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Philosopher, Harvard University; Author, Betraying Spinoza

We Have the Capacity to Understand One Another

Sharp polarities between clashing points of view are wreaking all sorts of havoc in the world right now. Perhaps for many of us the divide that cuts closest to the quick is that between science, reason, and logic, on the one hand, and sectarianism, faith, and religion, on the other. My optimism is anchored to one aspect of human nature: We have the capacity to understand one another.  Evolution has bequeathed us a sketchy folk psychology, just as it has a sketchy folk physics. We come equipped with the understanding that we are engaged with others who manifest propositional attitudes—beliefs, desires, regrets, dreads, hopes: the whole gamut. We come equipped, too, with skills for discovering what those propositional attitudes of others might be.

Since at least the 1940s social psychologists have been studying our capacity to attribute mental states to others. In one early important experiment (Heider & Simmel 1944), almost every single subject, when shown a short movie consisting of geometrical shapes moving on a screen, attributed propositional attitudes to the shapes. Subsequent research has strengthened the view that our capacity for mental attribution is universal and nearly reflexive—in short, an aspect of human nature.

Our folk physics—involving ideas about space and time, about objects and forces—can be extended and deepened, refined and corrected by that sophisticated enterprise we call science. So, too, can our primitive folk psychology be expanded and refined. We can even come to understand those whose propositional attitudes diverge significantly from our own. We humans may never be able to know what it's like to be a bat, but Daniel Dennett could, in principle, know what it's like to be a believer, to hold that life has meaning only if it conforms to some larger-than-life purpose, say, or to be the victim of a dread of death so overwhelming that comfort is gained only from denying the reality of mortality altogether. And so, too, Pope Benedictus XVI could, in principle, understand the propositional attitudes of a proponent of naturalism, determined to trim his ontology to the entities required only by science because of a higher-order desire never to be duped into believing something which is false and, therefore, committed to the highest standards of empirical evidence. (Not all propositional-attitude bearers share this higher-order desire not to be duped, which can come as a shock to many in the scientific community. )

Quite obviously, to understand the propositional attitudes of another is not to endorse them; it isn't the same as wanting them for one's own, although that can, of course, occur—as when, as occasionally happens, we learn from one another. Still, to come to know better the propositional attitudes of others, grasping what the world is like for them, can be intrinsically interesting. It can also be useful—in fact, often essential to survival and reproduction. (A seducer will get nowhere without at least a rudimentary grasp of the propositional attitudes of the seducee. ) It is also implicated in widening the circle of sympathy that promotes the outward dissemination of ethical attitudes.

And of course the most effective means for changing someone's mind usually involves grasping the mind he already has.

Just as science improves on our primitive folk physics, we have an enterprise that extends the primitive skills of folk psychology, refining them into a means of arriving at a complex and shared knowledge of what it's like to have propositional attitudes and representational structures quite different from one's own. This enterprise is the narrative arts. What gives me any optimism at all in this dark season of dangerous divides is that there is a trend among contemporary novelists to turn their artistic attention to the divisive themes of the day. Given the nature of the literary enterprise—what it is that novels do—this effort to develop narrative techniques for taking the full human measure of such divides can only contribute to deepening our understanding of what lies behind what seem like irreconcilable differences—and which often are just that: irreconcilable. We are not, ever, going to become an attitudinally homogenous species. Someone who desires, above all, not to be duped into believing something false will not be turned into someone who, say, wants his beliefs, above all, to affirm his affinity with his community, nor vice versa. Still, it's instructive for both to make their way into the other's mind. There's even a slight chance that someone's mind might be changed in the process. But the deepening of understanding isn't measured solely by changes of that sort.

So, at the end of the day, I am tethering my optimism to the work of our contemporary novelists—which is probably another way of saying that I'm pretty darned pessimistic. 

Epistemologist of Randomness and Applied Statistician; Author, Fooled By Randomness

The Birth of Stochastic Science

I have seen in Richard Dawkins' work many references to the difficulty people have, when looking at an animal, in accepting that it is not the product of a top-down design, but the result of a random process — more exactly the upper bound of a random process, in which (roughly, and only roughly) the most successful mutations tend to make it.  Yet my problem is that when those who accept the evolutionary argument look at a computer, at a laser beam, at a successful drug, at a surgical technique, at the spread of a language, at the growth of a city, or at an commercial enterprise, they tend to fall for the belief that its discovery or establishment partook of some grand design. And, in hindsight, some "explanation" will be given as to why it happened: there was a plot — it could not have been an accident.

