WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?
Professor of Journalism, New York University; formerly journalist, Science magazine; Author, Zero: The Biography Of A Dangerous Idea
Malthusian Information Famine
For the first time, humans are within reach of a form of immortality. Just a few years ago, we had to be content with archiving a mere handful of events in our lives—storing what we could in a few faded photographs of a day at the zoo, a handful of manuscript pages, a jittery video of an anniversary, or a family legend that gets passed down for three or four generations. All else, all of our memory and knowledge, melts away when we die.
That era is over. It's now within your means to record, in real time, audio and video of your entire existence. A tiny camera and microphone could wirelessly transmit and store everything that you hear and see for the rest of your life. It would take only a few thousand terabytes of hard-drive space to archive a human's entire audiovisual experience from cradle to grave.
Cheap digital memory has already begun to alter our society, at least on a small scale. CDs have become just as quaint as LPs; now, you can carry your entire music collection on a device the size of a credit card. Photographers no longer have to carry bandoliers full of film rolls. Vast databases, once confined to rooms full of spinning magnetic tapes, now wander freely about the world every time a careless government employee misplaces his laptop. Google is busy trying to snaffle up all the world's literature and convert it into a digital format: a task that, astonishingly, now has more legal hurdles than technical ones.
Much more important, though, is that vast amounts of digital memory will change the relationship that humans have with information. For most of our existence, our ability to store and relay knowledge has been very limited. Every time we figured out a better way to preserve and transmit data to our peers and to our descendents—as we moved from oral history to written language to the printing press to the computer age—our civilization took a great leap. Now we are reaching the point where we have the ability to archive every message, every telephone conversation, every communication between human beings anywhere on the planet. For the first time, we as a species have the ability to remember everything that ever happens to us. For millennia, we were starving for information to act as raw material for ideas. Now, we are about to have a surfeit.
Alas, there will be famine in the midst of all that plenty. There are some hundred million blogs, and the number is roughly doubling every year. The vast majority are unreadable. Several hundred billion e-mail messages are sent every day; most of it—current estimates run around 70%—is spam. There seems to be a Malthusian principle at work: information grows exponentially, but useful information grows only linearly. Noise will drown out signal. The moment that we, as a species, finally have the memory to store our every thought, etch our every experience into a digital medium, it will be hard to avoid slipping into a Borgesian nightmare where we are engulfed by our own mental refuse.
We are at the brink of a colossal change: our knowledge is now being limited not only by our ability to gather information and to remember it, but also by our wisdom about when to ignore information—and when to forget.
Physicist, University of Pennsylvania; Author: Faust In Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics
The Existence of Additional Space-Time Dimensions
Einstein’s Theory of General Relativity, first presented in the fall of 1915, and his earlier Special Theory of Relativity have changed very little of our day to day world, but they have radically altered the way we think about both space and time and have also launched the modern theory of cosmology. If in the near future we discover additional space-time dimensions we will undergo a shift in our perceptions every bit as radical as the one experienced almost a hundred years ago.
Though proof of their existence would necessarily alter our view of the Universe, there is also a way in which our psyches would be changed. I believe we would gain a new confidence that great almost unimaginable phenomena are yet to be discovered. It would also make us realize once again the power that lies in a few simple equations, in the tools we can build to test them and in the human imagination.
At the November 6, 1919 joint meeting of the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society, Sir Frank Watson Dyson reported on the observations of starlight made during the previous May’s solar eclipse. “After a careful study of the plates I am prepared to say that they confirm Einstein’s prediction. A very definite result had been obtained, that light is deflected in accordance with Einstein’s law of gravitation.” Sir John Joseph Thomson, presiding, afterwards called the result “one of the highest achievements of human thought.” It was a triumphant moment for both theoretical physics and observational astronomy.
A few years after the momentous Royal Society meeting a German and a Swedish physicist, Theodor Kaluza and Oskar Klein, reached a striking conclusion. They noticed that the equations of general relativity, when solved in five rather than four dimensions, led to additional solutions that were identical to the well-known Maxwell equations of electromagnetism. Since the apparent fifth dimension had not, and still has not been observed, a necessary additional postulate for this theory to correspond to possible reality was that the fifth dimension was curled up so tightly that any motion in its direction had not been detected.
