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2009

WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?


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OLIVER MORTON
Chief News and Features Editor, Nature; Author, Eating the Sun

ATTEMPTS AT GEOENGINEERING

It is quite likely that we will at some point see people starting to make deliberate changes in the way the climate system works. When they do they will change the world — though not necessarily, or only, in the way that they intend to.

"Geoengineering" technologies for counteracting some aspects of anthropogenic climate change — such as putting long-lived aerosols into the stratosphere, as volcanoes do, or changing the lifetimes and reflective properties of clouds — have to date been shunned by the majority of climate scientists, largely on the basis of the moral hazard involved: any sense that the risks of global warming can be taken care of by such technology weakens the case for reducing carbon-dioxide emissions.

I expect to see this unwillingness recede quite dramatically in the next few years, and not only because of the post-Lehman-Brothers bashing given to the idea that moral hazard is something to avoid at all costs. As people come to realise how little has actually been achieved so far on the emissions-reduction front, quite a few are going to start to freak out. Some of those who freak will have money to spend, and with money and the participation of a larger cadre of researchers, the science and engineering required for the serious assessment of various geoengineering schemes might be developed fairly quickly.

Why do I think those attempts will change the world? Geoengineering is not, after all, a panacea. It cannot precisely cancel out the effects of greenhouse gases, and it is likely to have knock on effects on the hydrological cycle which may well not be welcome. Even if the benefits outweigh the costs, the best-case outcome is unlikely to be more than a period of grace in which the most excessive temperature changes are held at bay. Reducing carbon-dioxide emissions will continue to be necessary. In part that is because of the problem of ocean acidification, and in part because a lower carbon-dioxide climate is vastly preferable to one that stays teetering on the brink of disaster for centuries, requiring constant tinkering to avoid teetering over into greenhouse hellishness.

So geoengineering would not "solve" climate change. Nor would it be an unprecedented human intervention into the earth system. It would be a massive thing to undertake, but hardly more momentous in absolute terms than our replacement of natural ecosystems with farmed ones; our commandeering of the nitrogen cycle; the wholesale havoc we have wrought on marine food webs; or the amplification of the greenhouse effect itself.

But what I see as world changing about this technology is not the extent to which it changes the world. It is that it does so on purpose. To live in a world subject to purposeful, planetwide change will not, I think, be quite the same as living in one being messed up by accident. Unless geoengineering fails catastrophically (which would be a pretty dramatic change in itself) the relationship between people and their environment will have changed profoundly. The line separating the natural from the artificial is itself an artifice, and one that changes with time. But this change, different in scale and not necessarily reversible, might finish off the idea of the natural as a place or time or condition that could ever be returned to. This would not be the "end of nature" — but it would be the end of a view of nature that has great power, and without which some would feel bereft. The clouds and the colours of the noon-time sky and of the setting sun will feel different if they have become, to some extent, a matter of choice.

And that choice is itself another aspect of the great change: Who chooses, and how? All climate change, whether intentional or not, has different outcomes for different regions, and geoengineering is in many ways just another form of climate change. So for some it will likely make the situation worse. If it does, does that constitute an act of war? An economic offence for which others will insist that reparations should be made? Just one of those things that the stronger do to the weaker?

Critics of geoengineering approaches are right to stress this governance problem. Where they tend to go wrong is in ignoring the fact that we already have a climate governance problem: the mechanisms currently in place to "avoid dangerous climate change", as the UN's Framework Convention on Climate Change puts it, have not so far delivered the goods. A system conceived with geoengineering in mind would need to be one that held countries to the consequences of their actions in new ways, and that might strengthen and broaden approaches to emissions reduction, too. But there will always be an asymmetry, and it is an important one. To do something about emissions a significant number of large economies will have to act in concert. Geoengineering can be unilateral. Any medium sized nation could try it.

In this, as in other ways, geoengineering issues look oddly like nuclear issues. There, too, a technological stance by a single nation can have global consequences. There, too, technology has reset the boundaries of the natural in ways that can provoke a visceral opposition. There, too, there is a discourse of transcendence and a tendency to hubris that need to be held in check. And there, too, the technology has brought with it dreams of new forms of governance. In the light of Trinity, Hiroshima and Nagasaki, many saw some sort of world government as a moral imperative, an historical necessity, or both. It turned out not to be, and the control of nuclear weapons and ambitions has remained an ad hoc thing, a mixture of treaties, deterrence, various suasions and occasional direct action that is unsatisfactory in many ways though not, as yet, a complete failure. A geoengineered world may end up governed in a similarly piecemeal way — and bring with it a similar open-ended risk of destabilisation, and even disaster.

