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2009

WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?


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SETH LLOYD
Quantum Mechanical Engineer, MIT; author, Programming the Universe

UNDO THE PRESENT; RECALL THE PAST

My job is to design and build quantum computers, computers that store and process information at the level of individual atoms. Even at the current rapid rates of progress of current computer technology, with the computer components halving in size every two years or less, and computers doubling in power over the same time, quantum computers should not be available for forty years. Yet we are building simple quantum computers today. I could tell you that quantum computers will drastically change the way the world works during our lifetime. But I'm not going to do that, for the simple reason that I have no idea whether it's true or not.

Whether or not they change the world, quantum computers have something to offer to all of us. When they flip those atomic bits to perform their computations, quantum computers possess a several useful features. It's well known that quantum computers, properly programmed, afford their users privacy and anonymity guaranteed by the laws of physics. A less well-known virtue of quantum computers is that everything that they do, they can undo as well. This ability is built into quantum computers at the level of fundamental physical law. At their most microscopic level, the laws of physics are reversible: what goes forward can go backward. (By contrast, at the more macroscopic scales at which classical computers operate, the second law of thermodynamics kicks in, and what is done cannot be undone.) Because they operate at the level of individual atoms, quantum computers inherit those atoms' ability to undo the present, and recall the past.

While quantum computers afford their users protection and anonymity that classical computers cannot, even classical computers can be programmed to share this ability to erase regret, although they currently are not. Although classical computers dissipate heat and operate in and a physically irreversible way, they can still function in a logically reversible fashion: properly programmed, they can un-perform any computation that they can perform. We already see a hint of this digital nostalgia in hard-disk 'time machines,' which restore a disk to its state in an earlier, pre-crash era.

Suppose that we were to put this ability of computers to run the clock backward to the service of undoing not merely our accidental erasures and unfortunate viral infections, but to undoing financial transactions that were conducted under fraudulent conditions? Credit card companies already supply us with protection against theft conducted in our name. Why should not more important financial transactions be similarly guaranteed? Contracts for home sales, stock deals, and credit default swaps are already recorded and executed digitally. What would happen if combined digital finance with reversible computation?

For example, if a logically reversible computer—quantum or classical—were used to record a financial contract and to execute its terms, then at some later point, if the parties were not satisfied with the way those terms were executed, then those terms could be 'un-executed,' any money disbursed, reimbursed, and the contract deleted, as if it had never been. Since finance is already digital, why not introduce a digital time machine: let's agree now that when the crash comes, as it inevitably will, we'll restore everything to a better, earlier time, before we clicked those inauspicious buttons and brought on the blue screen of financial death.

Can it be done? The laws of physics and computation say yes. But what about the laws of human nature? The financial time machine erases profits as well as losses. Will hedge fund managers and Ponzi schemers sign on to turn back the clock if schemes go awry, even if it means that their gains, well-gotten or ill-, will be restored to their clients/victims? If they refuse to agree, then you don't have to give them your money.

I make no predictions, but the laws of physics have been around for a long time. Meanwhile, the only true 'law' of human nature is its intrinsic adaptability. Microscopic reversibility is the way that Nature does business. Maybe we can learn a thing or two from Her to change the way that we do business.


MAHZARIN R. BANAJI
Richard Clarke Cabot Professor of Social Ethics, Department of Psychology, Harvard University

UNDERSTANDING THE MIND

If we understand our minds as we understand the physical world — that will change everything.

Because I've been writing about the history of a particular form of mental activity, I've been especially aware of the limits of what we know about the brain and the mind, this new entrant on the stage of science. Think about it: what we know about the human mind comes from data gathered for little over a hundred years. In actuality, only since mid 20th century do we have anything approximating the sort of activity that we would call a science of the mind. For a half century's work we've done pretty well, but the bald fact is that we have almost no understanding of how the thing that affects all aspects of our lives does its work. The state of our decision making — whether it is about global warming or the human genome, about big bailouts on Wall Street or microfinancing in Asia, about single payer healthcare or not — is what it is because the machine that does all the heavy lifting is something we barely understand. Would we trust the furnace in our house if we understood it as little?