Alas, we are victims of the narrative fallacy — even in scientific research (but while we learned how to manage it in religion, and to some degree in finance, we do not seem to be aware of its prevalence in research). The pattern-seeking, causality producing machine in us blinds us with illusions of order in spite of our horrifying past forecast errors.  I hold that not only discoveries are also largely the result of a random process, but that their randomness is even less tractable than, and not as simple as, biological evolution. While nature might produce milder form of stochasticity, the environment for manmade discoveries is governed by a far, far more severe, wilder form of processes, those called "fat tailed".

Against what one might expect, this makes me extremely optimistic about the future in several selective research-oriented domains, those  in which there is an asymmetry in outcomes favoring the positive over the negative — like evolution. These domains thrive on randomness. The higher the uncertainty in such environments, the rosier the future — since we only select what works and discard the rest. With unplanned discoveries, you pick what's best; as with a financial option, you do not have any obligation to take what you do not like. Rigorous reasoning applies less to the planning than to the selection of what works. I also call these discoveries positive "Black Swans": you can't predict them but you know where they can come from and you know how they will affect you. My optimism in these domains comes from both the continuous increase in the rate of trial and error and the increase in uncertainty and general unpredictability.

I am convinced that the future of America is rosier than people claim — I've been hearing about its imminent decline ever since I started reading. Take the following puzzle. Whenever you hear or read a snotty European presenting his stereotypes about Americans, he will often describe them as "uncultured", "unintellectual" and "poor in math" because, unlike his peers, they are not into equation drills and the constructions middlebrows people call "high culture". Yet the person making these statements will be likely to be addicted to his Ipod, wearing t-shirts and blue jeans, and using Microsoft Word to jot down his "cultural" statements on his (Intel) PC, with some Google searches on the Internet here and there interrupting his composition. Well, it so happened that the U.S. is currently far, far more tinkering an environment than that of these nations of museum goers and equation solvers — in spite of the perceived weakness of the educational system, which  allows the bottom-up uncertainty-driven trial-and-error system to govern it, whether in technology or in business.

It fosters entrepreneurs and creators, not exam takers, bureaucrats or, worse, deluded economists. So the perceived weakness of the American pupil in conventional and theoretical studies is where it very strength lies — it produces "doers", Black Swan hunting, dream-chasing entrepreneurs, or others with a tolerance for risk-taking which attracts aggressive tinkering foreigners. And globalization allowed the U.S. to specialize in the creative aspect of things, the risk-taking production of concepts and ideas, that is, the scalable and fat-tailed part of the products, and, increasingly, by exporting jobs, separate the less scalable and more linear components and assign them to someone in more mathematical and "cultural" states happy to be paid by the hour and work on other people's ideas. (I hold, against the current Adam Smith-style discourse in economics, that the American undirected free-enterprise works because it aggressively allows to capture the randomness of the environment — "cheap options"—  not much because of competition and certainly less because of material incentives. Neither the followers of Adam Smith, nor to some extent, those of Karl Marx, seem to be conscious about the role of wild randomness. They are too bathed in enlightenment-style causation and cannot separate skills and payoffs.)

The world is giving us more "cheap options", and options benefit principally from uncertainty. So I am particularly optimistic about medical cures. To the dismay of many planners, there is an acceleration of the random element in medicine putting the impact of discoveries in a class of Mandelbrotian power-law style payoffs. It is compounded by another effect: exposure to serendipity. People are starting to realize that a considerable component of the gravy in medical discoveries is coming from the "fringes", people finding what they are not exactly looking for.  It is not just that hypertension drugs lead to Viagra, angiogenesis drugs lead to the treatment of macular degeneration, tuberculosis drugs treat depression and Parkinson's disease, etc., but that even discoveries that we claim to come from research are themselves highly accidental, the result of tinkering narrated ex post and dressed up as design. The high rate of failure should be sufficiently convincing of the lack of effectiveness of design.