The world has inertia and complexity. It changes, and it can be changed — but not always quickly, and not necessarily controllably, and not all at once. But within those constraints geoengineering will bring changes, and it will do so intentionally. And that intentional change in the relationship between people and planet might be the biggest change of all.


MARIA SPIROPULU
Physicist, CERN (Large Hadron Collider)

TWO GRAND REVOLUTIONARY SCIENTIFIC ACHIEVEMENTS

In no order of presumed value or significance the two grand revolutionary scientific achievements  that begin changing us are:

1.  the concilience of the sciences of life and technology of artificial intelligence, advanced computing and software (including life programming a la Venter and possibly consciousness programming) towards the "cylon" creation;

2.  the knowledge of how space and time emerge: the tectonics and characterization of our very Universe (with the Large Hadron Collider, relevant accelerator and non-accelerator fundamental research projects  including a large number of astro-particle-gravity-cosmology observatories terrestrial and in space)

Both are products of the curious ever growing capacity of the human intelligence and craftsmanship. Both manifest  through science and technology no signs of saturation or taming.  Both are changing our cognitive reference systems and the compass of knowledge.


DAN SPERBER
Social and cognitive scientist, CNRS, Paris; Author, Explaining Culture

THE GROWING PERCEPTION OF A CLASH BETWEEN SAFETY AND LIBERTY

From the Neolithic revolution to the information age, the major changes in the human condition—none of them changing everything, needless to say—have been consequences of new technologies. There is now a glut of new technologies in the offing that will alter the way we live more rapidly and radically than anything before in ways we cannot properly foresee. I wish I could just wax lyrical about some of the developments we can at least sensibly speculate about, but others will do so more competently. So, let me focus on the painfully obvious that we would rather not think about.

Many new technologies can provide new weapons or new ways to use old ones. Access to these technologies is every day easier. In the near future we should expect, with near certainty, that atomic, chemical, and biological weapons of mass destruction will be used in a variety of conflicts. The most important change this will bring about is not that so many will die. Hundreds of thousands have died all these years in wars and natural catastrophes, with an unspeakable impact on the population affected, but, alas, massacres and other forms of collective death have been part and parcel of the human condition. This time, however, many of the victims will belong to powerful modern societies that, since the Second World War, have on the whole been spared. People in these societies are, neither less nor more than the usual poorer and powerless victims of massive violence, entitled to live full decent lives, and have a right to fight for this. What may bring about radical changes is that they will be in a much stronger position to exert and possibly abuse this right. Recent large-scale murderous attacks resulted in the acceptance of fewer checks on executive power, limitation of civil rights, preventive warfare, ethnically targeted public suspicion. In the future, people who will have witnessed even direr events at close quarters may well support even more drastic measures. I am not discussing here the rationality of fears to come, or the extent to which they are likely to be biased and manipulated. I just assume that, for good or bad reasons, they will weigh in favor of limitations to the liberties of individuals and to the independence of countries.

One must hope that, in part thanks to the changes brought about by novel technologies, new forms of social and political understanding and action will develop to help address at the root issues that otherwise might give rise to ever more lethal conflicts. Still, while more and more powerful technologies are becoming more and more accessible, there is no reason to believe that humans are becoming commensurately wiser and more respectful of one another's rights. There will be, then, at least in most people's perception, a direct clash between their safety and their liberty and even more between their safety and the liberty of others. The history of this century—our history, that of our children and grandchildren—will in good part be that of the ways in which this clash is played out, or overcome.


TINO SEHGAL
Artist, Berlin; Marion Goodman Gallery

A DIFFERENT KIND OF MALE SUBJECTIVITY

I think what I will live to see is a quite different kind of  male subjectivity. As we increasingly exit the cultural and behavioural reflexes of industrial society with its distinctive separation of labour between men and women, the base for our still pervasive idea of what constitutes 'masculinity' is equally eroded. Eventually this will trickle down to the conception of male subjectivity, with each new generation doing their little step.