I anticipate that many of the viable candidates for "everything changers" will be striking single events such as encountering new intelligent life, the ability to live forever, and a permanent solution to the problem of the environment. Indeed, any of these will produce enormous change and deserves to be on the list. But if we are to take seriously the question of what will change "everything", then the candidate really has to be something that underlies all other changes, and hence my candidate remains understanding the mind.

From the little we do know, we can say that good people (we, us) are capable of incredible harm to others and even themselves. That daily moral decisions we make are not based on the principles of justice that we think they are, but are often a result of the familiarity and similarity of the other to oneself. These two simple types of bias happen because the mind and its workings remain invisible to us and until we unmask it meanderings, the disparity between what we do and what we think we do will remain murky.

That we have spent no more than a few decades of our entire history scrutinizing the mind should be both frightening and give hope. Whether the question is how we will deal with new life forms when we encounter them, or how we will design our lives as we prepare to live forever, or how we will generate the courage to stop environmental devastation, understanding the mind will change everything.


JOHN TOOBY & LEDA COSMIDES
Co-Directors, The Center for Evolutionary Psychology, University of California, Santa Barbara; Co-Editors: The Adapted Mind

THE GREAT PIVOT: ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCES, NATIVE INTELLIGENCES, AND THE BRIDGE BETWEEN

Currently, the most keenly awaited technological development is an all-purpose artificial intelligence — perhaps even an intelligence that would revise itself and grow at an ever-accelerating rate, until it enacts millennial transformations. Since the invention of artificial minds seventy years ago, computer scientists have felt on the verge of building a generally intelligent machine. Yet somehow this goal, like the horizon, keeps retreating as fast as it is approached. In contrast, we think that an all-purpose artificial intelligence will — for the foreseeable future — remain elusive. But understanding why will unlock other revolutions.

AI's wrong turn? Assuming that the best methods for reasoning and thinking — for true intelligence — are those that can be applied successfully to any content. Equip a computer with these general methods, input some facts to apply them to, increase hardware speed, and a dazzlingly high intelligence seems fated to emerge. Yet one never materializes, and achieved levels of general AI remain too low to meaningfully compare to human intelligence.

But powerful natural intelligences do exist. How do native intelligences — like those found in humans — operate? With few exceptions, they operate by being specialized. They break off small but biologically important fragments of the universe (predator-prey interactions, color, social exchange, physical causality, alliances, genetic kinship, etc.) and engineer different problem-solving methods for each. Evolution tailors computational hacks that work brilliantly, by exploiting relationships that exist only in its particular fragment of the universe (the geometry of parallax gives vision a depth cue; an infant nursed by your mother is your genetic sibling; two solid objects cannot occupy the same space). These native intelligences are dramatically smarter than general reasoning because natural selection equipped them with radical short cuts. These bypass the endless possibilities that general intelligences get lost among. Our mental programs can be fiendishly well-engineered to solve some problems, because they are not limited to using only those strategies that can be applied to all problems.

Lessons from evolutionary psychology indicate that developing specialized intelligences — artificial idiot savants — and networking them would achieve a mosaic AI, just as evolution gradually built natural intelligences. The essential activity is discovering sets of principles that solve a particular family of problem. Indeed, successful scientific theories are examples of specialized intelligences, whether implemented culturally among communities of researchers or implemented computationally in computer models. Similarly, adding duplicates of the specialized programs we discover in the human mind to the emerging AI network would constitute a tremendous leap toward AI. Essentially, for this aggregating intelligence to communicate with humans — for it to understand what we mean by a question or want by a request, it will have to become equipped with accurate models of the native intelligences that inhabit human minds.

Which brings us to another impending transformation: rapid and sustained progress in understanding natural minds.