Einstein, finding this extension of his General Theory of Relativity extraordinarily attractive, tried more than once, without success, to make it part of his lifelong dream of a unified field theory of interactions. But this direction of research fell into relative disfavor during the first post World War II decades during which theoretical physics turned its attention to other matters. It returned with a vengeance during the late 1970s, gaining momentum in the 1980s as physicists began to seriously examine theories that could unite all fundamental interactions into one comprehensive scheme. The rising popularity of superstring theory, mathematically consistent only if additional space-time dimensions are present, has provided the decisive impetus for such considerations.
There are striking differences from the 1915 situation, most particularly the lack of a clear test for the detection of extra dimensions. The novel theories now in fashion do predict that additional particles must be present in nature because of these extensions of space and time, but since the mass of these particles is related to the unknown scale of the extra dimensions, it also remains unknown. Roughly speaking, the smaller the one, the larger the other. Nevertheless the hunt has begun; we are beginning to see in the literature publications from major laboratories with titles such as “ Search for Gamma Rays from the Lightest Kaluza-Klein Particle”, that being the name frequently given to the as of yet undiscovered particles associated with extra dimensions.
These searches are largely motivated by the desire to identify Dark Matter, estimated to be several times more plentiful in our Universe’s makeup than all known species of matter. Kaluza-Klein particles are one possible candidate, perhaps hard to distinguish from other candidates even if found. Challenges abound, but the stakes are very high as well.
Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology;
Harvard University; Author, The Stuff of Thought
If you Insist: Personal Genomics?
I have little faith in anyone’s ability to predict what will change everything. A look at the futurology of the past turns up many chastening examples of confident predictions of technological revolutions that never happened, such as domed cities, nuclear-powered cars, and meat grown in dishes. By the year 2001, according to the eponymous movie, we were supposed to have suspended animation, missions to Jupiter, and humanlike mainframe computers (though not laptop computers or word processing – the characters used typewriters.) And remember interactive television, the internet refrigerator, and the paperless office?
Technology may change everything, but it’s impossible to predict how. Take another way in which 2001: A Space Odyssey missed the boat. The American women in the film were “girl assistants”: secretaries, receptionists, and flight attendants. As late as 1968, few people foresaw the second feminist revolution that would change everything in the 1970s. It’s not that the revolution didn’t have roots in technological change. Not only did oral contraceptives make it possible for women to time their childbearing, but a slew of earlier technologies (sanitation, mass production, modern medicine, electricity) had reduced the domestic workload, extended the lifespan, and shifted the basis of the economy from brawn to brains, collectively emancipating women from round-the-clock childrearing.
The effects of technology depend not just on what the gadgets do but on billions of people’s judgments of their costs and benefits (do you really want to have call a help line to debug your refrigerator?). They also depend on countless nonlinear network effects, sleeper effects, and other nuisances. The popularity of baby names (Mildred, Deborah, Jennifer, Chloe), and the rates of homicide (down in the 1940s, up in the 1960s, down again in the 1990s) are just two of the social trends that fluctuate wildly in defiance of the best efforts of social scientists to explain them after the fact, let alone predict them beforehand.
But if you insist. This past year saw the introduction of direct-to-consumer genomics. A number of new companies have been recently launched. You can get everything from a complete sequencing of your genome (for a cool $350,000), to a screen of more than a hundred Mendelian disease genes, to a list of traits, disease risks, and ancestry data. Here are some possible outcomes:
• Personalized medicine, in which drugs are prescribed according to the patient’s molecular background rather than by trial and error, and in which prevention and screening recommendations are narrowcasted to those who would most benefit.
• An end to many genetic diseases. Just as Tay-Sachs has almost been wiped out in the decades since Ashkenazi Jews have tested themselves for the gene, a universal carrier screen, combined with preimplantation genetic diagnosis for carrier couples who want biological children, will eliminate a hundred others.
• Universal insurance for health, disability, and home care. Forget the political debates about the socialization of medicine. Cafeteria insurance will no longer be actuarially viable if the highest-risk consumers can load up on generous policies while the low-risk ones get by with the bare minimum.
• An end to the genophobia of many academics and pundits, whose blank-slate doctrines will look increasingly implausible as people learn their about genes that affect their temperament and cognition.
• The ultimate empowerment of medical consumers, who will know their own disease risks and seek commensurate treatment, rather than relying on the hunches and folklore of a paternalistic family doctor.
But then again, maybe not.
Professor of Biology, University College; Author, Six Impossible Things To Do Before Breakfast
COMPUTING THE EMBRYO
We know much about the mechanisms involved in the development of embryos. But given the genome of the egg we cannot predict the way the embryo will develop. This will require a enormous computation in which all the many thousands of components , particularly proteins, are involved and so the behavior of every cell will be known. We would, given a fertilized human egg be able to have a picture of all the details of the newborn baby, including any abnormalities. We would also be able to programme the egg to develop into any shape we desire. The time will come when this is possible.