I really hope I will live to see this, as (although our epoch is of course a very challenging and thereby interesting one with the whole sustainability issue) the codes and modes of behaviour and expression available to men are extremely limited and simplistic, which make our times slightly dull. I am looking forward to seeing my own child grow up and what his generation's contribution will be, but even more so I sometimes have a sense of impatience to see how young men will be when I am very old.


COREY S. POWELL
Editor in Chief, Discover magazine

EXPECTATIONS

The tricky, slippery word in this question is "expect." There is nothing that I expect to see with 100 percent certainty, and there are some remarkable things that I expect to see with perhaps 10 or 5 percent certainty (but I sure would be excited if that 5 percent paid off). With that bit of preamble, I'd like to lay out my game-changing predictions ranked by order of expectation, starting with the near-sure things and ending with the thrilling hey-you-never-knows.

The real end of oil. Technology will make liquid fuels obsolete — not just petroleum but also alternatives like biodiesel, ethanol, etc. Fossil fuel supplies are too volatile and limited, the fuels themselves far too environmentally costly, and biofuels will never be more than niche players. More broadly, moving around fuels in liquid form is just too cumbersome. In the future, energy for personal transit might be delivered by wire or by beam. It might not be delivered at all — the Back to the Future "Mr. Fusion" device is not so farfetched (see below). But whatever comes next, in another generation or so pumping fuel into a car will seem as quaint as getting out and cranking the engine to get it started.
Odds: 95 percent.

Dark matter found. The hunt for the Higgs boson is a yawn from my perspective: Finding it will only confirm a theory that most physicists are fairly sure about already. Identifying dark matter particles — either at the Large Hadron Collider or at one of the direct detectors, like Xenon100 — would be much more significant. It would tell us what the other 6/7ths of all matter in the universe consists of, it would instantly rule out a lot of kooky cosmological theories, and it would allow us to construct a complete history of the universe.
Odds: 90 percent.

Genetically engineered kids. I'm not just talking about screening out major cancer genes or selecting blue eyes; I'm talking about designing kids who can breathe underwater or who have radically enhance mental capabilities. Such offspring will rewrite the rules of evolution and redefine what it means to be human. They may very well qualify as totally new species. From a scientific point of view I think this capability is extremely likely, but legal and ethical considerations may prevent it from happening.
With all that, I put the odds at: 80 percent.

Life detected on an exoplanet. Astronomers have already measured the size, density, temperature, and atmospheric composition of several alien worlds as they transit in front of their parent stars. The upcoming James Webb Space Telescope may be able to do the same for earth-size planets. We haven't found these planets yet but it's a shoo-in that the Kepler mission, launching this spring, or one of the ground-based planet searches will find them soon. The real question is whether the chemical evidence of alien life will be conclusive enough to convince most scientists. (As for life on Mars, I'd say the odds are similar that we'll find evidence of fossil life there, but the likelihood of cross-contamination between Mars and Earth makes Martian life inherently less interesting.)
Odds: 75 percent.

Synthetic telepathy. Rudimentary brain prostheses and brain-machine interfaces already exist. Allowing one person to control another person's body would be a fairly simple extension of that technology. Enabling one person to transmit his thoughts directly to another person's brain is a much trickier proposition, but not terribly farfetched, and it would break down one of the most profound isolations associated with the human condition. Broadcasting the overall state or "mood" of a brain would probably come first. Transmitting specific, conscious thoughts would require elaborate physical implants to make sure the signals go to exactly the right place — but such implants could soon become common anyway as people merge their brains with computer data networks.
Odds: 70 percent.

Lifespan past 200 (or 1,000). I have little doubt that progress in fighting disease and patching up our genetic weaknesses will make it possible for people to routinely reach the full human lifespan of about 120. Going far beyond that will require halting or reversing the core aging process, which involves not just genetic triggers but also oxidation and simple wear-and-tear. Engineering someone to have gills is probably a much easier proposition. Still, if we can hit 200 I see no reason why the same techniques couldn't allow people to live to 1,000 or more.
Odds: 60 percent. 

Conscious machines. Intelligent machines are inevitable — by some measures they are already here. Synthetic consciousness would be a much greater breakthrough, in some ways a more profound one than finding life on other planets. One problem: We don't understand how consciousness works, so recreating it will require learning a lot more about what it means to be both smart and self-aware. Another problem: We don't understand what consciousness is, so it's not clear what "smart" and "self-aware" mean, exactly. Gerald Edelman's brain-based devices are a promising solution. Rather than trying to deconstruct the brain as a computer, they construct neural processing from the bottom up, mimicking the workings of actual neurons.
Odds: 50-50.

