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2007

"WHAT ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"


CONTRIBUTORS
Jerry Adler
George Dyson
Brian Goodwin
Stephen Kosslyn
Geoffrey Miller
Irene Pepperberg
Roger Schank
Peter Schwartz
Linda Stone
Alexander Vilenkin

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STEPHEN M. KOSSLYN
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Wet Mind

Human Intelligence Can Be Increased, and Can Be Increased Dramatically

I am optimistic that human intelligence can be increased, and can be increased dramatically in the near future. I see three avenues that will lead to this end.

First, the fruits of cognitive neuroscience and related fields have identified a host of distinct neural systems in the human brain. Different combinations of these systems are used in the service of accomplishing different tasks, and each system can be made more efficient by "targeted training." Such training involves having people perform tasks that are designed to exercise very specific abilities, which grow out of distinct neural networks. Just as a body builder can do curls to build up biceps and dips on parallel bars to build up triceps, we can design computer-game-like tasks that exercise specific parts of the brain—mental muscles, if you will. By exercising the right sets of systems, specific types of reasoning not only can be improved but—the holy grail of training studies—such improvement can generalize to new tasks that draw on those systems.

Second, people often grapple with problems in groups, be they formally designated teams or casual huddles around the water cooler. I am optimistic that understanding the nature of such group interactions will increase human intelligence. Just as a mechanical calculator can extend our mental capacities, other people help us extend our intelligence—both in a cognitive sense (as required to solve problems) and in an emotional sense (as required to detect and respond appropriately to emotions, ours and those of others). In this sense, other people can serve as "social prosthetic systems," as extensions of our own brains; a wooden leg can fill in for a missing limb, and others' brains can fill in for our cognitive and emotional limitations. To the extent that researchers come to understand how such social prosthetic systems arise and operate, they will understand how to increase human intelligence.

Third, the line between animate and inanimate information processing is becoming increasingly blurry as research in multiple fields proceeds apace. I expect that engineers will continue to press forward, designing increasingly powerful machines to help us extend our intelligence. For example, some people carry computers with them everywhere they go, and treat Google as an extension of their own knowledge bases. Or, in my case, my PDA extends my organizational ability enormously. We soon will have a wide variety of mechanical helpmates. The distinction between what goes on in the head and what relies on external devices is becoming more subtle and nuanced, and in so doing human intelligence is being extended.

Crucially, each of these three developments amplifies the effects of the others, producing synergies: As "brain exercises" enhance our personal intellectual abilities, we can learn how to make better use of mechanical aids and how to rely more effectively on other people. The confluence of all three types of developments will produce positive feedback loops, where the very act of interacting with others or working with smart devices will help us continue to develop our brains, and as our brains develop we will in turn be able to use increasingly sophisticated devices and rely on people in more complex and powerful ways.

With luck, such developments will produce news sorts of extended social links and highly integrated social networks, and a new kind of "smart society" will emerge. And, who knows, such a society may not only be smarter, but also wiser.


ALEXANDER VILENKIN
Cosmologist, Tufts University; Author, Many Worlds In One

What Lies Beyond Our Cosmic Horizon?

There is a limit to how far we can see into the universe. Our cosmic horizon is set by the distance traveled by light since the big bang. More distant objects cannot be observed, because their light has not yet reached the Earth. But of course the universe does not end at the horizon, and the question is what lies beyond. Is it more of the same — more galaxies, more stars, or could it be that remote parts of the universe are very different from what we see around here? I am optimistic that we will be able to answer this question and understand the structure of the universe as a whole, even though we can observe only a small part of it.

Until recently cosmologists made the simplest assumption — that the universe is homogeneous, i.e. looks everywhere more or less the same. (It was glorified under the name of "Cosmological Principle", but it was still only an assumption.) Now, recent developments in cosmology and particle physics have led to a drastic revision of this view and to a heated debate about the future of our science. According to the new worldview, most of the universe is in the state of explosive, accelerated expansion, called "inflation". In our local region, inflation ended 14 billion years ago, and the energy that drove the expansion went to ignite a hot fireball of elementary particles. This is what we call the big bang. Other big bangs constantly go off in remote parts of the universe, producing regions with diverse properties. Some of these regions are similar to ours, while others are very different.