STEPHON H. ALEXANDER
Assistant Professor of Physics, Penn State
ON BASKETBALL AND SCIENCE CAMPS
I grew up in the northeast Bronx, when in the ‘80’s pretty much everyone’s heroes were basketball sensations Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins. Most of my friends, including myself fantasized about playing in the NBA. True, playing basketball was fun. But another obvious incentive was that aside from drug dealers, athletes were the only ones from our socioeconomic background that we saw earning serious money and respect. Despite my early tendencies toward science and math, I also played hooky quite a bit, spending many hours on the P. S. 16 basketball court. There, I would fantasize of one day, making my high school basketball team and doing a 360 dunk. Neither happened. At 15, in the middle of a layup, I stumbled and broke my kneecap, which forced me off the basketball playground for a half a year. I was relegated to homework and consistent class attendance.
Most of my street-court pals didn’t end up graduating from high school. But, although they were far better ball players than I, only one made it to the NBA. A few others did get scouted and ended up playing in big ten basketball teams. To this day, whenever I return to my old neighborhood, I see some of my diploma-less pals doing old school moves with kneepads on.
The year of the broken knee led to a scholarship from a private donor for a summer physics camp for teens called ISI (International Summer Institute). The camp took place in the Southampton, Long Island an environment far different from what I’d ever experienced. Most of the other kids were from foreign countries. I made strange new friends, including Hong, a South Korean boy who spent the summer trying to compute Pi to some decimal point or other. Or the group of young chess players being coached by a Russian chess master. I took college physics. Most of these students went on to become excellent scientists, one of which I am still in touch with. At some point, I met the organizer of the summer camp, a gentleman wearing a leather jacket in summer who turned out to be Nobel Laureate Sheldon Glashow(who coincidentally went to my neighboring High School). He gave us a physics/inspirational talk. During that talk, I realized that there are other types of Michael Jordans, in areas other than basketball and, like Shelly, I could be different plus make a good living as a scientist. More importantly, us teenagers really bonded with each other and, in a sense, formed a young global community of future scientists.
When I returned to the Bronx, I couldn’t really talk much about my experience. After all, a discussion on the Heisenberg principle is far less interesting than ball-park trash talk. I began playing less basketball and eventually went on to college and became a physicist. I could not help feeling a little guilty. In the back of my mind, I knew the real mathematical genius in my neighborhood was a guy named Eric Deabreu. But he never finished high school.
What if there were a global organization of scientists and educators dedicated to identifying (or scouting) the potential Michael Jordans of science, regardless of what part of the world they are from and regardless of socioeconomic background? This is happening on local levels, but not globally. What if these students were provided the resources to reach their full potential and naturally forge a global community of scientific peers and friends? What we would have is, among many benefits, an orchestrated global effort to address the most pressing scientific problems that current and future generations must confront: the energy crisis, global warming, HIV, diplomacy to name a few. I think an inititiative that markets the virtues of science on every corner of the planet, with the same urgency as the basketball scouts on corners of street ball courts, would change the world. Such a reality has long been my vision, which, in light the past efforts of some in the science community, including Clifford Johnson and Jim Gates and Neil Turok, I believe will see come to past.
ROBERT R. PROVINE
Psychologist and Neuroscientist, University of Maryland; Author, Laughter
WHAT CHANGES ANYTHING?
The survival of our ancestors on the savannah depended on their ability to detect change. Change is where the action is. You don't need to know that things are the same, the same, the same.
Our nervous system is biased for the detection of change. Do you feel the watch on your wrist or the ring on your finger? Probably not, unless you have just put them on. You don't see the blind spot of each retina because they are unchanging and filled-in by your brain with information from the visual surround. If the image on your retina is experimentally stabilized, the entire visual field fades in a few seconds and you can see only visual stimuli that move through the field of view. You notice the sound of your home's air control system when it turns-on or turns-off, but not when it's running.
Our perception of changing stimulus amplitude is usually nonlinear. The sensation of loudness grows much more slowly (exponent of 0.6) than the amplitude of the physical stimulus, a reason why rock bands have huge amplifiers and speakers. Perceived brightness grows even more slowly than loudness (exponent of 0.33). The sensation of electric shock grows at an accelerating rate (exponent of 3.5), quickly shifting from a just detectable tingle to an agonizing jolt. Our estimate of length grows linearly (exponent of 1.0); a two-inch line appears twice as long as a one-inch line. We are lousy sound, light, and volt meters, but half-way decent rulers.