Geoengineering. We may be able to deal with global warming through a combination of new energy sources, carbon sequestration, and many local and regional adaptations to a warmer climate. All of these will be technologically challenging but not truly "game-changing." It is possible, though, that the climate impact of our environmental follies will be so severe, and the progress of curative scientific research so dramatic, that some of the pie-in-the-sky geoengineering schemes now being bandied about will actually come to pass. Giant space mirrors and sunshades strike me as the most appealing options, both because they would support an aggressive space program and because they are adjustable and correctable. (Schemes that aim to fight carbon pollution with sulfur pollution seem like a frightening mix of hubris and folly.) Geoengineering techniques are also a good first step toward being able to terraform other planets.
Odds: 25 percent.

Desktop fusion. The ITER project will prove that it is possible to spend billions of dollars to construct an enormous device that produces controlled hydrogen fusion at a net loss of energy. A few left-field fusion researchers — most notably the ones associated with Tri-Alpha — are exploring a much more ambitious approach that would lead to the construction of cheap, compact reactors. These devices could in theory take advantage of more exotic, neutron-free fusion reactions that would allow almost direct conversion of fusion energy to electricity. The old dream of a limitless power plant that could fit under the hood of your car or in a closet in your house might finally come true. Since energy is the limiting factor for most economic development, the world economy (and the potential for research and exploration) would be utterly transformed.
Odds: 20 percent.

Communication with other universes. Studies of gravitational wave patterns etched into the cosmic microwave background could soon provide hints of the existence of universes outside of our own. Particle collisions at the LHC could soon provide hints of the existence of higher dimensions. But what would really shake the world would be direct measurements of other universes. How exactly that would work is not at all clear, since any object or signal that crossed over directly from another universe could have devastating consequences; indirect evidence, meanwhile, might not be terribly convincing (eg, looking for the gravitational pull from shadow matter on a nearby brane). I hold out hope all the same.
Odds: 10 percent

Antigravity devices. Currentphysics theory doesn't allow such things, but from time to time fringe experiments (mostly involving spinning superconducting disks) allegedly turn up evidence for an antigravity phenomenon. Even NASA has invested dribbles of money in this field, hoping that something exciting and unexpected will pop up. If antigravity really exists it would require revising Einstein's general theory of relativity. It would also vindicate all those science-fiction TV shows in which everyone clomps around heavily in outer space. Given how little we know about how gravity works, antigravity or artificially generated gravity don't seem impossible…just highly improbable.
Odds: 5 percent

ESP verified!Probably the closest thing I've seen to a scientific theory of ESP is Rupert Sheldrake's concept of "morphic fields." Right now there's nary a shred of evidence to support the idea — unless you count anecdotes of dogs who know when their owners are about to return home, and people who can "feel" when someone is looking at them — but Sheldrake is totally correct that such off-the-wall ideas merit serious scientific investigation. After all, scientists investigate counterintuitive physics concepts all the time; why not conduct equally serious investigations of the intuitive feelings that people have all the time? Everything I know about science, and about human subjectivity, says that there's nothing to find here. And yet, when I think of a discovery that would change everything this is one of the first that springs to mind.
Odds: 0.1 percent


GARY MARCUS
Cognitive Scientist,, New York University; Author, Kluge

DECODING THE BRAIN

Within my lifetime (or soon thereafter) scientists will finally decode the language of the brain. At present, we understand a bit about the basic alphabet of neural function, how neurons fire, and how they come together to form synapses, but haven't yet pieced together the words, let alone the sentences.  Right now, we're sort of like Mendel, at the dawn of genetics: he knew there must be something like genes (what he called "factors"), but couldn't say where they lived (in the protein? in the cytoplasm?) or how they got their job done. Today, we know that thought has something to do with neurons, and that our memories are stored in brain matter, but we don't yet know how to decipher the neurocircuitry within. 

Doing that will require a quantum leap. The most popular current techniques for investigating the brain, like functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), are far too coarse. A single three dimensional "voxel" in an fMRI scan lumps together the actions of tens or even hundreds of thousands of neurons — yielding a kind of rough geography of the brain (emotion in the amygdala, decision-making in the prefrontal cortex) but little in the way of specifics.  How does the prefrontal cortex actually do its thing? How does the visual cortex represent the difference between a house and a car, or a Hummer and a taxi? How does Broca's area know the difference between a noun and verb?

