I'm optimistic about the sustainability of materil progress, but since I'm known for that, I'll refrain. Instead I want to express optimism about world politics, especially about world peace.
World peace is what we have. There are only minor wars and no present
prospect of a major war threatening western civilization and its present extensions to the actually developing countries. Only Africa and the Arab world are in bad shape.
Contrast this with the time between 1914 and 1989, when there were
serious attempts at world domination accompanied by at least three
Admittedly something bad and surprising could happen. 100 years ago,
in 1907, no-one predicted such troubles as happened. Even in April 1914, Bertrand Russell could write:
"To us, to whom safety has become monotony, to whom the primeval savageries of nature are so remote as to become a mere pleasing condiment to our ordered routine, the world of dreams is very different from what it was amid the wars of Guelf and Ghibelline. Hence William James's protest against what he calls the "block universe" of the classical tradition; hence Nietsche's worship of
force; hence the verbal bloodthirstiness of many quiet literary men. The barbaric substratum of human nature, unsatisfied in action, finds an outlet in imagination. In philosophy, as elsewhere, this tendency is visible; and it is this, rather than formal argument, that has thrust aside the classical tradition for a philosophy which fancies itself more virile and more vital."
As for Arab jihadism, I think they'll get over it as soon as a new generation matures to oppose their parents' slogans. If not
Whatever happens we have got
The Maxim Gun, and they have not.
— Hilaire Belloc, 1898, The Modern Traveller, part 6.
It is important that the political causes of the 20th century disasters, virulent and militaristic nationalism accompanied by letting one man take power, do not exist in major countries today. Communism is dead as a motivator of violence. The green movement is accompanied by occasional minor violence, but a green Hitler or Stalin seems unnlikely.
Still, it's hard to predict 100 years ahead. As Stephen Hawking advocates, humanity would be safer if it expanded beyond the earth.
Benjamin Franklin: I wish it were possible... to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But... in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection.
—Letter to Jacques Dubourg, April 1773
Eternal life may come within our reach once we understand enough about how our knowledge and mental processes are embodied in our brains. For then we should be able to duplicate that information — and then into more robust machinery. This might be possible late in this century, in view of how much we are learning about how human brains work — and the growth of computer capacities.
However, this could have been possible long ago if the progress of science had not succumbed to the spread of monotheistic religions. For as early as 250 BCE, Archimedes was well on the way toward modern physics and calculus. So in an alternate version of history (in which the pursuit of science did not decline) just a few more centuries could have allowed the likes of Newton, Maxwell, Gauss, and Pasteur to anticipate our present state of knowledge about physics, mathematics, and biology. Thenperhaps by 300 AD we could have learned so much about the mechanics of minds that citizens could decide on the lengths of their lives.
I'm sure that not all scholars would agree that religion retarded the progress of science. However, the above scenario seems to suggest that Pascal was wrong when he concluded that only faith could offer salvation. For if science had not lost those millennia, we might be already be able to transfer our minds into our machines. If so, then you could rightly complain that religions have deprived you of the option of having an afterlife!
Woody Allen: I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.
In discussing this prospect with various groups, I was surprised to find that the idea of extending one's lifetime to thousands of years was often seen as a dismal suggestion. The response to my several informal polls included such objections as these: "Why would anyone want to live for a thousand hundred years? What if you outlived all your friends? What would you do with all that time? Wouldn't one's life become terribly boring?"
What can one conclude from this? Perhaps some of those persons lived with a sense that they did not deserve to live so long. Perhaps others did not regard themselves as having worthy long term goals. In any case, I find it worrisome that so many of our citizens are resigned to die. A planetful of people who feel that they do not have much to lose: surely this could be dangerous. (I neglected to ask the religious ones why perpetual heaven would be less boring.)
However, my scientist friends showed few such concerns: "There are countless things that I want to find out, and so many problems I want to solve, that I could use many centuries." I'll grant that religious beliefs can bring mental relief and emotional peace—but I question whether these, alone, should be seen as commendable long-term goals.
The quality of extended lives
Anatole France: The average man, who does not know what to do with his life, wants another one which will last forever.
Certainly, immortality would seem unattractive if it meant endless infirmity, debility, and dependency upon others—but here we'll assume a state of perfect health. A somewhat sounder concern might be that the old ones should die to make room for young ones with newer ideas. However, this leaves out the likelihood that are many important ideas that no human person could reach in, say, less than a few hundred well focused years. If so, then a limited lifespan might deprive us of great oceans of wisdom that no one can grasp.
In any case, such objections are shortsighted because, once we embody our minds in machines, we'll find ways to expand their capacities. You'll be able to edit your former mind, or merge it with parts of other minds — or develop completely new ways to think. Furthermore, our future technologies will no longer constrain us to think at the crawling pace of "real time." The events in our computers already proceed a millions times faster than those in our brain. To such beings, a minute might seem as long as a human year.
How could we download a human mind?
Today we are only beginning to understand the machinery of our human brains, but we already have many different theories about how those organs embody the processes that we call our minds. We often hear arguments about which of those different theories are right — but those often are the wrong questions to ask, because we know that every brain has hundreds of different specialized regions that work in different ways. I have suggested a dozen different ways in which our brains might represent our skill and memories. It could be many years before we know which structures and functions we'll need to reproduce.
(No such copies can yet be made today, so if you want immortality, your only present option is to have your brain preserved by a Cryonics company. However, improving this field still needs further research — but there is not enough funding for this today — although the same research is also needed for advancing the field of transplanting organs.)
Some writers have even suggested that, to make a working copy of a mind, one might have to include many small details about the connections among all the cells of a brain; if so, it would require an immense amount of machinery to simulate all those cells' chemistry. However, I suspect we'll need far less than that, because our nervous systems must have evolved to be insensitive to lower-level details; otherwise, our brains would rarely work.
Fortunately, we won't need to solve all those problems at once. For long before we are able to make complete "backups" of our personalities, this field of research will produce a great flood of ideas for adding new features and accessories to our existing brains. Then this may lead, through smaller steps, to replacing all parts of our bodies and brains — and thus repairing all the defects and flaws that make presently our lives so brief. And the more we learn about how our brains work, the more ways we will find to provide them with new abilities that never evolved in biology.
Correggio Domani e for peggio! — Courage for Tomorrow Will Be Worse! (The Words of a Born Optimist)
A careful assessment and years of experience that show that the long-term future is most bleak: Entropy will continue to increase, and a heat death (actually a misnomer as it means the degredation of usable energy in a dull cooling worthless background of chaos) is the very likely fate of the world. This is the fate that awaits us, if we manage to work our way past the energy crisis that looms as the Sun runs out of fuel and in its death throws expands as red giant star likely to engulf us after boiling away the seas before it collapses back to a slowly cooling cinder eventually to leave the solar system in cold darkness.
This energy crisis will eventually spread to the whole Milky Way Galaxy which will use up its available energy resources in a time scale of roughly ten times the present 14 billion year lifetime of our observed Universe. In that same time the accelerating expansion of the Universe continually reduces what we can observe and potentially access until in the distant future only the cinders of stars in our own galaxy are left. Argument goes on whether a sufficiently advanced intelligent society could manage to live (continue to have experiences and process new information and create new things) indefinitely in such an environment taking on the most carefully constructed and extreme measures that are physically possible. The chances of success look relatively low for even the most optimally managed and intelligent society.
Given this and the history of human society in cooperatively plundering the resources of a meager but beautiful planet with currently abundant resources, who can possibly be optimistic about the long-term future of humanity? How many examples do we have of humans addressing global problems in an efficient way and with enlightened self-interest? Historical experience is that humans have generally been engaged in warfare, exploitation for personal gain and religious strife. Real issues are generally not addressed until they become serious crises and often not even then. We could mention here, various episodes of genocide, large-scale pollution, and ecological devastation, which are often interrelated.
In this background the rise of culture and science is remarkable. That is until we understand their usefulness. In our modern world it is clear that material rewards and political power accrue to those that have the most scientific and technological knowledge and the educated workforce with the cultural background of hard productive work as part of a larger system. Such societies have economic and military success and large tax revenues.
Is it this culture and knowledge that offers us hope to be at least as successful as the dinosaurs which dominated the Earth for nearly 100 times as long as humans have held sway? It is often said that the United States systematically underestimates the stubbornness preventing the peaceful resolution of long-term ethnic and tribal conflicts — perhaps because of being the melting pot of waves of peaceful immigration — less a few Indian wars. However, could humans share the planet with reptiles? Or how about intelligent machines? Could they share with us?
Now leaving cultural and religious value systems aside, let us move to realistic assessment of the title "Courage for Tomorrow will be Worse". Every physical process in the Universe follows the second law of thermodynamics. That is in every process entropy (a measure of disorder which equals loss of information and usefulness) will tend to increase for the Universe as a whole. No process decreases the entropy of the Universe. Only completely reversible processes leave it unchanged. All living things and all man-made machines operate with processes that increase the entropy of the Universe.
One cannot live by the Hippocratic dictum "Do no harm". But the best one can hope for is the weak mantra "Do minimal damage". I was often bothered by this inevitable conclusion and tried to see that if one could write a great work of literature, make art, or most optimally a great science discovery could one objectively leave the world better than one found it? Each time I worked out an example, the impact was negligible however great it was found by human culture compared to the damage done by mere existence. The only discovery that would make a difference called for repealing or avoiding the laws of probability or making a whole new universe. Both of these are quite extreme. Perhaps the discovery of extra dimensions would allow some leeway in what otherwise seems an inescapable doom after a long period of unrighteous degradation of the universe. We face a continuous downward spiral of no return. This is not a moral or ethical statement only an engineering evaluation though it is some indication of original sin. So even living one's life as a vegetarian that only eats fruit dropped into one's hand by a willing plant is only going so far as to be very kind and considerate to other beings that are also worsening the universe for the sake of a little more order in their own self.
With such sure knowledge of one's own impending demise as well as for all humanity, how can one get up and face each day with any hope? Well in science it is a central tenet to be skeptical and to question and as certain as this seems, one could cling to a shred of hope that there is some trap door of escape that will be found and opened either because of the greatness and infinite flexibility of mankind or our incredible ingenuity under extreme pressure. I suspect that the odds of winning the lottery are higher — much higher.
"perchè sai che domani sarà impossibile anche alla tua astuzia." (poet Eugenio Montale)
"because you know that tomorrow it will be impossible no matter how astute you are." (translation by Jody Fitzhardinge & Lorenzo Matteoli)
Instead one might look to the definition of courage and optimism and go forth cheerfully and eagerly even when there isn't the smallest sliver of hope and still do great and glorious deeds, build great civilizations even in the face of their inevitable doom.
It takes real optimism and courage to go forth when the inevitable course for the universe is downhill and knowing that all humanity has done or is likely to do will probably have less impact than a footprint on sand after a few dozen or thousand waves pass over it.
I am from the very beginning an optimist and remain so right to the very end.
I invest time and effort into my work, my health and fund my retirement plan fully.
I even write articles and spend much of my days training and educating the next generation. Why do I do this? Because I think that the future, on my human and longer time scale, can be very bright as long as humans work well and intelligently.
I look forward to the immediate future as a part of the long human slog towards a better culture and society in spite of the constant flux of misguided craziness.
The Power of Educated People to Make Important Innovations
It is interesting that pessimism seems to be the conventional wisdom — i.e. that the world is going to hell in a hand basket and things are getting worse. In the short run pessimism is an easy bet. The news media, for example, would be a terrible business if there was only good news — shocking bad news sells more newspapers (or generates more Neilson ratings, or internet clicks). Yet they need not worry about there being a dearth of bad news — its only a matter a time before some more bad news comes in.
However, I think that the focus on pessimism is hugely misleading. The pattern of the last five decades is that by and large the most important factors in human life have improved immensely. By and large there is no better time to be alive than today, and any rational estimate is that we will continue to be in a phase of continued improvement.
Perhaps the biggest reason I am optimistic is that I am a huge believer in the power of educated people to make important innovations. The trends in China and India and elsewhere toward educating literally millions of people with scientific, engineering and technical degrees is tremendously positive. It is trendy in some US-centric circles to bemoan the fact that China and India are graduating more engineers than the US — indeed the developing has the potential to graduate more engineers than the US has people. I view that with tremendous optimism — at least on the whole. There will be negative consequences to be sure, and some naysayer will whine about them. History is clear that the negatives of bringing high levels of education to heretofore under educated people are more than outweighed by the tremendous positives.
Long-Term Trends Toward Honesty to Others and Self
What goes up comes down, what goes around comes around, for each action there is a reaction, and so on. Life is intrinsically self-correcting at almost all its levels, including evolutionary, physiological, historical and genetic. This permits a limited optimism. Wickedness and stupidity are ultimately self-destructive and self-limiting, so we need not trouble ourselves that any particular trend in that direction will go on indefinitely.
On the other hand, the principle of self-correction also applies to love, friendship and high intellectual powers. No movement in these directions can proceed long without setting up counter-pressures against their further spread.
In short, we should neither be too despondent nor too elated at the trajectory of current events. Sooner or later — and usually sooner — they will be reversed.
Two questions arise.
Are there long-term trends we could feel optimistic about? Thirty years of work on the evolutionary trajectory of cooperative strategies suggest long-term trends (under a broad range of conditions) toward greater cooperation, contingent on ever more sophisticated discrimination. It seems likely that when similar models are produced for varying degrees of deceit and self-deception, long-term trends toward honesty to others and self will (at least under some conditions) be favored.
Is there any reason to believe that we will survive long enough to enjoy any of these long-term trends?
This is far less certain. Evolution does not plan for contingencies that have not yet occurred and the vast majority of species go extinct. There is no reason to expect humans are exempt from these rules. The good news is that there is presently no chance that we could extinguish all of life — the bacterial "slimosphere" alone extends some ten miles into the earth — and as yet we can only make life truly miserable for the vast majority of people, not extinguish human life entirely. I would expect this state of affairs to continue indefinitely. The feeling that everything may be fine if only we survive the next 50 to 500 years may become a regular part of our psychology.
About Whether Solutions in General Are Possible
They always are. Why is that important? Firstly, because it is true. There is no anthropocentric spite built into the laws of physics, mandating that human improvement may proceed this far and no further. Nor is the dark, neo-religious fantasy true that Nature abhors human hubris, and always exacts a hidden price that outweighs any apparent success, so that 'progress' always has to be in scare quotes. And secondly, because how we explain failure, both prospectively and retrospectively, is itself a major determinant of success. If we are optimistic that failure to improve ourselves always means failure to find the solution, then success is never due to divine grace (nowadays known as 'natural resources') but always to human effort and creativity, and failure is opportunity.
Research in Biology and Medicine Will Provide the First Effective Treatments for Many Diseases
I am optimistic that during this new century research in biology and medicine will provide the first effective treatments for many diseases, although we cannot predict when they will become available and in some cases it may take several decades.
A greater number of new treatments may well be developed than was introduced during the twentieth century. I make this judgment not only on the basis of a simple extrapolation from developments in the past, but also on a consideration of the new understanding that is being established at present and of the revolutionary techniques that are emerging. Consider as examples the potential value of the genome mapping projects, stem cells and the techniques to assess many thousand small molecules for their ability to have desired effects upon human cells in laboratory test systems. All of this is underpinned by rapidly advancing molecular biology providing essential understanding of the mechanisms that regulate cell function.
Entirely new opportunities are being provided by the mapping of the genomes of people, other mammals and a variety of infectious agents that cause human diseases such as malaria. Although we now know the entire genetic sequence of a small number of people and have new estimates of the number of genes in the human genome, we have a great deal to learn about the role of specific gene products and the mechanisms that ensure appropriate functioning of the genes. Those actively involved in this aspect of research believe that this stage in the development of human genetics will be far more demanding and take far longer than the mere mechanical reading of the sequence. However, it will in the end be very rewarding.
It has been appreciated for sometime that some human diseases result directly from differences in DNA sequence, but despite considerable research efforts only a small number of causative mutations have been identified. Modern, rapid sequencing techniques will greatly facilitate these analyses in the future. However, it is likely that in a far greater number of cases sequence differences make people comparatively vulnerable to disease, but are not directly causative of that disease. These associations will only be revealed by large-scale studies in which the genomes of hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people are determined while also monitoring the incidence of diseases in that population. This may make it possible to provide accurate warnings to people that they are vulnerable to specific diseases, while also offering advice on life style and medication to reduce that risk.
In time information of this kind may also greatly increase the accuracy of selection of appropriate medication for particular patients. At present an adverse response to medicines is a major cause of death or the need for hospital treatment, even if the medicine is appropriately prescribed and taken. This is because of differences between people in the response to drugs. It is probably fanciful to think of tailoring medications for each person, because this implies a full knowledge for every person of their likely response to and metabolism of every compound that might be considered as a medicine. However, it does seem likely that understanding of these mechanisms will lead to improved design and selection of new compounds.
A great deal has been made of the potential use of stem cells or their derivatives to replace those lost in degenerative diseases that reflect the death or malfunctioning of specific cell populations. Diseases that are considered suitable for treatment in this way include Parkinson’s disease and other neurodegenerative diseases, juvenile diabetes, spinal cord injury, liver damage resulting from hepatitis or solvent abuse. In their haste to consider this use of stem cells, the potential benefit of using such cells for drug discovery and toxicology studies is overlooked. Drug assessment will be markedly more accurate as cells become available that are representative of the critical tissues of a variety of different people.
In some cases, the cells will be genetically identical to those of patients with an overt inherited condition. There are a number of potential sources of such cells, but at present the most likely seem to be embryo stem cells because they are known to have two key characteristics. They have the ability to form all of the different tissues of an adult and they are able to multiply almost indefinitely in the laboratory. In practice this means that researchers will have the opportunity to study genetically identical cell populations again and again over a period of years and to examine their response to potential drugs.
This is not known to be the case for any cells taken from adults. The gene sequence known to be associated with a specific disease may be introduced into existing cell lines to create a population of cells that would be expected to exhibit the characteristics of the disease. Alternatively, it may be possible to use somatic cell nuclear transfer from a patient with an inherited disease to obtain embryo stem cell lines having that characteristic even if the causative mutation is not known.
In some cases similar research may be provide an understanding of the molecular mechanisms that regulate the function of stem cells in a tissue. In time, this may make it possible to stimulate the replacement of damaged or lost cells from endogenous stem cell populations in the patient. There would be many practical advantages in being able to use this drug-based approach to cell therapy. The alternative will be to produce cells of the required type from embryo stem cells, in sufficient number that they can replace the lost cells. When they have reached the appropriate stage of their maturation these must then be inserted into the damaged tissues in such a way that they are able to integrate fully into that tissue and restore normal function. While it is likely that each approach to cell therapy will be used for some diseases, there are clearly many potential benefits to a drug based therapy.
I am optimistic that research has the potential to provide these new opportunities, and many more not described. However, I am concerned that society tends to be frightened by innovations while taking for granted the treatments that are available. We would make the most rapid progress if we recognized that it was earlier research that led to the present treatments and if we were excited by the challenges and opportunities that will arise from new research.
Corrective Goggles for Our Conceptual Myopia
Broadly speaking, I am optimistic that the world's current crises look terrifyingly large mainly because of our conceptual myopia. It is practically a truism to say that every era tends to regard its troubles as uniquely daunting, but I think that accelerating news cycles make the current generation particularly prone to this error of judgment. Making my best attempt to put on corrective goggles and take the longer view, I see a half-dozen areas where we are on the verge of major advances in our ability to expand our control over our environment and ourselves, in way that will be largely or entirely beneficial.
• I am optimistic that technology will soon show practical ways to eradicate the twin problems of carbon emissions and fossil-fuel scarcity. In the nearer term, carbon dioxide will follow the path of CFCs, acid-rain-causing sulfur oxides, and nearly all automobile tailpipe emissions. Nay-sayers warned that all of these would be difficult and economically disruptive to tackle; in every case, the nay-sayers were roundly proven wrong. Carbon sequestration is the most obvious technology for offsetting carbon emissions. Here's a firm prediction: If the world's leading economies set tough emissions standards for CO2, or establish a serious carbon tax, industry will find astonishingly inexpensive ways to comply within a few years.
• Farther ahead, new energy sources will begin to make serious contributions to the world economy long before fossil fuels run out. My bet is still on fusion energy, despite its perfect, five-decade record of never fulfilling any of its promises. I seriously doubt, though, that commercially viable fusion energy will look anything like the huge and hideously expensive magnetic-confinement test machines (like ITER) now being built or planned. More likely it will take the shape of a compact, laser- or radio-driven linear accelerator using exotic nuclear reactions that spit out protons, not neutrons; send the protons flying through a copper coil and you have direct electricity conversion, with no boiler, no steam, no turbine, no dynamo.
• I am optimistic that we are on the verge of developing the tools to program biological systems as effortlessly as we program digital ones. Synthetic biology, a field spearheaded by George Church, Drew Endy, and Jay Keasling, will be key to attaining this goal—and it is now in transition from theory to reality. Rather than snipping genes from one creature and clumsily inserting them into another, future biotechnicians will consult a master database of DNA sequences and specify the traits they want, whether to insert into an existing organism or to create in a brand-new one designed from the ground up. (A corollary is that these tools will finally allow effective stem-cell therapy, which leads to a related prediction: Thirty years from now, the current agonies over the ethics of stem-cell therapy will look as quaint as the hand-wringing over "test tube babies" in the 1970s.) Synthetic biology in its fully realized form will also be a dangerous weapon. A related part of my optimism is that it—like electricity, like radio, like all genetic research so far—will prove far more useful for positive applications than for negative ones.
• I am optimistic that young adults today will, on average, live to 120 and will remain healthy and vigorous until their final years. Researchers like Leonard Guarente, David Sinclair, and Cynthia Kenyon are zeroing in on the chemical and genetic basis of aging. Immortality is a long way off, but drugs and genetic therapies that hold back age-related diseases are coming soon. Treatments that slow the aging process as a whole will follow closely behind. Ultimately these will lead to a wholesale reordering of the pace of life and the social structures based around certain biological milestones.The child-bearing years may extend into the 60s; people may routinely continue working into their 80s or beyond. With this expanded timeline will come all kinds of new possibilities, including vastly expanded periods of intellectual creativity and a softening of the irrational behaviors that arise from the universal fear of death.
• I am optimistic that the longer life of the body will be accompanied by enhanced powers of the brain. We already live in world where it is getting harder and harder to forget. A simple Google search often revives long-lost trivia, historical experiences, even the names of long-dead relatives. What we have today is but a tiny taste of what lies ahead. Computing power is now so cheap, and wireless communication so effortless, that a person could easily wear a microphone (or even a low-res video camera) at all times and compile a digital database of every word he or she uttered.
In the future, many people will choose to do so; we will all have personalized, searchable databases at our commands. Rapid advances in brain prostheses mean that soon we will be able to access those databases simply by the power of thought. Within a couple decades, the information will be beamed back in a form the brain can interpret—we will be able to hear the playback in much the manner that deaf people can now hear the world with cochlear implants. Vision is slightly more difficult but it too will be reverse engineered. That will undoubtedly give space exploration a tremendous boost. Earthbound scientists will be able to "inhabit" robotic explorers on other worlds, and any interested participant will be able to log on passively to experience the adventure. Humans will venture into space physically as well but at first that will happen primarily for sport, I expect.
• I am optimistic that researchers, aided by longer careers and computer assistance, will crack the great twin mysteries of physics: the nature of gravity and the possibility of other dimensions. Here I'm talking not just about theoretical advances, as may occur at the Large Hadron Collider after it revs up in late '07, that could bolster the theory that gravity, unlike the other forces, has the ability to transmit out of the three dimensions of human experience. I am also talking about a kookier optimism that our discoveries will have practical consequences. It may be possible to build instruments that can sense universes lying outside of our dimensions. It may be possible to manipulate gravity, turning it down where convenient (to launch a rocket, for instance) and cranking it up where desired. It may even be possible to create a new universe as a laboratory experiment—the ultimate empirical investigation of the Big Bang that started our universe.
• Finally, I am optimistic that with all of these intellectual and material achievements will come a science-based spiritual awakening. Back in the 1930s Albert Einstein spoke of a "cosmic religious feeling" and tried to convince the public (with painfully little success) that scientists are every bit as spiritual as are the world's religious leaders. It may not look that way now, but I think Einstein will soon be vindicated. Longer, more connected lives will eat away at the religion of fear, the rudimentary form of faith rooted in anxiety about loneliness and the apparent absoluteness of death.
More important, the next round of scientific discoveries promise a powerful new sense of our connection to the rest of the universe, and even to universes beyond our own. One of the most potent knocks on science is that it, unlike religion, offers no sense of purpose. That has never been true—what greater purpose is there than intellectual exploration, the key trait distinguishing us from the other animals—but now more than ever science has a chance to make its case. It needs to develop more of a communal structure. It needs to develop a humane language, expressing its findings explicitly as triumphs of human achievement. It needs to celebrate our ever-expanding dominion over nature while articulating a humble appreciation that nature is, indeed, where we all came from.
Above all, science needs a face, a representative (or representatives) as charismatic as Pope Benedict XVI or, er, Tom Cruise, who can get rid of all those "it"s in the pervious sentences. Right now, the faces of science are selected by book sales, television specials, and pure self-promotion; its elected leaders, like the heads of scientific societies, rarely function as public figures. Surely there is a better way. Any suggestions?
The Coming Revolution in Science Education
I am optimistic about science education! I knew I should have had a
psychological check-up, be tested for delusional fantasies, my PhD revoked in a public ceremony with the breaking of my pencils. After all, in 1983, we were officially declared "A Nation at Risk".
Commissions galore like the 1999 Glenn Commission was entitled "Before it is too Late"; Education Commission of the States "No Time to Waste", The Hart-Rudman Commission which came close to recommending that the budgets of Education and Defense be swapped!
Eminent CEO's like Bill Gates (Microsoft), Craig Barrett (Intel), Louis Gerstner (IBM), Norman Augustine (Lockheed Martin) i.e. Corporations which depend on rationality for their profits, all agree that our system of 50 independent States, 15,000 school districts, 26,000 high schools etc etc has failed catastrophically to educate our students for life and work in the 21st century. But the good news is that the portent of our failed educational system as it impacts our health care, our economy, our culture and our status in the globalized world is finally becoming clear, clear to parents, clear to economists, clear, gasp! even to members of the Congress!
Somehow, we have created a sputnik-like climate warning of a powerful enemy...not the Soviets but even more worthy of a war we must declare and win: The War on Ignorance.
Out of Sputnik came the National Defense Education Act of 1958, NASA and a renewed determination to modernize science education, but also the conjugate communication skills, foreign languages and a need for public science literacy.
Can one imagine parents who know the earth revolves around the sun?
And for all of the Edge scientists, an audience who might read their stuff? Now there is wild optimism!!
The Energy Challenge
A few years ago, I wrote a short book entitled Our Final Century? I guessed that, taking all risks into account, there was only a 50 percent chance that civilisation would get through to 2100 without a disastrous setback. This seemed to me a far from cheerful conclusion. However, I was surprised by the way my colleagues reacted to the book: many thought a catastrophe was even more likely than I did, and regarded me as an optimist. I stand by this optimism.
There are indeed powerful grounds for being a techno-optimist. . For most people in most nations, there's never been a better time to be alive. The innovations that will drive economic advance —information technology, biotech and nanotech—can boost the developing as well as the developed world. We're becoming embedded in a cyberspace that can link anyone, anywhere, to all the world's information and culture—and to every other person on the planet. Creativity in science and the arts is open to hugely more than in the past. 21st century technologies will offer lifestyles that are environmentally benign—involving lower demands on energy or resources than what we'd consider a good life today. And we could readily raise the funds - were there the political will—to lift the world's two billion most deprived people from their extreme poverty.