For decades, evolutionary psychologists have been devoted to perpetrating the great reductionist crime — working to create a scientific discipline that progressively maps the evolved universal human mind/brain — the computational counterpart to the human genome. The goal of evolutionary psychology has been to create high resolution maps of the circuit logic of each of the evolved programs that together make up human nature (anger, incest avoidance, political identification, understanding physical causality, guilt, intergroup rivalry, coalitional aggression, status, sexual attraction, magnitude representation, predator-prey psychology, etc.). Each of these is an intelligence specialized to solve its class of ancestral problems.

The long-term ambition is to develop a model of human nature as precise as if we had the engineering specifications for the control systems of a robot. Of course, both theory and evidence indicate that the programming of the human is endlessly richer and subtler than that of any foreseeable robot.

Still, how might a circuit map of human nature radically change the situation our species finds itself in?

Humanity will continue to be blind slaves to the programs that evolution has built into our brains until we drag them into the light. Ordinarily, we only inhabit the versions of reality they spontaneously construct for us — the surfaces of things. Because we are unaware we are in a theater, with our roles and our lines largely written for us by our mental programs, we are credulously swept up in these plays (such as the genocidal drama of us versus them). Endless chain reactions among these programs leave us the victims of history — embedded in war and oppression, enveloped in mass delusions and cultural epidemics, mired in endless negative sum conflict.

If we understand these programs and the coordinated hallucinations they orchestrate in our minds, our species could awaken from the roles these programs assign to us. Yet this cannot happen if this knowledge — like quantum mechanics — remains forever locked up in the minds of a few specialists, walled off by the years of study required to master it.

Which brings us to another interlinked transformation, which could solve this problem.

If a concerted effort were made, we could develop methods for transferring bodies of understanding — intellectual mastery — far more rapidly, cheaply, and efficiently than we do now. Universities still use medieval (!) techniques (lecturing) to noisily, haphazardly and partially transfer fragments of 21st century disciplines, taking many years and spending hundreds of thousands of dollars per transfer per person. But what if people could spend four months with a specialized AI — something immersive, interactive, all-absorbing and video game-like, and emerge with a comprehensive understanding of physics, or materials science, or evolutionary psychology? To achieve this, technological, scientific, and entertainment innovations in several dozen areas would be integrated: Hollywood post-production techniques, the compulsively attention-capturing properties of emerging game design, nutritional cognitive enhancement, a growing map of our evolved programs (and their organs of understanding), an evolutionary psychological approach to entertainment, neuroscience-midwived brain-computer interfaces, rich virtual environments, and 3D imaging technologies. Eventually, conceptual education will become intense, compelling, searingly memorable, and ten times faster.

A Gutenberg revolution in disseminating conceptual mastery would change everything, and — not least — would allow our species to achieve widespread scientific self-understanding. We could awaken from ancient nightmares.


DANIEL C. DENNETT
Philosopher; University Professor, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Breaking the Spell

THIS VERY EXPLORATION IS CHANGING EVERYTHING

What will change everything? The question itself and many of the answers already given by others here on Edge.org point to a common theme: reflective, scientific investigation of everything is going to change everything. When we look closely at looking closely, when we increase our investment in techniques for increasing our investment in techniques... for increasing our investment in techniques, we create non-linearities, — like Doug Hofstadter's strange loops — that amplify uncertainties, allowing phenomena that have heretofore been orderly and relatively predictable to escape our control. We figure out how to game the system, and this initiates an arms race to control or prevent the gaming of the system, which leads to new levels of gamesmanship and so on.

The snowball has started to roll, and there is probably no stopping it. Will the result be a utopia or a dystopia? Which of the novelties are self-limiting, and which will extinguish institutions long thought to be permanent? There is precious little inertia, I think, in cultural phenomena once they are placed in these arms races of cultural evolution. Extinction can happen overnight, in some cases. The almost frictionless markets made possible by the internet are already swiftly revolutionizing commerce.