But if the success rate is very low, the more we search, the more likely we are to find things "by accident", outside the original plan — or the more an unspecified original "plan" is likely to succeed. Looking at the swelling pipeline, something tells me that the discovery of cures, or near-cures for unspecified diseases is about to happen — except that I do not know which one, nor do I know where it is coming from. More technically, I see the sign of fractal randomness in these payoffs from the fact that results are more linear to  the number of investments than they are to quantities invested — thus favoring the multiplication of small bets.

All the while institutional science is largely driven by causal certainties, or the illusion of the ability to grasp these certainties; stochastic tinkering does not have easy acceptance. Yet we are increasingly learning to practice it without knowing — thanks to overconfident entrepreneurs, naive investors, greedy investment bankers, and aggressive venture capitalists brought together by the free-market system. I am also optimistic that the academy is losing its power and ability to put knowledge in straightjackets and more out-of-the-box knowledge will be generated Wiki-style. But what I am saying is not totally new. Accepting that technological improvement is an undirected (and unpredictable) stochastic process was the agenda of an almost unknown branch of Hellenic medicine in the second century Mediterranean Near East called the "empirics". Its best known practitioners were Menodotus of Nicomedia and my hero of heroes Sextus Empiricus. They advocated theory-free opinion-free trial-and-error, literally stochastic medicine. Their voices were drowned by the theoretically driven Galenic, and later Arab-Aristotelian medicine that prevailed until recently.

This idea applies to so many other technological domains. The only bad news is that we can't really tell where the good news are going to be about, except that we can locate it in specific locations, those with a high number of trials. More tinkering equals more Black Swans. Go look for the tinkerers.

Biologist; Geographer, UCLA; Author, Collapse

Good Choices Sometimes Prevail

I am cautiously optimistic about the state of the world, because: 1. Big businesses sometimes conclude that what is good for the long-term future of humanity is also good for their bottom line (cf. Wal-Mart's recent decision to shift their seafood purchases entirely to certified sustainable fisheries within the next three to five years). 2. Voters in democracy sometimes make good choices and avoid bad choices (cf. some recent elections in a major First World country).

Director, the Center for Science Writings, Stevens Institute of Technology; Author, Rational Mysticism

War Will End

I'm optimistic that one day war—large-scale, organized, group violence—will end once and for all.

Many people find my optimism naive, if not delusional. Last semester, I taught a class called "War and Human Nature," and my students polled classmates on the following question: "Do you think humanity will ever stop fighting wars once and for all time?" Of the 205 respondents, 185 replied "No"; 20 said "Yes" or "Maybe. " Several of the "optimists" added comments like "Yes, war will end when the human race will end," and "Yes, because in the future the human species will unite to fight alien species. "

Recent scholarship on warfare seems, at first glance, to support this fatalism. Just a few decades ago, many scholars believed in the "myth of the peaceful savage," which depicts war as a byproduct of modern civilization that did not exist in pre-state societies. In his book Constant Battles, the anthropologist Steven LeBlanc debunks this myth, pointing out that the vast majority of primitive, pre-state societies engaged in at least occasional warfare. Mortality rates from violence in some societies reached as high as fifty percent.

But these grim statistics yield a surprisingly upbeat message: Things are getting better! Hard as it may be to believe, humanity has become much less violent than it used to be. In fact civilization, far from creating the problem of warfare, is apparently helping us to solve it. In War Before Civilization, the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimates that in the blood-soaked 20th century 100 million men, women, and children died from war-related causes, including disease and famine. The total would have been 2 billion, Keeley notes, if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society.

Moreover, conventional war between the armies of two or more nations is becoming rare. Three years have passed since the last international war. (Israel's incursion into Lebanon last summer doesn't count, because the Lebanese army did not fight. ) This is "the longest episode of interstate peace in more than half a century," the scholars Charles Kurzman and Neil Englehart point out in their recent essay "Welcome to World Peace. " Although they are dominating the headlines, civil wars have also declined since peaking in the early 1990s. We are dealing now with guerilla wars, insurgencies, terrorism—or what the political scientist John Mueller calls the "remnants of war. "

These statistics do not provide much solace to the victims of war's "remnants" in Iraq, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Colombia and other troubled regions. But they show that we are moving in the right direction. Other recent events offer more grounds for optimism. As recently as the late 1980s, we still faced the threat of a global nuclear holocaust. Then, incredibly, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended peacefully. Apartheid also ended in South Africa without significant violence, and human rights have advanced elsewhere around the world.

