ARE YOU OPTIMISTIC ABOUT?"
STEPHEN M. KOSSLYN
Psychologist, Harvard University; Author, Wet Mind
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.
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.
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.
Futurist, Business Strategist; Cofounder. Global Business Network, a Monitor Company; Author, The Long Boom
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.
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.
trade winds constitute an enormous engine
waiting to be put to use. When oil becomes
expensive enough, we will.
VP, Microsoft & Co-Founder & Director,
Microsoft's Virtual Worlds Group/Social
Are Using Technology Effectively To Mediate
Toward a Healthier Global Community
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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."
Editor, Newsweek; Author High Rise
In the Twenty-First Century I Will Understand
am optimistic that sometime in the twenty-first
century I will understand twentieth-century
Not that I haven't tried before. Over
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
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
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.
Schumacher College, Devon, UK; Author,
How The Leopard Changed Its Spots
Ability As a Species to Respond To
the Challenge Presented By Peak Oil
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
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.
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.
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':
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.
deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful
It is not our darkness but our light
that frightens us most".
Psychologist, University of New Mexico;
Author, The Mating Mind
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.
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
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.
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.
I die in 50 years, or next week, or whenever,
here's what I hope I remember:
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.
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.
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.
more science one knows, the more certain
and comforting this knowledge is.
life-lessons are, to me, the distilled
wisdom of evolutionary psychology.
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.
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.