Will universities and newspapers become obsolete? Will hospitals and churches go the way of corner grocery stores and livery stables? Will reading music soon become as arcane a talent as reading hieroglyphics? Will reading and writing themselves soon be obsolete? What will we use our minds for? Some see a revolution in our concept of intelligence, either because of "neurocosmetics" (Marcel Kinsbourne) or quantum-computing (W. H. Hoffman), or "just in time storytelling" (Roger Schank). Nick Humphrey reminds us that when we get back to basics procreating, eating, just staying alive not that much has changed since Roman times, but I think that these are not really fixed points after all.

Our species' stroll through Design Space is picking up speed. Recreational sex, recreational eating, and recreational perception (hallucinogens, alcohol), have been popular since Roman times, but we are now on the verge of recreational self-transformations that will dwarf the modifications the Romans indulged in. When you no longer need to eat to stay alive, or procreate to have offspring, or locomote to have an adventure packed life, when the residual instincts for these activities might be simply turned off by genetic tweaking, there may be no constants of human nature left at all. Except, maybe, our incessant curiosity.


Sherry Turkle
Psychologist, MIT; author, Evocative Objects

The Robotic Moment

I will see the development of robots that people will want to spend time with. Not just a little time, time in which the robots serve as amusements, but enough time and with enough interactivity that the robots will be experienced as companions, each closer to a someone than a something. I think of this as the robotic moment.

Sociable technologies first came on the mass market with the 1997 Tamagotchi, a creature on a small video screen that did not offer to take care of you, but asked you to take care of it. The Tamagotchi needed to be fed and amused. It needed its owners to clean up after its digital messes. Tamagotchis demonstrated that in digital sociability, nurturance is a "killer app." We nurture what we love but we love what we nurture. In the early days of artificial intelligence, the emphasis had been on building artifacts that impressed with their knowledge and understanding. When AI goes sociable, the game changes: the "relational" artifacts that followed the Tamagotchis inspired feelings of connection because they push on people's "Darwinian" buttons: they asked us to teach them, they made eye contact, they tracked our motions, they remembered our names. For people, these are the markers of sentience, they signal us, rightly or wrongly, that there is "somebody home."

Sociable technologies came onstage as toys, but in the future, they will be presented as potential nannies, teachers, therapists, life coaches, and caretakers for the elderly. First, they will be put forward as "better than nothing." (It is better to have a robot as a diet coach than just to read a diet book. If your mother is in a nursing home, it is better to leave her interacting with a robot that knows her habits and interests than staring at a television screen.) But over time, robots will be presented as "better than something," that is, preferable to an available human being, or in some cases, to a living pet. They will be promoted as having powers – of memory, attention, and patience – that people lack. Even now, when people learn that I work with robots, they tell me stories of human disappointment: they talk of cheating husbands, wives who fake orgasms, children who take drugs. They despair about human opacity: "We never know how another person really feels; people put on a good face. Robots would be safer." As much as a story of clever engineering, our evolving attachments to technology speaks to feelings of unrequited love.

In the halls of a large psychology conference, a graduate student takes me aside to ask for more information on the state of research about relational machines. She confides that she would trade in her boyfriend "for a sophisticated Japanese robot" if the robot would produce what she termed "caring behavior." She tells me that she relies on a "feeling of civility in the house." She does not want to be alone. She says: "If the robot could provide the environment, I would be happy to help produce the illusion that there is somebody really with me." What she is looking for, she tells me, is a "no-risk relationship" that will stave off loneliness; a responsive robot, even if it is just exhibiting scripted behavior, seems better to her than a demanding boyfriend. I ask her if she is joking. She tells me she is not.

It seemed like no time at all that a reporter for Scientific American calls to interview me about a book on robot love by computer scientist David Levy. In Love and Sex with Robots Levy argues that robots will teach us to be better friends and lovers because we will be able to practice on them, relationally and physically. Beyond this, they can substitute where people fail us. Levy proposes, among other things, the virtues of marriage to robots. He argues that robots are "other," but in many ways, better. No cheating. No heartbreak.