The first, crucial step toward ending war is to believe that we can do it. We should also recognize that war is over-determined—stemming from many different possible causes—and so peace must be over-determined too. In their final papers, most of my students wisely advocated pursuing not a single, silver-bullet solution to the problem of war but multiple approaches. Their proposals included supporting democracy in other countries, bolstering the U.N. 's peacekeeping efforts, fighting poverty and improving education, restricting or eliminating arms sales, inculcating tolerance for other cultures in children, giving women more of a role in government.

"Achieving peace on a global level will not be easy," one student wrote, "but things already seem to be moving in the right direction. Humanity's best shot at ending war is now. "

His optimism fuels my optimism.

Psychologist and Skeptic; Author, Consciousness: An Introduction

Our Civilisation Will Survive the Coming Climate Catastrophe

I am optimistic that our civilisation will survive the coming climate catastrophe.

A few years ago I was less so. I thought that the climate might just continue heating up until humans could no longer live on earth at all. Since then, watching the rapidly advancing climate science from outside, I now think it possible that the climate will shift into a new stable state. This may not be ideal for humanity, and billions of people may die through drought and starvation, but if there are at least some areas where people can still survive, then our culture will continue evolving during and beyond this crisis point.

Such crisis points may be a regular feature of any planet where life evolves. Imagine that a planet forms and cools, chemical reactions begin, and at some point a self-replicating molecule appears, producing lots of copies that compete to survive. More complex molecules outperform simpler ones, groups with membranes outperform isolated replicators and, with more variation and more materials to use, the process speeds up until complex organisms appear. This beautifully inevitable process may have happened zillions of times all over the universe—or maybe very few times. All we know for sure is that something like this happened on our planet and this first evolutionary step produced the DNA replication mechanism and an abundance of life.

A second step then becomes possible. That is, the organisms find new ways of copying information. This creates a second replicator and starts another evolutionary process, building on the first. This happened on earth when just one species, humans, became able to imitate each others' behaviour with sufficiently high fidelity to create a new replicator, memes. These memes (the behaviours, habits, and skills that were copied) evolved slowly at first and then faster and faster, creating our languages, social institutions, and complex culture.

I think this step to a second replicator is intrinsically very dangerous. The new replicator is like a parasite that uses its host's resources to get itself copied. As with any parasite, the balance can tip either way. The parasite may kill its host and itself die in the process, or both may pull through and coevolve to become symbiotic. We have no idea whether there were failures on other planets, or failures on earth before we humans began to imitate. Perhaps the Neanderthals, or other hominids, tried the experiment and failed—their memes were too destructive. Perhaps completely different species tried it and failed. All we know for sure is that we pulled through and coevolved along with our memes so that now we cannot live without them. A human without language or culture is hardly human at all.

But then a third step becomes possible—and it is another dangerous one. As memetic evolution accelerates, new and more efficient ways of copying and storing memes are invented, and the original, biological meme machines are left behind. Their messy, inaccurate copying, and their largely analogue memes, are no match for the more accurate and prolific copying of the new meme machines; printing presses, factories, fax machines, tape recorders and eventually digital systems that not only copy and store memes but recombine and select them as well.

That is the stage we have reached now on earth. The artificial systems we have built still depend on us, and would perish with us if we all died, but they are evolving far faster than we are, and are taking up the planet's resources in the process.

Some people still maintain the fantasy that we humans are in charge and can still control the memes we have let loose. Yet it must be increasingly obvious that we can't; that they are in the driving seat, not us. They are sucking up the planet's resources increasingly fast and, being selfish replicators, they have no foresight and don't care in the least what happens to us or the planet; they can't, they are just replicating information. So we are hovering at this second danger point right now.

Perhaps this critical point has been reached on countless planets and none pulled through—perhaps acquiring new replicators is so dangerous that memes (or their equivalents) always wipe out the original replicator that spawned them, explaining why we have not yet heard from any other intelligent beings out there. Or perhaps it is possible to for an intelligent species to work out what has happened, repair the damage and live in harmony with the creatures it unwittingly gave rise to.

I think it is, and I am optimistic that we will.