Later in this century, mind-enhancing drugs, genetics, and 'cyberg' techniques may change human beings themselves. That's something qualitatively new in recorded history—and it will pose novel ethical conundrums. Our species could be transformed and diversified (here on Earth and perhaps beyond) within just a few centuries.
The benefits of earlier technology weren't achieved without taking risks—we owe modern aviation, and modern surgery, to many martyrs. But, though plane crashes, boiler explosions and the like were horrible, there was a limit to just how horrible —a limit to their scale. In our ever more interconnected world, where technology empowers us more than ever, we're vulnerable to scary new risks—events of such catastrophic global consequences that it's imprudent to ignore them even if their probabililty seems low.
One set of risks stems from humanity's collective impact. Our actions are transforming, even ravaging, the entire biosphere —perhaps irreversibly—through global warming and loss of biodiversity. Remedial action may come too late to prevent 'runaway' climatic or environmental devastation.
But we also face vulnerabilities of a quite different kind, stemming from unintended consequences (or intended misuse) of ever more empowering bio and cyber technology. The global village will have its village idiots.
The risks are real. But, by making the right collective choices we can alleviate all these hazards.
Among such choices, my number-one priority would be much-expanded R and D into a whole raft of techniques for storing energy and generating it by 'clean' or low-carbon methods. The stakes are high—the world spends nearly 3 trillion dollars per year on energy and its infrastructure. This effort can engage not just those in privileged technical envonments in advanced countries, but a far wider talent pool Even if we discount climate change completely, the quest for clean energy is worthwhile on grounds of energy security, diversity and efficiency.
This goal deserve a priority and commitment from governments akin to that accorded to the Manhattan project or the Apollo moon landing. It should appeal to the idealistic young—indeed I can't think of anything that could do more to attract the brightest and best of them into science than a strongly proclaimed commitment, from all technologically-developed nations, to take a lead in providing clean and sustainable energy for the developing and the developed world.
Poincaré, Radiodurans and Teletransportation
As science journalist and supporter, surely I will be optimistic for 2007: among others, there are three main reasons which happened during 2006 which strengthen my convictions.
First, the quantum teletransportation between light and matter, experienced in Copenhagen last October. This is not the first time so particular a phenomenon is proved to be real but the experiment, held at the Niels Bohr Institutet, opens new and fascinating perspectives in the field of quantum computation: through the entanglement’s process is now possible to stock quantum data; with this discovery, the short future might be even more intriguing.
Second, a bacterium called “Deinococcus Radiodurans” could lengthen our own lives. This tiny form of life is able to survive unthinkable conditions, like a strong desiccation or a nuclear explosion: the reasons why all that could be possible were a real scientific puzzle, until Miroslav Radman and his French team have found a convincing explanation. Studies have to continue but adding other years to the human race’s average is no longer a dream.
At last, a Fields medal has been assigned for the solution of the so-called Poincaré conjecture: an unsolved enigma for more than a century has been revealed and that makes me think the next years will be a good period for mathematics.
Hence, if you need some optimism, you should just take a look at science: I am certain that this new century will overtake the former one.
The Human Epigenome Project
There are maps, and then there are maps. We're embarking on a kind of mapmaking that will usher in new ways of understanding ourselves-a map that can explain why identical twins are not truly identical, so that one succumbs to schizophrenia while the other remains cognitively intact; why what your mom ate can save or sabotage your health (as well as that of your children and your children's children); and how our genetic fates can be tuned by such simple universals as love or vitamins.
It's The Human Epigenome Project (HEP). It's the next step after the Human Genome Project, which in itself was as audacious as the Apollo space program or the Manhattan Project, mapping 25,000 genes and the 3 billion pairs of bases in our DNA. And yet, what The Human Genome Project mapped is like land without borders, roads without names, a map without movement. Genes are silent unless activated. To have them is not necessarily to be under their influence.
"Land lies in water, it is shadowed green," begins Elizabeth Bishop's classic early poem, "The Map." The double helix lies in the epigenome like land lies in water. The epigenome is a flute playing a tune that charms the snake-coiled snake that is the code of life-and the snake spirals upward in response. A long bundle of biochemical markers all along the genome, the epigenome responds to environmental signals and then switches genes off or on, upregulates or downregulates their activity. And in that change lies a great part of our destiny.
In 2003, in a widely discussed experiment, scientist Randy Jirtle of Duke University Medical Center in Durham, North Carolina, showed that he could change the activity of a mouse's genes by giving supplements to its mom prior to, or during, very early pregnancy. A mouse with yellow fur, whose offspring would normally also be yellow, will give birth to brown-furred babies if fed a diet supplemented with vitamin B12, folic acid, betaine and choline. Even the offspring of the mom's offspring will be born with brown fur. The genes themselves have not changed at all, but their expression has, and that lasts for at least two generations. And a fungicide used on fruits led to sperm abnormalities in rats-abnormalities passed down at least four generations. This gives us insight into nature's ways: apparently she figures any change in the food supply will last a while, and isn't just a seasonal fling.
Then, in 2004, Moshe Szyf, Michael Meaney and their colleagues at McGill University in Montreal, Canada, showed that love can work in a similar way. If mothers don't lick, groom and nurse their babies enough, a molecular tag known as a methyl group-a tiny molecule made of three hydrogen atoms bound to a single carbon atom-is added to a gene that helps regulate an animal's response to stress. In pups that aren't nurtured properly, the methyl group downregulates the genes' activity for life. The pups have higher levels of stress hormones and are more afraid to explore new environments. What is nature saying? If a mom didn't attend to her newborn much, it's probably because the environment was hostile and stressful. Better to be vigilant and cautious, even afraid. Later, Meany and his colleagues showed that a common food supplement could do exactly the same thing to the genes of well-licked and nurtured rats. Once the pups were three months old, researchers injected a common amino acid, L-methionine, into their brains. This methylated the same gene, downregulated it, and turned the rats into anxious wallflowers.
Last June, the European Human Epigenome Project published its first findings on the methylation profiles, or epigenetics, of three chromosomes. The push to map the epigenome is on. In the last few weeks alone I've seen very different epigenetic stories coming across the science wires. From the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston came the news that breastfeeding protects children who are genetically susceptible to repeated ear infections because of common variants in their genes. The tendency toward ear infections runs in families, and researchers found the culprit in two gene variants that increase inflammatory signaling molecules in the immune system. Remarkably, breast milk seemed to permanently quiet the genes, so that even later in childhood, long after the children had stopped breastfeeding, they were protected from recurrent infections.
In research from the Universidad Nacional Autonoma de Mexico and the Instituto Nacional de Cancerologia, Mexico, epigenetic drugs are now being studied in breast, ovarian and cervical cancer. These drugs affect genes that, when reactivated, help regulate cell proliferation, cell death, cell differentiation, and drug resistance. They're cheaper than designer-name cancer drugs, and might help increase survival rates.
Even water fleas are joining the epigenetic act. In a December study from the University of California at Berkeley expression of genes in water fleas changed in response to common contaminants. Water fleas are regularly used to monitor freshwater toxicity, usually with a "kill 'em and count 'em" approach. Researchers found that copper, cadmium and zinc decreased expression of genes involved in digestion and infection. Screening like this might help industry assess and avoid particularly toxic contaminants.
Epigenetics offers us a different kind of map. One where we can zoom in and zoom out. A map of many colors, with street signs so we can navigate, routes that we can choose, destinations that we can change. Maybe the gene isn't selfish. Maybe it's actually sensitive. "More delicate than the historian's are the mapmaker's colors." So concludes Elizabeth Bishop's poem, and the epigenome may prove to be one of the more beautiful, delicate, subtle maps of all time.
Shortening Sleep Will Prolong Conscious Life
Our life span is extending, but the extended life is a dwindling asset. Who would not prefer to live longer while at their peak? The time we spend asleep contributes little to our lifetime of experience, thought and action. Dreaming doesn't seem to add much. Some brain lesions and monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor medications even completely abolish dreams without making any apparent difference. Could we reduce the duration of sleep (both REM and nonREM) while maintaining its benefits for the brain, whatever they might be? I propose that we do need to sleep, but not as long as we do. The duration of sleep may be an outdated adaptation to prehistoric ecological constraints that no longer exist.
Virtually all vertebrates sleep (and invertebrates at least have quiet time). However, the duration of sleep varies wildly across species, from less than 1 hour to 18+ hours a day. For instance, rodents sleep between 8 and 17 hours, primates between 7 and 18 hours. Elephants and giraffes sleep 3-5 hours, squirrels 16-17 and bats 20 hours. The newborn of most species sleep more of each day than the adults, except that newborn whales and dolphins don't sleep at all. Within a species, the inter-individual variation of adaptively valuable traits is thought to be quite limited. Yet some people, in some families, habitually sleep only 2-4 hours a night, and function well for longer each day. Perhaps constraining the duration of sleep is not an adaptive priority in humans.
Three categorically distinct roles for sleep are: (1) maintaining the neuronal circuitry, (2) fostering learning, (3) keeping the organism out of trouble.
(1) Given its ubiquity among vertebrates and other phyla, any neurometabolic benefit of sleep must be very general and basic. If the needs of the brain determine the duration of sleep, its duration should vary systematically with some fundamental neurological variable, such as absolute or relative size of the brain, its energy utilization, the sophistication of behavioral control, or the need to replenish some key neurotransmitter. No such co-variation appears to exist.
(2) The presumed role of sleep in learning is based on continuing rehearsal. Rather than being an adaptation, the learning benefit may be a fortuitous result of the brain's continuing activity during sleep, while it is receiving no fresh information. Since the neuronal show must go on, recently acquired patterns of firing gain priority and are "rehearsed". Whether the memories are useful or useless, they are automatically rehearsed. In any case, the suggested benefit of sleep for human learning cannot be generalized to species that make a living without learning anything much, and yet require sleep.
(3) The substantial differences between people and the enormous difference between species in how long they typically sleep suggest that sleep also serves a species-specific ecological function. This is sleep's other role; sleep conserves energy and keeps animals out of trouble. It takes the members of each species a minimum time per day to make a living, that is, secure their personal survival and take advantage of any reproductive opportunity. This challenge is met anew every day. On this view, how much of the day is needed to meet adaptive goals determines the duration of the default option of sleep.
Continued activity when the day's housekeeping is done would prolong the animal's exposure to the hazards that lurk in the environment, without contributing further to basic survival and reproductive needs. Many species cannot do anything useful in the dark (and some not in the light). They gain nothing from expending more than basal metabolic energy at that time. The genetic imperative to sleep during a predetermined time of day and for a predetermined duration (or even hibernate), takes care of all that. Thus extended sleep time would be a function of the interaction between the individual and its ecology.
Predators need time for hunting; how much depends on attributes of the predator and the prey, such as speed, strength and population density. Herbivore prey needs a minimum time to graze, depending on the animal's bulk and the accessibility of food. How the remains of the day are spent would depend on how readily a secure haven can be found.
Nature is notoriously conservative, and it conserves the genetically driven imperative to sleep. The imperative to sleep is subjectively experienced as antecedent sleepiness, and the fatigue and dysphoric feeling after too little sleep. My thesis is that these feelings do not arise unavoidably from the economy of the brain, but are genetically imposed adaptations. Should a species' ecology undergo radical change, and making a living become sharply easier or more difficult, natural selection will in time reshape sleep duration accordingly.
However, human culture evolves too quickly. Since artificial lighting was introduced, the dark no longer constrains what people can do. Since human activities are oriented as much to future as to immediate goals, all hours of the day have become potentially useful. Further, we have more effective means to secure ourselves than curling up in a quiet place and sleeping. So if a sizeable portion of the adaptation to sleep has the role of a security saving placeholder, then it would be safe to relax that portion of the sleep constraint.
The dictatorial "sleep genes", when identified, need to be modified to require a shorter sleep duration, and the circadian clock genes need to be reset. Will the state of genetic engineering become sufficiently advanced to make this prospect, though less than a sure thing, more than a pipe dream? The good news comes with the fruit fly's sleep, which is uncannily like ours; a mutation in a gene called Shaker reduces the fly's natural sleep duration by two-thirds, from about 12 to about 4 hours within 24, without detriment to the fly's well-being. The bad news is that these mutated flies don't live long. Nonetheless, I am optimistic.
The Power of Our Creative and Analytic Abilities
As I help raise my two year old son, I witness a basic truth familiar to parents through the ages and across the continents — we begin life as uninhibited explorers with a boundless fascination for the ever-growing world to which we have access. And what I find amazing is that if that fascination is fed, and if it's challenged, and if it's nurtured, it can grow to an intellect capable of grappling with such marvels as the quantum nature of reality, the energy locked inside the atom, the curved spacetime of the cosmos, the elementary constituents of matter, the genetic code underlying life, the neural circuitry responsible for consciousness, and perhaps even the very origin of the universe. While we evolved to survive, once we have the luxury of taking such survival for granted, the ability of our species to unravel mysteries grand and deep is awe inspiring. I'm optimistic that the world will increasingly value the power of such rational thought and will increasingly rely on its insights in making the most critical decisions.
Emergent Democracy and Global Voices
I am optimistic that open networks will continue to grow and become available to more and more people. I am optimistic that computers will continue to become cheaper and more available. I am optimistic that the hardware and software will become more open, transparent and free. I am optimistic that the ability to for people to create, share and remix their works will provide a voice to the vast majority of people.
I believe that the Internet, open source and a global culture of discourse and sharing will become the pillar of democracy for the 21st century. Whereas those in power—as well as terrorists who are not—have used broadcast technology and the mass media of the 20th century against the free world, I am optimistic that Internet will enable the collective voice of the people and that voice will be a voice of reason and good will.
Reforming Scientific and Medical Publishing Via the Internet
I am optimistic that the ascendance of open access postings of articles to the internet will transform scientific and medical publishing; and that a number of profound problems—some particular to medical publishing—will be assuaged as a result.
Currently, it can be impossible to gauge the true balance of risks and benefits of medical treatments from a reading of the literature. Frighteningly, this is true too for those doctors who ground their clinical decisions upon a reading of it. I will review some aspects of the problem; and then relay grounds for possible optimism.
First, as is probably true in all fields, bias occurs in favor of existing orthodoxy. This is arguably more troubling in medicine since the orthodoxy is in turn influenced, as has been learned, by the profusion of articles favorable to their products that are ghostwritten by the pharmaceutical industry, or by the for-profit MECCs (Medical Education and Communication Companies) that industry hires for this purpose. These companies in turn pay physicians and pharmacists—including favorably disposed "thought leaders" whom they seek to succor —to be the listed authors, extinguishing any appearance of connection to industry for the favorable views propounded. This provides the appearance that many independent parties are in agreement in their favorable representations of the evidence. Crisply said, advertising is published as though it were science.
These problems are exacerbated by bias arising from direct conflict of interest. Conflict of interest is endemic in medical research; and articles about a class of drug have been shown to be dramatically more likely to be favorable when authored by persons with ties to industry than when authored by persons without such conflicts. Conflicts for authors thus appear to foster submission of industry-favorable articles. Conflicts for reviewers may also foster rejection of industry-unfavorable ones. (As elsewhere, reviewers are drawn from the pool of authors.) Moreover, reviewers are seldom tasked to disclose conflicts, and they remain anonymous, precluding repercussions for biased reviews.
These factors are aggravated, possibly dwarfed, by pharmaceutical company influence on medical publishing—further aligning medical publishing with medical advertising. Medical journals are not the independent arbiters of article quality one might wish. They are businesses and derive their revenue from pharmaceutical company advertising, and from sales to industry of glossy reprints of industry-favorable articles, at inflated prices. For some medical journals, profits reportedly number in the millions, providing high stakes.
At least three former Editors in Chief of major US and British medical journals have penned books decrying the inimical impact of industry influence on medicine. One has to ask why, in medical journals, advertising is accepted (just because it is available for the taking); and whether the journal's bottom line is a proper consideration in dictating what is published, in settings where lives are on the line.
So, whence the optimism? One means to propel optimism is to suggest a tactic that might enable its fruition. Briefly, I suggest that papers be published on the Internet, reviews be submitted by named reviewers; and that others rate (and review) the reviews. Both papers and reviewers receive ratings that are updated on an ongoing basis. While this won't protect against biased submissions, it will protect against biased rejections—and at least enable a voice for original or contrary perspectives.
It is probable that more bad science will be released. However the system provides a means for improving poor quality work; and avoiding having to view what remains substandard.
More importantly, more good science may be published—and perhaps, more great science. As Nobelist Sydney Brenner (who famously authored an article entitled "Moron peer review") has observed, many of his co-Nobelists' prize winning work was initially rejected through the review process.
Transformative work by its nature may defy conventional wisdom. One might be drawn to wonder: is there other work that would have revolutionized science and merited a Prize, that languishes unpublished? And that does so because authors at some point ceased to persevere in submission efforts after some number of rejections, or finally deemed the effort to publish futile?
Hark back to the many great discoveries of which we have heard that were initially ridiculed: H. pylori as a contributor to ulcers; handwashing as a means to reduce puerperal fever; the sun as the center around which the earth revolves, to name a few. What might this imply for the possibility that major discoveries may be pilloried into nonpublication by peer review? There is no means to estimate the fraction of Nobel-caliber efforts that achieve publication, as the denominator remains unknowable.
Indeed, the benefits of a new, Internet-based approach may be particularly great for the most important work: work that challenges existing orthodoxy; work that defines a new field and fits no existing journal; work that crosses boundaries to other disciplines—with their own often arbitrary conventions and in-groups; or that demands knowledge from two or more disciplines; science that is ahead of its time, that entails many advances at once or that founds new work on an understanding of relevant material that others do not yet have. Or, too, work that runs counter to vested interest groups—particularly but hardly exclusively in the arena of medicine, where the potent impact of industry influence on information has been the subject of increasing alarm—and where disparities between literature and truth may cost patients' lives.
An instance from mathematics supports the premise that current convention, requiring articles to be published in peer-reviewed journal venues, may inhibit promulgation of at least some of the very most important work. The Poincaré conjecture—a holy grail in mathematics—was recently proved by a Russian mathematician who posted his work on the Internet but refused the bother of submitting his work to a journal. Other cases can be adduced favoring the proposition that some among persons capable of propelling major advances—which often entails rejecting conventions in science—are also constitutionally inclined to reject the conventions, petty obstacles and distractions that attend the current model of scientific publishing. And perhaps they do so with justifiable contempt.
Surely many will defend the current system—not least those who fare well within it, and who benefit disproportionately from it. And surely there will be problems to overcome in the new system. Orthodoxy, in-groups, and interest groups will continue to influence the literature. Those who serve these masters will likely submit negative reviews of articles (and of reviewers) who do not toe the respective party lines. But at least now the contrarian positions will achieve release, reviewers can be held accountable for biased reviews, and unacknowledged conflicts can be exposed in instances when others know of them.
In short, I am optimistic that online publishing, with a review-the-reviewer system akin to that proposed here, will provide more voice and venue for science that may now have the highest need—and the lowest prospect—of being aired.
The Future of Human Mating
Each one of us has descended from a long and unbroken line of ancestors who mated successfully. They all found love or at least a liaison. Evolution has forged a motivation to mate so powerful that it propels us to surmount impressive, daunting, and demoralizing obstacles. The first problem is prioritizing conflicting mate preferences, compromising on some to attain others. Searchers must then sift through hundreds of options, limiting pursuit to potentials within shouting distance of attainability. Desirable mates bring out determined rivals, forcing fierce competition. Complex and subtle attraction tactics must succeed in unlocking minds and melting hearts. After making it through these mine fields, there is no rest for the weary. Post-mating, sexual conflicts erupt, undermining months or years of effort. Mate poachers abound, threatening to lure our lovers.
Infidelity diverts precious resources to interlopers and rips families apart.
Treachery runs rampant, spurned lovers rage, and divorce rates rise. The modern world compounds these problems, from discerning deception in internet dating to bridging cultural gaps created by cross-continental mating. Despite the obstacles, both ancient and novel, I remain optimistic that humans in every generation will continue to succeed gloriously.
The Limits of Democracy
Some historians think the idea of democracy arose in the Greek soldier-sailors of the 7th to 4th centuries BC who manned the trireme warships. Up to sixty men—a deme—rowed these daunting three-tiered ships. Their effectiveness in battle depended upon precise and coordinated teamwork; the phrase 'pulling together' may have its origin in the triremes. Deme-ocracy arose when the rower-fighters realized that the same kind of coordinated pulling together that powered the boat could be used to influence which battles their masters had them fight and the conditions of their service. Herodotus records that up to forty triremes were used when Samos invaded the Egyptians—a lot of voting oarsmen. Modern democracies owe a debt to the actions of these wretched fellows whose fates were gambled by rulers who did not always have the rowers' best interests at heart.
In spite of this, and two and a half thousand years on, I am optimistic that the world is glimpsing the limits of democracy. I speak of democracy in its wider manifestations, and not just as government. The common idea of democracy—that everyone has a 'right' to be heard—naturally flourishes among the smallest collections of people that can organise themselves into a group. To survive, these groups compete for what they see as their share of the pie. Look no further than the ultra-democracies of some Western European nations, deadlocked coalition governments legitimized from systems of proportional representation that reward small special interest demes. Look to the intolerance that arises when this or that group asserts rights over this or that groups' rights. Look to 'focus groups'. Look to a state of numerical populism in which the most votes or text messages or viewers is what is to be delivered, crowned or sold. In the artist Paul Klee's words "democracy with its semi-civilization sincerely cherishes junk". Strong words perhaps, but there is that old saying about decision making by committee.
The British playwright Dennis Potter in a public speech not long before his death defended the BBC—a decidedly undemocratic and state-owned institution—for its very lack of populism. To Potter the role of the BBC was to decide for the rest of us the standards of what should be deemed good art, drama, history and reporting, and to challenge us intellectually and aesthetically. A dangerous state of affairs? Elitism? Maybe. But I am optimistic that people are recognising that democracy simplistically applied, without an eye on the larger Project, can easily descend into an ochlocracy ruled by the groups that shout the loudest. Even by the middle of the 19th century Disraeli was saying "the world is wearied of statesmen whom democracy has degraded into politicians".
A hopeful sign: some nations and especially some American states are researching new low carbon-footprint technologies and voluntarily committing to what will be burdensome and expensive climate-change targets. In most cases they are doing so without any democratic mandate. They realize that there may be larger and longer term stakes to play for than the 'right' to behave as one pleases or to have what one wants. Maybe you know of other examples.
Bullish on Cosmology
I am optimistic that there will be a historic breakthrough in our understanding of the universe in the next five years that will be remembered as one of the most significant of the millennium. I would also give better-than-even odds that there will be more than one discovery of this magnitude.
My optimism is sparked by a remarkable coincidence: the simultaneous maturing of several unrelated technologies, each of which could open a new window on the cosmos. Historically, every new technology is a harbinger of great discovery. Consider, then, that at least a handful of major advances will occur within just five years:
• Directly detecting of dark matter:
After decades of gradual progress, physicists will finally build the first detectors sensitive enough to detect dark matter particles directly, if they consist of weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs), as many physicists suspect.
• Discovering the nature of dark energy:
Although their names sound similar, the only quality dark matter and dark energy have in common is that they are both invisible. Dark matter consists of massive particles that gravitationally attract one another and clump into clouds that seed the formation of galaxies.
Dark energy is gravitationally self-repulsive, so it tends to smooth itself out. When it is the dominant form of energy, as it is today, dark energy causes the expansion of the universe to speed up.The composition of dark energy is one of the great mysteries of science, with profound implications for both fundamental physics and cosmology.
Over the next five years, arrays of novel wide-field telescopes will be constructed that are programmed to rapidly scan large fractions of the sky to search for astronomical phenomena that vary rapidly with time. The arrays will be used to search for distant supernovae (exploding stars), whose brightness and colors can be used to judge the distance and recessional speed of their host galaxies. From these measurements, astronomers can measure precisely the accelerated expansion of the universe, a primary means of distinguishing different theories of dark energy.
At the same time, in the laboratory, physicists will be trying to detect changes in the gravitational force when masses are placed at close proximity or tiny changes in the strength of the electromagnetic force with time, other effects predicted by some theories of dark energy. These measurements will significantly narrow the candidates for dark energy, perhaps identifying a unique possibility.
• Exploring the big bang and the origin of the large-scale structure of the universe:
The conventional wisdom is that the universe sprang into existence 14 billion years ago in a big bang and that a period of exponentially rapid inflationary expansion accounts for its large-scale structure. However, the last decade has seen the emergence of alternative possibilities, such as the cyclic model of the universe.
In the cyclic model, the big bang is not the beginning but, rather, an event that has been repeating every trillion years, extending far into the past. Borrowing ideas from string theory, the cyclic model proposes that each bang is a collision between our three-dimensional world and another three-dimensional world along an extra spatial dimension. Each bang creates new hot matter and radiation that begins a new perio of expansion, cooling, galaxy formation and life, but space and time exist before and after the bang.
The large-scale structure of the universe and the pattern of galaxies are set by events that occurred about a cycle ago, before the bang, just as events occurring today are setting the structure for the cycle to come. Although the inflationary and cyclic pictures predict distributions of galaxies, matter and radiation that are indistinguishable, their predictions for the production of gravitational waves in the early universe are exponentially different.
Gravitational waves are ripples in space produced during inflation or near the beginning of a new cycle that propagate through the universe and distort space like undulations traveling through jello. These cosmic gravitational waves are too weak to be detected directly, but experimental cosmologists throughout the world are mounting ground- and balloon-based experiments to search for their imprint on the polarization pattern of cosmic microwave background radiation produced in the first 380,000 years after the bang.
The results will not only affect our view of our cosmic origin, but our future as well. The conventional big bang inflationary theory predicts our universe is headed towards the cold oblivion of eternal expansion—a whimper—but the cyclic model predicts a new hot big bang.
• Direct detecting gravitational waves:
The first window on the universe using something other than electromagnetic waves could be open within the next five years. After decades of developments, the LIGO (Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory), with one detector in Livingston, Louisiana, and one in Hanford, Washington, has a plausible chance of directly detecting gravitational waves, beginning a new era in astronomy.
The observatory is designed to detect stronger gravitational waves than those produced in the early universe, such as waves generated by the violent collision of neutron stars and black holes in our own galaxy. However, this frontier is so fresh and unexplored that there could well be unanticipated cosmic sources of strong gravitational waves to be discovered that could cause us to reassess our understanding of the universe.
• Breakthroughs in fundamental physics and direct production of dark matter:
The Large Hadron Collider at the Center for European Research (CERN) in Geneva, Switzerland, is set to begin operation this year. This facility consists of a powerful particle accelerator that will reproduce collisions of the type that occurred within the first pico-second after the big bang, carrying the investigation of fundamental physics over an important energy threshold where new phenomena are anticipated. For example, physicists hope to discover a spectrum of new "supersymmetric" particles, confirming a key prediction of string theory, and also WIMPs that may comprise the dark matter.
The impact will be profound. As we enter 2007, we understand the composition of less than five percent of the universe; we do not understand how space, time, matter and energy were created; and we cannot predict where the universe is headed. In the next five years, we may witness the historic resolution of one or more of these issues. I have my personal bet on what the individual outcomes will be; but the only prediction I will reveal here is that, with the opening of so many new windows on the cosmos, we are sure to discover something unanticipated and astonishing.
Computers Will Let Data Tell More Of Their Own Story
I am optimistic that the rapid growth in computing power will let measured data tell more of their own story—rather than tell the story of the "model" that someone imposes on the data. The slow but steady movement away from classical model-based science tracks the growth in computers and digital processors.
Almost all traditional science and engineering has been model-based. Equations define the simplest models or functional relationships among input and output variables. Usually some super-smart thinker first makes an inspired guess at the model equations. The grand examples are Newton's guess at the inverse-square law of gravity and then Einstein's later and even bolder guess at the non-Euclidean geometry of the spacetime continuum.