I tell the reporter that I am not enthusiastic about Levy's suggestions: to me, the fact that we are discussing marriage to robots is a window onto human disappointments. The reporter asks if my opposition to people marrying robots doesn't put me in the same camp as those who had for so long stood in the way of marriage for lesbians and gay men. I try to explain that just because I don't think that people should marry machines doesn't mean that any mix of adult people with other adult people isn't fair territory. He accuses me of species chauvinism and restates his objection: Isn't this the kind of talk that homophobes once used, not considering gays and lesbians as "real" people? Machines are "real" enough to bring special pleasures to relationships, pleasures that need to be honored in their own right.

The argument in Love and Sex is exotic, but we are being prepared for the robotic moment every day. Consider Joanie, seven, who has been given a robot dog. She can't have a real dog because of her allergies, but the robot's appeal goes further. It is not just better than nothing but better than something. Joanie's robot, known as an Aibo, is a dog that can be made to measure. Joanie says, "It would be nice to be able to keep Aibo at a puppy stage for people who like to have puppies."

It is a very big step from Joanie admiring a "forever young" Aibo to David Levy and his robot lover. But they share the fantasy that while we may begin with substituting a robot if a person is not available we will move on to specifically choose malleable artificial companions. If the robot is a pet, it might always stay a puppy because that's how you like it. If the robot is a lover, you might always be the center of its universe because that's how you like it.

But what will happen if we get what we say we want? If our pets always stay puppy cute; if our lovers always said the sweetest things? If you only know cute and cuddly, you don't learn about maturation, growth, change, and responsibility. If you only know an accommodating partner, you end up knowing neither the partner nor yourself.

The robotic moment will bring us to the question we must ask of every technology: does it serve our human purposes, a question that causes us to reconsider what these purposes are. When we connect with the robots of the future, we will tell and they will remember. But have they listened? Have we been "heard" in a way that matters? Will we no longer care?


DOMINIQUE GONZALEZ-FOERSTER
Artist; Paris, France; Tate Museum

RESIZING

Following the nano and miniaturization trend occuring in many fields from tapas, to cameras, including surgery, vegetables, cars, computers....

Let's imagine that the fantastic Gulliver iconography with its cohabitation of tiny and giant people could also have some visionnary quality. Let's think that the 1957 film The Incredible Shrinking Man can be more than science fiction and let's imagine a worldwide collective decision to genetically miniaturize the future generations in order to reduce the human needs and increase space and ressources on the blue planet.

There would be a strange Gulliver-like period of transition where giants would still live with the next smaller generations, but on a longer run, the planet might look very different and the change of scale in relation to animals, plants, lanscapes could generate completely new ideas perceptions, representations and ideas.


AUSTIN DACEY
Philosopher; Author, The Secular Conscience

CARNICULTURE

Nobody eat animals — not the whole things. Most of us eat animal parts, with a few memorable culinary exceptions. And as we become more aware of the costs of meat — to our health, to our environments, and to the lives of the beings we consume — many of us wish to imagine the pieces apart from the wholes. The meat market obliges. It serves up slices disembodied, drained, and reassembled behind plastic, psychically sealed off from the syringe, saw blade, effluent pool, and all the other instruments of so-called husbandry. But of course this is just cynical illusion.

Imagine, though, that the illusion could come true. Imagine giving in to the human weakness for flesh, but without the growth hormones, the avian flu, the untold millions tortured and gone; imagine the voluptuous tenderness of muscle, finally freed from brutality. You are thinking of cultured meat or in vitro meat, and already it is becoming technologically feasible.

Research on several promising tissue-engineering techniques, being led by scientists in the Netherlands and the United States, has been accelerating since 2000, when NASA cultured goldfish meat as possible sustenance on space missions. Soon it will be within our means to stop farming animals and start growing meat. Call it carniculture.

With the coming of carniculture (a term found in science fiction literature, although, etymologically speaking, "carneculture" might be more correct), meat and other animal products can be made safe, nutritious, economical, energy efficient, and above all, morally defensible. While carniculture may not change everything in the same way agriculture changed everything, certainly it will transform our economy and our relationship to animals.

Grains once roamed free on untamed plains, tomatoes were wild berries in the Andes. And meat once grew on animals.