Ophthalmologist and Neurobiologist, University of California, Davis

We Will Lead Healthy and Productive Lives Well Past Our Tenth Decade

I am optimistic that by the middle of this century, it will not be uncommon for people to lead healthy and productive lives well past their tenth decade. This means that the high school kids of today who believe they will be forever young might well have their fantasy fulfilled, albeit in modified form. My optimism is based on three factors. 

First, there is a clear trend for life spans in developed countries to be getting progressively longer; so-called senior citizens are now engaging in activities previously reserved for those yet to reach what was once considered middle age. The current mantra that today's 60 is the 35 of previous generations is more than just advertising hype. The reasons for this are complex, but certainly the psychological state of the today's seniors — their refusal to simply accept old age — is a prime contributor.

The other two factors fueling my optimism stem from recent advances in biomedical sciences that offer not just hope, but a virtual guarantee, that we'll soon be living longer and better lives. What are those recent advances? They come from two major research fronts.

There are some very exciting results showing that manipulations of basic cellular functions can prolong longevity. The literature on this topic is too extensive to summarize here, but one example will suffice. A molecule produced by a variety of plants called resveratrol (think red wine) has been found to significantly improve the lifespan of many different organisms, as much as by 59%, and this even occurs in obese animals! The significance of the latter point is that until recently it was thought that the only way to increase longevity is by going on a strict starvation diet, but now it seems that you can eat your cake and expand your lifespan!

The other relevant scientific breakthroughs come from neurobiology, my field of expertise. We used to think that with age there is a progressive deterioration in brain cell structure and function. But that widespread assumption has proved wrong. New nerve cells have been found to be generated in the brains of old animals, and we're learning more and more how this amazing property of the aged brain can be manipulated. Low levels of regular exercise, for instance, have been found to significantly enhance neurogenesis in the hippocampus, a brain structure that deals with memory. Moreover, a recent study from my laboratory showed that certain nerve cells in the eyes of old mice are capable of growing new processes. We have also found such growth of nerve cells in the eyes of old people. And then there is the tremendous promise of stem cell research that is still in its infancy for replacing damaged or dysfunctional body organs. 

Taken together, the implications of these and many other findings in the biomedical sciences are clear. We will be able to regenerate parts of the brain that have been worn out or damaged during the course of a lifetime, providing renewed capabilities to those who are currently considered old folks. So better start thinking what you'll be doing with all those extra years of life.

Neuroscience Researcher; Author, The End of Faith

We Are Making Moral Progress

No one has ever mistaken me for an optimist. And yet, when I consider what is perhaps the most pristine source of pessimism—the moral development of our species—I find reasons for hope. Despite our perennial mischief, I believe that we have made unmistakable progress in our morality. Our powers of empathy appear to be growing. We seem to be more likely now than at any point in our history to act for the benefit of humanity as a whole.  
Of course, the 20th century delivered some unprecedented horrors. But those of us living in the developed world are becoming increasingly alarmed by our capacity to do one another harm. We are less tolerant of "collateral damage" in war—undoubtedly because we now see images of it—and we are less comfortable with ideologies that demonize whole groups of human beings, justifying their abuse or outright destruction.
Taking a somewhat provincial example: racism in the United States has unquestionably diminished. If you doubt this, consider the following Los Angeles Times editorial, written in 1910, in response Jack Johnson's successful heavyweight title defense against Jim Jeffries, the so-called "Great White Hope":

A Word to the Black Man:

Do not point your nose too high
Do not swell your chest too much
Do not boast too loudly
Do not be puffed up
Let not your ambition be inordinate
Or take a wrong direction
Remember you have done nothing at all
You are just the same member of society you were last week
You are on no higher plane
Deserve no new consideration
And will get none
No man will think a bit higher of you
Because your complexion is the same
Of that of the victor at Reno

A modern reader could be forgiven for thinking that this dollop of racist hatred was printed by the Ku Klux Klan. Rather, it represented the measured opinion of one of the most prominent newspapers in the United States. Is it conceivable that our mainstream media will once again give voice to such racism? I think it far more likely that we will proceed along our current path: racism will continue to lose its subscribers; the history of slavery in the United States will become even more flabbergasting to contemplate; and future generations will marvel at the ways we, too, failed in our commitment to the common good. We will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrass us. This is moral progress.