Most models have lesser scope and far humbler origins. The modeler often guesses at a linear or quadratic or other simple relationship between the inputs and outputs even though the world itself appears to be quite nonlinear in general and often nonstationary as well. A standard modeling trick is to let a random noise term account for the difference between the nonlinear and largely unknown world and the far simpler model. Thus the humble noise or nuisance term carries much of the model's explanatory burden. Then the modeler compares the model to some data and looks for a pattern match to some degree. Other models can compete with the first model based on their pattern matches with the data.
Model-based science has produced most of our technological achievements. And it will likely always be at the core of the science curriculum. But it does rely on an arcane ability to guess at nature with symbolic mathematics. It is hard to see a direct evolutionary basis for such refined symbol manipulation although there may be several indirect bases that involve language skills and spatial reasoning.
A more immediate issue is that we tend to over-teach models in the science and engineering curriculum. One reason for this is that it is easy to teach closed-form equations and related technical theorems. Just state and derive the model result and apply it to examples based on numbers or on other equations. Equations make for wonderful homework problems. And it is especially easy to test on model equations and their consequences. It is not so easy to teach or test on data-intensive problems that can involve large tables of numerical data.
Another reason for over-teaching models is that so many of our textbooks in science and engineering have their roots in the pre-computing era surrounding World War II. That was the Shannon era of great analytical minds and authors such as probabilist Joseph Doob and chemist Linus Pauling and economist Paul Samuelson and many others. Students performed computations with slide rulers and then later with pocket calculators. Science and engineering textbooks today still largely build on those earlier texts from the pre-computer age where so often mathematical assumptions trumped raw data.
Rising computer power led to the first large break with the math-model approach in various species of artificial intelligence. Computer scientists programmed expert-system search trees directly from words. Some put uncertainty math models on the trees but the tree structure itself used words or text strings. The non-numerical structure let experts directly encode their expertise in verbal rules. That removed the old math models but still left the problem of literally doing only what the expert or modeler said to do.
Adaptive fuzzy rule-based systems allowed experts to state rules in words while the fuzzy system itself remained numeric. Data could in principle overcome modeler bias by adapting the rule structure in new directions as the data poured in. That reduced expert or modeler input to little more than giving initial conditions and occasional updates to the inference structure. Still all these AI tree-based knowledge systems suffer from the curse of dimensionality in some form of combinatorial rule explosion.
Feedforward neural networks further reduced the expert to a supervisor who gives the network preferred input-output pairs to train its synaptic throughput structure. But this comes at the expense of having no logical audit trail in the network's innards that can explain what patterns the network encodes or what patterns it partly or wholly forgets when it learns new input-output patterns. Unsupervised neural networks tend to be less powerful but omit more modeler bias because the user does not give the network preferred outputs or teaching signals. All these AI systems are model-free in the sense that the user does not need to state a math model of the process at hand. But each still has some form of a functional math model that converts inputs to outputs.
Statistics has arguably been the real leader in the shift from models to data --even though classical linear regression has been imposing lines and planes on the world for over two centuries. Neural and fuzzy learning systems turn out ultimately to have the structure of nonlinear but still statistical approximators. Closed-form statistics also produced Bayesian models as a type of equation-based expert system where the expert can inject his favorite probability curve on the problem at hand. These models have the adaptive benefit that successive data often washes away the expert's initial math guesses just as happens in an adaptive fuzzy system. The AI systems are Bayesian in this sense of letting experts encode expertise directly into a knowledge structure—but again the knowledge structure itself is a model of sorts and thus an imposition on the data.
The hero of data-based reasoning is the bootstrap resample. The bootstrap has produced a revolution of sorts in statistics since statistician Bradley Efron introduced it in 1979 when personal computers were becoming more available. The bootstrap in effect puts the data set in a bingo hopper and lets the user sample from the data set over and over again just so long as the user puts the data back in the hopper after drawing and recording it. Computers easily let one turn an initial set of 100 data points into tens of thousands of resampled sets of 100 points each. Efron and many others showed that these virtual samples contain further information about the original data set. This gives a statistical free lunch except for the extensive computation involved—but that grows a little less expensive each day. A glance at most multi-edition textbook on statistics will show the growing influence of the bootstrap and related resampling techniques in the later editions.
Consider the model-based baggage that goes into the standard 95% confidence interval for a population mean. Such confidence intervals appear expressly in most medical studies and reports and appear implicitly in media poll results as well as appearing throughout science and engineering. The big assumption is that the data come reasonably close to a bell curve even if it has thick tails. A similar assumption occurs when instructors grade on a "curve" even the student grades often deviate substantially from a bell curve (such as clusters of good and poor grades). Sometimes one or more statistical tests will justify the bell-curve assumption to varying degrees — and some of the tests themselves make assumptions about the data. The simplest bootstrap confidence interval makes no such assumption. The user computes a sample mean for each of the thousands of virtual data sets. Then the user rank-orders these thousands of computed sample means from smallest to largest and picks the appropriate percentile estimates. Suppose there were a 1000 virtual sample sets and thus 1000 computed sample means. The bootstrap interval picks the 25th — largest sample mean for the lower bound of the 95% confidence interval and picks the 975th — largest sample mean for the upper bound. Done.
Bootstrap intervals tend to give similar results as model-based intervals for test cases where the user generates the original data from a normal bell curve or the like. The same holds for bootstrap hypothesis tests. But in the real world we do not know the "true" distribution that generated the observed data. So why not avoid the clear potential for modeler bias and just use the bootstrap estimate in the first place?
Bootstrap resampling has started to invade almost every type of statistical decision making. Statisticians have even shown how to apply it in complex cases of time-series and dependent data. It still tends to appear in statistics texts as a special topic after the student learns the traditional model-based methods. And there may be no easy way to give student scientists and engineers an in-class exam on bootstrap resampling with real data.
Still the trend is toward ever more data-based methods in science and engineering — and thus towards letting the data tell more of their own story (if there is a story to tell). Math models have tradition and human psychology on their side. But our math models grow at an approximate linear rate while data processing grows exponentially.
Computing power will out.
Why Do We Need to Sleep?
In the coming year, we're going to witness a breakthrough in our understanding of what sleep is for.
It surprises most people to learn that this is even a question. Every other basic bodily function—like eating, drinking, breathing, urinating, or defecating—has a pretty clear purpose. Our bodies and brains need food, water, and oxygen to stay alive and to replenish themselves, and if they didn't rid themselves of the byproducts of this metabolism, we'd be awash in our own toxic waste. Likewise, sleep must be for something important. We all spend decades in this strange state, immobilized, unconscious, and vulnerable. But what exactly does sleep do for us?
Parents tell their children they need to sleep because they're tired and need to rest. But of course rest is not good enough. Lying still for eight hours is no substitute for sleep. My own mother had a different theory. She said I needed to sleep because I had too much "sleepy gas." It had been building up all day long, and so I needed to sleep to get rid of it. In fact, scientists observed a long time ago that if you keep a sheep awake continuously for several days and then inject some of its cerebrospinal fluid into another, well-rested sheep, that sheep will fall right asleep, presumably because some naturally-occurring sleep substance had reached a soporific level in the donor. But this line of research never quite solved the puzzle. Although a number of putative sleep substances have now been identified, we're not sure how they might work biochemically, or how sleep (as opposed to mere rest) might break them down.
Other sleep-deprivation studies done in the early 1980's took a more brutal approach, keeping rats awake for weeks until they died from a lack of sleep, and then looking for the precise cause of death. Such studies (now outlawed) could not pinpoint any specific culprits, such as particular organ failures. One striking observation, however, was that the rats ate much more than normal and yet wasted away. Their metabolism seemed to be wrecked. So maybe sleep is for energy regulation, in some unspecified way. Other popular theories are that sleep is for tissue repair, or immune function, or for consolidating learning and memory.
The new development, and the cause for optimism, is an original approach to the problem that makes the first quantitative, testable predictions about the function of sleep. Two physicists, Van Savage (Harvard Medical School) and Geoff West (Santa Fe Institute), have analyzed how sleep varies across mammals of different species. Normally physiological time ticks slower for bigger animals. For example, elephants live much longer than mice and their hearts beat much slower. The interesting thing is that both animals' lifetimes and pulse times scale in the same way with their body mass—in direct proportion to their mass raised to the 1/4 power—with the curious implication that the hearts of mice and elephants will typically beat the same number of times in their lifetime.
What is so strange about sleep in this regard is that it behaves differently from all other physiological times. It's backward. Mice sleep longer than elephants, not shorter—about fourteen hours a day compared to four. Savage and West interpret this as evidence that sleep is related to cellular repair. They note that cells produce destructive byproducts, such as free radicals, in the course of normal metabolism, and they hypothesize that sleep somehow helps repair the damage that ensues. (In this view, the mouse needs to sleep longer to clean up all the byproducts generated by its revved-up metabolism.). Then, using classic laws about how metabolic rate varies across different species, they derive mathematical predictions about how sleep duration should vary with an animal's size. But which size is most relevant—brain size or body size? The key is that they are not proportional. If sleep is for repairing the brain, Savage and West derive one prediction; if it's for repairing the body, they derive a different prediction. When they finally confront their model with the available data, they infer that sleep is mainly for repairing the brain, not the body. So much for beauty sleep.
With The Right Sort Of Priorities And Human Engineering (Whatever That Phrase Means), We Can Be Biased Towards Making Us/Them Dichotomies Far More Benign
A truly discouraging thing to me is how easily humans see the world as dichotomized between Us and Them. This comes through in all sorts of ways —social anthropology, lord of the flies, prison experiments, linguistics (all those cultures where the word for the members of that culture translates into "People," thus making a contrast with the non-people living in the next valley).
As a neurobiologist, I'm particularly impressed with and discouraged by one finding relevant to this. There's a part of the brain called the amygdala that has lots to do with fear and anxiety and aggression. Functional brain imaging studies of humans show that the amygdala becomes metabolically active when we look at a scary face (even when the face is flashed up so quickly that we aren't consciously aware of seeing it). And some recent work—solid, done by top people, independently replicated — suggests that the amygdala can become activated when we view the face of someone from another race. The Them as scary, and the Them being someone whose skin color is real different from our own.
Damn, that's an upsetting finding.
But right on the heels of those studies are follow-ups showing that the picture is more complicated. The "Other skin color = scared activated amygdala = the Other" can be modified by experience. "Experience," can be how diverse of a world you grew up in. More diversity, and the amygdala is likely to become activated in that circumstance. And also, "experience," can be whether, shortly before your amygdala is put through the brain imaging paces, you are subtly biased to think about people categorically or as individuals. If you're cued towards individuating, your amygdala doesn't light up.
Thus, it seems quite plausible to me that we are hard-wired towards making Us/Them distinctions and not being all that nice to the Them. But what is anything but hard-wired is who counts as an Us and as a Them —we are so easily manipulated into changing those categories.
So, I'm optimistic that with the right sort of priorities and human engineering (whatever that phrase means), we can be biased towards making Us/Them dichotomies far more benign than they tend to be now. Say, by making all of us collectively feel like an Us with Them being the space aliens that may attack us some day. Or making the Them to be mean, shitty, intolerant people without compassion.
But, I'm sure not optimistic that we'll soon be having political, religious or cultural leaders likely to move us effectively in that direction. Just to deflate that optimism.
I am not, by default, optimistic; it is an attribute that I take on as a duty more than out of temperament. Left to myself I do not look out at the world and see a hopeful place—and did not do so even when the geopolitical state we are in was not so dreadful. But I have been convinced over the years that an outlook that gives play to hopefulness is by and large a better tool with which to help improve the future than the alternatives. You are more likely to find solutions if you believe they are there than not. The trick for those of us without the sunny state of mind naturally suited to such an outlook is to find objects for our optimism that make the duty feel less dutiful.
My current optimism is for solar energy. The simple facts of the matter are that the sun provides more energy to the earth in an hour than humanity makes use of in a year. Of the non-fossil-fuel energy sources, all the big players that are not nuclear—biomass, hydroelectric, wind—are ultimately driven by the sun. I am optimistic that direct solar conversion—photovoltaic cells and their future analogues—will come to take its place among and then surpass these more established technologies a lot more quickly than most people outside the area currently imagine. I'am hoping for at least a terawatt of solar by 2025, two if we're lucky, and dramatic cuts in carbon dioxide emissions as a result.
The locus for this optimism is California. A history of generous and far-sighted subsidy has built up the silicon-based Japanese and German solar industries over the past decades. Something similar now looks to be happening on the West Coast, where newer technologies are poised to benefit. There couldn't be a better suited place: California, and in particular the Bay area, boasts a near-unique concentration of world class research universities and national laboratories and a large number of people well versed in the solid-state trades who are ready and able to move from semiconductors that deal with information to those that deal with energy. It is also very well endowed with business angels and venture capitalists, many of whom combine their desire to make money with an urge to change the world. They largely share a network-first, build-from-the-periphery, revolutionise-the-whole-shebang mindset well suited to (and shaped by) the development of the Internet, an attitude which ports itself easily to the idea of decentralised solar power generation. The optimism to which I need to psych myself up seems to come naturally to such people in such places.
New materials and new material-processing techniques should allow the cost of installed photovoltaic capacity to be halved in the next few years, and there is room for considerable further improvement after that: while wind power, nuclear power and dams are not going to become radically cheaper to install, solar power capacity is. It is also going to become more flexible, both physically and metaphorically, with new applications on new surfaces, from windows to clothing. Some of these applications may well be gimmicky and unsustainable, but one of the great advantages of the coming solar power boom is that it offers the possibility for a wide range of technologies both to compete for the main prize—cheap domestic and light industrial electricity in developed and developing countries alike—and also to find and to create new niches.
The boom will not just be a matter of lower cost manufacture or better efficiency. System-wide solutions need to be found—new ways of accommodating solar materials architecturally, new technologies for storing energy, smart approaches to the electric grid, new financial arrangements and instruments that will allow people to get the benefits of solar electricity without necessarily taking on the capital costs of installation themselves. The sort of imagination that gets such things happening is far from unique to California—but it is abundant there, and can be put to use.
California is not essential to an acceleration in the already exponential growth of installed solar capacity. The big breakthroughs may come in Germany or Texas or China, and they will certainly have to be used in China and India if they are to have the dramatic effect on carbon emissions they could have. But it is in California that we see the most striking collocation of public interest, political support, research capacity, technological exuberance, entrepreneurial flair, a supportive business ethos, smart capital—and, crucially, sunshine.
Humanity's Coming Enlightenment
I am optimistic about humanity's coming enlightenment.
In particular, I am optimistic about humanity's prospects for starting exemplary new collaboratively-developed knowledge resources. When we hit upon the correct models for collaborative knowledge-collection online, there will be a jaw-dropping, unprecedented, paradigm-shifting explosion in the availability of high-quality free knowledge.
Over the last few years I have received an increasing amount of mail from researchers who want to build dynamic, efficient, and enormous new knowledge resources that follow the wiki model. I believe researchers are drawn to the wiki model because they naturally love several ideas suggested by the model: working closely with large numbers of their colleagues spread over the world; updating shared knowledge on the fly and avoiding costly duplication of labor; presenting knowledge systematically and in all its glorious complexity; and providing clear and compelling free access to important knowledge of their fields to a world that, in many cases, desperately needs such access. These features make the wiki model exciting.
Researchers—scholars, scientists, professionals of all sorts, and indeed, all folks who love books—are, as I say, drawn to the wiki model of strong collaboration in growing numbers. It's an accident of history that methods of strong collaboration online began among programmers and then spread into use by a completely egalitarian community, Wikipedia, and its many imitators. The next step in the evolution, which we are now witnessing on many fronts at once, is the adoption of wikis, and similarly dynamic and efficient "Web 2.0" methods of strong collaboration, by knowledge workers, or (as in the case of my new project, the Citizendium) huge open communities that are gently guided by experts.
I think the most fantastic knowledge resources of the near future will not be encyclopedias or textbooks. They will be brand new sorts of resources, never before possible because they require the participation of thousands, or even millions, of users. What—for example—can that quantity of people do with millions of free books at their fingertips?
Assuming as I do that expert-guided but public participatory free knowledge projects are feasible, and that—after becoming convinced of their tremendous value—millions of intellectuals from around the world will begin spending significant amounts of time developing them together, my considered view is that we are approaching a kind of intellectual revolution:
• The time spent in library, reference, and literature research will be shortened by orders of magnitude, as increasingly detailed indexes and various kinds of maps of the literature are made available, as brilliant new search methods become available for the entire contents of enormous libraries, and as literature reviews (and similar resources) at all levels of specialization are constantly updated.
• Indeed, due to these coming sea changes in the way the results of research are accessed, we might well see new and more efficient methods of presenting novel research to the world than the traditional peer-reviewed research paper. (I suggest nothing in particular here, but as a general point it seems not unlikely.)
• In many fields, especially in the humanities and social sciences, what today appears to be "cutting edge" thinking will be placed into an easily-accessible historical context. It will appear as so much scholarship properly does appear: old ideas warmed-over. I think the embarrassing ease of access to historical precursors and related work will lead scholars in these fields to focus on hard study, consolidation, systematization, and maybe even teaching. Actually, I don't think that. That would be too optimistic.
• There will be—as is already becoming the case—a newly global research community that has a presence coextensive with the Internet itself. This, even more than the advent of the Internet itself, has the potential to bring scholars from developing nations around the globe into the world of research as nothing ever has before. A well-educated, well-plugged-in intelligentsia from every uncensored place on the map could have many remarkable effects.
• Perhaps more important than any of the above, the ease with which information is accessed by teachers and students will require a complete and long overdue rethinking of the methods of education. What happens to education in a world in which not only *some questionable* information is available pretty quickly (as is now the case via Google and Wikipedia), but in which the most "officially" reliable information is available practically instantly to everyone? What would teachers do with their students if class were held every day in the middle of the largest library in the world?
Those are my expectations, and to have such expectations is of course to be very optimistic.
I should add that it seems the management of these information resources will have tremendous power, due to the tremendous value of their resources. So I hope that these managing bodies or persons will use their power according to the love of free speech, Western democratic republican principles of governance, and the rule of law.
New Children Will Be Born
New children will be born. This may seem rather mundane compared to some of the technological breakthroughs that other scientists have focused on. After all, children have been born for as long as the species has been around. But for human beings children are linked to optimism in a way that runs deeper than just the biological continuation of the species.
Optimism, after all, isn't essentially a matter of the rational assessment of the future—it's an attitude rather than a judgment. And it's the most characteristically human attitude, the one that's built into our DNA. The greatest human evolutionary advantage is our innate ability to imagine better alternatives to the current world—possible universes that could exist in the future—and to figure out how to make them real. It's the ability we see in its earliest form in the fantastic pretend play of even the youngest children.
But, in fact, everything in the room I write in now—not only the computer and the electric light but the right-angled wall and the ceramic cup and the woven cloth was once imaginary—no more than an optimistic pipe dream. And I myself, a scientist, a writer, and woman literally could not have existed in the evolutionary Pleistocene past, or even in the only slightly less neolithic atmosphere of the universities of fifty years ago.
This ability to change the physical and social world in unprecedented and unpredictable ways is deeply bound up with our characteristically extended human childhood—that long period of protected immaturity. The radical changes that have transformed human lives for the better never could have been accomplished in a single lifetime.
We change the world bit by bit, generation by generation. We pass on our own innovations and the new worlds they create to our children—who imagine new alternatives themselves. We work to imagine alternatives that will make our lives better, but, even more impressively, over generations we can revise what we mean by leading a better life. Our moral lives are no more determined by our evolutionary past than our physical or social lives.
I can see only small glimpses of the future and they are all heavily rooted in the past. But it's a good rational induction that my children and their children and all the new children to be born will see the world in new ways, discover new possibilities and find new ways to make them real, in ways that I literally can't imagine now.
Cancer Stem Cells and Novel Cancer Therapies
In the past few years evidence has increased that "cancer stem cells" play a fundamental role in cancer. Typically comprising about 1% or less of a total tumor mass, these cancer stem cells appear to have unlimited proliferation potential, and the capacity to drive cancer growth. In addition, cancer stem cells have been implicated in metastasis. Cancer stem cells have already been found in the leukemias, lung, colon, prostate, breast, skin, ovarian, and neural cancers. They may be present in all cancers. Their discovery may be the most important discovery in cancer biology in the past half century. Cancer stem cells are likely to afford entirely new cancer therapies in the modestly near future.
Given cancer stem cells, it becomes obvious that merely reducing the mass of a tumor without eliminating the cancer stem cells will almost surely lead to a recurrence of the disease. Thus, increasing numbers of investigators, including myself, are now focusing effort in three related directions: 1) Find means to selectively kill cancer stem cells. 2) Find means to stop cancer stem cells from proliferating. 3) Find means to induce cancer stem cells to differentiate—or change cell type—to non-malignant cell types.
While it is simply foolish to think cancer is simple, I believe it is a realistic hope that work on cancer stem cell therapy has a strong chance to dramatically improve cancer therapy within the next few decades. There are a number of approaches to this attempt. Among them, it is now possible using a new discovery, siRNA, to "turn off" the translation of the messenger RNA of any specific gene into its protein product. In addition, using other molecular biology techniques it is possible to over express any gene. These molecular techniques mean that investigators can now try to perturb the activities of specific genes that control cancer stem cell behavior in an attempt to attain the three aims above.
Further, high throughput screening via robotics now allow small molecule and other chemical libraries of high diversity to be screened to search for molecular perturbations which, if applied to cancer stem cells, achieves selective killing, cessation of proliferation, or differentiation to benign cell types. Our own laboratory and an increasing number of other laboratories are undertaking this work.
Differentiation therapy is already clinically effective in the case of treatment of acute myelogenous leukemia, AML, with vitamin A. The cancer cells differentiate into normal blood cells that do not proliferate. In addition, a research group recently screened a mere 1700 chemicals and found eight that caused AML cells to differentiate to or towards normal non-proliferating blood cells. Thus it is not improbable that by screening chemical libraries with thousands to hundreds of thousands of distinct compounds, molecules capable of selectively killing, shutting down proliferation, or inducing differentiation of cancer stem cells will be found in the modestly near future.
These approaches, however, must, as ever, be viewed with cautious optimism. For example, it may be the case that other cancer cells in a tumor can differentiate back into cancer stem cells. If so, they would require treatment, perhaps making cancer a chronic disease. The "same" cancer from diverse patients may typically have accumulated different subsets of gene mutations, rendering the hope of finding a single magic bullet good for all cases of that cancer moot. Conversely, vitamin A is widely useful in AML, raising the hope that a modest number of compounds might treat most cases of the "same" cancer in diverse patients. Further, the relation between cancer stem cells and normal adult stem cells remains to be clarified. A treatment that eliminated both cancer stem cells and normal stem cells of a given tissue could have untoward effects. Elimination of leukemic cancer stem cells might eliminate normal blood (hematopoetic) stem cells and affect the normal processes of these normal stem cells in blood formation. Conversely, one can hope that techniques will be found that can sustain the patient during therapy and regenerate normal, here blood, stem cells from other stem cells in a patient, transplant them into the patient after cancer therapy, and overcome the normal stem cell loss induced by therapy. And for some tissues, prostate, ovaries, uterus, loss of normal stem cells may not be grave.
The potential implications of cancer stem cell therapy are enormous. And the world scientific community is rapidly grasping the potential significance. It is important to stress that this effort will be "big biology", for techniques such as high throughput screening and tests of patterns of gene activities using genetic microarrays are very expensive. Adequate funding will be required. Overall, I am deeply optimistic as a doctor and biological scientist that we will, at last, find subtle ways to treat cancer either as stand alone therapies, or in conjunction with familiar surgery, radiation and chemotherapy.
Attempts to Dictate Our Tastes, Our Preferences, Our Culture, Our Media, Our Political Policies, Or Moral Choices Are Bound In the End to Fail
At first, my suggestion may sound rather pessimistic, but what I am optimistic about is that ultimately monopolies fail. By which I mean, attempts to dominate our tastes, our preferences, our culture, our media, our political policies, or moral choices. Restless creatures that we are, we seek out variety and difference, opportunities to extend the scope of our thinking and to exercise discrimination and taste. This may make us hard to satisfy, but, ultimately, it is this lack of satisfaction that leads to progress and spells the end of hegemonies in ideology, religion, or science.
John Stuart Mill wondered whether each of us would rather be the pig satisfied or Socrates dissatisfied, and at times it may seem as though a lot of people have chosen the former. But that is only in the short term. Long term, we have no choice but to be dissatisfied when things are constant and unchanging. The satiety of our appetites, the endless repetition of the same thoughts and feelings, will, eventually, in all but pathological cases, lead us to move on in mind and seek fresh inputs. To begin with, people may readily sacrifice their freedom for comfort, but increasingly the absence of change, the monotony of surroundings and routines will lead to acute discomfort and the search for something new. That is why I am optimistic that people who are fed a constant diet of the same ideas, the same foods, the same TV programmes, the same religious or political dogmas will eventually come to consider other possibilities, will switch off, change allegiance, and think differently for themselves. It may take time; after all, some people’s threshold for boredom is higher than others. But change and a moving on will be inevitable. The lesson is already being learned in the corporate world where monopolies try to cope with this by diversifying their range of services. Their chance of survival will depend on how cynically or sincerely they respond to this restless aspect of the human mind. We are used to hearing how bad the diet of television or Hollywood movies is, and how people have come to expect less and less. But I think the opposite is true. People are increasingly switching off and staying away from the familiar and undemanding shows and films that lazy television executives and film producers offer. Instead, space has opened up for intelligent and entertaining programmes and for independent film-making. It is here, at the creative end of the culture, that big popular success is to be found. In similar vein, the increasingly global market has led to a firmer appreciation of the interestingly local ones. And I am optimistic that people, through boredom and the need for something new, will seek out better, not worse experiences.
Human cognition depends on change and movement in order to function. Evolution has built us this way. Try staring at a blank wall for several seconds without blinking and you will find the image eventually bleaching until you can see nothing. The eye’s visual workings respond to movement and change. So too do the other parts of our cognitive systems. Feed them the same inputs successively and they cease to produce very much worth having as output. Like the shark in water, we need to keep moving or, cognitively, we die.
Science, too, represents the greatest advert for our unquiet natures. For as soon as a theory or school becomes the established orthodoxy, creative minds begin to explore the possibility that we must begin from completely different starting assumptions, and seek novel interpretations of the data. Without this constant movement to resist acceptance and stasis we would not have the advances or excitements that fundamental science can provide. That said, we must not overlook the role that luck plays in great discoveries either. But even with a lucky finding we must be capable or recognising and seizing on it if we are to develop insight for large-scale revisions to our thinking. The possibility to revise, rework, and reconsider depends on this sometimes uncomfortable fact about our natures and our need to search for something fresh.
So far, I have been stressing the positive aspect of the restless mind but there is a paradox in our nature and our restless search for change. For unless we countenance change for change’s sake, or the relativist doctrine that anything goes (—and I don’t) how do we preserve the very best of our thinking, select better quality experiences, and maintain our purposes, directions and values? How do we avoid losing sight of older wisdom while rushing towards something new? It is here, perhaps, that our need for variation and discrimination serves us best. For the quick and gimmicky, the superficially appealing but weakest objects of our thinking or targets of desire will also be the least substantial and have an essential blandness that can tire us quickly. Besides, the more experience we have, the larger the background against which to compare and judge the worth or quality of what is newly encountered, and to decide if it will be ultimately rewarding. Certainly, people can be fickle or stubborn, but they are seldom fickle or stubborn for long. They will seek out better, according to what they are presently capable of responding to, and they will be dissatisfied by something not worthy of the attention they are capable of. For this reason attempts to dictate their tastes, cultural goods, ideologies or ideas are bound in the end to fail, and about that, and despite of many dark forces around us, I am optimistic.