STEFANO BOERI
Architect, teaching at Politecnico of Milan, visiting professor at Harvard GSD, editor in chief of the Abitare monthly/magazine

DISCOVERING THAT SOMEONE FROM THE FUTURE HAS ALREADY COME TO VISIT US


Kai Krause
Software pioneer; author I think...there...4am!

Everything...already changed!

Change.

Why this idea, that any state is not a good state unless there is growth, expansion, re-design...change?

It is deeply embedded in the human psyche to see any situation as mere momentary balance, just waiting for the inevitable change to happen.
The one constant is always.... change.

However, for the larger scale of human lifetimes, change for change sake is not a worthy mantra. Sometimes stasis, the actual opposite of change, may be the harder achievement, the trickier challenge and yet the nobler cause.

The lengthy quest as we meander through the years is in my view really all about quality of life more than just riches, honors or power.

And there I question the role of society-at-large for me in my own private day-to-day cycles: I am not about to wait for any 'new world', no matter how 'brave', to guide my path towards a fulfilled life.

That differs from some of the learned brains in this distinguished forum:
Straightforward answers are found in these pages: Climate catastrophy, extra terrestrial life and asteroid collisions are interspersed with solutions 'from the lab': meddling with genes, conjuring up super intelligence and nano-technology, waiting for the singularity of hard A.I., fearing insurgent robots or clamoring for infinite human life span.

Big themes, well said, but somehow...I end up shrugging my shoulders.

Is it that the real future has always turned out unimaginably different than any of the predictions ever offered ?!?  That all the descriptions going past a decade or so have always missed the core nature of the changes by a mile?
That all the descriptions going past a decade or so have always missed the core nature of the changes by a mile?

My thesis summary: No need to go the far future to talk about change.
We are smack in the middle of it, and have been, for quite a while.

This decade, aptly called 'The Zero Years', already changed everything. The towering collapse of once hallowed personal freedom like mail, phone or banking secrecy was the mere start.
Where global priorities like Aids research or space travel were allocated budgets in the low billions, we now poker casually with ten trillion to prop up one industry after the next. The very foundations are quivering.

It's not about politics - simply: no one foresaw the magnitude of change ten years ago that we are finding ourselves in the middle of right now.
No need for an Apophis meteor to blast the planet.

But the theme "Change has already happened" can be positive as well.

It is a near impossibility to define quality of life, a deeply personal set of values, judgements and emotions. But in recent years there have been breakthroughs, a new sense of empowerment, a new degree of functionality for our tools: Research is now immensely powerful, fast, cheap and enjoyable, it used to be a slow, painful and expensive chore. To have the entirety of Britannica, Wikipedia, millions of pages of writings of all ages, find answers to almost any question in seconds, view them on a huge sharp window-to-the-world screen: a pure joy to "work".

Images: memories can be frozen in time, at any occasion, in beautiful detail, collected by the hundreds of thousands.
The few cineastic masterpieces mankind produced, among the wretched majority of trashy abyss, one can now own & watch, rerun & freeze-frame.
Music: all I ever cherished at my direct disposal, tens of thousands of pieces. Bach's lifetime oeuvre, 160 CDs worth, in my pocket even! Consider that just a few generations ago?

A perfect cup of tea, the right bread with great jam,
the Berlin Philharmonic plays NOW, just for ME, exactly THAT
....and will even pause when I pee!
What more does anyone need ??

Billions of our predecessors would have spontaneously combusted with "instant happiness overdose syndrome" given all these wonderful means,
and I am not even mentioning heated rooms, lit at night, clean showers, safe food, ubiquitous mobility or dentists with anaesthesia.

To change everything should really equate to: let's bring this basic state to the billions of our co-inhabitants on this dystopic dirtball. Now!
An end to the endless, senseless suffering is the most meaningful goal. Yes, indeed, let's change everything.

Will I see that in my lifetime? Well. I'll see the beginning.
And there is an optimistic streak in me, hopeful about the human spirit to face insurmountable challenges.