I am bolstered in my optimism by the belief that morality is a genuine sphere of human inquiry, not a mere product of culture. Morality, rightly construed, relates to questions of human and animal suffering. This is why we don't have moral obligations toward inanimate objects (and why we will have such obligations toward conscious computers, if we ever invent them). To ask whether a given action is right or wrong is really to ask whether it will tend to create greater well-being, or greater suffering, for oneself and others. And there seems little doubt that there are right and wrong answers here. This is not to say that there will always be a single right answer to every moral question, but there will be a range of appropriate answers, as well as answers that are clearly wrong. Asking whether or not an action is good or bad may be like asking whether a given substance is "healthy" or "unhealthy" to eat: there are, of course, many foods that are appropriate to eat, but there is also a biologically important (and objective) distinction between food and poison.     
I believe that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions in the same way that there are right and wrong answers to questions about biology. This commits me to what philosophers often call "moral realism"—as opposed to anti-realism, pragmatism, relativism, post-modernism, or any other view that places morality entirely in the eye of the beholder. It is often thought that moral realism fails because it requires that moral truths exist independent of minds (it doesn't).  Indeed, this worry partly explains humanity's enduring attachment to religion: for many people believe that unless we keep our moral intuitions pegged to the gold-standard of God's law, we cannot say that anyone is ever right or wrong in objective terms. 
Consider the phenomenon of "honor-killing": throughout much of the Muslim world at this moment, women are thought to "dishonor" their families by refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, seeking a divorce, committing adultery—or even by getting raped. Women in these situations are often murdered by their fathers, husbands, or brothers, sometimes with the collaboration of other women. Is honor-killing wrong? I have no doubt that it is.  But is it really wrong?

There seems to be no question that we are wired in such a way that love is more conducive to happiness than hate, fear, and shame are. If this is true, honor-killing would be wrong even if a majority of human beings agreed that it was right. It would be wrong because this practice (along with the intentions that give rise to it) reliably diminishes human happiness: it creates immense suffering for women and girls; it conditions men to feel that their personal dignity is predicated upon something that it need not be predicated upon; it deranges the relationships between men and women, making them far less loving and compassionate (and therefore a lesser source of happiness) than they might otherwise be. While these are claims about human subjectivity, they are also, at bottom, objective claims about the real foundations of human happiness.   
All of this implies, of course, that morality is a potential branch of scientific inquiry—not merely that science will one day describe our moral judgments at the level of the brain, but that science may one day be able to tell us what is good (that is, it will tell us which psychological intentions and social practices are truly conducive to the deepest happiness).

Because I believe that moral truths transcend the contingencies of culture, I think that human beings will eventually converge in their moral judgments. I am painfully aware, however, that we are living in a world where Muslims riot by the hundreds of thousands over cartoons, where Catholics oppose condom use in villages decimated by AIDS, and where the only "moral" judgment that seems guaranteed to unite the better part of humanity at this moment is that homosexuality is wrong. Which is to say that I am here celebrating our moral progress while being convinced that billions of my neighbors are profoundly confused about good and evil.      
I may be a bigger optimist than I thought.

Inventor and Technologist; Author, The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology

I'm Confident About Energy, the Environment, Longevity, and Wealth; I'm Optimistic (But Not Necessarily Confident) Of the Avoidance Of Existential Downsides; And I'm Hopeful (But Not Necessarily Optimistic) About a Repeat Of 9-11 (Or Worse)

Optimism exists on a continuum in-between confidence and hope. Let me take these in order.

I am confident that the acceleration and expanding purview of information technology will solve the problems with which we are now preoccupied within twenty years. 

Consider energy. We are awash in energy (10,000 times more than we need to meet all of our needs falls on the Earth) but we are not very good at capturing it, but that will change with full nanotechnology based assembly of macro objects at the nano scale controlled by massively parallel information processes, which will be feasible within twenty years. Even though our energy needs are projected to triple within 20 years, we'll capture that .0003 of the sunlight needed to meet all of our energy needs with no use of fossil fuels using extremely inexpensive, highly efficient, lightweight, nano engineered solar panels, and store the energy in highly distributed (and, therefore, safe) nanotechnology-based fuel cells. Solar power is now providing one part in a thousand of our energy needs but that percentage is doubling every two years, which means multiplying by a thousand in 20 years. Almost all of the discussions I've seen about energy and its consequences such as global warming fail to consider the ability of future nanotechnology based solutions to solve this problem. This development will be motivated not just by concern for the environment, but by the $2 trillion we spend annually on energy.  This is already a major area of venture funding. 