The properties of any given region are determined by the quantities we call "constants of nature". These include particle masses, Newton's constant, which controls the strength of gravity, and so on.  We do not know why the constants in our region have their observed values. Some physicists believe that these values are unique and will eventually be derived from some fundamental theory. However, string theory, which is at present our best candidate for the fundamental theory of nature, suggests that the constants can take a wide range of possible values.  Regions of all possible types are then produced in the course of eternal inflation. This picture of the universe, or multiverse, as it is called, explains the long-standing mystery of why the constants of nature appear to be fine-tuned for the emergence of life. The reason is that life evolves only in those rare regions where the constants happen to yield suitable chemistry and physics. The values of the constants in our own region are then determined partly by chance and partly by how suitable they are for the evolution of life.

Many of my colleagues find this multiverse picture very alarming. Since all those regions with different values of the constants are beyond our horizon, how can we verify that they really exist? Is this science — to talk about things that can never be observed? In my view, it is science, and there are good reasons to be optimistic about the new picture. If the constants vary from one part of the universe to another, their local values cannot be predicted with certainty, but we can still make statistical predictions. We can try to predict what values of the constants are most likely to be observed. One such prediction, that the vacuum should have a small nonzero energy, has already been confirmed. We have only started along this path, and formidable challenges lie ahead. I believe, however, that what we are facing now is not the end of cosmology, as some people fear, but the beginning of a new era — the exploration of the multiverse.


IRENE PEPPERBERG
Research Associate, Psychology, Harvard University; Author, The Alex Studies

A Second (and Better) Enlightenment

Like some other respondents, I'm not particularly optimistic at the moment. Human civilization, however, seems to proceed in cycles overall, and I believe that we are due—even if not quickly enough for my tastes—for a new positive cycle. Every Golden Age—the flowering of reason and good—has been followed by a withering, a decay, a rotting, a descent into superstition, prejudice, greed (pick your own favorite ill); somehow, though, the seeds of the next pinnacle begin their growth and ascent, seemingly finding nourishment in the detritus left by the past. A particular civilization may end, but new ones rise to take its place. I'm optimistic that the current nadir in which we find ourselves (e.g., a world mostly heedless of ongoing genocides, global warming, poverty, etc…) or toward which we see ourselves heading will lead to a renaissance, a new enlightenment…a profound, global shift in the world view for the better. 


ROGER C. SCHANK
Psychologist & Computer Scientist; Engines for Education Inc.; Author, Making Minds Less Well Educated than Our Own

The End of the Commoditization of Knowledge

Fifteen years ago I was asked to join the board of editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. In short order, I learned that these editors saw themselves as guardians of knowledge. They knew what was true and what was important and only knowledge that fit those criteria would be in their encyclopedia. I asked if the encyclopedia could be say, ten times bigger, economic issues aside, and they said  ‘no' the right information was already in there. I started to explain that the world as they knew it was going to change before their eyes and they would soon be toast, but they didn't understand.

I have had similar conversation with newspaper editors, librarians, heads of testing services, and with faculty at top universities. Like the Britannica folks, they see themselves as knowing what is true and what is not and what is important and what is not.

I am optimistic that this is soon all about to change.

What I mean by ‘this' is the era that we have lived in, ever since the invention of the book, but clearly including the era where knowledge was contained in scrolls. In this era, knowledge is a commodity, owned and guarded by the knowledge elite and doled out by them in various forms that they control, like books, and, newspapers, and television, and schools. They control who can get access to the knowledge (through admission to elite schools for example) and exactly what knowledge matters (through SATs but also through intellectual publications that true knowledge owners would be embarrassed to have failed to have read.)

We are beginning to see the change in all this now. If anyone can take Harvard's courses on line then one wonders why one has to go to Harvard. Elite universities have struggled with this new world, but eventually people will take whatever course they want from whomever they want and a real competition about quality will take place.

