored.
Is there any reason to believe that we will survive long enough to
enjoy any of these long-term trends?
is far less certain. Evolution does not plan for contingencies
that have not yet occurred and the vast majority of species go
extinct. There is no reason to expect humans are exempt from these
rules. The good news is that there is presently no chance that
we could extinguish all of life — the bacterial "slimosphere" alone
extends some ten miles into the earth — and as yet we can only
make life truly miserable for the vast majority of people, not extinguish
human life entirely. I would expect this state of affairs to continue
indefinitely. The feeling that everything may be fine if only we
survive the next 50 to 500 years may become a regular part of our