Consider health. As of just recently, we now have the tools to reprogram biology. This is also at an early stage but is progressing through the same exponential growth of information technology, which we see in every aspect of biological progress. The amount of genetic data we have sequenced has doubled every year and the price per base pair has come down commensurately. The first genome cost a billion dollars, NIH is now starting a project to collect a million genomes at a thousand dollars a piece. We can turn genes off with RNA interference, add new genes (to adults) with new reliable forms of gene therapy, and turn on and off proteins and enzyme at critical stages of disease progression. We are gaining the means to model, simulate, and reprogram disease and aging processes as information processes. These technologies will be a thousand times more powerful than they are today in ten years, and it will be a very different world in terms of our ability to turn off disease and aging. 

Consider prosperity. The inherent 50 percent deflation rate inherent in information technology and its growing purview is causing the decline of poverty. The poverty rate in Asia, according to the World Bank, declined by 50 percent over the past ten years due to information technology, and will decline at current rates by 90 percent in the next ten years. All areas of the world are being affected, including Africa which is now undergoing a rapid invasion of the Internet. Even Sub Saharan Africa had a 5% growth rate last year. 

Okay, so what am I optimistic, but not necessarily confident, about?

All of these technologies have existential downsides. We are already living with enough thermonuclear weapons to destroy all mammalian life on this planet, which incidentally are still on a hair trigger. Remember these? They're still there, and they represent an existential threat.

We have a new existential threat which is the ability of a destructively minded group or individual to reprogram a biological virus to be more deadly, more communicable, or (most daunting of all) more stealthy (that is, having a longer incubation period so that the early spread is not detected). The good news is that we do have the tools to set up a rapid response system, like the one we have for software viruses. It took us five years to sequence HIV, but we can now sequence a virus in a day or two. RNA interference can turn viruses off since viruses are genes albeit pathological ones. Bill Joy and I have proposed setting up a rapid response system that could detect a new virus, sequence it, design an RNAi medication (or a safe antigen-based vaccine) and gear up production in a matter of days. The methods exist, but a working rapid response system does not yet exist. We need to put one in place quickly. 

So I'm optimistic that we will make it through without suffering an existential catastrophe. It would be helpful if we gave the two existential threats I discuss above a higher priority. 

And, finally, what am I hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic, about?

Who would have thought right after September 11, 2001 that we would go five years without another destructive incident at that or greater scale? That seemed very unlikely at the time, but despite all the subsequent turmoil in the world, it happened. I am hopeful that this will continue.

Science Writer; Founding chairman of the International Centre for Life; Author, Francis Crick: Discoverer of the Genetic Code

The Future

The future. That's what I'm optimistic about. The historian Macaulay said, in 1830: 'We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason.' The eternal, enduring pessimism of human beings about the future does real harm by persuading people, especially the young, to retreat from adventure and enterprise into anomie. Sure, the world has problems: AIDS, Islamofascism, carbon dioxide. But I bet we can solve them as we have solved others, such as smallpox, the population explosion and the high price of whale oil.

Media Analyst; Documentary Writer; Author, Get Back in the Box : Innovation from the Inside Out

Human Beings Are Different

Now that we've gotten false notions of "god" out of the way, we come up against the question from which He insulated us: if human beings are not the "chosen" species, then are we at least capable of transcending nature, from which we emerge?

Our most natural inclination should be to kill each other, one way or another. From plankton to pachyderms, the myth of nature as a sustainable and loving collaborative is about as absurd as that of a Creator Being. Unless we prove different from every other species, we will continue to compete with the rest of the planet for a disproportionate share of its resources — and with one another for the spoils of this ongoing war. That's just life.

I'm optimistic that human beings can be different than the species from which we evolved, and that the endless comparisons between human culture and other species are, ultimately, specious. I hope that just because sponge colonies will fight endlessly with those of a different color need not mean that humans are destined to do the same thing.

I'm optimistic that, having been liberated from the myth of intrinsic meaning, human beings will gain the capacity to make meaning, instead. And that this unique ability will give us the opportunity to disobey biology's commands.


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John Brockman, Editor and Publisher
Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher

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