We no longer have only three TV networks, so more points of view are available, but the cost of running a TV station is still high and there are barriers to entry and there is still the idea that a TV station broadcasts all day even if it has nothing to say. Soon this too will disappear. You tube is just they beginning.

Today print media is being challenged by on line material, but it is still prestigious to publish a book and newspapers still exist. More importantly, schools still exist. But they are all going away soon. There is no need to buy knowledge when it available for free, as newspapers are learning. When everyone has a blog and a website, the question will be whose information is reliable and how to find it. No one will pay a dime. Knowledge will cease to be a commodity.

I consider this to be a very good thing. I believe that those who own and dispense knowledge have turned off at last one and maybe more generations of thinkers to believe that all the important ideas are known and it is sad that you just don't know them. Religions have operated on this principle of knowing what is in the sacred scrolls for a very long time. Schools have acted similarly. Soon no one will be able to claim they know what is true because people will be able  to create debates for themselves. Google has helped make this happen already but you ain't seen nothin' yet.

You may want to pay for the knowledge of someone who you believe to be very valuable to help you in doing something that you want to do, but that kind of knowledge will acquired ‘just in time,' sort of the way consultants operate today, but for everyone and there will be hundreds of thousand of choices.

More importantly the size of information will change. Today the size is a book or an article or a lecture or a course, But soon it will be a sound bite (or a paragraph.). Yes — those terrible sound bites which the owners of knowledge like to complain about. Nuggets of knowledge will win because they always have won. People used to have conversations, sound bite followed by sound bite, directed towards a mutual goal held by the conversationalists. This will soon be possible on line. You will able to start a conversation with (an electronic version of ) anyone who wants to offer this service. We will be able to get information in the size that we got it thousands of years ago — in a size that we can process and respond to. No more blank-eyed listeners as people ramble on. Information will find us and we will express our thoughts back. Knowledge will mostly be free and the owners of knowledge will need to go into another line of work. Knowledge will cease to be a controlled commodity.


PETER SCHWARTZ
Futurist, Business Strategist; Cofounder. Global Business Network, a Monitor Company; Author, The Long Boom

Growing Older

I am very optimistic about growing older. I turned 60 this year and several decades ago I would have looked forward to a steady decline in all my physical and mental capabilities, leading into a long and messy death. The accelerating pace of biological and medical advances that are unfolding in front of us are heavily focused on reducing the infirmities of aging and curing or transforming the diseases of old age from fatal to chronic. It means that ninety really will be the new sixty and there is a good chance that I will be among the vigorous new centenarians of mid century, with most of my faculties working fairly well. Vision, hearing, memory, cognition, bone and muscle strength, skin tone, hair and of course sexual vigor will all be remediable in the near future. Alzheimer's may be curable and most cancers are likely to be treatable if not curable. And regenerative medicine may truly lead to real increase in youthfulness as new custom grown organs replace old less functional ones. And within a few decades we are likely to be able to slow aging itself, which could even lead to life beyond 120.


GEORGE DYSON
Science Historian; Author, Project Orion


THE RETURN OF COMMERCIAL SAIL

I am optimistic about the return of commercial sail. Hybrid sail/electric vessels will proliferate by harvesting energy from the wind.

Two near-inexhaustible energy sources—sunlight and the angular momentum of the rotating earth—combine, via the atmosphere, to produce the energy flux we know as wind. We have two well-proven methods of capturing this energy: windmills and sailing ships. Windmills are real-estate limited, since most available land surface is already spoken for, and distribution-limited since wind-swept areas tend to be far from where large concentrations of people live. Sailing ships turn wind energy directly into long-distance transport, but the practice was abandoned in an era of cheap fuel. The prospects deserve a second look. It is possible to not only conserve, but even accumulate, fuel reserves by sailing around the world.

Modern sailing vessel design, so far, has been constrained by two imperatives: racing (for sport or against commercial competition) and ability to sail upwind. Under favorable conditions sails produce far more horsepower than is needed to drive a ship. At marginal sacrifice in speed, by running the auxiliary propulsion system in reverse, this energy can be stored for later use. Hybrid vessels, able to store large amounts of energy—in conventional batteries, in flywheels, or by disassociation of seawater—would be free to roam the world.