The Women of the 110th Congress
I am optimistic about the record number of women who will come to Washington in January 2007 as members of the 110th Congress —16 Senators and 71 Representatives. Only 20 years ago, there were just two female Senators and 23 Representatives. Now, the Speaker of the House is a woman, second in the line of succession to the Presidency. Why do I think this Ascent of Women is cause for optimism? Because I believe we need a lot more social smarts—particularly empathy—in the corridors of power and the brains of our political leaders; and current evidence indicates that, in general, the female brain is intrinsically a more proficient empathizing device.
One example. About a year ago, Tania Singer (then at University College London, now at the University of Zurich) published a study on the neural processes underlying empathy. As one rather lurid headline described the work: "Revenge Replaces Empathy in Male Brain. Watching bad guys suffer lights up the mind's reward centers for men." The experiment involved imaging the brains of a group of male and female volunteers while they played a monetary investment game based on trust. A few of the players were actors, planted to play fairly or unfairly.
Subsequently, the actors were zapped with a mild electric shock, while the other players watched. When an actor who had played fair was shocked, both female and male volunteers felt their pain: fMRI images showed empathic activation of pain-related areas of their brains—specifically in the insular and anterior cingulate cortices. But when the unfair actor was shocked, the sexes reacted differently. The females still showed a surge of empathy; the males didn't. Instead, their reward areas lit up. The German word for this feeling—schadenfreude—roughly translates as taking pleasure in the misery of others. The researchers' conclusion, based on the scanning and on the comments from post-experiment questionnaires, was that "men expressed a stronger desire for revenge than women".
Twenty years ago, in a PBS program called The Sexual Brain, I explored male-female differences. It was quite clear then (and has since become even more evident) that anatomically, chemically and functionally the brains of men and women have some significant differences. To what extent these variations drive or map on to differences in cognition and behavior remains controversial (ask Larry Summers). But we know, for example, that men have a proportionally larger amygdala than women and women have a proportionally larger prefrontal cortex.
There's evidence, too, that women have a proportionally larger anterior cingulate cortex (ACC) and insula than men. From quite recent brain imaging studies, we now know that these areas are important components of the circuitry that underpins our ability to process complex social emotions, ‘read' the faces and minds of the people we encounter as we navigate through social space, understand and predict their behavior, make moral judgments and empathize. (Of course, everything I am saying should have the usual scientific safety net of caveats—the differences exist at the level of populations, not individuals; cultural factors play an important role; etc.)
So what does this have to do with my optimism about the women of the 110th Congress? Would women govern differently than men?
That's exactly the question that Geneva Overholser posed in The New York Times in 1987 just after Margaret Thatcher won a new term as British Prime Minister. Overholser noted that Thatcher —like the few other women who were national leaders—operated in a male-dominated political arena and basically behaved no differently in office from men.
"Would that be true," Overholser asked, "if the number of women in high office better reflected their share of the population? Would they then govern differently, feeling more comfortable and secure as women?" She turned to the example of Norway, where the Prime Minister—Gro Harlem Brundtland—was a woman (and, incidentally, a physician). Of 17 Cabinet ministers, seven were women. And the consequences were dramatic. One example: Despite huge spending cuts, the Norwegian government actually increased child care subsidies and paid parental leave. In Norway's case, the answer to Overholser's question was: "Probably, if enough came to power."
In The Sexual Brain, I asked: "Is it wise for males to confront each other across an arms control negotiating table? Is global security enhanced in an atmosphere charged with testosterone?" Today, more women have had seats at that negotiating table—think of Madeleine Albright and Condoleeza Rice in the United States, Margaret Beckett (first female Foreign Secretary) in the United Kingdom, Angela Merkel (first female Chancellor and, incidentally, a physicist) in Germany. But the questions remain. Is it inherently bad that males experience schadenfreude—or is a taste for revenge a valuable prerequisite for dispensing justice? Is it admirable that females have more empathy for a cheater in pain —or a regrettable sign of weakness? Kinder maybe. Gentler maybe. But the best way to run a country?
I am optimistic that the answer to questions like these will eventually emerge from the synergy of science and society. Our relatively recent ability to image activity inside the human brain is a giant step forward and will allow us to better understand individual differences. I view a science of empathy as a realistic prospect: data will replace simplistic slogans (like Men are from Mars; Women are from Venus) as a basis for making social decisions. And I am optimistic that the social sophistication that a larger number of female legislators can bring to the 110th US Congress can help create "a more perfect union, insure domestic tranquility and secure the blessings of liberty for ourselves and our posterity".
The Hedonic Set Point Can Be Raised
Most people are pretty happy and the rest distribute into the very unhappy, pretty unhappy or very happy categories. Wherever they fall on the happiness scales, people keep pursuing happiness. They want more. Can they get it? I offer a cautiously optimistic yes.
I'll admit that the initial yield from the new science of happiness did little to support my optimism. It showed that happiness levels are durable, withstanding sweeping changes in health and wealth. Life changes, it suggests, but you don't. It showed that there is a substantial genetic component to happiness. People have a personal baseline of happiness that is influenced by stable personality traits such as extroversion or neuroticism that are partly heritable The happiness baseline has been likened to the body weight set point, leading some to believe that adding permanent points on the happiness scale is as likely as offloading pounds permanently from the weight scale. You've got a battle on your hands with a formidable opponent: yourself. Short of a biological fix, happiness interventions seemed doomed to formidable recidivism rates.
But the extreme picture of the human happiness baseline as a fixed set point and of adaptation to life events as inevitable and complete is wrong, and it's being revised rapidly While the "average" person's happiness may bounce back to baseline, the happiness of many individuals does not (about 1 in 4 people show a change of 2 or 3 points on a 0-10 scale with 9% showing changes of 3 or more points and even stable people show an average of a 1 point change in a recent study). Personality is much less stable than body weight, and happiness levels are even less stable than personality.
I said "cautiously" optimistic because, so far, for every person who shows a substantial lasting increase in happiness, 2 people show a decrease. Discarding the set point idea for a more malleable happiness baseline means that we will uncover vulnerability as well as hope.
I am also optimistic that we will uncover diverse ways that people can find sustainable happiness. But we'll need to dig beneath the surface and resist "once size fits all" formulas. I'll give one example. Some often-cited research suggests that married people are happier than "singles" (the never married, divorced, widowed, co-habitors). The latter group is large and getting larger. As of 2002 there were 86 million single adults in the United States; more than 40% of adults over 18 are single, up from 28% in 1970. Is this massive demographic shift dooming us to increasing unhappiness? Should we encourage people to marry to increase their happiness?
People marry for many reasons, but here, lets just consider their happiness. The newest research follows large groups of people over long periods of time. It finds that the average person adapts to marriage; after the first year or two, she is not any happier than she was before marriage (an alternate analysis of the data suggests that adaptation is incomplete but that happiness is increased by a tiny amount , .115 on a 0-10 scale). Looking beyond averages to individuals, the data show that some people return to their former happiness levels, some end up much happier and about an equal number end up significantly less happy than they were before they were married.
Although this data will dismay some passionate advocates of marriage, I think it is good news both for the married and for the single. The idea that that marriage should make you permanently happier places a large burden on the already burdened state of marriage and unrealistic expectations on partners. But the fact that it can and it does for some, by a large amount and for very long a time is a thrilling possibility.
The data suggests that the demographic trends we are seeing away from marriage do not portend an increasingly unhappy society. Along with other evidence, it suggests that what is important for happiness is the quality of a relationship and not its civil status.
Finally, forget optimism, I know this for sure: we will always form passionate bonds with others, and through them find joy, solace, comfort, love, amusement, sympathy, and moments of ecstasy, and we will know in them the awe and wonder of being alive.
Things will—er—get better
I'm hugely optimistic that things will be better in 2007 than they have been in 2006. What things, you might ask. Well, lots of things. Let's take a couple of things that are on the minds of many scientists—climate change and stem cells. In both cases, the imperative for action on the basis of scientific evidence is clear. But in both cases, other forces have intervened to frustrate progress.
For climate change, the obstacles are short-sighted commercial interests and short-term political interests—let's call them myopeconomics and myopolitics. Many businessmen still judge that their own fortunes and those of their shareholders are best served by ignoring the doom-mongers and pumping out the carbon dioxide to make money. A few politicians—one in particular—still think that their own political standing, and their place in history, are favoured by denying the growingly obvious. But the consequences of climate change are accruing non-linearly. A point must come at which the impact of change will fall within the near-point of those refractory industrialists and politicians. When that happens, the rules will suddenly reverse. Both business and politics will be better served by response than denial. I predict that the tipping point will come in 2007. Political skeptics will become passionate converts, eager to claim the historical credit for recognising the inevitable. The burners will become preservers.
I should make it clear that what I am optimistic about here is the likelihood of a change in attitude; not, alas, about the probability of rapid success in the monstrous task of reversing the effects of a century of profligacy. We are going to have to live with the consequences of our parents' actions, and our children with the consequences of ours. The issue is whether our children's children will inherit a world worth living in.
For stem cells—or, to be more specific, human embryonic stem cells—the barriers to progress are not economic but moral. On the one hand, biomedical science offers the hope of cellular immortality—the prospect of repairing a damaged brain, heart or pancreas, just as grazed skin or a bitten tongue already mends itself. On the other hand, a substantial cohort of politicians and religious leaders (more exactly Catholic and fundamental Protestant leaders), especially in the United States and some European countries, fiercely oppose the taking of life in the interests of other lives. Although the balance of arguments seems quite different from that for climate change, interestingly, the crux of the problem is again the power of intuition over the cold rationality of science. I have heard a ‘pro-life' lobbyist describe the collection of stem cells from 10-day-old embryos, surplus to the requirements of in-vitro fertilization, as "the evisceration of little babies". Life, it is argued, begins at the moment of conception.
Most scientists would surely argue that a pre-implantation embryo, smaller than the point of a needle, without a single nerve cell, let alone any viscera, cannot possibly be considered a person. Defining the starting point of life is not a matter of dogma but of social consensus. As my friend, Nobel Laureate, Eric Kandel put it: "Life begins when the kids are all through College and the dog dies"!
Then, given these absolutist arguments, why should I be optimistic about a change in attitude to stem cell research in 2007? Because morality is, for all but the most stubbornly impervious to practical evidence, a matter of utilitarian dialectic. Yesterday's moral outrage has a way of becoming today's necessary evil and tomorrow's common good. Just as with climate change, what will cause a swing of attitude is the turning point of a mathematical function; in this case the shifting ratio of perceived benefit to theoretical cost.
Just a few weeks ago, a team of scientists from the Institute of Ophthalmology, the Institute of Child Health and Moorfields Eye Hospital in London (supported, I'm delighted to say, by the Medical Research Council) reported that they had restored sight to considerably more than Three Blind Mice, by transplanting into their eyes immature photoreceptor cells (midway between stem cells and fully formed rods and cones). Rats that have suffered strokes have been vastly improved by the transplantation of nerve-making cells into their brains. The first attempts will soon begin at repairing severed human spinal cords with the help of transplanted stem cells. The evidence of likely benefit is growing fast. No miracles yet, but a trickle of hope, which is likely to become a steady stream in 2007. I predict that the immorality of not helping the undeniably-living sick will soon outweigh the good of protecting the never-to-be-born. Just as with climate change, the angels might switch in 2007.
There we are. That's what I'm optimistic about. The problem is that I'm by nature an optimist. I see the world through those legendary rose-tinted spectacles. My glass is forever half-full. Interesting, isn't it, how many clichés there are for being optimistic. Doesn't that suggest that optimism-pessimism is as much a fundamental dimension of human nature as extraversion-introversion, happiness-sadness, energy-slothfulness? Being optimistic about a particular eventuality is more a comment on the believer than the belief. So, what I'm really optimistic about is that that I won't be devastated even if my predictions are less than perfect.
The Optimism of Scientists
To ask "what am I optimistic about?" is rather like asking "what am I tall about? or "what am I English about?" For me, optimism is a personal characteristic rather than an attitude to be applied to some things and not others. Fortunately it is a characteristic that many scientists have and others acquire, and I am optimistic that this optimism will continue to be a unique human characteristic. Without optimism, why would anyone embark on the complex and interrelated series of steps that makes up any scientific experiment, let alone huge enterprises like the Manhattan or Apollo projects? And faced with disasters like Challenger and Columbia, and the results of inquiries into how they happen, how could anyone have the faith to continue unless they were extremely optimistic?
The Large Hadron Collider at CERN is perhaps the greatest testament to this optimism. Conceived decades ago, absorbing two and a half billion dollars, a collaboration between over 40 countries, designed to accelerate invisible particles to 99.999999 the speed of light and to create a theoretical entity, the Higgs Boson, for which no evidence exists — if this is not a triumph of optimism over realism, I don't know what is.
And I believe this optimism is more than just logical and reasoned inference from previous researches. Scientists are optimistic about science in general as a tool for discovery. They believe that the methods of science will produce valid results. They believe that whatever aspect of the universe they turn their attention towards, even if never previously explored, they can design experiments and carry out observations that will be valid and provide sustainable increments in our understanding. Is this optimism unique to science? I believe it is. No one has such strong faith in the future benefits of politics or economics or art or philosophy or technology. Some favour capitalism, others socialism; some favour nuclear power, others renewable energy; some believe in a wide-ranging humanistic education, others believe in vocational training; some believe in nationalism, others in internationalism. But scientists believe in science — that is an indication of their optimism.
Cities — Global Population Shrinkage And Economic Growth
Proviso: If climate change shifts from gradual to "abrupt" during the next 20 years, that bad news will obliterate the good news I otherwise expect in the realms of global population shrinkage and economic growth.
Cities have always been wealth creators. Cities have always been population sinks. This year, 2007, is the crossover point from a world predominantly rural to a world predominantly urban.
The rate of urbanization is currently about 1.3 million new city dwellers a week, 70 million a year, still apparently accelerating. The world was 3% urban in 1800, 14% urban in 1900, 50% urban this year, and probably headed in the next few decades to around 80% urban, which has been the stabilization point for developed countries since the mid-20th-century.
Almost all the rush to the cities is occurring in the developing world (though the countryside continues to empty out in developed nations). The developing world is where the greatest poverty is, and where the highest birthrates have driven world population past 6.5 billion.
Hence my optimism. Cities cure poverty. Cities also drive birthrates down almost the instant people move to town. Women liberated by the move to a city drop their birthrate right on through the replacement rate of 2.1 children/woman. No one expected this, but that's how it worked out. As a result, there will be another billion or two people in the world total by midcentury, but then the total will head down--- perhaps rapidly enough to be a problem, as it already is in Russia and Japan.
Poverty in the megacities (over 10 million) and hypercities (over 20 million) of the developing world will be highly visible as the disaster it is. (It was worse out in the bush, only not as visible there. That's why people leave.) But the poor who were trapped in rural poverty create their own opportunity once they're in town by creating their own cities--- the "squatter cities" where one billion people now live. They recapitulate the creation of cities past by generating a seething informal economy in which everyone works. The dense slums, if they don't get bulldozed, eventually become part of the city proper and part of the formal economy. It takes decades.
Globalization and urbanization accentuate each other. Medical care that couldn't reach the villages can reach slum dwellers. The newly liberated women in the slums create and lead CBOs (community based organizations, some linked with national and global NGOs) to handle everything from child care to micro-finance. If the city has some multinational corporations closely surveiled by do-gooders back home, their pay rates and work conditions will raise the standard throughout the city.
The sudden urbanization is a grassroots phenomenon, driven by the resourcefulness and ambition of billions of poor people busy getting out of poverty as fast as they can. Some nations help the process (China is exemplary), some hinder it (Zimbabwe is exemplary), none can stop it.
The Situational Focus
When trying to understand human behavior that violates our expectations about how people are supposed to act, there is a learned tendency to "rush to the dispositional." We seek to explain behavior in terms of personal qualities of the actor, or agent of the action in question. In individualistic cultures this means searching for genetic, personality, or pathological characteristics that can be reasonably linked as explanatory constructs. It also has come to mean ignoring or giving insufficient weight to aspects of the behavioral context—situational variables—that may in fact be significant contributors to that action. Dramatists, philosophers, and historians, as well as clergy and physicians, all tend toward the dispositional and away from the situational in their views of human nature.
Social psychologists have been struggling to modify this bias toward inner determinants of behavior by creating in a large body of research highlighting the importance of outer determinants of behavior. Roles, rules, responsibility, anonymity, role-playing, group dynamics, authority pressures, and more have been shown to have a dramatic impact on individual behavior across a variety of settings.
Milgram's classic demonstration of blind obedience to authority established that the majority of ordinary American citizens would follow the path laid down by an authority even if it led to severely harming an innocent person. My Stanford Prison Experiment extended this notion of situational power to reveal how institutional settings, like prisons or schools or businesses, could exert unimaginably strong influences over human behavior. Nevertheless, the general public and even intellectuals from many fields still buy the dispositional and sell short the situational as merely minimal mitigating circumstances.
I am optimistic that this mental bias will get a rebalancing in the coming year as new research findings will demonstrate how the situational focus is to an enhanced public health model as the dispositional is to the old medical model when trying to understand and change behavior of people in communities. The focus of public health on identifying vectors of disease can be extended to systemic vectors of health and success, in place of individual ambition and personal failure and success.
This analysis will be important in meeting the challenges posed by international terrorism through new efforts to build community resilience rather than focusing on individual coping. It will also change the blame game of those in charge of various institutions and systems from identifying the"few bad apples" to actively trying to understand how their barrel had soured and was corrupting even good apples. I have shown how this dispositional thinking operated in analyzing the causes of the abuse and torture at Abu Ghraib Prison by the military and civilian chains of command. It is no different than the search for evil by developing a Witch Identification and Destruction program during the Inquisition.
Although the foundations of dispositional thinking run deep and wide in most of us, I am optimistic that we will start to seep into that biased thinking to construct a more balanced perspective on how good people may turn evil, and how bad people can be guided to turn good.
Metcalfe's Law of Minds
Our species is unique in its ability to use communications to spread learning across populations, allowing us to get smarter and more capable far more quickly than evolution alone would allow. What makes me continually hopeful is that those tools of communications continue to get so much better, so much faster. Anyone who can explore Wikipedia and not be both humbled and filled with confidence in the collective potential in the people all around us is a cynic indeed. And we've only just scratched the surface of such networked intelligence.
Metcalfe's Law says that value of a networks grows with the square of the number of nodes. Today's Web, which is as much about contributing as it is consuming — two-way links, as opposed to the old one-way networks of broadcast and traditional media — allows the same to apply to people. Connecting minds allows our collective intelligence to grow with each person who joins the global conversation. This information propagation process, which was once found in just a few cultures of shared knowledge, such as academic science, is now seen online in everything from hobbies to history. The result, I think, will be the fastest increasing in human knowledge in history.
This morning I was explaining to a nine-year-old about Moore's Law and the magical power of the continuous learning curve. "Will it ever end?" he asked. "I don't see why it should," I answered. That's optimism for you.
We Are Asking And Answering
I am optimistic for the simple reason that given the incredible odds against the existence of brains that can ask such questions, of laptops on which to answer them, and so on — here we are, asking and answering!
And Now the Good News
Things change for the better either because something went wrong or because something went right. Recently we've seen an example of the former, and this failures fill me with optimism.
The acceptance of the reality of global warming has, in the words of Sir Nicholas Stern in his report on climate change to the British government, shown us 'the greatest and widest ranging market failure ever seen'.
The currency of conservatism for the last century has been that markets are smarter than governments: and this creed has reinforced the conservative resistance to anything resembling binding international agreements. The suggestion that global warming represents a failure of the market is therefore important. Technical solutions will hopefully be found, but the process will need to be primed and stoked and enforced by legislation that would be regarded as big government socialism in the present climate. The future may be a bit more like Sweden and a bit less like America.
If a single first instance of global governance proves successful, it will strengthen its appeal as a way of addressing other problems —such as weapons control, energy management, money-laundering, conflict resolution, people-trafficking, slavery, and poverty. It will become increasingly difficult for countries to stay outside of future treaties like Kyoto—partly because of international pressure but increasingly because of pressure from their own populations.
Which brings me to my main reason for optimism: the ever-accelerating empowerment of people. The world is on the move, communicating and connecting and coalescing into influential blocks which will move power away from national governments with their short time horizons and out into vaguer, more global consensual groups. Something like real democracy (and a fair amount of interim chaos) could be on the horizon.
The Internet is catalyzing knowledge, innovation and social change, and, in manifestations such as Wikipedia, proving that there are other models of social and cultural evolution: that you don't need centralised top-down control to produce intelligent results.
The bottom-up lesson of Darwinism, so difficult for previous generations, comes more naturally to the current generation. There is a real revolution in thinking going on at all cultural levels: people comfortably cooperate to play games for which the rules have not yet been written with people they've never met, listen to music and look at art which is emergent, not predetermined, and accept the wiki model of the open-source evolution of knowledge.
All these represent dramatic and promising changes in the way people are thinking about how things work, how things come into being and how they evolve.
The Best Is Yet To Come
If I had lived in the year 1007, and had been asked what I looked forward to for my descendants in the next millennium, I might have imagined many wonderful possibilities. But I would not — because I could not — have imagined the music of Mozart, the painting of Rothko, the sonnets of Shakespeare, the novels of Dostoyevsky. . . It means I would have failed to see one of the best reasons of all for being optimistic: which is, the power of human artistic genius to astonish us again and again. I will not make the same mistake twice. So let me say straight out, in 2007 I hope and expect that the best is yet to come: that greater works of art than any the world has ever seen will be created by human beings not far ahead of us — works of presently unimaginable aesthetic and moral force. And, mind you, it will not require genetic modification, computer hybridization, high-tech brain enhancement or whatever — it will simply require that we continue to be the kind of people that we are.
The Attention Of The World's Rich Will Turn To Solving The Problems Of The Poor
Many of the venture capitalists I know are turning to environmental and energy investments; the more adventurous ones are looking at health care (not just drugs), low-end PCs, products for the masses. They are funding training schools in India — for-profit — rather than just donating to legacy universities in the US. The watch-word is "sustainability:" In plain English, that means making a profit so that more profit-seeking investors will enter and enlarge the market.
They will have a variety of motivations, ranging from altruism and the desire to solve problems, to a need for recognition or sheer belief in the profitability of doing so, but the result will be cause for optimism all the same. Millions of investors and entrepreneurs will apply their resources and talents to improving products, distribution systems, training and education and health-care facilities targeted at the billions of people at the bottom of the pyramid. In our fluid world of competition and fast-spreading information, some people will still get rich by being first and smartest, but most will get rich by implementing well and serving broader markets. For the first time in history, power is really moving to the masses, not as a power block, but as a market.
Of course, all those billions of people will also be producers...and a broader spread of education and productivity tools — ranging from water pumps to cell phones and PCs — will enable them to join the world economy as productive people.
Yes, this is an optimistic view and it won't all be simple, but the forces — from human dignity to human greed — are aligned. You asked for the optimistic view....and optimism will help make it happen!
Going Beyond Our Darwinian Roots
I am optimistic about the adaptability of the human brain to answer questions that evolution could not have designed it for. A brain that can rewire itself to visualize 4 dimensions, or the Heisenberg uncertainty principle, is clearly going way beyond the things that natural selection could have wired it for. It makes me optimistic that we may be able to go beyond our Darwinian roots in other ways.
That the Debate or, Should I Say, War, Between Science and Religion Will See New Light
I'm optimistic that the debate or, should I say, war, between science and religion will see new light. Right now, the fracturing seems to be worsening, as further entrenchment occurs on both sides. Books from Edge colleagues trashing religion as collective hallucination or delusion, or, better still, as idiotic superstition, carry a simple message to people outside the sciences: we are as radical as the religious extremists, as inflexible and intolerant as the movements we seek to exterminate by our oh-so-crystal-clear-and-irresistibly-compelling rationalizations.
Although I'm also an atheist, I do not forget what is behind the power of religious thought. Quite simply: hope. Life is though, people suffer, and, rightly or wrongly, religion offers something for people to hold on to. Yes, it's wild to believe in supernatural influences in the world, yes it's crazy to devote your life to a God that seems to have vanished from the world for, under conservative estimates, "at least" 2000 years. But scientists cannot forget that most people need some sort of spiritual guidance, a kind of guidance science, at least as is taught today, cannot offer. Science has shown, and keeps showing, that we live in a cold, hard universe, completely indifferent to us and to life. And yet, people love, die, connect, fight, and must come to some sort of inner peace, of acceptance. What can science offer these people?
It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the real need people have for spirituality.
My hope is that people will begin to see science as a vehicle for mutual understanding and for respecting life. The more we study life and its mechanisms, the more we realize how rare it is, how precious it is. Sure, there may be life elsewhere, and it may even be intelligent. However, even if this is the case, odds are we are still going to be stuck with ourselves, in this planet or our solar neighborhood, for quite some time. Either we learn that science teaches us humility and respect for life and the environment, or we exterminate this most precious cosmic jewel. I am optimistic that scientists will teach people these lessons, instead of simply try to rob them of their faith and offering nothing in return.
The Final Scientific Enlightenment
I am optimistic that the physicists of our species will complete Einstein's dream and discover the final theory of everything before superior creatures, evolved on another world, make contact and tell us the answer. I am optimistic that, although the theory of everything will bring fundamental physics to a convincing closure, the enterprise of physics itself will continue to flourish, just as biology went on growing after Darwin solved its deep problem. I am optimistic that the two theories together will furnish a totally satisfying naturalistic explanation for the existence of the universe and everything that's in it including ourselves. And I am optimistic that this final scientific enlightenment will deal an overdue deathblow to religion and other juvenile superstitions.
The Human Response To Vast Change Will Involve Strange Bounces
I am an optimist because I have a hunch Mark Twain was right when he portrayed Huckleberry Finn as an archetype of human nature.
In the pivotal moment of "his" novel, Huckleberry Finn considers struggling no longer against the great challenges arrayed against him. He thinks about how society would shame him if it "would get all around that Huck Finn helped a nigger to get his freedom":
"That's just the way: a person does a low-down thing, and then he don't want to take no consequences of it. Thinks as long as he can hide, it ain't no disgrace. That was my fix exactly."
Huck decides right then and there to abandon a life of sin, avoid eternal damnation and for once do the right thing by society's lights. He decides to squeal, to write a letter to Jim's owner telling her how to recapture her slave.
Then he gets to thinking about human nature:
"I felt good and all washed clean of sin for the first time I had ever felt so in my life, and I knowed I could pray now. But I didn't do it straight off, but laid the paper down and set there thinking – thinking how good it was all this happened so, and how near I come to being lost and going to hell. And went on thinking. And got to thinking over our trip down the river; and I see Jim before me, all the time: in the day, and in the night-time, sometimes moonlight, sometimes storms, and we a-floating along, talking, and singing, and laughing. But somehow I couldn't seem to strike no places to harden me against him, but only the other kind. I'd see him standing my watch on top of his'n, 'stead of calling me, so I could go on sleeping; and see him how glad he was when I come back out of the fog; and when I come to him again in the swamp, up there where the feud was; and such-like times; and would always call me honey, and pet me, and do everything he could think of for me, and how good he always was; and at last I struck the time I saved him by telling the men we had small-pox aboard, and he was so grateful, and said I was the best friend old Jim ever had in the world, and the only one he's got now; and then I happened to look around, and see that paper.
"It was a close place. I took it up, and held it in my hand. I was a-trembling, because I'd got to decide, forever, betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself:
" 'All right, then, I'll go to hell' — and tore it up.