To answer questions like these, we need to move beyond the broad scale geographies of fMRI and down to the level of individual neurons.

At the moment, that's a big job.  For one thing, in the human brain there are billions of neurons and trillions of connections between them; the sheer amount of data involved is overwhelming. For another, until recently we've lacked the tools to understand the function of individual neurons in action, within the context of microcircuits.

But there's good reason to think all that's about to change. Computers continue to advance at a dizzying pace.  Then there's the truly unprecedented explosion in databases like the Human Genome and the Allen Brain Atlas, enormously valuable datasets that are shared publically and instantly available to all researchers, everywhere; even a decade ago there was nothing like them. Finally, genetic neuroimaging is just around the corner — scientists can now induce individual neurons to fire and (literally) light up on demand, allowing us to understand individual neural circuits in a brand new way.

Technical advances alone won't be enough, though — we'll need a scientist with the theoeretical vision of Francis Crick, who not only helped identify the physical basis of genes — DNA — but also the code by which the individual nucleotides of a gene get translated (in groups of three) into amino acids.  When it comes to the brain, we already know that neurons are the physical basis of thinking and knowledge, but not the laws of translation that relate one to the other.

I don't expect that there will be one single code. Although every creature uses essentially the same translation between DNA and amino acids, different parts of the brain may translate between neurons and information in different ways.  Circuits that control muscles, for example, seem to work on a system of statistical averaging; the angle at which a monkey extends its arm seems, as best we can tell, to be a kind of statistical average of the actions of hundreds of individual neurons, each representing a slightly different angle of possible motion, 44 degrees, 44.1 degrees, and so forth. Alas, what works for muscles probably can't work for sentences and ideas, so-called declarative knowledge like the proposition that "Michael Bloomberg is the Mayor of New York" or the idea that my fight to Montreal leaves at noon. It's implausible that the brain would have vast population of neurons reserved for each specific thought I might entertain ("my flight to Montreal leaves at 11:58 am", "my flight to Montreal leave leaves at 11:59 am", etc). Instead, the brain, like language itself, needs some sort of combinatorial code, a way of putting together smaller pieces (Montreal, flight, noon) into larger elements.

When we crack that nut, when we figure out how the brain manages to encode declarative knowledge , an awful lot is going to change. For one thing, our relationship to computers will be completely and irrevocably altered; clumsy input devices like mice, windows, keyboards, and even heads-up displays and speech recognizers will go the way of typewriters and fountain pens; our connection to computers will be far more direct. Education, too, will fundamentally change, as engineers and cognitive sciences begin to leverage an understanding of brain code into ways of directly uploading information into the brain. Knowledge will become far cheaper than it already has become in the Internet era; with luck and wisdom, we as species could advance immeasurably.


PHILIPPE PARRENO
Artist, Paris; Friedrich Petzel Gallery

NO MORE REALITY!

Could we take the next step by breaking down the strict distinction between reality and fiction: NO MORE REALITY!


BART KOSKO
Information Scientist, USC; Author, Noise

CHEAP CRYONIC SUSPENSION OF BRAINS

Society will change when the poor and middle class have easy access to cryonic suspension of their cognitive remains — even if the future technology involved ultimately fails.

Today we almost always either bury dead brains or burn them. Both disposal techniques result in irreversible loss of personhood information because both techniques either slowly or quickly destroy all the brain tissue that houses a person's unique neural-net circuitry. The result is a neural information apocalypse and all the denial and superstition that every culture has evolved to cope with it.

Some future biocomputing technology may extract and thus back-up this defining neural information or wetware. But no such technology is in sight despite the steady advances of Moore's Law doubling of transistor density on computer chips every two years or so. Nor have we cracked the code of the random pulse train from a single neuron. Hence we are not even close to making sense of the interlocking pulse trains of the billions of chattering neurons in a functioning human brain.

So far the only practical alternative to this information catastrophe is to vitrify the brain and store it indefinitely in liquid nitrogen at about -320 degrees Fahrenheit. Even the best vitrification techniques still produce massive cell damage that no current or even medium-term technology can likely reverse. But the shortcomings of early twenty-first century science and engineering hardly foreclose the technology options that will be available in a century and far less so in a millennium. Suspended brain tissue needs only periodic replacement of liquid nitrogen to wait out the breakthroughs.