Photonic solar paint that gathers free energy on any surface; transparent photovoltaic film to make every window in any house or vehicle into a steady energy source; general voltaics with 90% efficiency...
Splitting water into hydrogen with ease ( and then hook that to power a desalination machine which can feed the water.. ; )
Transmit power wirelessly (as MIT finally did, following Teslas cue).
Thin air "residual energy" batteries powering laptops and cellphones nearly infinitely.... all that is very close and will make an enormous difference - not just in Manhattan, London and Tokyo, but also in Ulaanbaatar, Irian Jaya or the Pantanal.

No need to invoke grand sweeping forces, momentous upheaval, those armies of nano-tech, gene-spliced A.I. robots...

Let's embrace the peace and quiet of keeping things just as they are for a while. Bring them to the rest of the planet.
Taking the time to truly enjoy them, milking the moment for all it has, really watching, listening, smelling and tasting it all....
...that stasis.....
that changed everything.


RANDOLPH NESSE
Psychiatrist, University of Michigan; coauthor, Why We Get Sick

RECOGNIZING THAT THE BODY IS NOT A MACHINE

Many people think that genetic engineering will change everything, even our very bodies and minds. It will, eventually. Right now, however, attempts to apply new genetic knowledge are having profound effects, not on our bodies, but on how we understand our bodies.  They are revealing that our central metaphor for the body is fundamentally flawed. The body is not a machine. It is something very different, a soma shaped by selection with systems unlike anything an engineer would design. Replacing the machine metaphor with a more biological view of the body will change biology in fundamental ways.

The transition will be difficult because the metaphor of body as machine has served us well. It sped escape from vitalism, and encouraged analyses of the body's components, connections, and functions, as if they were the creations of some extraordinarily clever cosmic engineer. It has yielded explanations with boxes and arrows, as if the parts are components of an efficient device. Thanks to the metaphor of the body as machine, vitalism has been replaced by an incredible understanding of the body's mechanisms. 

Now, however, genetic advances are revealing the metaphor's limitations.  For instance, a decade ago it was reasonable to think we would find the genes that cause bipolar disease.  New data has dashed these hopes. Bipolar disease is not caused by consistent genetic variations with large effects. Instead, it may arise from a many different mutations, or from the interacting tiny effects of dozens of genes. 

We like to think of genes as information quanta whose proteins serve specific functions. However, many regulate the expression of other genes that regulate developmental pathways that are regulated by environmental factors that are detected by yet other bodily systems unlike those in any machine. Even the word "regulate" implies coherent planning, when the reality is systems that work, one way or another, by mechanisms sometimes so entangled we cannot fully describe them. We can identify the main players, insulin and glucagon in glucose regulation, the amygdala in responding to treats and losses. But the details?  Dozens of genes, hormones and neural pathways influence each other in interactions that defy description, even while they do what needs to be done.  We have assumed, following the metaphor of the machine, that the body is extremely complex.  We have yet to acknowledge that some evolved systems may be indescribably complex.  

Indescribable complexity implies nothing supernatural. Bodies and their origins are purely physical. It also has nothing to do with so-called irreducible complexity, that last bastion of creationists desperate to avoid the reality of unintelligent design. Indescribable complexity does, however, confront us with the inadequacy of models built to suit our human preferences for discrete categories, specific functions, and one directional causal arrows. Worse than merely inadequate, attempts to describe the body as a machine foster inaccurate oversimplifications. Some bodily systems cannot be described in terms simple enough to be satisfying; others may not be described adequately even by the most complex models we can imagine. 

This does not mean we should throw up our hands. Moving to a more fully evolutionary view of organisms will improve our understanding. The foundation is recognizing that the body is not a machine. I like to imagine the body as Rube-Goldberg device, modified by generations of blind tinkers, with indistinctly separate parts connected, not by a few strings and pulley, but by myriads of mechanisms interacting in ways that no engineer would tolerate, or even imagine. But even this metaphor is flawed. A body is a body is a body. As we come to recognize that bodies are bodies, not machines, everything will change. 


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