"It was awful thoughts, and awful words, but they was said. And I let them stay said; and never thought no more about reforming. I shoved the whole thing out of my head; and said I would take up wickedness again, which was in my line, being brung up to it, and the other warn't. And for a starter, I would go to work and steal Jim out of slavery again; and if I could think up anything worse, I would do that, too; because as long as I was in, and in for good, I might as well go the whole hog."
This line of rampant and pugnacious human perversity surfaces in our best stories again and again.
In "Casablanca," Rick is ensconced in a cozy world of thieves, swindlers, gamblers, drunks, parasites, refugees, soldiers of fortune, genially corrupt French police and terrifying Nazis. Rick's cynicism is his pride; he sticks his neck out for nobody. His only interest is in seeing his Café Américain flourish. And then, of course, of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, Ilsa walks into his. The rest of the film concerns him betraying his own cauterized heart in service of a higher purpose. As Rick says, "It's still a story without an ending."
The most phenomenally successful film series of the recent era – the "Star Wars," "Harry Potter," "Matrix" and "Lord of the Rings" movies – are all driven by a faith in human cussedness, from Han Solo's grudging heroism to little people with furry feet vanquishing the combined forces of Darkness.
If the ageless way humans process information is by telling stories, what does our belief in this recurring story say?
It is an instinct that the human response to vast change will involve strange bounces.
This assessment of our species displays a faith that even in the face of unprecedented threats, the ragged human convoy of divergent perceptions, piqued honor, posturing, insecurity and humor will wend its way to glory.
The Human Nervous System Has Come Alive
Ten years ago, half of humanity had never made a phone call and only 20% of humanity had regular access to communications. Today 70% of humanity can place a telephone call or, more likely, send an SMS message… to the Secretary General of the United Nations, or to most anyone else. For the first time the majority of humanity is connected and has a voice.
Adults in Western culture fail to appreciate the momentous nature of this change because our mindsets are tied to lumbering legacy technologies like PCs and laptops. But in most countries, and for virtually all youth, the way to maintain your social network and run your business is by cell phone.
Digital connections allow public services to be transformed. In much of Africa, health workers survey the spread of disease, advise expectant mothers, and coordinate health services by digital messaging over cell phones. In tests, the digital system is both ten times faster than the old paper system—allowing health workers to nip epidemics in the bud—and ten times cheaper, despite the fact that phones cost more than paper.
Governance is also being transformed. Not only have the heads of governments been brought down by SMS-organized protests, but multilateral organizations such as the WTO have been brought to account as well. More subtle, but perhaps even more important, the traceable nature of digital transactions means that banking and government services offered by cell phone are more transparent and accountable than the older systems. An example of this capability in action is that governments such as India claim that the vast majority of captured terrorists have been identified through cell phone transactions.
Perhaps most importantly connection means improved efficiency and greater wealth. In some parts of Africa and south Asia, banking is done by moving around the money in cell phone accounts and people pay for vegetables and taxi rides by SMS. Because remanufactured cell phones cost $10 in the developing world and incoming messages are free, every stratum of society is connected. Day laborers, for instance, no longer hang around a street corner waiting to be picked for work. Instead, job offers arrive by SMS from a computerized clearing house. The International Telecommunications Union estimates that in the poorest countries each additional cell phone installed adds $3000 to the GDP, primarily due to the increased efficiency of business processes.
My conclusion is that is that the human race finally has a working nervous system, and that the poor and disenfranchised are for the first time beginning to make themselves heard and felt. To accelerate this process, we have established the Program for Developmental Entrepreneurship at MIT (web.mit.edu/de), which helps form, fund, and scale in-country efforts that leverage these new capabilities. The possibilities opened up by humanity's new nervous system are unprecedented, and reason for great optimism.
Interpersonal Communication Will Become More Profound; Rationality Will Become Ever More Romantic
An extravagant optimism ought to suggest new precipices of fulfillment that surpass mere responses to the many problems we already know about.
One extravagant idea is that the nature of communication itself might transform in the future as much as it did when language appeared. This is not easy to imagine, but here's one approach to thinking about it: I've been fascinated by the potential for "Post-symbolic Communication" for many years. This new style of interpersonal connection could become possible once large numbers of people become virtuosos at improvising what goes on in Virtual Reality.
We are virtuosos at spoken language. Adults speak with what seems like no effort at all, even though everyday chats might be the most complicated phenomena ever observed. I see no reason why new virtuosities in communication could not appear in the future, though it's hard to specify a timeframe.
Suppose you're enjoying an advanced future implementation of Virtual Reality and you can cause spontaneously designed things to appear and act and interact with the ease of sentences pouring forth during an ordinary conversation today.
Whether this is accomplished by measuring what your body does from the outside or by interacting via interior states of your brain is nothing more than an instrumentation question. Either way, we already have some clues about how the human organism might be able to improvise the content of a Virtual World.
Some of the most interesting data from VR research thus far involve Homuncular Flexibility. It turns out that the human brain can learn to control radically different bodies with remarkable ease. That means that people might eventually learn to spontaneously change what's going on in a virtual world by becoming parts of it.
That aspect of the brain which is optimized to control the many degrees of freedom of body motion is also well suited to controlling the many degrees of freedom of a superlative programming and design environment of the future. It is likely, by the way, that the tongue would turn out to be just as important in this type of communication as it is in language, for it is the richest output device of the human body. (I have already done some work on through-the-cheek tongue measurement to test this idea.)
Why bother? It's a reasonable hunch. Words have done so much for people- so alternatives to them with overlapping but distinct functions ought to lead to new ways of thinking and connecting.
An alternative to abstraction might arise — the possibility of expression through a fluid and capable concreteness. Instead of the word "house" you could conjure up a particular house. How do you even know it's a house without using the word? Instead of falling back on whatever the word "house" means, you might toss around a virtual bucket that turns out to be very large on the inside- and contains a multitude of house prototypes. In one sense this "fuzzy" collection is more precise than the word, in another, less so. It is different.
If all this sounds a little too fantastic or obscure, here's another approach to the same idea using more familiar reference points. Imagine a means of expression that is a cross between the three great new art forms of the 20th century: jazz improvisation, computer programming, and cinema. Suppose you could improvise anything that could be seen in a movie with the speed and facility of a jazz improviser. What would that mean for the sense of connection between you and someone you love?
There's a little book by James P. Carse with a wonderful title, Finite and Infinite Games. Some of the passages are bit too New Agey for me, but the core idea, expressed in the title, is clear and useful. A finite game is like a single game of baseball, with an end. An infinite game is like the overall phenomenon of baseball, which has no end. It is always a frontier.
So many utopian ideas are about Finite Games: End disease, solve global warming, get people to be more rational, reduce violence, and so on. As wonderful as all those achievements would (will!) be, there is something missing from them. Finite Game optimism suggests a circumscribed utopia, without frontier or mystery. The result isn't sufficiently inspiring for me- and apparently it doesn't quite grab the imaginations of a lot of other people who are endlessly fascinated by dubious religious and political utopias. The problem is heightened at the moment because there's a trope floating around in the sciences, probably unfounded, that we have already seen the outline of all the science we'll ever know, and we're just in the process of filling in the details.
The most valuable optimisms are Infinite Games, and imagining that new innovations as profound as language will come about in the future of human interaction is an example of one.
If I were an average white woman living in the United States in 1850, I would already have been dead for 10 years. Not an ideal position from which to contemplate optimism about the future, you say. But consider this: In the snap of 150 years, the life expectancy of this very group catapulted from a dismal 40 to a respectable 80 years. Given my own privileges, this means that I will write 30 more responses to the yearly Edge question. Yippee.
How can life expectancy, seemingly so determined by biology and the conditions of life, double so fast? Advances in science and technology are no doubt the drivers of the rapid changes in nutrition, medical care, and standards of living that account for this doubling. But such advances were themselves possible, even imagined, because of something else: changes in mental states we call beliefs—beliefs about the worth of a life, beliefs about what it means to be happy, beliefs about health and prosperity including about who deserves it and who does not.
Many others in this volume will speak about specific human accomplishments that are legitimate grounds for optimism. I am inclined to focus on an aspect of the mind because it, I believe, is the font of the many possibilities that give us optimism.
I am bullish about the mind's ability to unravel the beliefs contained within it—including beliefs about its own nature (and I am bullish on this in a year when the CEO of Goldman Sachs took home 53.4 million as a bonus).
What gives me particular optimism about the future is the ability of humans everywhere to go against the grain of their own beliefs that are familiar, that feel natural and right, and that appear to be fundamentally true. What makes me optimistic is the possibility that we can (and do) unravel the contents of traditional beliefs and even the process by which they were constructed.
We've done this sort of unraveling many times before, whether it is about the relationship of the sun to the earth, or the relationship of other species to us. We've put aside what seemed natural, what felt right, and what came easily in favor of the opposite. I am optimistic that we are now ready to do the same with questions about the nature of our own minds. From the work of pioneers such as Herb Simon, Amos Tversky, and Danny Kahneman we know that the beliefs about our own minds that come naturally, feel right, and are easy to accept aren't necessarily true. That the bounds on rationality keep us from making decisions that are in our own interest, in the interest of those we love, in the long-term interest of our societies, even the planet, even perhaps the universe, with which we will surely have greater opportunity to interact in this century.
Here are some examples of what seems natural, feels right, and is easy to believe in—even though it isn't rational or true.
We irrationally anchor: ask people to generate their social security number and then the number of doctors in their city and the correlation between the two numbers will be significantly positive, when in fact it ought to be zero—there's no relation between the two variables. That's because we can't put the first one aside as we generate the second.
We irrationally endow: give somebody a cheap mug, and once it's "my mug" through ownership (and nothing else) it becomes, in our minds, a somewhat less cheap mug. Endowed with higher value, we are likely to demand a higher price for it than it is worth or is in our interest to demand.
We irrationally see patterns where non exist: Try to persuade a basketball player, fan, or statistician that there isn't anything to the idea of streak shooting; that chance is lumpy and that that's all there is to Michael Jordan's "hot hand".
As natural as it is to anchor, endow, and imagine patterns, it isn't accurate, it isn't in our interest, and it may not even be fair. Likewise, research on the implicit beliefs and preferences we hold has shown that such "mind bugs" extend to the beliefs and preferences we have about ourselves, members of our own social groups, and those who sit farther away on a scale of social distance.
We don't intend to discriminate or treat unfairly, but we do. Such unintended consequences come from aspects of our mind that seem natural (helping somebody close to us like a neighbor or a nephew rather than somebody more distant) and feels right (fearing somebody who looks physically different from us strange). Such responses are natural and feel right because they evolved in a world where such responses may have been useful. And yet, they continue to operate even through the best person for the job isn't one's family member or friend, where in the strangeness of other cultures lie the most lucrative business opportunities.
Becoming aware of the buggy aspects of our minds is the first step toward unraveling them. How we discover what needs unraveling, how we do it, and how successful we are at it are complex issues. But the fact that we do it is impressive. One of the stories to come out of the 2006 election is that representatives who were successful at bringing home earmarks to their states didn't necessarily win because the electorate cared about something larger than their own backyard. The ability to think about one's own long range interest, to self-regulate and delay gratification, to consider the well-being of the collective, especially to view the collective as unbounded by religion, language, or nationality requires a mental leap that isn't natural or easy. And yet each new generation seems to be able to do it more successfully than the previous one. The standards for how we treat ourselves and others get higher, we examine our beliefs with more and more powerful lenses, and we turn our minds inside out and shake out the rot.
Why do we do this? I'll argue that we do this for at least three reasons. First of all, because newer laws demand it (we work next to gay co-workers because it is the law and soon minds are changed). Second, old beliefs come unraveled because such unraveling is in our self-interest (India is cool because India generates revenue and soon even Bollywood is spoken about positively).
Most importantly though, we unravel existing beliefs and preferences because we wish them to be in line with our intentions and aspirations and recognize that they are not. I see evidence of this everywhere—small acts to be the person one wishes to be rather than the person one is—and it is the constant attempt at this alignment that gives me optimism.
A Core Decency in People that Even the Worst Machinations of Governments Can't Entirely Hold Down
I'm optimistic because there's a core decency in people that even the worst machinations of governments can't entirely hold down. The Evelina hospital is the first new children's hospital that's been built in London in a century. There's a giant atrium in the middle, and the contract with the company doing the cleaning says that the window cleaners need to dress up as superheroes. The children in bed—many with grave illnesses—delight in seeing Superman and Spiderman dangling just inches away from them, on the outside of the glass; apparently for the cleaners it's one of the best part of their week.
The government has wasted a fortune on consultants, bureaucracy and reorganizations of the NHS. It's always defended in cold management-speak. This simple arrangement with the window cleaners cuts through all that. Everyone I've mentioned it to recognizes that—and in that recognition, lies our hope.
I am optimistic about skeuomorphism. Odd, perhaps, but true.
In a small wire tidy on my desk I have several corks. But they are not cork. The word cork comes from the Latin for oak, quercus, a sub-species of which has the spongy bark that is so useful for sealing wine in bottles. In the 1980s, demand for high quality cork began to outstrip supply. As low grade cork often taints (or 'corks') wine, substitutes were sought. My corks are synthetic. One is cork-coloured and slightly variegated to make it appear traditional; like real corks in the German Riesling tradition, it is stamped in black with a vine tendril motif. Another is less convincingly mottled, and is mid-yellow in colour with the name of the vintner, Gianni Vescovo, printed in bold black. Both these corks are skeuomorphs—objects that preserve formal vestiges of the constraints of an original no longer strictly necessary in the new material. First generation skeuomorphs are close mimics, even fakes.
Second generation skeuomorphs, like the Vescovo cork, abandon any serious attempt at deception. Its mottling, and the fact that it is still a functional cork, rather than a metal screw-top closure (equally efficient for the modest young wine it briefly protected) is a comforting nod to the history of wine. At the same time it signals a new, more consistent, freedom from contamination. As synthetic corks became more familiar, new and more baroque forms arose. These third generation skeuomorphs are fun: a bright purple cork that stoppered an Australian red suggests a grape colour, while a black cork has a hi-tech look that draws symbolic attention to the new techniques of low-temperature fermentation in stainless steel. This black cork is still mottled, but in an exaggerated and unconvincing manner—a self-conscious and playful back-reference both to real corks and to earlier skeuomorphic examples. One could not conceive of the black cork without a process of skeuomorphic familiarization, through first and second generation examples. Put the black cork next in sequence with a real cork, and the dissonance would be too great.
I see much of the history of technology as an unplanned trajectory in which emergent skeuomorphic qualities often turn out to have been critical. Corks are a relatively trivial example in an extraordinary history of skeuomorphism, impossible to review here, but which encompasses critical turns in material development from prehistoric flint, via the discovery of metals and alloys, to complex compound objects, of which computers are a modern manifestation.
My optimism about skeuomorphs arises, as optimism often does, from former pessimism. I grew up with Alan Turing's unsettling vision of a future machine indistinguishable from a human in its reactions. Ray Kurzweil's provocative prediction of the impending 'singularity'—the point when computer intelligence would start to leave humans gasping in its intellectual wake—added to my fears. I actually began to worry that efforts to enculture my children with Shakespeare and Darwin, and even with spiritual and moral values, might be rendered peremptorily redundant by cold robotic Übermenschen.
I have recently become quite relaxed about all this, but not because I doubt for a moment that computers are rapidly becoming very smart indeed, and will become smarter, in some directions, than we can easily imagine. Computers explicitly reproduce aspects of the human brain. Yet their eventual power will probably not be in simulation or deception. There will never be a perfect Turing machine, except under conditions so artificial and in contexts so circumscribed as to be rather ridiculous. Instead, by surpassing us in some areas, computers will relieve our brains and bodies of repetitive effort. But it will not be mimicry of our brain function that will be important. If they behave as other skeuomorphs before them, it will be computers' currently unimagined emergent qualities that we will come to value most, enhancing and complementing our humanity rather than competing with and superseding it.
In like fashion, the synthetic corks have taken the pressure off the oak groves, securing their future and with it those genuine champagne moments. Happy New Year!
Eudaemonia: The Third form Of Happiness
Capitalism has become more aligned with the forces of good ( i.e. philanthropy) than greed. As the polarization of wealth peaked over the past decade the press and public became obsessed with "greed is good" meme in the 80s, and the "rules don't apply to the rich" 90s (think Enron, Worldcom, dotcom). However, the real story was brewing and we read it first on Edge and witnessed it in Ted Turner's gift to the UN.
The most successful businesspeople in the world have decided to put their brains and bank accounts toward fixing the world, leaving politics and politicians on the sidelines. Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, Richard Branson, John Doerr, and Pierre Omidyar — among many others — are demonstrating that the true goal of winning is giving. The brass ring has moved from private aviation and mega-yachts, to making a mega-pledge at Bill Clinton's annual summit.
Edge's ongoing discussions on happiness are clearly documenting (contributing to?) the trend. As psychologist Martin E.P. Seligman noted in his 2004 Edge feature, "Eudaemonia, The Good Life": "The third form of happiness, which is meaning, is again knowing what your highest strengths are and deploying those in the service of something you believe is larger than you are. There's no shortcut to that. That's what life is about."
Geomorphic Evidence for Life on Mars
There are three geomorphic forms on Mars I have identified: the filling of old, deeply eroded craters with uneroded domes, some only partly burying eroded original true resurgent domes; channels hundreds of km long filled with similar dome-like material that are arched in crossection, the arches rising two and more km above their margins; and vast areas of Mars between latitudes 25 to 60 degrees covered with mat-like material approximately one km thick in many places which buries completely Noachian age impact craters 5 km in diameter and smaller.
The organic material composing these geomorphic forms is almost certainly cyanobacteria combined with calcium carbonate. Stromatolites on Earth, growing today and going back 3.4 Gyr but on a comparatively miniscule scale, are my model.
I believe that the growth of these gigantic stromatolitic forms gradually decreased the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of Mars leading to progressive cooling and finally freezing conditions that ended the growth of the three geomorphic forms and the mostly warm, wet Noachian era. The following cold, dry Hesperian and Amazonian eras for the next 3 plus Gyr to the present time have none of these geomorphic forms, proving they needed water for their formation, but water with some other essential materials to cause their growth.
As several types of meteorites from Mars have been identified here on Earth, it is likely that Mars has received meteorites from the bombardment of Earth as well. The question is, which one seeded the other? We probably are not going to find the prokaryotic progenitors of the eukaryotic cyanobacteria here on Earth, but we have a good chance of finding the progenitors on Mars if they ever existed there, thus telling us which planet seeded the other.
Copying Is What Bits Are For
I'm optimistic that the risks of anti-copying technology and the copyright wars are starting to move to the mainstream. Daily newspapers are reporting on the risks from Zune's DRM; governments and librarians are starting to question the fairy tales from the entertainment industry. The British government is poised to be the first government in history to reject a proposal to extend copyright. A Canadian MP lost her seat last year because she'd sold out the country to a bunch of entertainment dinosaurs. Four European nations opened inquiries into the competition and consumer protection issues raised by iTunes DRM. The latest WIPO treaty looks like it has died, killed by activist involvement.
Sure, the US-Russia Free Trade Agreement restores the totalitarian practice of licensing presses (Uncle Sam, bringer of liberty!) and plunges Russia back into the pre-Samizdat era. Sure, the RIAA is continuing to terrorize American families by reducing 700 of them to poverty every month. But most people, confronted with the choice between HD-DVD DRM and Blu-Ray DRM are choosing none of the above.
There is no such thing as a copy-proof bit. There aren't even copy-resistant bits. Copying is what bits are for. They will never, ever get any harder to copy.
The copyright wars are a form of contemporary Lysenkoism, a farce wherein we all pretend that copy-proof bits are a reasonable thing to expect from technology. Stalin's Lysenkoism starved millions when the ideologically correct wheat failed to grow and anyone who pointed this out was sent to dissident prison. Entertainment industry Lysenkoism is ruining lives, undermining free speech and privacy and due process, destroying foreign democracies and keeping poor countries poor.
It's about time we wised up to it—and we are.
That makes me optimistic.
The Ozone Hole
As a climate scientist, seeking optimism is like a scavenger hunt — have to look in some strange places.
As an example, take the ozone hole that opened up 20 years ago and nearly instantly (in a few years, which is really fast in international treaty terms) created positive action: the Montreal Protocol to ban ozone depleting substances. So that is a good example of optimism, my students often suggest—right? Well, maybe, because we knew about the likelihood of ozone depletion for 15 years before the ozone hole was proved to be caused largely by human emissions.
So what happened since the early 1970s?: the chemical industries denied it, took out character assassination adds in major media to cast doubt on the scientists doing the work, and hired attack dog lobbyists to block action in Washington.
Where is the optimism in this little piece of scientific history? There was some: unbeknownst to most of us, the chemical industry actually believed the science was about right, preliminary as it was, and despite political posturing to the contrary had been working on substitutes for ozone-depleting CFCs, so that one day, when the scientific evidence and politics aligned for ozone action, they were ready to put on a green cloak — and by the way, take over market share by selling the world their newly designed greener "ozone friendly" chemicals. So was the ozone glass half empty or half full — one could legitimately see it either way: (optimists) we acted when we had to; versus (pessimists) why did it take a catastrophe in the making to get action we should have taken a decade before on likely science.
Any lessons from the ozone affair for climate change policy?
First, what would constitute a "climate hole"? Perhaps, the 2003 Euro heat waves that killed some 35,000 well-heeled Europeans? Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans — connected to recent evidence that global warming should statistically increase top intensity tropical cyclones? Amazingly enough, despite all the pessimistic talk from environmental types about bio-geophysical "tipping points" in the climate system (e.g., shut down to the Gulf Stream, collapse of Greenland Ice sheet etc,), my optimistic half brain thinks the only clearly demonstrable "tipping phenomena" are psychological-political: the symbolic events of climate impacts just mentioned and the advent of a popular movie combined with a big change in attitudes about inventing our way out of global warming by some large corporations no longer lobbying to prevent policy — these include GE, BP, PG&E, Duke Energy, Wal-Mart and many others.
These events actually are cause for optimism. But, lest the O overtake the P a bit too fast, what has been proposed as climate policy so far is only a palliative that will stop less than half the projected warming — the really dangerous events occur after a few degrees of warming and we are still squarely on that pathway, even if making some optimistic sounds and a few small moves to change direction.
So in the optimism-pessimism derby, optimism has staged a comeback in the back stretch and is gaining on the more apocalyptic favorite. That is the good news. But without widespread acceptance of the need to reconfigure our energy systems — and put our overweight cars on a diet — the troubling favorite is still a few lengths ahead as we enter the home stretch. But optimism is quite legitimate still: attitudes are changing fast. Scientists still need to keep explaining credibly the consequences of all actions — and inactions — so we have a good chance to avert the highest climate change risks that business as usual is steaming us toward. It is still doable to steer the big ship toward safer waters, but the window of opportunity — and optimism — diminishes the longer we delay implementing sea changing actions.
Perhaps the most optimistic aspect for me is that the young scientists I work with understand the dilemmas and are dedicated to credibly explain the situation to all who will engage.
The Strong Possibility That We've Got Everything Horribly Wrong
The thing I'm most optimistic about is the strong possibility that we've got everything horribly wrong. All of it. Badly.
Once, when I was a young child, I accompanied my father on a car journey around some twisty back lanes in England. Dad wasn't familiar with the area, so I helpfully took the map from him and navigated. Things seemed to be going pretty well for the first half hour, until we found ourselves staring helplessly at a field gate that should have been a major road junction. It turned out that I'd been navigating from entirely the wrong page of the map, and it was sheer coincidence that enough landmarks had matched my expectations for me to believe we were on track.
I learned a lesson from this. Science sometimes learns these lessons too. Thomas Kuhn put it much better than me when he introduced the concept of a paradigm shift. Sometimes we manage to convince ourselves that we have a handle on what is going on, when in fact we're just turning a blind eye to a mass of contradictory information. We discard it or ignore it (or can't get funded to look at it) because we don't understand it. It seems to make no sense, and it can take us a while before we realize that the problem doesn't lie with the facts but with our assumptions.
Paradigm shifts are wonderful things. Suddenly the mists clear, the sun comes out and we exclaim a collective "aha!" as everything begins to make sense. What makes me so optimistic about science right now is that there are plenty of these "aha" moments waiting in the wings, ready to burst energetically onto the stage. We've got so much completely wrong, but we're starting to look at the world in radically new ways – dynamical, nonlinear, self-organizing ways – and I think a lot of our standing ideas and assumptions about the world are about to turn inside-out, just as our much older, religious ideas did during the Enlightenment.
My guesses for prime candidates would include quantum theory and our understanding of matter, but those aren't my field and it's not my place to judge them. My field is artificial intelligence, but I'm sad to say that this subject started on the wrong page of the map many years ago and most of us haven't woken up to it yet. We keep our eyes firmly on the route and try not to look to left or right for fear of what we might see. In a way, Alan Turing was responsible for the error, since his first big idea in AI (that something vaguely reminiscent of human thought could be automated) turned out to be such a stonkingly good one, for other reasons entirely, that it eclipsed his later, more promising ideas about connectionist systems and self-organization. Since then, the digital computer has dominated the AI paradigm, through failure after dismal failure.
My great white hope for AI lies in neuroscience. The only working intelligent machine we know of is the brain, and it seems to me that almost everything we think we understand about the brain is wrong. We know an enormous amount about it now and just about none of it makes the slightest bit of sense. That's a good sign, I think. It shows us we've been looking at the wrong page of the map.
Let me try to illustrate this with a thought experiment: Suppose I give you a very complex system to study – not a brain but something equally perplexing. You discover quite quickly that one part of the system is composed of an array of elements, of three types. These elements emit signals that vary rapidly in intensity, so you name these the alpha, beta and gamma elements, and set out eagerly to study them. Placing a sensor onto examples of each type you find that their actual signal patterns are distressingly random and unpredictable, but with effort you discover that there are statistical regularities in their behaviour: beta and gamma elements are slightly more active than alpha elements; when betas are active, gammas in the same region tend to be suppressed; if one element changes in activity, its neighbours tend to change soon after; gammas at the top of the array are more active than those at the bottom, and so on. Eventually you amass an awful lot of information about these elements, but still none of it makes sense. You're baffled.
So allow me to reveal that the system you've been studying is a television set, and the alpha, beta and gamma elements are the red, green and blue phosphor dots on the screen. Does the evidence start to fit together now? Skies are blue and tend to be at the top, while fields are green and tend to be at the bottom; objects tend to move coherently across the picture. If you know what the entire TV image represents at any one moment, you'll be able to make valid predictions about which elements are likely to light up next. By looking at the entire array of dots at once, in the context of a good system-level theory of what's actually happening, all those seemingly random signals suddenly make sense. "Aha!"
The single-electrode recordings of the equivalent elements in the brain have largely been replaced by system-wide recordings made by fMRI now, but at the moment we still don't know what any of it means because we have the wrong model in our heads. We need an "aha" moment akin to learning that the phosphor dots above belong to a TV set, upon which images of natural scenes are being projected. Once we know what the fundamental operating principles are, everything will start to make sense very quickly. Painstaking deduction won't reveal this to us; I think it will be the result of a lucky hunch. But the circumstances are in place for that inductive leap to happen soon, and I find that tremendously exciting.
Isaac Newton once claimed that he'd done no more than stand on the shoulders of giants. He was being far too modest. It might be more accurate to say that he stayed down at child height, running between the giants' legs and exploring things in his own sweet way. That's what we Third Culturists are all about, and it's such a combination of artful playfulness and pan-disciplinary sources of analogy and inspiration that will turn our understanding of the world inside-out. I'm very optimistic about that.
The Long View of Demographics
I am optimistic about humankind's ability to reach a sustainable balance with other life on earth, in part because the number of humans on earth will soon start to decrease. This doesn't mean that I think we should ignore our environmental problem—just the opposite: I think we should fight hard now with the confidence that we can win a complete and lasting victory.