We are poor at making absolute judgments of stimulus amplitude, basing decisions on relative, ever changing standards. We judge ourselves to be warm or cool relative to "physiological zero," our adaptation level. The same room can seem either warm or cool, depending on whether you entered it from a chilly basement or an overheated sunroom. The lesson of temperature judgment is applicable to other, more complex measures of change associated with wealth and success. For a highly paid CEO, this year's million dollar bonus does not feel as good as last year's bonus of the same size, the adaptation level. The second term of a presidency does not feel as momentous as the first.
The above exploration of how we perceive changes in anything suggests the difficulty of identifying something that changes everything, from the perspective of the individual. The velocity of change is also critical. Did the Renaissance, Reformation, industrial revolution, or computer revolution, have ordinary people amazed at the changes in their lives? Historical and futuristic speculation about events that change everything features time compression and overestimates the rate of cultural and psychological change. As with previous generations, we may be missing the slow motion revolution that is taking place around us, unaware that we are part of an event that will change everything. What is it?
Actor, writer, director, and host of PBS program "Scientific American Frontiers."
ROUNDING AN ENDLESS VICIOUS CIRCLE
I find it hard to believe that anything will change everything. The only exception might be if we suddenly learned how to live with one another. But, does anyone think that will come about in a foreseeable lifetime?
Evidence from the past seems to point to our becoming increasingly dangerous pretty much every time we come up with a new idea or technology. These new things are usually wholesome and benign at first (movable type, pharmacology, rule of law) but before long we find ways to use these inventions to do what we do best—exercise power over one another.
Even if we were visited by weird little people from another planet and were forced to band together, I doubt if it would be long before we’d be finding ways to break into factions again, identifying those among us who are not quite people.
We keep rounding an endless vicious circle. Will an idea or technology emerge anytime soon that will let us exit this lethal cyclotron before we meet our fate head on and scatter into a million pieces? Will we outsmart our own brilliance before this planet is painted over with yet another layer of people? Maybe, but I doubt it.
Mallinckrodt Professor of Physics and Professor of the History of Science, Emeritus, at Harvard University; Coeditor,
DEPLOYMENT OF A SIGNIFICANT ROGUE NUCLEAR DEVICE
An answer can be given once more in one sentence: the intentional, hostile deployment‚—whether by a state, a terrorist group, or other individuals‚—of a significant nuclear device.
Student, MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms; Researcher, Internet 0, Fab Lab Thinner Clients for South Africa, Conformal Computing
ESCAPING THE GRAVITY WELL
Having lived only 17 years so far, to ask what I expect to live to see is to cast a long, wide net.
When looking far into the future, I find it a useful exercise to imagine oneself as a non-human scientist: an alien, a god, or some other creature with a modern understanding of mathematics and physics, but no inherent understanding of human culture or language, beyond what it can deduce from watching what happens at a high level. Essentially, it looks at the world "up to isomorphism": it is not relevant who does what, what it's called, whether it has five fingers or six; but rather how much of it there is, whether it survives, and where it goes.
From this perspective, a few things are apparent: We are depleting our planet's resources faster than they can be replenished. Most of the sun's energy is reflected back into space without being used. There are more of us every minute and we have barely the slightest hint of slowing growth, despite overcrowding and lack of resources. We are trapped in a delicate balance of environmental conditions that has been faltering ever since we began pulling hydrocarbons out of the crust and burning them in the atmosphere (by coincidence, perhaps?), and there seems to be a good chance it will collapse catastrophically in the next 100 years if we don't run out of hydrocarbons first. We have thrown countless small, special-purpose objects into space, and some have transmitted very valuable information back to us. For a short period (while it seemed we would destroy our planet with deliberate nuclear explosions and immediate evacuation might be necessary) we played at shooting living men into the sky, but they have only gone as far as our planet's moon, still within Earth orbit, and sure enough wound up right back in our atmosphere. I should note here that I do not mean any disrespect to the achievements of the Apollo program. In fact, I believe they are among humankind's greatest—so far!
If civilization is to continue expanding, however, as well it shall if it does not collapse, it must escape the tiny gravity well it is trapped in. It is quite unclear to me how this will happen: whether humans will look anything like the humans of today, whether we will escape to sun-orbiting space stations or planetary colonies, but if we expand, we must expand beyond Earth. Even if environmentalists succeed in building a sustainable terrestrial culture around local farming and solar energy, it will only remain sustainable if we limit reproduction, which I expect most of modern society to find unconscionable on some level.