Yet right now there are only about 100 brains suspended in liquid nitrogen in a world where each day about 150,000 people die.

That comes to fewer than three suspended brains per year since a 40-year-old and post-Space Odyssey Stanley Kubrick hailed the promise of cryonic suspension in his 1968 Playboy interview. Kubrick cast death as a problem of bioengineering: "Death is no more natural or inevitable than smallpox or diphtheria. Death is a disease and as susceptible to cure as any other disease." The Playboy interviewer asked Kubrick if he was interested in being frozen. Kubrick said that he "would be if there were adequate facilities available." But just over three decades later Kubrick opted for the old neural apocalypse when he could easily have afforded a first-class cryonic suspension in quite adequate facilities.

The Kubrick case shows that dollar cost is just one factor that affects the ease of mass access to cryonics. Today many people can afford a brain-only suspension by paying moderate premiums for a life-insurance policy that would cover the expenses. But almost no one accepts that cryonics wager. There are also stigma costs from the usual scolds in the church and in bioethics. There is likewise no shortage of biologists who will point out that you cannot get back the cow from the hamburger.

And there remains the simple denial of the inexorable neural catastrophe. That denial is powerful enough that it keeps the majority of citizens from engaging in rational estate planning. The probate code in some states such as California even allows valid handwritten wills that an adult can pen (but not type) and sign in minutes and without any witnesses. But only a minority of Californians ever executes these handwritten wills or the more formal attested wills. The great majority dies intestate and thus they let the chips fall where the state says they fall.

So it is not too surprising that the overwhelming majority of the doomed believe that the real or imagined transaction costs of brain suspension outweigh its benefits if they think about the matter at all. But those costs will only fall as technology marches on ever faster and as the popular culture adapts to those tech changes. One silver lining of the numbing parade of comic-book action movies is how naturally the younger viewing audience tends to embrace the fanciful information and biotechnology involved in such fare even if the audience lacks a like enthusiasm for calculus.

Again none of this means that brain suspension in liquid nitrogen will ever work in the sense that it leads to some type of future resurrection of the dead. It may well never work because the required neuro-engineering may eventually prove too difficult or too expensive or because future social power groups outlaw the practice or because of many other technical or social factors. But then again it may work if enough increased demand for such brain suspensions produces enough economies of scale and spurs enough technical and business innovation to pull it off. There is plenty of room for skepticism and variation in all the probability estimates.

But just having an affordable and plausible long shot at some type of resurrection here on Earth will in time affect popular belief systems and lengthen consumer time horizons. That will in turn affect risk profiles and consumption patterns and so society will change and perhaps abruptly so. A large enough popular demand for brain suspensions would allow democracies to directly represent some of the interests from potential far-future generations because no one would want themselves or their loved ones to revive and find a spoiled planet. Our present dead-by-100 life spans make it all too easy to treat the planet like a rental car as we run up the social credit cards for unborn debtors.

The cryonics long shot lets us see our pending brain death not as the solipsistic obliteration of our world but as the dreamless sleep that precedes a very major surgery.


DAVID BERREBY
Science Writer; Author, Us and Them

POST-RATIONAL ECONOMIC MAN

Global 21st-century society depends on an 18th-century worldview.  It's an Enlightenment-era model that says the essence of humanity — and our best guide in life — is cool, conscious reason.  Though many have noted, here on Edge and elsewhere, that this is a poor account of the mind, the rationalist picture still sustains institutions that, in turn, shape our daily lives.

It is because we are rational that governments guarantee our human rights: To " use one's understanding without guidance"  (Kant's definition of enlightenment), one needs freedom to inquire, think and speak.  Rationality is the reason for elections (because governments not chosen by thoughtful, evidence-weighing citizens would be irrational). Criminal justice systems assume that impartial justice is possible, which means they assume judges and juries can reason their way through a case.  Our medical system assumes that drugs work for biochemical reasons, applicable to all human bodies — and not the price on the pill bottle makes a difference in its effectiveness.