We are so accustomed to watching the explosion of human growth and development that it is easy to imagine that this is normal. It is not. We are the first generation in history that has watched the human population double in our own lifetime, and no future generation is likely to see it again. All of those blights of growth that we have come to accept—crowded cites, jammed roads, expanding suburbs, fish-depleted oceans, and tree-stripped forests—are all symptoms of a one-of-a-kind surge in human expansion. Soon they will be just memories.
There are currently over six billion people in the world. There will probably never be more than ten. Population forecasts vary, but they all agree that human population growth is slowing. As people become more prosperous, they have smaller families. In every country where women are allowed free access to education and health care, rates of population growth are going down. Sometimes the trends are hidden by the delays of demographics, but the real population growth rates are already negative in Europe, China, and, if we subtract immigration, in the United States. The total human population is still growing, but not as fast as it once was. Assuming that these trends continue, the total population of the world will be shrinking well before end of this century.
This long view of demographics allows me to be optimistic even though almost every other measure of environmental health is deteriorating. We are suffering from our binge of growth, and the parts of our world that are the last to binge are suffering the most. The binge is not just in size of population, but also in the level of consumption. Yet, here too there is reason for optimism. We are so wasteful in our use of resources that there are huge opportunities for improvement. With more efficient technologies, our fundamental requirements for food, materials, and energy should be well within the carrying capacity of our planet. We should be able to support the peak of human population at a higher standard of living than the richest nations have today.
There is no doubt that the environmental challenges of the next decades are daunting, and they will require all the power of human striving and creativity to overcome them. Yet, I have no doubt that we will succeed. Innovation, good will, and determined effort will be enough to handle the next few billion people. Then as populations shrink, demands on resources will be reduced. Nature will begin to repair itself, reclaiming what we have so hastily taken. I hope we manage to keep the gorillas, elephants and rhinoceroses alive. By the end of the century, they will have room to roam.
Physics Will Not Achieve a Theory of Everything
I'm optimistic that physics will not achieve a Theory of Everything.
That might seem an odd thing to be optimistic about. Many of my colleagues in physics are inspired by the prospect of achieving a Theory of Everything. Some even claim that they've already got it. (Acknowledging, to be sure, that perhaps a few i's remain to be dotted or a few t's to be crossed.) My advice, dear colleagues: Be careful what you wish for. If you reflect for a moment on what the words actually mean, a Theory of Everything may not appear so attractive. It would imply that the world could no longer surprise us, and had no more to teach us.
I don't buy it. I'm optimistic that the world will continue to surprise us in fascinating and fundamental ways.
Simply writing down the laws or equations is a long way from being able to anticipate their consequences. Few physicists—and no sober ones—seriously expect future work in fundamental physics to exhaust, for example, neuroscience.
A less literal reading of "Theory of Everything" is closer to what physicists who use it mean by it. It's supposed to be a theory, not really of everything, but of "everything fundamental". And here "fundamental" is also being used in an unusual, technical sense. A more precise word here might be "basic" or "irreducible". That is, the physicists' Theory of Everything is supposed to provide all the laws that can't be derived logically, even in principle, from other laws. The structure of DNA surely emerges—in principle—from the equations of the standard model, and I strongly suspect that the possibility of Mind does too. So those phenomena, while they are vastly important and clearly fundamental in the usual sense, aren't fundamental in the technical sense, and elucidating them is not part of a Theory of Everything.
I think we're about to enter a new Golden Age in fundamental physics. The Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which should begin to operate at CERN, near Geneva, starting in summer 2007, will probe the behavior of matter at energies higher than ever accessed before. There is no consensus about what we'll find there. I'm still fond of a calculation that Savas Dimopoulos, Stuart Raby and I did in 1981. We found—speaking roughly—that we could unify the description of fundamental interactions (gauge unification) only within an expanded version of relativity, which includes transformations of spin (supersymmetry). To make that dual unification we had to bring in new particles, which were too heavy to be observed at the time, but ought to be coming into range at the LHC. If they do exist we'll have a new world of phenomena to discover and explore. The astronomical riddle of dark matter could well be found there. Several competing ideas are in play, as well. The point is that whatever happens, experimenters will be making fundamental discoveries that take us by surprise. That would be impossible, if we had a Theory of Everything in the sense just described—that is, of everything fundamental.
In recent months a different, much weaker notion of what a "Theory of Everything" might accomplish has gained ground, largely inspired by developments in string theory. In this concept, the Theory provides a unique set of equations, but those equations that have many solutions, which are realized in different parts of the Universe. One speaks instead of a multiverse, composed of many domains, each forming a universe in itself, each with its own distinctive laws. Now even the fundamental—i.e., basic, irreducible—laws are beyond the power of the Theory to supply, since they vary from universe to universe. At this point the contrast between the grandeur of the words "Theory of Everything" and the meager information delivered becomes grotesque.
The glamour of the quest for a Theory of Everything, or a Final Theory, harks back Einstein's long quest for his version, a Unified Field Theory. Lest we forget, that quest was fruitless. During his great creative period, Einstein produced marvelous theories of particular things: Brownian motion, the photoelectric effect, the electrodynamics of moving bodies, the equality of inertial and gravitational mass. I take inspiration from the early Einstein, the creative opportunist who consulted Nature, rather than the later "all-or-nothing" romantic who tried (and failed) to dictate to Her. I'm optimistic that She'll continue to surprise me, and my successors, for a long time.
The Zombie Concept Of Identity
I'm optimistic about what I call the zombie concept of identity: I think it is losing its grip on the thoughts of scientists, lay people and their political leaders.
The zombie concept of identity is the intuition that people do things because of their membership in a collective identity or affiliation. It's a fundamental confusion that starts with a perhaps statistically valid idea (if you define your terms well, you can speak of "American behavior'' or "Muslim behavior'' or "Italian behavior'')—and then makes the absurd assumption that all Americans or Muslims or Italians are bound to behave as you expect, by virtue of their membership in the category (a category that, often, you created).
I think it's fair to say that scientists have shown that people are not identity zombies. Much work has been done (some by people on Edge, like Mahzarin Banaji and Scott Atran) that shows how the connections between identity and behavior are never so simple. It's clear that all of us have many overlapping identities (American, middle-aged person, Episcopalian, Republican, soccer mom can be attached to one person in a single morning); it's what we're doing, and who we're doing it with, that seems to determine which of these identities comes to the fore at a given time.
Even as these ideas have become familiar in anthropology, social psychology and other disciplines, they didn't seem to make it into the everyday discourse with which people talk about terrorism, immigration, social change etc. That has had a number of bad effects. Leaders who think that people become terrorists because they're Muslims, or that new immigrants will be hostile to a society because they're immigrants, are making decisions that are bad for their nations, perhaps even unsafe.
Lately, though, I see signs that people realize the limits of the zombie identity. Pop culture is rich in stories and images that remind people of overlapping identity. More importantly, political rhetoric is giving way to realism about human psychology.
One example: The anthropologist David Kilcullen was quoted in a recent New Yorker explaining that jihadists are pulled into terrorism by their circle of friends and their social networks — that "there are elements in human psychological and social makeup that drive what's happening. This is human behavior in an Islamic setting. This is not 'Islamic behavior'''.
The significance here is that Kilcullen is not, currently, an academic. He's an official of the US State Department. My hunch is that people in charge of fighting democracy's enemies will increasingly have to deal with identity as it is, even as popular culture is ever richer in reminders that people have a lot of overlapping affiliations.
So I have more than a little hope that in 10 years' time, people who take seriously the zombie concept of identity will be looked upon as we look upon people who believe in witchcraft. That will mean that popular discourse is closer to science than it used to be.
And I think there may be a kind of feedback loop that will be good for science: As daily talk becomes more comfortable with the idea that people have multiple identities whose management is a complex psychological phenomenon, there will be more research on the central questions: What makes a particular identity convincing? What makes it come to the fore in a given context?
Those are the issues that link society, mind and body and I think when we have more competing theories about how them, we'll be closer to understanding why people are they way they are. I'm optimistic that this will happen.
That doesn't mean that I think scientists, or anyone else, will stop saying things like "you know, I was raised Catholic'' or "I'm a typical Jewish mother'' to explain human behavior. Galileo died five centuries ago, but we still say "what a nice sunrise.'' But in the same way that we know that really, it's the earth that moves relative to the sun, I think we will arrive in the next few years at a better understanding of what collective identity means and how it is made.
The End Of The 'Natural'
I am optimistic that the human race will continue to find ways of enhancing its own modes of thought, reason, and feeling. As flexible adaptive agents we are wide open to a surprising variety of transformative bodily and mental tricks and ploys, ranging from the use of software, sports regimes and meditational practice, to drug therapies, gene therapies, and direct brain-machine interfaces.
I am optimistic that, stimulated by this explosion of transformative opportunities, we will soon come to regard our selves as constantly negotiable collection of resources, easily able to straddle and criss-cross the boundaries between biology and artifact. In this hybrid vision of our own humanity I see increased potentials not just for repair but for empowerment, expansion, recreation, and growth. For some, this very same hybrid vision may raise specters of coercion, monstering and subjugation. For clearly, not all change is for the better, and hybridization (however naturally it may come to us) is neutral rather than an intrinsic good. But there is cause for (cautious) optimism.
First, there is nothing new about human enhancement. Ever since the dawn of language and self-conscious thought, the human species has been engaged in a unique 'natural experiment' in progressive niche construction. We engineer our own learning environments so as to create artificial developmental cocoons that impact our acquired capacities of thought and reason. Those enhanced minds then design new cognitive niches that train new generations of minds, and so on, in an empowering spiral of co-evolving complexity. The result is that, as Herbert Simon is reputed to have said, 'most human intelligence is artificial intelligence anyway'. New and emerging technologies of human cognitive enhancement are just one more step along this ancient path.
Second, the biological brain is itself populated by a vast number of hidden 'zombie processes' that underpin the skills and capacities upon which successful behavior depends. There are, for example, a plethora of such unconscious processes involved in activities from grasping an object all the way to the flashes of insight that characterize much daily skilful problem-solving. Technology and drug based enhancements add, to that standard mix, still more processes whose basic operating principles are not available for conscious inspection and control. The patient using a brain-computer interface to control a wheelchair will not typically know just how it all works, or be able to reconfigure the interface or software at will. But in this respect too, the new equipment is simply on a par with much of the old.
Finally, empirical science is at last beginning systematically to address the sources and wellsprings of human happiness and human flourishing, and the findings of these studies must themselves be taken as important data points for the design and marketing of (putative) technologies of enhancement.
In sum, I am optimistic that we will soon see the end of those over-used, and mostly ad hoc, appeals to the 'natural'. May we all have a thoroughly unnatural New Year.
The Rise of Usability
I am optimistic that the values and principles of good user interface design will increasingly be practiced by technology designers and expected by technology users.
The design of a computer user interface can influence whether the outcome of an election is fair, a patient receives the right medicine, or a helicopter pilot makes a safe landing. Perhaps even more importantly, when technology is designed to mesh well with how people think and how they want to live, then it enhances and enriches their lives. Poorly designed interfaces that treat people inhumanely can contribute to the feelings of apprehension that people often associate with our technology-saturated world.
Good interface design is currently more of a practice than a science, although the field of human-computer interaction makes use of results from cognitive science and relevant branches of psychology where applicable. The rise of the World Wide Web has accelerated advances in and understanding of usability, for main two reasons. First, before the web, most complex computer interfaces were visible only to those who could afford to purchase the expensive software packages. Most users would not see more than one design for a given application. The web, in yet another example of its leveling effect, allows nearly everyone to see nearly every interface. Thus designers can learn rapidly from what others have done, and users can see if one web site's experience is substandard compared to others. Second, the default setting for web pages and browsers allows designers to freely see the source code behind each web page, and thus learn from one another how to code the best designs. The rise of the web has increased consumer demand and awareness of good design, and in my observation has increased the perceived value of user interface design within computer science departments.
Unfortunately, misguided views about usability still cause significant damage in today's world. In the 2000 U.S. elections, poor ballot design led thousands of voters in Palm Beach, Florida to vote for the wrong candidate, thus turning the tide of the entire presidential election. At the time, some observers made the ignorant claim that voters who could not understand the Palm Beach butterfly ballot were not bright enough to vote. I wonder if people who made such claims have never made the frustrating "mistake" of trying to pull open a door that requires pushing. Usability experts see this kind of problem as an error in the design of the door, rather than a problem with the person trying to leave the room.
It appears that some Florida election officials did not learn the lessons of the 2000 election. In the Sarasota County, Florida election of 2006, evidence suggests that poor design of an electronic ballot led to massive under voting. One in seven voters did not mark any choice in a hotly contested congressional race that was decided by fewer than 400 votes. Usability mistakes similar to those in Palm Beach were repeated in Sarasota. But it is unfair to expect election officials to be experts in usability and information design; rather what is lacking is a general recognition that an understanding of how people think and use technology is integral to ballot design and fair elections. Just as computer experts design and maintain the e-voting machines, usability experts should assess all ballot designs before they are released to the public. And in the future we may well see automated usability checkers, akin to grammar checkers in word processors, for applications such as ballot design.
Ballot design is just one example for which interface design matters. There is ample evidence that good design reduces errors and increases enjoyment of the use of technology. Fortunately, an appreciation of the importance of good design for human use of technology is experiencing an increasingly widening scope.
The Creation As Well As Consumption of Scientific Knowledge Will Be Potentially Accessible To Anyone
I'm optimistic about the prospects for science to become a much more broadly participatory activity rather than today's largely spectator sport.
Success as a scientist is certainly limited by interest and ability, but it also requires access to the accumulated body of scientific knowledge and to the means to practice it. I've found the former to be much more widely distributed than the latter; until recently, becoming a successful scientist usually required becoming a member of an elite technical institution.
It's considered axiomatic that smart people like to surround themselves with smart people. But the reality at a place like MIT is that we're all so time-stressed and multi-tasked we rarely have time to do anything unscheduled; many of my closest collaborations are with people who are far away. Two technological changes now provide an opportunity to revisit the boundary between being on and off of a campus.
The first is research on digital fabrication that is leading to much more accessible means for making and measuring things. With $50k in infrastructure, a fab lab can now do experimental work in the field that would have been hard to do at MIT when I first arrived there. And the second is the emergence of broadband videoconferencing and software for project and knowledge management that can make remote collaborations as convenient as local ones.
Together, these are leading to the emergence of technical training and research projects that are fundamentally distributed rather than based on remote or centralized access to scarce resources. Instead of scientific careers being gated by room in classes, and headcount numbers, and limited lab space, and editorial fashions, and overhead rates, they can be bounded by a much more interesting resource, the availability of ideas.
I expect that scientific productivity will always be very non-uniformly distributed, with disproportionate contributions from a small number of remarkable people, but the sample size for finding and fostering those people can be improved by a few billion or so. There's a grand feedback loop ready to be closed, between the content and organization of scientific invention. Many of today's most compelling new questions are still tackled with old institutional models; it's ironic that religion has had its Reformation but that the role of a research university would be recognizable to a medieval monk. The future that I'm optimistic about is one in which the creation as well as consumption of scientific knowledge is potentially accessible to anyone.
Humankind Is Particularly Good At Muddling
I am a short-term pessimist but a long-term optimist. History is on my side for the cause of today’s fashionable pessimism lies much deeper than the unpleasant surprises of the last half-decade. In fact, both our pessimism and the rise of fundamentalisms that so bedevil global society at the moment share a common source—the year 2000 and the roll-over into this century. The approach of each New Year inevitably, predictably, causes us to look back and wonder what lies ahead. It is no coincidence that you pose the annual Edge Question in December and not July.
Moreover, contemplation of the New Year amplifies our predispositions; pessimists become more certain that things are falling apart, while optimists see greater hope than ever. Opinion inevitably clusters at the extremes. This tendency is amplified by the number of zeros in the year to come. Decade ends affect the zeitgeist for a year or two, while century endings reverberate for 10 years or more, as demonstrated by the impact of the Fin de siècle a hundred years ago.
We have less experience with millennium roll-overs, but we are learning fast. With perfect hindsight, the influence of the approaching millennium can be seen throughout the 1990s and even earlier. Millennial anxieties contributed in no small part to the rise of religious fundamentalism, while millennially-inflated hopes encouraged the touchingly innocent optimism overlaid atop the internet revolution and emergent globalization.
Inevitably, the greatest impact of our calendric angst occurs after the triggering date has passed. The year 2000 is still affects—perhaps even dominates—the zeitgeist today. Eschatologically-obsessed believers like Muqtada al-Sadr stand astride events in Iraq, convinced by the calendar that the Madhi redeemer will finally reveal himself. Closer to home, an astonishingly large population of Americans are equally convinced that the Apocalypse will arrive at any moment, and there is little doubt that fundamentalist apocalyptic beliefs directly affect US policy. There also is no shortage of millennially-inspired optimists (some whose answers are on this site) confident that the wonder machines of science and technology will allow us to live forever, power our devices with puffs of hydrogen, banish terrorism, and usher in a new age of human understanding and world peace.
I am a short-term pessimist because the Millennium is still clouding our collective thinking and may yet inspire the addled few to try something truly stupid, like an act of mega-terror or a nuclear exchange between nations. But I am a long-term optimist because the influence of the Millennium is already beginning to fade. We will return to our moderate senses as the current uncertainties settle into a comprehensible new order. I am an unshakable optimist because in its broadest strokes, the future will be what the future has always been, a mix of challenges, marvels and endless surprise. We will do what we have always done and muddle our collective way through. Humankind is particularly good at muddling, and that is what makes me most optimistic of all.
A One-Way Ticket To Mars
Some time before the end of the century there will be a human colony on Mars. It will happen when people finally wake up to the fact that two-way trips to the red planet are unnecessary. By cutting out the return journey huge savings can be made, and the way will then be open to establishing a permanent human presence on another world.
A one-way ticket to Mars is not an invitation for a suicide mission. Adequate supplies and a nuclear power supply can be sent on ahead, and every two years more supplies, and more astronauts, will be dispatched to the new colony. Mars is relatively inhospitable, but it is far more congenial than outer space. It has all the raw materials needed for a colony to eventually become self-sufficient. To be sure, life would be cramped and uncomfortable for the trail-blazers, but so it was for Antarctic explorers a century ago.
What about the risks of leaving people stranded on Mars? Most of the danger of space flight lies in the launches and landings, as the two shuttle disasters horrifically demonstrated. Eliminating the trip home would therefore slash the overall risk of accidents. The harsh Martian environment would undoubtedly reduce the life expectancy of the colonists, but astronauts on a round-trip would be exposed to comparable health hazards from months of space radiation and zero gravity.
Why would people go to Mars, never to return? Many reasons—an innate sense of adventure and curiosity, the lure of being the first humans to open up an entirely new world, the desire to explore an exotic and unique environment, the expectation of fame and glory. For scientists there are added reasons. A geologist on Mars would be like a kid in a candy store, and would soon clock up a sensational publication record. The crowning achievement would be evidence for life, a discovery likely to transform our view of nature and our place in the cosmos. A straw poll among my colleagues convinces me that there would be no lack of volunteers.
When might the first colonists set out? Within a few years, if politics didn't stand in the way. NASA could send a crew of four to Mars with existing technology, but the agency lacks the nerve and imagination for such an adventurous mission. However, I am optimistic that the new players in space—China and India—will not suffer from Western timidity. A joint Indian-Chinese colony on Mars by 2100 is not only technologically feasible, it is also politically realistic.
Science on the Agenda
I am optimistic that science is recapturing the attention and imagination of world leaders.
Witness, for example, the agendas of the World Economic Forum, the Clinton Global Initiative, or the African Union Summit; science has made a well-timed transition from a topic of peripheral interest to the leaders of the world to one inextricably tied to issues of development, global health, innovation, competitiveness, and energy. At a time when science is spurring markets, arts and ideas, it is now making its way into our halls of power with considerable momentum.
The critical challenge is for our understanding of science to keep up with our growing interest in science. Our new global science culture demands a new level of science literacy, for general populations and indeed for the leaders that govern them. What constitutes a science literate citizen in the 21st century is one of the most important questions we need to collectively address today.
We can certainly imagine that it is no simple task to convince a continent struggling with clear and present threats that it should think about its future, let alone take action. But across the developing world, science literacy is emerging as a primary focus of its leadership. The argument goes as follows: move away from dependence on short-term relief and toward the development of a long-term scientific infrastructure that generates its own solutions. This fundamentally entails an investment in people who will shape their own sustainable science culture.
This month's African Union Summit in Addis Ababa will focus almost exclusively on this very topic. This comes on the heels of a consensus by the continent’s education ministers that science “is the most important tool available for addressing challenges to development and poverty eradication, and participating in the global economy.” China, for the first time, has made raising science literacy an official part of its development strategy. It is worth noting that China’s plan calls for science literacy to extend across demographics — from urban workers to rural communities to government officials — each for different reasons but all for a common goal.
This past year we have heard about the potential for the West to generate intellectual ROI from its aid to the developing world — new insight into disease for example. It is exciting to imagine how this cross-continental laboratory may pioneer new approaches to science literacy with global consequence.
Science solves problems. And this should be its consistent tagline in the developing world. In the developed world, however, science will spark more than solutions. It can spark a renaissance.
It is simple to tie science to money and military, drugs and technologies, present and future. It will be those leaders in the developed world who embrace science's blue sky potential, its ability to inspire us and change us long-term, who will most significantly affect their nations and the world. Now is the time for courageous science leadership.
In Europe, the Large Hadron Collider, the biggest science experiment of our time and herald of a new era of Big Science, will go online next year, corralling the collective imagination of (at least) a continent. Tony Blair has reaffirmed that Britain's "future prosperity rests more than ever before on the hard work and genius of our scientists." And Germany's newly elected physical chemist-turned-Chancellor, Angela Merkel, has made science one of the priorities for Germany's upcoming EU presidency.
In 1969, Robert Wilson, then the director of Fermilab, testified before the US Congress in support of his multi-million dollar particle accelerator. He said: "It has only to do with the respect with which we regard one another, the dignity of men, our love of culture. It has to do with: Are we good painters, good sculptors, great poets? I mean all the things we really venerate in our country and are patriotic about. It has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to make it worth defending."
It will take inspired, informed, and heroic leaders to drive our global science culture forward — toward the development of Africa, the emergence of a renaissance or an outcome we have yet to imagine. After an all-too-long period where it felt like science and scientists had lost their seat at the table, I am optimistic we're about to witness a new era of science-savvy.
As schoolchildren, we learn that different weights fall at the same speed. This simple and readily tested observation, first published by Galileo, refuted Aristotle, who claimed that heavy things fall faster. As Galileo put it in Two New Sciences "I greatly doubt that Aristotle ever tested by experiment whether it be true..." We are left to wonder how people could have believed what they were told, and for two millennia at that, without ever checking? Surely the power of evidence over authority is obvious.
Except it isn't. Even today, evidence has barely begun to upend authority; the world is still more in thrall to Aristotle than Galileo. As a simple example, the time-honored advice for those suffering from bad backs has been bed rest. Only recently, though, have we discovered bed rest isn't the best treatment, and isn't even particularly good compared to moderate activity. How did this discovery come about? A researcher in the field of Evidence-based Medicine surveyed multiple databases of trials and results for patients with back pain. (It tells us something about medicine's current form that we even need a term like Evidence-based Medicine.) And why did it take so long to look at the evidence? Same reason it took so long to question Aristotle: some doctor in the distant past reasoned that bed rest would be a good idea, and it became the authoritative and little-questioned view.
In school, the embrace of evidence is often taught as if it were a one-time revolution that has now been internalized by society. It hasn't. The idea of evidence is consistently radical: Take nothing on faith. No authority is infallible. If you figure out a good way to test something, you can contradict hallowed figures with impunity.
Evidence will continue to improve society, but slowly — this is long-view optimism. The use of evidence dragged the curious mind from the confusion of alchemy into the precision of chemistry in the historical blink of an eye, but its progress past the hard sciences has been considerably slower. Even accepting that evidence should shape our views is inconsistent with much human behavior. Everything from the belief in supernatural beings to deference to elders pushes against the idea that a single person, if he or she comes to understand the evidence, should be allowed to upend a millennium of cherished human belief.
It is only in the last hundred years that evidence has even begun spreading from the hard sciences into other parts of human life. Previous platitudes about the unpredictability or universal plasticity of human behavior are giving way to areas of inquiry with names like Sociobiology, Evolutionary Psychology, and Behavioral Economics. (That we need a label like Behavioral Economics says as much about economics as Evidence-based Medicine does about medicine.) As reliance on evidence spreads, it takes with it an understanding of how it works. Apologists for religion often bolster their claims by noting that it is impossible to disprove the existence of supernatural beings. This argument assumes that their listeners don't understand how evidence works — it makes sense to believe in things for which there is evidence, and no sense to believe in things for which there is none. As evidence moves out of the lab and into everywhere else, rhetorical tricks like that are going to be progressively less effective. There will still be fundamentalists, of course — probably more of them, as improved evidence requires a heightened ability to shield the mind — but the oxymoronic middle ground of 'religious but reasonable' will become progressively harder to occupy.
This isn't just about religion, though. Most of the really important parts of our lives ·who we love and how, how we live and why, why we lie and when — have yet to yield their secrets to real evidence. We will see a gradual spread of things like evidence-based politics and law — what is the evidence that this expenditure, or that proposed bill, will have the predicted result? The expectation that evidence can answer questions about the structure of society will discomfit every form of government that relies on sacrosanct beliefs. Theocracy and communism are different in many ways, but they share the same central bug — they are based on some set of assertions that must remain beyond question.
Social science is expanding because we are better about gathering data and about understanding it. We have gone from a drought to a flood of data about personal and social behavior in the last generation. We will learn more about the human condition in the next two decades years than we did in the last two millennia, and we will then begin to apply what we learn, everywhere. Evidence-based treaties. Evidence-based teaching. Evidence-based industrial design. Evidence-based parenting.
There will always be some questions we can't answer, but they will be closer in spirit to "Who put the bomp in the bomp-bah-bomp-bah-bomp?" than to "Why do fools fall in love?" There is an astonishing amount of work going on on that latter question right now, and there's a reasonable chance we'll have a really good answer, to it and to thousands of other questions once thought to be beyond study or explanation, in the coming years.
Altruism on the Web
Had the question been, "What are you pessimistic about?" I would have answered: If there is any progress in human wisdom (and, yes, I suppose there is) it is pathetically slow, while ever faster technological advances provide the means for self-righteous, unwise people with power, wealth, or charisma to cause greater and greater havoc. I don't alas have any equally broad and compelling reasons to be optimistic about the future of humankind. Humans, however, are full of surprises, many of them excellent, arousing new hopes every day.
"From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs," so did Marx define communism. Outside of narrow kinship or friendship groups, this kind of altruistic sharing of resources has hardly ever been encountered, and it is not difficult to understand why: Such a utopia, however attractive, is quite impractical. Yet, with the advent of the new information technologies and in particular of the Web, a limited form of informational 'communism' that no one had predicted has emerged and is fast developing. A vast array of technological, intellectual and artistic creations, many of them of outstanding quality, are being made freely available to all according to their needs by individuals working according to the best of their abilities and often seeking self-realization even more than recognition. I have in mind the freeware, the wikis, the open source programs, the open access documents, the million of blogs and personal pages, the online text, image, and music and libraries, the free websites catering to all kind of needs and constituencies. Who had been optimistic enough to expect not just the existence of this movement, but its expansion, its force, its capacity to rival commercial products and major businesses and to create new kinds of services, blogs for instance, of great social and cultural import even if of limited economic value?