The trade winds constitute an enormous engine waiting to be put to use. When oil becomes expensive enough, we will.


LINDA STONE
Former VP, Microsoft & Co-Founder & Director, Microsoft's Virtual Worlds Group/Social Computing Group

People Are Using Technology Effectively To Mediate Toward a Healthier Global Community

Ten years ago, the novelist Andrei Codrescu came to visit me at Microsoft, where, at the time, I was Director of the Virtual Worlds (now Social Computing) Group.  As he watched me engage in conversation in V-Chat and Comic Chat, he mused skeptically about these virtual communities—until a soldier entered the conversation. 

"Ask him where he is?!" Codrescu demanded.  The soldier’s reply, "Stationed in Germany, fighting in Bosnia."  Andrei grabbed the keyboard from me, full attention now on the soldier, as he was sucked into the virtual world.  When he finally disengaged, he seemed fascinated by the possibilities.

Technology has advanced so significantly in the last decade, and many in the generation of kids, high school age and younger, are so fluent in every aspect of the technology that they have moved beyond being participants stimulated by the technology to being creators, creating both technology and content, collaborating and sharing every aspect of their lives, their opinions and their causes across borders that, to them, are increasingly invisible.

Everything can change when we change the way we look at it, and the generation coming of age sees a more global world and experiences a range of resources for creation and collaboration on a scale previous generations could only imagine.  Through Podcasts, Youtube, blogs, MySpace, and emerging technologies, every issue we face today, from successful alternative energy solutions to avian flu outbreak areas to disaster recovery is part of the global conversation and there are many pathways to participate and co-create solutions.

Attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit.   The opportunity this generation can and appears to be seizing, is to move collective attention away from the type of anxiety and despair fueled by campaigns like the War on Terror and Climate Crisis and toward the most positive future we can create together, as highlighted by blogs like Worldchanging.com.

Through shared experiences, the generation growing up today has a broader sense of global issues and possibilities and a reality that moves beyond "my country," and, instead, embraces "our planet."


JERRY ADLER
Senior Editor, Newsweek; Author High Rise

Sometime In the Twenty-First Century I Will Understand Twentieth-Century Physics

I am optimistic that sometime in the twenty-first century I will understand twentieth-century physics.

Not that I haven't tried before. Over years—decades, really—I have enlisted some of the finest minds of the era to help me grasp relativity, quantum mechanics and superstring theory: Richard Feynman, Sheldon Glashow, Paul Davies, Stephen Hawking, and even Einstein himself, whose 1916 book "Relativity: The Special and General Theory" was the prototype for all subsequent efforts to explain the universe in words rather than equations. It marked the earliest appearance of that ubiquitous character, the man on the train, a faceless stick figure glimpsed through a coach-car window as he zooms past at nearly the speed of light. Remarkably, we can observe him as he goes about his obsessive tasks: bouncing a Ping-pong ball on a table, or shining a flashlight at a mirror on the ceiling, or holding up a clock for us to compare to the identical one we just happen to hold. Many hours have I devoted to contemplating his inertial frame of reference and trying to reconcile it to my own, standing motionless on the platform. I have engaged him in my own thought experiments, even conjuring a gedanken companion who rides a train on the adjacent track. If they each pass my position at the same instant, traveling at three-quarters the speed of light in opposite directions, then their speed relative to each other is one and a half times the speed of …wait a second, that can't be right, can it?

What I'm up against here is a problem in translation; the laws of nature are written in equations, but I read only English. I have the same problem with anything written in French, of course, but I can accept a second-hand version of Proust more easily than Einstein or Heisenberg. My understanding of the world is not dependent on Proust, the way it is on the double-slit experiment.  Everything I know about the basic stuff of the universe—the very atoms I am made of myself, the gravity that glues me to my bed at night—I know second-hand, through the imperfect medium of language and metaphor. I don't even know what it means to "solve" an equation in relativity or quantum mechanics.  Here's an equation involving a man on a train that I can solve: If he leaves Chicago at 6 a.m. at 70 miles an hour, when will he pass someone who left St. Louis three hours earlier at 50 miles an hour? But when physicists "solve" an equation, what emerges isn't a quantity, it's a new law of nature. How do they do that?