And free markets presume that all players are avatars of Rational Economic Man: He who consciously and consistently perceives his own interests, relates those to possible actions, reasons his way through the options, and then acts according to his calculations. When Adam Smith famously wrote that butchers, brewers and bakers worked efficiently out of  "regard for their own interest,"  he was doing more than asserting that self-interest could be good.  He was also asserting that self-interest — a long-lasting, fact-based, explicit sense of  "what's good for me" — is possible.

The rationalist model also suffuses modern culture.  Rationalist politics requires tolerance for diversity — we can't reason together if we agree on everything. Rationalist economics teaches the same lesson. If everyone agrees on the proper price for all stocks on the market, then there's no reason for those brokers to go to work. This tolerance for diversity makes it impossible to unite society under a single creed or tradition, and that has the effect of elevating the authority of the scientific method. Data, collected and interpreted according to rigorous standards, elucidating material causes and effects, has become our lingua franca. Our modern notions of the unity of humanity are not premised on God or tribe, but on research results.  We say "we all share the same genes," or " we are all working with the same evolved human nature" or appeal in some other way to scientific findings.

This rationalist framework is so deeply embedded in modern life that its enemies speak in its language, even when they violate its tenets. Those who loathe the theory of evolution felt obligated to come up with "creation science." 

Businesses proclaim their devotion to the free market even as they ask governments to interfere with its workings. Then too, tyrants who take the trouble to rig elections only prove that elections are now a universal standard.

So that's where the world stands today, with banks, governments, medical systems, nation-states resting, explicitly or implicitly, on this notion that human beings are rational deciders.

And of course this model looks to be quite wrong. That's fact is not what changes everything, but it's a step in that direction.

What's killing Rational Economic Man is an accumulation of scientific evidence suggesting people have (a) strong built-in biases that make it almost impossible to separate information's logical essentials from the manner and setting in which the information is presented; and (b) a penchant for changing their beliefs and preferences according to their surroundings, social setting, mood or simply some random fact they happened to have noticed. The notion that "I" can " know" consistently what my " preferences"  are — this is in trouble.  (I won't elaborate the case against the rationalist model as recently made by, among others, Gary Marcus, Dan Ariely, Cass Sunstein, because it has been well covered in the recent Edge colloquium on behavioral economics.) 

What changes is everything is not this ongoing intellectual event, but the next one. 

In the next 10 or 15 years, after the burial of Rational Economic Man, neuroscientists and people from the behavioral disciplines will converge on a better model of human decision-making. I think it will picture people as inconsistent, unconscious, biased, malleable corks on a sea of fast-changing influences, and the consequences of that will be huge for our sense of personhood (to say nothing of sales tricks and marketer manipulations).

But I think the biggest shocks might come to, and through, institutions that are organized on rationalist premises.  If we accept that people are highly influenced by other people, and by their immediate circumstances, then what becomes of our idea of impartial justice? (Jon Hanson at Harvard has been working on that for some time.) How do we understand and protect democracy, now that Jonah Berger has shown that voters are more likely to support education spending just because they happen to cast their ballots in a school? What are we to make of election results, after we've accepted that voters have, at best, "incoherent, inconsistent, disorganized positions on issues," as William Jacoby puts it?  How do you see a town hall debate, once you know that people are more tolerant of a new idea if they're sitting in a tidy room than if they're in a messy one?

How do we understand medical care, now that we know  that chemically identical pills have different effects on people who think their medicine is expensive than they do on patient who were told it was cheap? How should we structure markets after learning that even MBAs can be nudged to see a $7 per item as a fair price — just by exposing them to the number 7 a few minutes before?  What do we do about standardized testing, when we know that women reminded that they're female score worse on a math test than fellow women who were reminded instead that they were elite college students?

Perhaps we need a new Adam Smith, to reconcile our political, economic and social institutions with present-day knowledge about human nature. In any event, I expect to see the arrival of Post-Rational Economic (and Political and Psychological) Humanity. And I do expect that will change everything.


A. Garrett Lisi
Independent Theoretical Physicist; Author, "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything"

Changes in the Changers

Human beings have an amazingly flexible sense of self. If we don a pair of high resolution goggles showing the point of view from another body, with feedback and control, we perceive ourselves to be that body. As we use rudimentary or complex tools, these quickly become familiar extensions of our bodies and minds. This flexibility, and our indefatigable drive to learn, invent, have fun, and seek new adventure, will lead us down future paths that will dramatically alter human experience and our very nature.