Cynics or realists—call them what you want—might say: Economic benefit is still the main force driving innovation. Gifted disinterested amateurs—if that is truly what they are—are a welcome anomaly spurring competition, but what matter to the end user is the utility of the product. A cheaper product, and a fortiori a free one, is preferable, everything else being equal, but businesses, by providing extra quality worth the cost, make it sure that everything is rarely equal. So let us praise innovation wherever it comes from, paying the price when justified and mouthing a word of praise when it comes free. But let us not read too much—informational communism? Give me a break—into a probably ephemeral sociological oddity. As many others have noted, the economics of information are peculiar, if only because you can give information without losing it and you may gain from giving it as much or more as from receiving it. Applying a standard economic model to the movement of information on the Web may not be the best science (actually, applying a standard economic model to standard economic situations may not be the best science either).
I am optimistic about the development of both individual and collective forms of altruism on the Web. Moreover, I believe that what we see on the Web has more diffuse counterparts in society at large. The Web is a network of networks where, at every individual node, many communities overlap, and where local allegiances have at best a weak hold. The World Wide Web is the most dynamic and visible manifestation, and a driving force of a world that is itself becoming one wide web. In this world, more and more altruistic acts—acts that had in ancestral times been aimed just at one's kin, and later extended to tribe, sect, or country—may now, out of sensible sense of common destiny, be intended for the benefit of all. No Hallelujah however. If our destiny is indeed ever more common, it is because we all stand to suffer from the misdeed of a few as much as to benefit from the generous actions of many.
Technology in Education
There's a lot in science and technology to be optimistic about, as evidenced by the numerous responses to the question, but I'll focus on the role of technology in education.
Before I entered college, I had never been enrolled in a school. Some of my education was provided by books, magazines, museums, and the like, but I feel the most useful was provided by technology. I was in the first generation to grow up with the Web as a fact of life, and made use of online references and search engines every day to research topics in which I'd become interested. From early childhood, many of my questions were answered by a mix of university websites, ad-supported niche reference works, and charitable individuals sharing their own personal knowledge with the world. Today, Wikipedia alone provides peer-reviewed, freely contributed articles on over 1.5 million subjects, and Google indexed 25 billion items in 2005 (it no longer publishes the count). Almost any piece of knowledge known to man can now be located on the Web at the touch of a button.
New means of communication can also aid education. When I was 7, I emailed a science consultant whenever I had a question that I couldn't find a ready answer for on the Web — questions such as "Why don't the passengers in the Concorde hear a sonic boom?", and "Where can I find the Bohr model of every chemical element?" In 1999, during the week of my 8th birthday, I used email to first contact the author of a book I really liked (When Things Start to Think), who happened to be Neil Gershenfeld, now my faculty advisor. I probably wouldn't have bothered to write a formal letter, so if email didn't exist, my educational trajectory would have been entirely different. I was also mentored from many miles away by Ray Kurzweil, in a series of conversations enabled by email; this was another major influence on my life.
Computing is also a creative tool: it can be used to write essays (like this one), produce works of art (I've sold fractal-based art at local festivals), and write computer programs. Programming fascinated me from a very early age, but it wouldn't have kept my interest long if I didn't have access to a computer. I think that my experiences in programming may have been the most influential in my intellectual development: problem-solving and critical thinking are rewarded, math skills are enforced, and I even wrote programs to help teach me things, like an arithmetic drill I wrote in LOGO at age 5. I was also greatly aided throughout my college education in computer science by my earlier self-guided learning of many of the same concepts. Whereas I was taught 8 programming languages in college, I've learned over twice as many others on my own, and those were some of my most valuable and (so far) useful learning experiences.
Seymour Papert's constructionist theory best explains my personal experience with education: "Constructionism is built on the assumption that children will do best by finding ('fishing') for themselves the specific knowledge they need. Organized or informal education can help most by making sure they are supported morally, psychologically, materially, and intellectually in their efforts."
From this point of view, what holds back the education of children in the developing world isn't so much a lack of school-houses or qualified teachers, but a lack of access to technology and communications. Without the Internet, there's no good place for these children to "fish" for knowledge — the local elders probably don't have a Periodic Table of Elements on the hut wall.
But I'm optimistic because the unstoppable force of Nicholas Negroponte's charisma is now squarely facing off against this problem. He's convinced a dream team of technical, educational, and political leaders to spend lots of money and time working on it. His One Laptop Per Child (OLPC) project shows no signs of failing, despite many reports to the contrary, and it's moving at a breakneck pace towards a future, not more than a decade or two off, when every child in the world - developing and developed — really does have a laptop. Imagining the possibilities is a start, but it seems like the OLPC team, driven by the constructionist theories, has developed a host of innovative hardware and software that really do promise to bring a useful and creative education to the world.
I'm optimistic because my lab, the Center for Bits and Atoms, with the aid of the NSF and other global organizations, is deploying "Fab Labs" — Fabrication Laboratories - all around the world, from Boston to the Midwest to rural India and a village north of the Arctic Circle. Fab Labs bring something that even the developed world lacks broad access to: cheap, easy fabrication of physical objects and custom electronics. With a set of inventory, machines and computers that totals roughly US$50,000, those who enter the lab can make wooden furniture, high-gain antennas, and even ~$10 "thinner clients" (terminals that connect over a variety of communications media to ~$1200 servers that support hundreds of users). These types of objects can be and are developed by local inventors, produced by oneself or in a "micro-VC" community business, and cost very little. Fab Labs are also another huge enabling factor for constructionist education; making things is one of the most useful and creative sorts of education.
Media artist Toshio Iwai, who was Artist-in-Residence at San Francisco's Exploratorium and wrote the video game Electroplankton, told a story that his mother took away all his toys when he was a small child and told him that he could only play with toys he made himself. Iwai credits that moment as a turning point in his life: from passive to active, consumer to creator. I'm optimistic that in the future, education will not take place in centralized Houses of Learning, places where students listen to lectures and then answer questions about them; that education will take place at construction sites, in art studios, in computing centers: places where useful and creative things are done. I'm optimistic that it will be a more useful and creative education that will produce more useful and creative people that will contribute, in turn, to a more useful and creative society.
AI Will Arise
I often attack the original "we can program it" direction of the field of Artificial Intelligence, but am still optimistic that our primitive electromechanical and computing machines will one day become intelligent enough to treat as living creatures.
I have a predictive sketch for how intelligent machines might arrive. My definition of a robot is any device—controlled by software—interacting with the physical world. An economically viable robot is such a system that earns a consistent return on investment (ROI). The ATM, the ink-jet printer, and the disk drive are today's omnipresent robots, they just don't appear as the robots of science fiction.
I see three streams which can come together in the future to allow the emergence of intelligent human-like robots.
The first stream is the lowly "web bot." Moving beyond "Eliza's" in text chat rooms, these animated humans often exist on web pages, attracting customers, helping them navigate, or selling. Another class of virtual humans are employed as extras in video games and movies. These software puppets will enter a positive feedback loop as they are programmed to exploit human psychological weaknesses. In other words, when a virtual human becomes an effective sales machine for, say, life insurance or securities, they will have achieved the ROI.
The second stream is animatronics. The word, coined by Disney, is about making mechatronic puppets which entertain us, i.e. Chuck E Cheese and Big Mouth Billy Bass. But animatronics is fairly expensive, and mainly used as Hollywood props in big-budget movies. The toy industry is capable of delivering inexpensive animatronics, from Chatty Cathy, Teddy Ruxpin and Furby to Robosapien and Pleo, but each one of these robot toys is a standalone success derived from cheap manufacturing and mass marketing, rather than the result of an ever-more capable practice. Nevertheless, I expect that eventually some kind of animatronic toy platform, like the animated Chimp and Elvis heads from Wowwee, will eventually "catch," and profits will drive efficiency until humanoid puppets are reasonably priced.
These two streams will then become symbiotic, where the best salesbot software running on inexpensive humanoid animatronics can start to displace human salespeople from car showrooms and furniture stores. But, these saledroids will still be empty puppets unless inhabited by low wage workers over broadband.
The third line has to identify and attack the core problem of AI, that sentient life forms are several orders of magnitude more complex than the most complicated systems designed and built by humans: Our Software. Building software using best engineering practices always bogs down between ten and one hundred million lines of code, before it becomes unmanageable by human corporations. Assume that a sentient animal mind would take tens of billions of lines of code, just like bodies are made of tens of billions of living cells cooperating to form a whole. In order to understand how nature could design systems of far greater complexity than human engineers, we must focus not on simulating human cognitive faculties, nor on trying to understand the brain, but on the process which can design such minds and brains.
Through work on evolutionary and co-evolutionary machine learning, we have identified missing principles of evolutionary theory as implemented computationally. We've developed systems which surpass human designs of sorting networks and cellular automata rules, shown how co-evolving robot bodies and brains could be automatically manufactured, and developed new incentive structures which can motivate a community of learners to become each other's teachers.
The third stream, sentience, I believe won't be programmed directly, but will be a result of successfully replicating how evolution has achieved an open-ended self-organizing process on a computationally universal substrate. Once sentience is achieved, it will happily reside, and earn a living selling used cars, in the aforementioned electronic puppets.
The Future Of Science
I am optimistic about the future of science. After all, science as Mankind’s systematic endeavour of understanding Nature is only a few hundred years old. To believe that we have discovered the essentials of understanding Nature in such a short time is a sign of either arrogance or lack of fantasy. So far science is guided by the, in my eyes fallacious, Cartesian cut between res cogitans and res extensa. It is wrong to believe that the world out there exists independent of our observation. But it is equally wrong to believe that it exists only because of our observation. We have to and we will find a completely new way of looking at the world which will fully transcend our present materialistic paradigm. After all, we have learned in quantum physics that all concepts of material existence evaporate. In the end we are left with probability fields, probabilities of the results of observations. I am convinced that in science we have just started to scratch the surface. Our understanding of the world will be radically different from the understanding we have today.
I am optimistic about the future of religion. We will learn to shed the unessential dogmas, rules, definitions, prejudices which have been collected by the religions over centuries and millennia. We will learn that they have been created out of feelings of insecurity, out of an innate need of mankind to define and understand even the undefinable and ununderstandable. I am convinced that in all major religions we will discover the essentials of what it means to be human in this world. We will succeed in convincing church leaders and religious leaders to be more audacious and to open up to other views of the world and to rely less on what they perceive to be their own access to truth.
The present battle between science and religion will some day be seen as a battle between two positions where neither one is justified even from their own perspective. Science will never be able to prove that God does not exist and religion will learn that its essence is far deeper than ephemeral questions like whether we were created by evolution or not. I believe that some day we will arrive at a coherent view of the world which will transcend both what today we call science and what today we call religion.
I am optimistic about the future of technology. Here too we have hardly scratched the surface. With quantum information technology, mankind for the first time is entering a field of technology which, by all we know today, has not been used by Nature in evolution. I am convinced that most of the technology of the future will be of that kind. New ideas will be created and new technologies will be invented which only could come into existence because we invented them. There is no other road to making them happen.
I believe in the future of mankind. As long as there are children, as long as there are people who look up to the night sky in sheer wonder, as long as there is music, and poetry, and the Mona Lisa, and old monasteries, and young artists, and fledgling scientists and all the other expressions of mankind’s creativity, I will remain optimistic.
"Love wins; love always wins," it has been said. But throughout most of our agrarian past, love lost, at least among the upper classes. Today I am optimistic about romantic love, because we are returning to patterns of romance that humankind enjoyed across most of our deep history: choosing lovers and spouses for ourselves.
Parents may have started to arrange their children's marriages when the brain began to develop some two million years ago. But in those few hunting and gathering societies that still survive, parents only initiate the first wedding of a son or daughter. Moreover, this contract is flexible. If the callow newlyweds are not happy with their match, they pick up their few belongings and walk home. The contract has been honored and parents are pleased to see their youth again. The young go on to choose their next partner for themselves.
But as our forebears began to settle down some 10,000 years ago, and as they acquired immoveable property like fields of grain and sturdy homes, they began to need to cement their social ties. What better way than to wed your daughter with my son? Strictly arranged marriages became a way to built one's fortune and secure one's genetic future. These marriages had to endure, too. In some farming communities, you could fall in love with whom you chose; but you married the "right" individual, with the "right" kin connections and "right" social, economic and political ties.
The widespread tradition of strictly arranged marriages began to dissipate with the beginning of the Industrial Revolution. As men and women left the farm for factory work, they no longer needed to maintain many of these connections. They could chose partners for themselves.
Today this movement is gaining speed, due to two dramatic world trends: the global rise of women in the paid labor force; and the aging world population. For millions of years women commuted to work to gather their fruits and vegetables and came home with much of the evening meal. Women were economically, sexually and socially powerful. With the invention of the plow, however, women lost much of their economic independence. But as women go back to work and come home with money, they are reacquiring their economic autonomy—and their ancient ability to choose their lovers and spouses for themselves. With the aging world population, high divorce and remarriage rates, and many modern inventions, from Viagra to hip replacements, women (and men) now have the time, opportunity and health to make their own match, what the Chinese call "free love."
And along with the rise of romantic love within marriage has come what sociologists hail as the 21st century marital form, known as peer marriages, symmetrical marriages or companionate marriages: weddings between equals. "Marriage," Voltaire wrote, "is the only adventure open to the cowardly." Today more and more men and women have the opportunity to enjoy this adventure—life with someone they passionately love. In this way humanity is regaining a tradition that is highly compatible with our ancient human spirit.
The Public Will Become Immune To Hype
I am quietly optimistic that in the wake of years of hype over the practical significance of gene discoveries, fusion power, magic bullets, superconductivity, gene therapy, cures for ageing, and embryonic stem cells*, the public will become more pessimistic about the practical benefits of discoveries made in the lab and more appreciative of what science is really about — basic curiousity, rationality and the never-ending dialogue between ideas and experiments. With luck, the public will spend more time gazing up at the blue skies of science and not down at the brown torrent of parochial and humdrum expectations about what science can do for them. Science does not have to be useful, save to put forward useful models of how nature works. Science does not have to cure disease. Science does not have to make us live to 120. Science does not have to make money.
* Being a science journalist, I plead guilty on all counts
We Can No Longer Be Sure Of Anything
The brain does not see a thing. Most of its energy is consumed predicting in darkness. At last we understand why we only see what we want to see, just as the moon looms larger on the earthly horizon than above. Now we know that visible light is only a tiny fraction of the whole spectrum. We can no longer be sure of anything. So we need not fight against somebody's views nor die for our own convictions.
How Technology Is Saving the World
I was going to be modest about it, but the congratulatory messages have been slow to arrive, so I will have to toot my own horn. The exciting news is that I have been named Time Magazine’s 2007 Person of the Year. It is true that this is an honor that I share with every other user of technology, but I share well, and I hope that you are as flattered as I am with this well-deserved recognition. In past years, Time Magazine has bestowed this honor on such well-known luminaries as Bill and Melinda Gates, George W. Bush, Rudolph Giuliani, and Ayatollah Khomeini, so we are in good company. All users of technology received this (unfortunately) nonmonetary award as an acknowledgement of the work we have done to change the world in dramatic and unexpected ways. It would be difficult to imagine a more diverse group of award winners. I am writing this article from London, where the Queen just announced that her annual Christmas message, which according to official Royal sources is anticipated by millions (I did not independently verify these data), will be available via pod cast for downloading onto I-Pods and other MP3 devices. In fact, all of her past Christmas messages are now available in multiple viewing formats. Although the Queen refused to respond to questions about whether she personally owned such a device, the younger Royals were quick to add that they did. As illustrated in this momentous news, which is just one example of the radical changes in how we are communicating, there is ample evidence that users of technology are changing the world.
In just the last year, bloggers destroyed some political careers (e.g., Mark Foley) and launched others (e.g., Barack Obama). Technology has changed the way we get information, compute and pay our taxes, keep diaries, do homework, stay in touch, read books, learn almost anything, conduct research, make purchases, compose music, find mates, run businesses, diagnose diseases, and more. At the click of a mouse, I can listen to rap music from Poland or find an organ donor. Technology has enabled all of this and more. I believe that it will also profoundly change how we think about each other and that, for the most part, the change will be for the good.
There are many possible doomsday scenarios in which technology depersonalizes our relationships and makes war more efficient and propaganda more believable. But I am a teacher, and teaching is, at its heart, an act of optimism. If you scrape the crusty veneer off even the curmudgeonliest of professors (yes, "curmudgeonliest" is a real word), you will find a core (sometimes it will be a small core) of optimism. Optimism is a way of viewing possible futures with the belief that you can affect it for the better.
A colleague recently lamented that there are no unexplored places left on earth. As our daily lives have become increasingly international, there are also fewer strange foods to be tasted, exotic locations to visit, or social customs that are entirely foreign. One reason for the loss of opportunities for adventures into the unknown is that international foods can be found in every city and people from every region of the globe are shopping, eating, studying, and working in even small Midwestern towns in the United States and their equivalent in many countries around the world. Although most of us are still far too uniformed about the lives of people in other regions of the world or in other neighborhoods in our own city, it is also true that we now know more about each other than at any other time in history. Like the other users of technology, I have come to know much more about the lives of others who are "not like me" than I would have even a half generation ago. We are not even close to obtaining global citizenship, but it is at least an idea that people can comprehend and debate.
Along the billion or so other award winners, I can and do communicate with people all over the world at cable speed. Consider for example, the international gaming community that plays together on line and, at the same time, shares their political views and professional and personal lives. They engage in a prolonged social intercourse that spans continents. Their heroes are the gaming experts who come from many countries and backgrounds. The strangeness of "foreigners" that used to define the relationship between people of different religions, customs, races, and regions of the world is disappearing as the rapidly increasing numbers of users of technology connect over time and space in ways that were only available to members of the same clan or village a few decades ago.
Social and political psychologists study "in group" favoritism, which has been a root cause of most conflicts throughout time. The term refers to the tendency to believe that members of one’s own group are more deserving than members of other or "out-groups." Those undeserving others, whom we perceive as being more similar to each other than members of our own group are (they all look and think alike), pose a threat to our own group’s right to whatever is scarce and valued—land, good jobs, clean water, and so on. Think of any conflict, past or present. Whether it is the Bloods and the Crips, Shiites and Sunnis, Tutsis and Hutus, African-Americans and Hispanics, or the hundreds of years of the Crusades with Catholics against Muslims, these are all examples of "us against them" or in-group—out-group conflicts. Pessimists will readily point out that these conflicts have existed since the dawn of time and only a pie-eyed optimistic could believe that intergroup conflict could be reduced by making "the other" seem more like "us." But, there is evidence that we can.
Psychologists in Northern Ireland found that when people in divided societies come into contact in nonthreatening ways, they are in a better position to understand the other group's perspective, and come to regard "them" as equally as human as members of their own group. This contact can lead to greater intergroup trust and even a measure of intergroup forgiveness for past wrongs. Similar approaches are being used by Turkish psychologists who believe that the "Turkish-Armenian conflict has been suffering from a lack of real relational space." They are approaching this long-running conflict by finding ways that members of these two cultures can relate to each other, and the virtual world may be the safest place for these meetings. Psychologists in Israel and Palestine have been assisting teachers and students from both sides of this divide to write joint history books that incorporate narratives from the lives of all of the people who are living contemporary Israeli-Palestinian history. It is the ability to "come together" that is forcing each side to recognize the humanity of "the other." Although these projects are a mix of face-to-face and technology assisted meetings, the role of technology can be used to expand these peace-waging efforts.
Technology is bringing people from diverse backgrounds together, with most of the meetings are taking place in the virtual world. The challenge is to bring in those who are still excluded from the technology revolution, which includes the poor of the world and those whose governments are engaged in futile efforts to restrict access to information from the rest of the world. There will always be "in" and "out" groups, but these categories are becoming more fluid as we identify with a variety of different groups instead of defining ourselves along traditional demographic variables.
Allegiances now extend beyond national borders. I feel as distressed about the loss of the innocent lives of Iraqi citizens as I do about the loss of the innocent lives of the women and men in the U.S. military. I can view the suffering of each any time, night or day, by logging onto the "local" news in any part of the world. I can read the uncensored thoughts of anyone who wishes to share them on their personal blogs and watch the home videos they upload to YouTube and other public video sites. Government censorship is virtually impossible and the ability to hear directly from ordinary people around the world has caused me to see our connectedness. We have only just begun to realize the profound ways that technology is altering our view of the "other people" who share our planet. The use of technology to make the strange familiar will have an overall positive effect on how we think about others in our shrinking world. We are becoming more similar and connected in our basic "humanness." And, that is a good thing.
I Will Be Dead Wrong Again
I am optimistic that I will be dead wrong again. As I have frequently been in the past. Being a philosopher, I was strongly opposed to marriage—on strictly theoretical grounds of course! And about the only thing I always agreed on with Nietzschewas that married philosophers basically are clowns, as he put it: people who belong in a comedy play. Real life proved me wrong (at least I think so), and I am glad it did. Not a single one of all these high-paid sociologists and politologists predicted the wall's coming down in 1989. They were dead wrong. And, boy, would each one of them have loved to be the one to make exactly this prediction! I was also dead wrong in believing that European governments would never have the guts and the actual power to ban advertisements for tobacco products—or that European citizens would actually stop smoking in bars and public places, simply because their governments told them to. Wasn’t it much more plausible to expect major rebellions in countries like Ireland or Italy? How could anyone believe this could actually work?
Now that America is not a Western country any more, I have serious doubts that Europe can actually rescue the heritage of enlightenment. Who will sustain democratic values, and fight for all these old-fashioned ideas like human rights and freedom of speech? China forcefully looks for a path of its own, but in a way that many find quite unsettling. Will India—now the world’s greatest democratic project—manage or will it collapse into even more corruption and self-generated chaos? Who will conserve and cultivate our legal systems, who will culture scientific rationality and the brand new tradition of settling ethical issues by argument, not by force? Europe is in a strange state: Russia looks bad, Italy is a twilight state, Germany can’t move, in many countries like Austria or Denmark the voters are flirting with the extreme right. No constitution. No common vision. And the pressure of globalization on our social nets.
If global sociodynamics keeps on unfolding as it currently does, isn’t it likely that Europeans on their own will not stand a chance to change the overall trend? America is gone for good. How rational is it really—to still keep on believing that Europe as a whole will not only grasp the historical challenge, but eventually get its act together? I am optimistic that, once again, I will be dead wrong.
A Knowable Gaian Mind
There will be an amazing new discovery in physics on a par with the discovery of radio waves or the discovery of nuclear reactions. This new discovery will involve a fuller understanding of the level of reality that lies "below" the haze of quantum mechanics—suppose we call this new level the domain of the subdimensions.
Endless free energy will flow from the subdimensions. And, by using subdimensional shortcuts akin to what is now called quantum entanglement, we'll become able to send information over great distances with no energy cost. In effect the whole world can become linked like a wireless network, simply by tapping into the subdimensional channel.
This universal telepathy will not be limited to humans; it will extend to animals, plants, and even ordinary objects. Via the subdimensions you'll be able to see every object in the world. Conversely, every object in the world will be in some limited sense conscious, in that it will be aware of all the other objects in the world.
A useful corollary is that any piece of brute matter will be a computer just as it is. That is, once we can reach into the inner self of an object, we'll become able to program the behavior of things like rocks or log—without our having to attach any kind of microprocessor as an intermediary.
Humans will communicate at a vastly enhanced level. Presently I communicate an idea by broadcasting a string of words that serves as a program for reconstructing one of my thoughts. Once we enjoy subdimensional telepathy, I can simply send you a link to the location of some particular idea in my head.
Machines will fade away and, in particular, digital computers will be no more. The emerging interactions of Earth's telepathically communicating beings will become a real and knowable Gaian mind. And then we will become aware of the other higher minds in our cosmos.
Neuroscience Will Change Society
Some time ago I believed that a book could radically change society. I guess my belief was an extreme form of optimism. One of the books I thought could change society was Anti-Oedipus, the book that was written some thirty years ago by the philosopher Gilles Deleuze and the psychiatrist Felix Guattari. At some point, I can't even figure out when, I must have lost my belief in the power of books in changing society. But, the good news is that my belief is coming back. It is coming back in a slightly different form. What I am optimistic about is that neuroscience research will make our society a better one.
I spent the last 20 years doing neuroscience research. To make a long story short, a concept that emerges from recent neuroscience research is that humans are "wired for empathy". We have cells in our brains that make us understand each other in a simple, unmediated, automatic manner. But, if our neurobiology makes us wired for empathy, why is our world so full of atrocities?
The explanation for this apparent paradox is probably as follows. The neurobiological mechanisms that make us wired for empathy work at a pre-reflective, automatic, implicit level. Our societies are built on deliberate, reflective, explicit discourse. The two different levels of implicit and explicit mental processes rarely intersect; indeed there is evidence that they can often dissociate. This is probably why the massive belief systems—from religious to political ones—that operate at the deliberate, reflective level are able to divide us in such a powerful way even though our neurobiology should bring us together.
The good news is that the awareness of neurobiological mechanisms that make us wired for empathy is entering the public discourse through the activities of the third culture. This awareness won't go away and will seep through the reflective level of our mental processes. Indeed, people seem to have an intuitive understanding of how neural mechanisms for empathy work. It seems that people 'recognize' how their brain works, when they are told about it. People can finally articulate what they already 'knew' at a pre-reflective level. My optimism is that this explicit level of understanding of our empathic nature will at some point dissolve the massive belief systems that dominate our societies and that threaten to destroy us.
The Globalization Of Higher Education
Having just returned from a visit to universities in India with which Tufts has partnerships, I am optimistic about the future of higher education, in part because it is becoming more global.
National borders can no longer contain the most serious problems the world faces, be they economic, environmental, health-related, or political. Through education and research, universities play key roles in addressing these problems.
In order to take on these challenges, people must understand the world beyond their respective nations. This requires that universities provide curricular and travel opportunities to learn about other countries. It also requires that universities recruit a critical mass of students from abroad; the presence of international students contributes to the international education of all students, because learning from peers is as important as learning from a formal curriculum.
I am optimistic that colleges and universities around the world will take these challenges seriously and respond in enterprising ways to optimize the world's intellectual capital.
The U.S. is at the short end of a global knowledge asymmetry: on average, college students in the U.S. have less knowledge about other nations and cultures than their counterparts have about the U.S. Our colleges and universities are acting to compensate for this asymmetry by strengthening curricular offerings and active learning experiences that are internationally focused.
Amidst the discussion of the recent report of the Secretary of Education's Commission on the Future of Higher Education, little attention has been paid to the report's call for "greater emphasis on international education". The report correctly points out that "the need to produce a globally literate citizenry is critical to the nation's continued success in the global economy". However, higher education should equip us not only to seize the economic opportunities afforded by globalization, but also to navigate an increasingly interconnected, crowded and dangerous world. We fail to understand other cultures at our peril.
In partial recognition of this, earlier this year the Bush Administration launched the National Security Language Initiative (NSLI) to "dramatically increase the number of Americans learning critical need language skills", focusing on Arabic, Chinese, Russian, Hindi, Farsi and other central Asian languages. While NSLI is a welcome initiative, the funding is exclusively for language instruction. Yet the ability to engage beyond national boundaries also requires cultural fluency. Cultural fluency involves knowledge of history, politics, religion, literature and the arts. It involves knowledge of gesture, nuance and context necessary to avoid misunderstanding. Fortunately, although the vision of NSLI is restricted to languages, colleges and universities are already creating more expansive programs for international learning.
For any nation, recruiting students from overseas evokes mixed feelings. As we seek to advance the globalization of higher education, we must dispel two myths about the influx of international students.
One is the brain drain myth, according to which the countries of origin are being robbed of talent. Take the case of the large numbers of graduate students recruited from India over the past three or so decades—mostly in science and engineering. The dire warnings about a brain drain have proven false. These expatriate Indians have helped fuel India's emerging economy by leveraging their American training and global experience. This group also has formed a bridge between India and the U.S. that is providing the two countries with new economic opportunities as well as a stable political relationship. We are all better off when talent is realized to its fullest—even if it crosses borders.