That's what keeps me awake at night, reading. It is much too late for me to go back and learn enough math to meet Einstein on his own terms, much less Heisenberg or Hawking.  But I am sustained by optimism that someday I will transcend my own limitations, that I will achieve the conceptual breakthrough necessary to grasp relativity, quantum mechanics and the rest of it on a deep level. Someday I will understand not just the epiphenomena of physics, the trains and the slits and the cats in boxes, but their mathematical essence.  Their metaphysics.  I'm optimistic.  Really.


BRIAN GOODWIN
Biologist, Schumacher College, Devon, UK; Author, How The Leopard Changed Its Spots

Our Ability As a Species to Respond To the Challenge Presented By Peak Oil

I am optimistic about our ability as a species to respond to the challenge presented by peak oil, the end of the cheap energy era that has lasted about 200 years, and to enter a new cultural phase in our evolution. There are several key developments that, despite the unprecedented challenge of this transition, encourage me to believe that we can make it. These come from both our scientific and technological insights into ways of resolving some deep problems in present cultural habits, and from shifts of perception that are occurring in cultural values.

The primary factor in scientific insight that is producing a major shift of awareness is the recognition that our dependence on cheap fossil fuel to satisfy our needs and desires has now entered the phase of disruption of the complex web of relationships on which the life of our planet depends. This has come from an understanding of the ways in which climate change due to the heating of the planet is causing average temperatures to rise, a consequence of releasing carbon dioxide from its buried condition in oil deposits into the atmosphere. Among the many consequences are the disturbed weather patterns due to the excess energy that gets dissipated through increasingly destructive hurricanes and the rise in sea levels as the polar ice caps melt, threatening all coastal habitation, in particular the majority of cities. This awareness is becoming more and more widespread, leading to both global action as in the Kyoto agreement and in various forms of carbon trading, and in local initiatives to shift our energy source from oil to renewables. There is no guarantee that we will survive this learning process. Every species throughout evolution has had to make hard choices in learning to live the path of sustainable relationships with others, or has gone extinct. We face the same alternative possibilities. We are special in our own way, as is every species, but not different regarding this fundamental dichotomy of life or death.

A shift has also begun within the culture of science itself, where it is becoming clear why our separation of nature from culture has been a useful but dangerous assumption. Although this distinction was made in modern science in order to separate the 'objective' from the 'subjective', reliable knowledge of nature from idiosyncratic expression of human creativity, it has now exceeded its usefulness and encourages us to see nature as a separate reality outside us that is ours to use for our own cultural purposes. However, we are nature, and nature is culture. That is, we are embedded in and reflective of the principles that govern the rest of reality, not separate as a result of our evolutionary gifts such as consciousness and language. So we are all participants in the same evolutionary adventure. This insight came first in physics when quantum mechanics showed us that nature is holistic, not causally separable into independent, objective elements, while 'subjective' observers are contributors to this reality. And now in biology we are learning that it is not the genome that makes the organism but the networks of molecular elements in and between cells that selectively read and make sense of the information in the genes, creating organisms of specific form. The nature of this creative agency is what we are currently trying to understand. As I read the evidence this is leading us to the realisation that organisms use language as part of their creativity, as we do. Networking is also the principle of Gaia, the complex pattern of relationships between living organisms and the earth, the seas and the atmosphere that results in the remarkable properties of our planet as a place fit for continuously evolving life. We are not passengers on the planet but participants in this evolution.