It has always been not only the human way, but the way of all living things, to multiply and colonize new frontiers. What is uniquely human is our potential ability to colonize all frontiers: to adapt our intelligence to new environments, or to adapt environments to suit ourselves. Although the chaos of a planetary atmosphere filled with organic diversity is a beautiful and effective cradle of life, it is no place for the new human-machine civilization. By some means—genetic engineering, medical technology, brain scanning, or something even more fantastical—I expect that humans will gradually shorten the food chain, adapting to use more directly the energy of stars. Perhaps we will genetically modify humans to photosynthesize directly, or implant devices that can provide all the energy for the necessary chemical reactions electrically, or scan our intelligences into solar-powered computing devices. Again, the details are very hard to predict, but I believe there will be some way forward.
I'm getting ahead of myself, so let's come back to the present. There is budding new interest in the development of space technology, in large part undertaken as private ventures, unlike in the past. Many view such operations as absurd luxury vacations for the super-rich, or at best as unlikely schemes to harvest fuel on the Moon and ship it back to Earth via a rail gun. I believe this research is tremendously important, because whatever short-term excuses may be found to fund it, in the long run, it is absolutely critical to the future development of our civilization. I also don't mean to imply that we should give up on environmentalism and sustainability, and just start over with another planet: these principles will only become more important as we spread far and wide, beginning in each new place with even more limited resources and limited contact with home. Not to mention that if Earth can be saved, it would be a tremendous cultural treasure to preserve as long as possible.
I'm not as optimistic about interstellar travel as some (I certainly don't expect it to become practical in this century), but I'm also much more optimistic about the ability of human civilization to adapt and survive without the precise conditions that were necessary for its evolution. There are so many possible solutions for the survival of humans (or posthumans) in solar orbit or on "inhospitable" planets that I expect we will find some way to make it work long before generational or faster-than-light voyages to faraway star systems; in fact, I expect it in my lifetime. But someday, "escaping the gravity well" will mean not that of Earth, but that of our star, and then humankind's ship will at last have...gone out.
Mathematician; Executive Director, Center for the Study of Language and Information, Stanford; Author,
THE MOBILE PHONE
This is a tough one. Not because there is a shortage of possibilities for major advances in science, and not because any predictions Edgies make are likely to be way off the mark (history tells us that they assuredly will); rather you set the hurdle impossibly high with "change everything." and "expect to live to see". The contraceptive pill "changed everything" for people living in parts of the world where it is available and the Internet "changed everything" for those of us who are connected. But for large parts of the world those advances may as well not have occurred. Moreover, many scientific changes take a generation or more to have a significant effect.
But since you ask, I'll give you an answer, and it's one I am pretty sure will happen in my lifetime (say, thirty more years). The reason for my confidence? The key scientific and technological steps have already been taken. In giving my answer, I'm adopting a somewhat lawyer-like strategy of taking advantage of that word "development" in your question. Scientific advances do not take place purely in the laboratory, particularly game-changing ones. They have to find their way into society as a whole, and that transition is an integral part of any "scientific advance."
History tells us that it can often take some time for a scientific or technological advance to truly "change everything". Understanding germs and diseases, electricity, the light bulb, and the internal combustion engine are classic examples. (Even these examples still have not affected everyone on the planet, of course, at least not directly, but that is surely just a matter of time.) The development I am going to focus on is the final one in the scientific chain that brings the results of the science into everyday use.
My answer? It's staring us in the face. The mobile phone. Within my lifetime I fully expect almost every living human adult, and most children, in the world to own one. (Neither the pen nor the typewriter came even close to that level of adoption, nor did the automobile.) That puts global connectivity, immense computational power, and access to all the world's knowledge amassed over many centuries, in everyone's hands. The world has never, ever, been in that situation before. It really will change everything. From the way individual people live their lives, to the way wealth and power are spread across the globe. It is the ultimate democratizing technology. And if my answer seems less "cutting edge" or scientifically sexy than many of the others you receive, I think that just shows how dramatic and pervasive the change has already been.
What other object do you habitually carry around with you and use all the time, and take for granted? Yet when did you acquire your first mobile phone? Can you think of a reason why anyone else in the world will not react the same way when the technology reaches them? Now imagine the impact on someone in apart of the world that has not had telephones, computers, the Internet, or even easy access to libraries. I'll let your own answers to these questions support my case that this is game changing on a hitherto unknown global scale.