Because we adapt so quickly, the changes will feel gradual. In the next few years solid state memory will replace hard drives, removing the mechanical barrier to miniaturization of our computational gadgetry. Battery size remains as a barrier to progress, but this will improve, along with increased efficiency of our electronics, and we will live with pervasive computational presence. Privacy will vanish. People will record and share their sensorium feeds with the world, and the world will share experiences. Every physical location will be geo-tagged with an overlay of information. Cities will become more pleasant as the internal combustion engine is replaced with silent electric vehicles that don't belch toxic fumes. We'll be drawn in to the ever evolving and persistently available conversations among our social networks. Primitive EEG's will be replaced by magnetoencephalography and functional MRI backed by the computational power to recognize our active thought patterns and translate them to transmittable words, images, and actions. Our friends and family who wish it, and our entire external and internal world, will be reachable with our thoughts. This augmentation will change what it means to be human. Many people will turn away from their meat existence, to virtual worlds, which they will fill with meaning — spending time working on science, virtual constructions, socializing, or just playing games. And we humans will create others like us, but not.

Synthetic intelligence will arrive, but slowly, and it will be different enough that many won't acknowledge it for what it is. People used to think a computer mastering chess, voice recognition, and automated driving would signal the arrival of artificial intelligence. But these milestones have been achieved, and we now consider them the result of brute force computation and clever coding rather than bellwethers of synthetic intelligence. Similarly, computers are just becoming able to play the game of Go at the dan level, and will soon surpass the best human players. They will pass Turing's test. But this synthetic intelligence, however adaptable, is inhuman and foreign, and many people won't accept it as more than number crunching and good programming. A more interesting sign that synthetic intelligence has arrived will be when captchas and reverse Turing tests appear that exclude humans. The computers will have a good laugh about that. If it doesn't happen earlier, this level of AI will arrive once computers achieve the computational power to run real-time simulations of an entire human brain. Shortly after that, we will no longer be the game changers. But by then, humans may have significantly altered themselves through direct biological manipulation.

The change I expect to see that will most affect human existence will come from biohacking: purposefully altering genomes, tissue engineering, and other advances in biology. Humans are haphazardly assembled biological machines. Our DNA was written by monkeys banging away at... not typewriters, but each other, for millions of years. Imagine how quickly life will transform when DNA and biochemistry are altered with thoughtful intent. Nanotechnology already exists as the machinery within our own biological cells; we're just now learning how these machines work, and how to control them. Pharmaceuticals will be customized to match our personal genome. We're going to be designing and growing organisms to suit our purposes. These organisms will sequester carbon, process raw material, and eventually repair and replace our own bodies.

It may not happen within my lifetime, but the biggest game change will be the ultimate synthesis of computation and biology. Biotech will eventually allow our brains to be scanned at a level sufficient to preserve our memories and reproduce our consciousness when uploaded to a more efficient computational substrate. At this point our mind may be copied, and, if desired, embedded and connected to the somatic helms of designed biological forms. We will become branching selves, following many different paths at once for the adventure, the fun, and the love of it. Life in the real world presents extremely rich experiences, and uploaded intelligences in virtual worlds will come outside where they can fly as a falcon, sprint as a cheetah, love, play, or even just breath — with superhuman consciousness, no lag, and infinite bandwidth. People will dance with nature, in all its possible forms. And we'll kitesurf.

Kitesurfing, you see, is a hell of a lot of fun — and kites are the future of sailing. Even though the sport is only a few years old and kite design is not yet mature, kitesurfers have recently broken the world sailing speed record, reaching over 50 knots. Many in the sailing world are resisting the change, and disputing the record, but kites provide efficient power and lift, and the speed gap will only grow as technology improves. Kitesurfing is a challenging dynamic balance of powerful natural forces. It feels wonderful; and it gets even more fun in waves.

All of these predicted changes are extrapolations from the seeds of present science and technology; the biggest surprises will come from what can't be extrapolated. It is uncertain how many of these changes will happen within our lifetimes, because that timescale is a dependent variable, and life is uncertain. It is both incredibly tragic and fantastically inspiring that our generation may be the last to die of old age. If extending our lives eludes us, cryonics exists as a stopgap gamble — Pascal's wager for singularitarians, with an uncertain future preferable to a certain lack of one. And if I'm wrong about these predictions, death will mean I'll never know.


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