Finally, what encourages me to believe that we have a chance of getting through the most difficult transition that we have ever faced as a species is the proliferation of new technologies, and experiments in trading and monetary systems, that could result in robust local communities that are self-sufficient and sustainable in energy, food production, and other human needs. The key here is again inter-relatedness and networking. Whatever renewable, sustainable energy process is used, whether solar or wind or water or biofuels or other (the combination will vary with geographic location and bioregion) will become the basis of a trading system that naturally links together the components of the community into a coherent, holistic pattern of relationships that is responsive to local conditions and responsible in its actions toward the natural world. These local communities will also trade with one another, but will preserve their distinctness so that diversity is both inherent and valued, unlike the homogenisation of current global relationships. Whatever the population size that emerges in such organic human networks will necessarily be within the carrying capacity of the bioregions that support them. Life will be comfortable but not indulgent, and there will be  a great capacity to celebrate the life of quality that emerges. The deep expression of our capacity to make this transition is evident in powerful expressions of public awareness,  as in this insight from 'A Book of Miracles':

"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is not our darkness but our light that frightens us most".

We do indeed have the power and are equipped to make the transition, though it requires a fundamental shift in what drives our power, from fear of nature to a deep sense of connection with her. This new organic way of living that combines science, technology, art, craft and ritual in unified, coherent patterns of learning and doing and celebrating has now become a dream to be realised because it is not only possible; it has also become a necessity.

GEOFFREY MILLER
Evolutionary Psychologist, University of New Mexico; Author, The Mating Mind

Death

I'm optimistic about death.  For the first time in the history of life on Earth, it is possible—not easy, but possible—for conscious animals like us to have a good death.  A good death is a great triumph, and something to be sought, accepted, and cherished.  Indeed, a good death should be recorded and broadcast as a moral example to us all.

What do I mean by a good death?  I do not mean opiate-fuelled euthanasia, or heroic self-sacrifice during flash-bang tactical ops, or a grudgingly tolerated end to a millennium of grasping longevity.  I do not mean a painless, clean, or even dignified death.  I mean a death that shows a gutsy, scientifically informed existential courage in the face of personal extinction.  I mean a death that shows the world that we secular humanists really mean it.

There is, of course, no way to escape the hardwired fears and reactions that motivate humans to avoid death.  Suffocate me, and I'll struggle.  Shoot me, and I'll scream.  The brain stem and amygdala will always do their job of struggling to preserve one's life at any cost. 

The question is how one's cortex faces death.  Does it collapse in mortal terror like a deflated soufflé?  Or does it face the end of individual consciousness with iron-clad confidence in the persistence of virtually identical consciousnesses in other human bodies?  My optimism is that in this millennium, well-informed individuals will have a realistic prospect of sustaining this second perspective right through the end of life, despite death's pain and panic.

When I die in 50 years, or next week, or whenever, here's what I hope I remember:

  • My genes, proteins, neural networks, beliefs, and desires are practically identical to those sustaining the consciousness of 6 billion other humans, and countless other animals, whose experiences will continue when mine do not. 
  • Since life must be common throughout the universe and resilient across time, such subjective experiences will continue not just on Earth in the short term, but across many worlds, for billions of years.
  • There is no spooky personal after-life to fear or hope for, only this wondrous diversity of subjectivity that trillions of individuals get to partake in.
  • The more science one knows, the more certain and comforting this knowledge is.

These life-lessons are, to me, the distilled wisdom of evolutionary psychology.

Many people resist this knowledge.  They listen only to the hair-trigger anxieties of the amygdala—which constantly whispers 'fear death, fear death'.  They construct pathetic ideologies of self-comfort to plug their ears against such mortal terror.  They nuzzle through reality's coarse pelt for a lost teat of supernatural succor.  I call them the Gutless, because they aren't bright enough or brave enough to understand their true place in the universe. A whole new branch of psychology called Terror Management Theory studies the Gutless and their death-denying delusions. 

A great ideological war is raging between the Godless—people like me, who trust life—and the Gutless—the talking heads of the extreme, religious right, who fear death, and fear the Godless, and fear ongoing life in the future when they no longer exist.  I'm also optimistic about the outcome of this war, because people respect guts and integrity.  People want moral role models who can show them how to live good lives and die good deaths.  People want to believe that they are participating in something vastly greater and more wonderful than their solipsism.  Science quenches that thirst far more effectively, in my experience, than any supernatural teat sought by the Gutless.



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