The global matching of talent with opportunity is not limited to science and Engineering. The great American conservatories of music are filled with students of Japanese, Chinese and Korean descent, as are the stages of our concert halls.
A second myth about the movement of students across borders is that the host country bears a net cost. If we continue with the example of American universities recruiting Indian graduate students in science and engineering, the truth is that the host nation is getting a bargain. Arguably the most selective science talent search in the world is the entrance examination for the undergraduate programs at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT). American graduate programs in science and engineering—as well as American industry—have long relied on this selection process and have skimmed off the top of the IIT graduating classes in order to meet the U.S. economy's demand for scientists and engineers. The IIT is funded by the Indian government, so we in the U.S. are cashing in on scientific talent selected and trained at the expense of the Indian taxpayer, who in turn gets a return on this investment as mentioned above.
A similar story can be told about medical education. In some of the best private medical schools in India, medical education is subsidized by clinical revenue (from patients). Graduates from these programs (recruited to the U.S. to meet a growing demand for doctors, post-docs in the life sciences, and other health professionals) have had their training subsidized by healthcare consumers in India.
In an interesting twist on globalization, some Indians are going to China to study medicine because of the shortage of medical school seats in India. Medical education (particularly clinical training) in the U.S. is becoming prohibitively expensive—for students, medical schools and teaching hospitals—even as the demand for doctors and other healthcare professionals soars. Countries like India and China, with large numbers of patients and rapid growth in the hospital sector, are likely to become destinations for clinical training.
The American-born children of the Indian students who were recruited to graduate programs in the first wave several decades ago are now represented disproportionately in the student bodies of the top American colleges and universities. Experienced at negotiating between two cultures, this generation is contributing to the internationalization of the educational experience on campus. From Bollywood music to Bhangra dancing, our campuses are becoming incubators of cross-cultural knowledge.
Knowledge knows no national borders, and learning shouldn't either. Institutions of higher learning are taking the lead in reaching across nations to prepare global citizens and leaders for a world in which cultures are more interwoven than ever before.
Truth Prevails. Sometimes, Technology Helps
I became a born-again optimist this year in an unlikely place: surrounded by hundreds of cardboard boxes filled with the dead.
They were indigenous victims of Guatemala's civil war. Row after row, stacked floor to roof, on the top level of a building protected by concertina wire and armed guards in Guatemala City. This site is home to a group called the Forensic Anthropology Foundation of Guatemala.
The living were downstairs. Using open source software, recycled computers, and DNA forensics help from labs in the United States, they work to identify the dead. The FAFG staff includes lawyers, 'antropologos forensicos' and I.T. engineers. The process begins when someone tips them on the whereabouts of one of these clandestine mass graves. Then comes the slow digging, and what must be painful conversations with the surviving relatives, who often fear retribution from the perpetrators — because the killers sometimes live in the same village, right next door. The army recruited soldiers from the same Mayan villages their scorched-earth policies sought to destroy.
The FAFG exhumations yield clumps of bones, flesh, sometimes the clothing the victim wore when the killing happened. And back in this Guatemala City building now, the living are cleaning and scraping and sorting those clumps of bone and dirt, laying them out on tables, brushing the soil off, marking each tibia and fibula and tooth with codes that will soon be tapped into databases. When everything comes together just right — the survivor's testimony, the database tables, the DNA prints, the bullet holes through the dry cranium, the dig maps — when all of that clicks, someone then writes a code in black marker on the side of a cardboard box.
"Jacinto Rodriguez, FAFG-482-V-I, Nebaj, El Quiché." He was one of thousands whose deaths the military authorities denied or discounted for decades.
Sometimes, governments turn on their own citizens, and those corrupt regimes are sustained in part by lies. Sometimes the lies last for decades. Sometimes longer.
But science does not lie.
These boxes full of bones, and all the data with which they're tagged: none of that lies. Even though the living in this building work under death threats (they're texted in by SMS now), even though they lack financial, technical and practical resources — day after day, more of those boxes fill with codes and names. And eventually, the dead return to their pueblos, inside these boxes, for reburial.
"The survivors want to know that their family members will rest in a dignified way, instead of being dumped by the side of the road like dogs," one of the anthropologists told me. "More than justice in the American sense of the word — more than revenge, or legal process — they just want their people back."
I met with other organizations like FAFG this year in Guatemala and other countries. Organizations run by individuals who are working very hard, under impossibly difficult conditions, to uncover and preserve the truth of past human rights violations. And what I saw — in particular, new uses of technological tools to solve old problems — gave me hope.
Even with the greatest of challenges, and the passing of years, the truth eventually prevails. When at least one person believes the truth matters, there is hope.
Save The Arctic
No one truly thinks we can slow global climate change within half a century; at least, no economist who has looked at the huge momentum of energy demand in the developing countries.
So: despair? Not at all. Certainly we should accept the possibility that anthropogenic carbon emissions could trigger a climactic tripping point, such as interruption of the gulf stream in the Atlantic. But rather than urging only an all out effort to shrink the human atmospheric-carbon footprint, my collaborators and I propose relatively low tech and low expense experiments at changing the climate on purpose instead of by mistake.
If we understand climate well enough to predict that global warming will be a problem, then we understand it well enough to address the problem by direct means.
Perhaps the simplest idea uses the suspension of tiny, harmless particles (less than one micron) at about 80,000 feet altitude, in the stratosphere.
A first test could be over the arctic, since the warming there is considerable. The polar bears need hjelp right now, not when we might get control of emissions, out beyond 2050. The Arctic atmospheric circulation patterns tend to confine the deployed particles, sweeping them around the pole but not southward.
One could use enough of the tiny particles to create a readily measurable shielding effect. An initial experiment could occur north of 70 degrees latitude, over the Arctic Sea and outside national boundaries. The particles would reflect UV rays back into space. They would reduce warming and stop the harm of UV rays to plants and animals. Robust photosynthesis would still occur, fueled by the visible spectrum.
This idea exploits our expanding understanding of the climate system, plus our knowledge that the marked cooling by volcanoes in the last century arose from sulphate aerosols at high altitude.
If this works, it could arrest Arctic warming and reverse the loss of sea ice. Since few live there, any side effects on people would be minor. By placing the particles at a high altitude, we can arrange for the first experiments to end when they rain out into the sea, perhaps after the Arctic summer has passed.
We could then put this particulate shield and other technologies on the shelf quickly and cheaply. They would be ready for use if the global environment worsens, signals that the scarier scenarios of a warming climate might be threatening.
Costs seem attainable—perhaps ten million dollars for a first experiment. Trials over open ocean are little constrained by law or treaty, so show-stopper politics may be avoided. "No Environmental Impact Statement Required" should be the goal.
We hope that a favorable experiment could change the terms of the global warming debate for the better. We must think of other methods of trimming the effects of warming, not just a War on Carbon that will take a century to win. As economist Robert Samuelson recently said, "The trouble with the global warming debate is that it has become a moral crusade when it's really an engineering problem. The inconvenient truth is that if we don't solve the engineering problem, we're helpless."
Evidence-Based Decision Making Will Help Transform Society
I am optimistic (and hopeful) that one of the key tenets of scientific investigation, "evidenced-based decision making" will be extended to all aspects of modern society. Good experimental design works toward creating conditions that provide the most useful information on a given topic while attempting to eliminate, or at least limit, spurious, irrelevant artifacts from being generated that could falsely influence data interpretation. Data or information is collected until a threshold is exceeded permitting either conclusions to be drawn or at least development of a hypothesis that with further testing can be validated or falsified.
Not all questions can be simply answered by just looking at the evidence because we are still at a very early stage in understanding the universe around us. For example, in attempting to understand how life began on our planet we can only guess based on certain assumptions whether it originated de novo here or arrived from another planet or a distant galaxy. We do know that a few hundred kilograms of material is exchanged annually between the Earth and Mars, and that new planets are discovered at an unprecedented pace. When we discover microbial life on Mars we will double the number of planets with known life while increasing the possibility of finding life elsewhere in the universe.
For most scientists the evidence for evolution, regardless of its origins, has been overwhelming. The fossil record was sufficient evidence for most, but now with genome sequencing information from all branches of life, including from some of our closest relatives like Neanderthals, chimps and rhesus monkeys, the results should be clear cut for anyone whose thinking is not overly clouded by a "belief" system.
In contrast we have newspapers, radio and television news stations owned by individuals or governments presenting subjective, selective subsets of information. As well, there are political campaigns and statements by those wishing to gain or retain power that can only be dismissed as partisan."
We need to push harder for an education system that teaches evidence-based decision making while we hold our public leaders to a higher standard and less partisan behavior as we attempt to tackle some of the historically most difficult challenges facing the future of humanity.
The Impact Of Multilingualism In Europe
I'm optimistic about Europe. On May 30th 2005, the day after the French rejected in a referendum the project of the European Constitution, I was traveling on the Thalys high speed train from Paris to Brussels for a committee meeting at the European Community. The train was full people of my age—in their late thirties—going to Brussels as "experts" in various domains to attend meetings and participate in various EC projects. I looked around and started chatting with my neighbors. The conversation was light, mainly about restaurants and bars in Brussels or new exhibitions and movies. Most of the people I spoke with came from more than one cultural background, with two or more nationalities in the family: Say, father from Germany, mother from Ireland, grown up in Rotterdam. All of us were at least bilingual, many trilingual or more. I quickly realized that asking the opening question of ordinary train encounters, "Where are you from?" had become patently obsolete. The image was quite at odds with the newspapers' and politicians' cliché of the prototypical EC officer as a grey, square, hideously boring civil servant in a checkered jacket, wasting time inventing useless bureaucratic rules. My neighbors epitomized the deep cultural change that is now taking place in Europe. A new generation has grown up, people born more than a quarter of century after the end of the Second World War and now moving around Europe to study and work, meeting, dating, marrying, and having children with people from other European countries, and doing so as a matter of course.
More and more European children grow up multilingual. They are unlike immigrants born in one culture and having to grow up in another. They are unlike children growing up in a monolingual, monocultural family that happen to be located in a wider multicultural environment. For the children I am talking about, cultural and linguistic diversity is not just outside them in the society at large, it is part of their own, implanted in their minds as novel kind of cultural identity. Multilingualism is going to become an existential condition in Europe, and this is really good news for a continent in which national identities have been so powerful and have caused so much pain and tragedies in the past.
Multilingualism however is not only an existential condition: it has also an impact on our cognitive life. Recent research in developmental psychology shows that bilingual children are faster in developing the ability to understand the mental states of others. Most children under four fail to demonstrate any understanding of the fact that a person's behavior is based not on the way things are but rather on beliefs—true or false—the person has about the way things are. Bilingual children, intriguingly, succeed in what is known as the "False Belief Task" several months earlier than do monolingual. A likely interpretation of these findings is that bilingual children have a more fine grained ability to understand their social environment, and in particular, a greater awareness of the fact that different people may represent reality in different ways. My bilingual six-year-old son makes mistakes in French and in Italian, but never confuses contexts in which it is more appropriate to use one language than the other, including contexts where there are other bilinguals.
I believe that active multilingualism in Europe will help produce a new generation of cognitively more flexible children who will have integrated from the onset in their own identity and their own cognition their mixed cultural background. It will become impossible for educational institutions around Europe to inflict to these individually multicultural students their local "sacred values" based on Higher Civilization, greater bravery, spiritual superiority, or what have you. They will have to update their educational programs for young people who recognize themselves neither in local foundational myths, nor in a feel-good Multiculturalism predicated upon the maintenance of sharply distinct cultural identities. This will help new generations to get rid of "unreal loyalties", to use the words of Virginia Woolf, to nation, flag or local customs and manners. Multilingual citizens of a European space will be more tolerant and less sensitive to local allegiances and partialities. Their tolerance of diverse cultural identities, in the old "mono" style or recomposed, will be built from within, and not learned as a social norm.
All this may be just wishful thinking, projecting my own personal trajectory on the future of Europe. But I can't help thinking that being multilingual is the best and cheapest antidote to cultural intolerance to be found today. And a way of going beyond the empty label of "multiculturalism" by experiencing a plural culture from within. And, of course, this is not just an European issue.
Metacognition For Kids
We can use the discoveries of cognitive science to improve the quality of education in the US and abroad. To do this, however, we need to radically rethink how our schools work. Going back to the Industrial Revolution, the main emphasis as been on memorization, force-feeding our children with bite-sized morsels that are easily memorize—and quickly forgotten. (Recall the words of Dickens' stern schoolmaster Mr. Gradgrind, "Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts... Plant nothing else, and root out everything else.") I am not sure it ever served a purpose for children to memorize the capitals of all 50 states (as I failed to do in junior high school), but in the age of Google, continued emphasis on memorization is surely largely a waste of time.
Five decades of cognitive science have taught us that humans are not particularly good memorizers—but also that we as a species have bigger fish to fry. Hamlet famously marveled that humans were "noble in reason", "infinite in faculty", but experimental psychologists like Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky have shown that humans are actually often poor reasoners, easily fooled. The average person tends to have a shaky grasp on logic, to believe a lot of what he (or she) hears unreflectively, and to be overly confident in his (or her) own beliefs. We tend to be easily fooled by vivid examples, and to notice data that support our theories—whilst forgetting about or ignoring data that go against our theories. Yet I cannot recall a single high school class on informal arguments, how to spot fallacies, or how to interpret statistics; it wasn't until college that anybody explained to me the relation between causation and correlation. In the age of the internet, our problem is not that children can't find information, but that they can't evaluate it.
What children of today need is not so much a large stock of readily Googleable information as a mental toolkit for parsing what they hear and read. As the old saying goes, it is better to teach a man how to fish than to simply give him fish; the current curriculum largely gives children fish, without teaching them a thing about how to fish for themselves.
How to teach children to fish for themselves? I would start with a course in what cognitive scientists call metacognition, knowing about knowing, call it The Human Mind: A User's Guide, aimed at say, seventh-graders.. Instead of emphasizing facts, I'd expose students to the architecture of the mind, what it does well, and what it doesn't. And most important, how to cope with its limitations, to consider evidence in a more balanced way, to be sensitive to biases in our reasoning, and to make choices in ways that better suit our own long-term goals. Nobody ever taught me about these things in middle school (or even high school), but there's no reason why they couldn't be taught; in time, I expect they will.
The Ever Awaited Super-Collider
Because ~3.5 Billion CHF [and I don't know exactly how many FTEs for how many years of how many experts and indeed in many disciplines of science, construction and technology] later [and yes we can debate the exact number, however as Jack Sandweiss taught me, "big" money for science is just a perception really] we are getting there. Where "there" is the ever awaited super-collider. A machine that attracts the imagination and intellectual focus of physicists and people at large alike. Being built under the Jura on the border of Switzerland and France the Large Hadron Collider is a serious reason of optimism for experimental science. It is the first time that the human exploration and technology will offer reproducible "hand-made" 14 TeV collisions of protons with protons. The physics of such interactions, the analysis of the data from the debris of these collisions [the highest energy such] are to be seen in the coming year.
And checking the LHC dashboard is an index of this optimism. In 2007-2008 we shall be bringing up and running the LHC and its experiments (CMS,ATLAS, LHCb,ALICE to name the largest ones) and analyzing the first data.
I, my colleagues, and you, have at least one unique reason to be optimistic.
The Joys Of Failing Enterprises
The good news where I come from, as a prisoner here in the American media business, is all about entropy. The massive and ridiculous systems that we've built to control and market expression and culture, with their dissipations of so many people's energy, are deteriorating and coming apart. Everyday the media—a much more vexing monolith than religion and God—takes another transforming step from consolidation and uniformity toward uncertainty and chaos. This is not just because new technologies are revolutionizing production and distribution—though that's no small part of this creative destruction—but as much because of the inevitable disorder and randomness of closed systems. What's optimistic is that so many strategists and consultants and bureaucrats and moguls have not been able to maintain control and have been shown to be as clueless as everybody else (this is true, come to think of it, not just at Time Warner and Viacom, but at the Pentagon). Breakdown can be a positive development.
An eight-year-old sits braiding the hair on the tail of her My Little Pony doll, completely absorbed in the job. The shining plasticized hair is long and resilient; she plays with it for hours.
She starts by taking the tail and dividing it into three pieces that she braids together. Then, she undoes that braid and begins to nest layers of braids. She divides the tail into nine pieces and braids each group of three until she has three braids, and then takes these three braids and braids them together. After a while, the girl is starting with twenty-seven pieces, braiding them first into nine, then into three, then into one. The girl is playing with My Little Pony but she is thinking about recursion.
The eight-year-old is one of my MIT students, telling a story of her childhood. For the past thirty years, I have begun each class at MIT by asking my students to write about an object that was important to them on their path toward science. What they have had to say testifies to the importance of objects in the development of a love for science—a truth that is simple, intuitive, and easily overlooked. And it is cause for optimism because it offers a hopeful note as we face our national crisis in science education.
As we argue about testing and standards, about the virtues of digital tools, about whether or not to move to online courseware, we have a tendency—as in any emergency—to look for salvation in the next new thing or things. In this case, these next new things are testing, measurement, and the computer itself as a way to provide educational solutions. But we can also look to the last things that worked. And one of the things that has always worked in getting young people interested in science has been object passions. From my very first days at MIT in 1976, I met students and colleagues who spoke about how as children they were drawn to science by the mesmerizing power of a crystal radio, by the physics of sand castles, by playing with marbles, by childhood explorations of air-conditioning units.
Certain trends are apparent as I look at the objects that have drawn children to science over the past thirty years. One is an interest in "transparency." Through the mid-1980s, MIT students wrote about being drawn to science by radios, vacuum cleaners, wooden blocks, and broken telephones. These are things to take apart and put back together again. By the end of the 1980s, the emphasis shifts to objects that are investigated through the manipulation of program and code. Yet even with the passage from mechanical to electronic, and from analog to digital, students express a desire to get close to the inner workings of their machines. Even with machines that are increasingly opaque—with a printed circuit board one can no longer "open the hood and look inside"—young people with a scientific bent continue to search for at least a metaphorical understanding of the mechanism behind the magic. And they find it.
Beyond seeking a way to make any object transparent, students extol the pleasure of materials, of texture, what one might call the resistance of the "real." For one, geology became real through her childhood experience of baking a chocolate meringue: "Basic ingredients, heated, separated, and cooled equals planet." A thirteen-year-old looks up at the motion of his fly line while fishing with his father and is reminded of drawings of long, continuous, flowing lines he had made in algebra class. "I realized that the motion of my hand had a very direct effect on the movement of the line, much in the same way that the input to a function produced a given output. Without any formal understanding of the physics involved, I was able to see the fly rod as representing a given function for which I was the input... From this point on, the fly rod was my metaphor for understanding function in mathematics."
Young scientists are encouraged by a personal experience with an object they can understand and with which they can tinker. Playing with objects in their own way leads children to build a personal scientific style. There has been no simple migration to a new digital world. Children grow up in many worlds—they are seduced by the virtual, but always brought back to the physical, to the analog, and of course, to nature.
Science is fueled by passion, a passion that often attaches to the world of objects much as the artist attaches to his paints, the poet to his words. Putting children in a rich object world is essential to giving science a chance. At a time when science education is in crisis, giving science its best chance means guiding children to objects they can love. Children will make intimate connections, connections they need to construct on their own.
One of the things that keeps educators and parents from valuing children's object passions is the fear that children will become trapped in objects, the fear that children will prefer the company of objects to that of other children. But even if the objects in the life of a young scientist do begin as objects of reassurance for a lonely child, these objects—from the periodic table of the elements (because it offers an image of perfect and reassuring organization) to Lego blocks (because they offer a way to create perfect and reassuring symmetries) can become points of entry to larger, transformative experiences of understanding and confidence, very often at the point they are shared.
It seems wise to attend to young scientists' romance with objects. If we do so, we are encouraged to make children comfortable with the idea that falling in love with things is part of what we expect of them. We are encouraged to introduce the periodic table as poetry and LEGOs as a form of art.
In Mindstorms: Children, Computers, and Powerful Ideas, Seymour Papert writes of falling in love with the gears of a toy car that his father gave him when he was two. Fascination with those gears led to fascination with others. He played with gears in his mind and mathematics began to come alive for him. He fell in love with the gears and he fell in love with science, all at the same time. Papert makes the point that if anyone had tried to measure what was happening to him as this inner explosion of affect and cognition was occurring, they would have found nothing to measure.
I am made optimistic because a conversation about objects reminds us that just because we can't take a measurement doesn't mean that something important is not occurring. Too often when we can't test, we end the conversation. My students' voices make me optimistic because they serve as a reminder that the limit of testing is not the limit of inquiry. It can mark the moment where we turn directly to the child, where we put our deeper intelligence to work. We can learn what motivates and what inspires..
From a practical point of view, we cannot know in advance whether we stand before a child who will use objects as a path to science. If we insist on one-kind-fits-all curricular programming that takes children away from the idiosyncratic objects they are drawn to, we could miss a child who makes Cs and Ds in math and science but goes on to develop an abiding love for designing complex systems because he has connected with LEGOs and a personal computer. We could miss a child who doesn't think of herself as a science student even as she silently absorbs everything she can learn from chemistry experiments that create purple smoke. We might not count as learning the lessons that come with braiding a pony's tail, casting a fly rod, or baking a meringue.
I am reminded daily of these object passions in the students I teach; I am optimistic as I begin to sense the political and philanthropic will that could enable these passions to find their voice in education.
The 22nd Century
I am optimistic about many things, especially the future. Just last week I met a number of people from the 22nd century, and they were delightful.
We smiled and giggled together a lot but none of them seemed to speak a word of English. Even their Japanese was not so great just yet. But demographic analysis tell us that many of those little girls I saw in Kyoto will end up as citizens of the next century.
I am optimistic that even if none of the people I just met do so, then at least someone who is already alive will be the first person to make their permanent home off-Earth. And next century my new young acquaintances will go to sleep at night on Earth knowing that humankind has spread itself out into the solar system. Some people will have done it for wealth. Others, driven by our evolutionarily selected urges, will have done it to once again mediate risks across our gene pool by spreading out to different environmental niches. But the wonder of it all is that those now old, but sprightly, women in Kyoto will be able to revel in the romance of the human spirit, always questing to learn, understand, explore, and be.
Is this really going to happen this century? Really.
Government space programs in China, Europe, India, Japan, Russia, and the United States, have all in recent months talked about their plans for the moon during the first quarter of this century. There is a new government-backed space race, less agitated than the last, but more likely to produce sustainable technologies.
And then there are the billionaires and billionaire-lites. Richard Branson has teamed with aircraft design maverick Burt Rutan (who won the Ansari X Prize with SpaceShipOne funded by billionaire Paul Allen) to develop the world's first space airline, Virgin Galactic. They plan on putting 500 people per year into suborbital space. There are other suboribital and orbital space competitors (and collaborators), including Rocketplane Kistler, Space Adventures, and Benson Space Company, all driven by charismatic individuals. PayPal principal Elon Musk, through his company SpaceX, has developed the Falcon 1 and Falcon 9 vehicles and had his first launch, with a backlog of paying customers. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is less public about his plans, but his company Blue Origins has been getting FAA licenses for low altitude tests of a vertical take off and landing system at his Texas ranch. And there is no shortage of other high tech billionaires who have expressed interest in space ventures, and may well be investing in some not yet announced. And while all these efforts are building hardware for launches from Earth there are starting to be serious discussions of start ups for companies which will provide higher order services, including shipping asteroids to new orbits to deliver rocket fuel to paying customers. These are the first little nano-steps of solar system engineering towards the ultimate of a Dyson sphere of mankind's very own.
In the current activities there are obvious analogies with heavier than air flight in the early twentieth century, and look where that, with the help of a couple of world wars, got us in that century. There is no longer a mono or duo culture for access to space and planetary bodies—certainly a reason to be optimistic about this second wave of access to space. If this wave does eventually sputter like the last we still have plenty of time for a third wave during the lifetimes of my Kyoto friends. The key drivers will turn out to be either military or economic or, most likely, both. Just as in 1907 the economics of heavier than air flight were not obvious, we are still struggling in 2007 with the economics of this new endeavor. But that too will come and will be the ultimate driver.
By the beginning of the twenty second century mankind will have significantly raised the probability of its long term survival by spreading its genetic material beyond Earth. That genetic material may be significantly modified from the current model but that is another and different story. The point is that we will have spread ourselves to more than one little tiny ball in our solar system, and will continue to step to other systems and throughout the galaxy over subsequent centuries.
As for the coming events of this century there may not be a Gion but there will be bars on Mars and over time they will gather their own histories and legends as stories are told and re-told. And, just perhaps, one of my peek-a-boo playmates will be one of the great actors in the derring-dos and swashbuckling courage under pressure that will surely be part of the coming adventures.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice
"In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread"—it has always been that way.
Most men have been slaves of necessity, while the few who were not lived by exploiting others who were. Although mechanization has eased that burden in the advanced countries, it is still the case for the majority of the human race. Limited resources (mainly fossil fuels), as well as negative consequences of industrialization such as global warming, have made some people question whether American living standards can ever be extended to most of the human race. They're pessimists, and they're wrong.
Hardly anyone seems to realize it, but we're on the threshold of an era of unbelievable abundance. Within a generation—sooner if we want it enough—we will be able to make a self-replicating machine, first seriously suggested by John von Neumann.
Such a machine would absorb energy through solar cells, eat rock and use the energy and minerals to make copies of itself. Numbers would grow geometrically, and if we manage to design one with a reasonably short replication time—say six months—we could have trillions working for humanity in another generation. You might compare this process to a single cell of blue-green algae, which replicates over the summer until it covers the entire pond. But unlike algae, a self-replicating machine would be programmed and controlled by us. If it could make it its own mechanical and electronic parts, it would also be able to make toasters, refrigerators, and Lamborghinis, as well as the electricity to power them. We could make the deserts bloom, put two cars in every pot, and end world poverty, while simultaneously fighting global warming. It's closer than you think, since the key technologies are already being developed for use in rapid prototyping and desktop manufacturing. Aristotle thought that slavery would only end when looms weave by themselves: we're almost there.
Right now the human race uses about 13 trillion watts: the solar cells required to produce that much power would take up less than a fifth of one percent of the Earth's land surface—remember that the Earth intercepts more solar energy in an hour than the human race uses in a year. That's a lot of solar cell acreage, but it's affordable as long as they make themselves. We could put them in deserts—in fact, they'd all fit inside the Rub' al Khali, the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia. As I understand it, we like depending on the Saudis for energy.
But there are better ways. Solar energy works better in space—sure, the weather is better, but also consider that the vast majority of the Sun's energy misses the Earth. In fact only about one part in two billion warms this planet. Space-based self-replicating systems could harvest some of that lost sunlight—enough to make possible a lot of energy-expensive projects that are currently impractical. An interstellar probe is a bit beyond our means right now, and the same is true of terraforming Venus or Mars. That will change within our children's lifetimes.
I'm reminded of Mickey Mouse as the sorcerer's apprentice in Fantasia... He enchanted a broomstick to fetch water, but didn't know how to stop it. When he split the broom with an axe, over and over, each of the pieces took up a pail—and before you know he was in over his head. But where he saw a crisis, we see opportunity.
A New, Environmentally Sustainable Worldview
Given the current array of critical environmental woes—global warming, habitat loss, and species extinctions, among others—one might assume that there is little room for optimism. Nevertheless, I am optimistic, albeit cautiously so, about a profound shift in human attitudes toward the environment.
The current worldview in the Western world is a reductionist perspective that has been dominant for over 300 years. Founded by scientists such as Descartes, Newton, Galileo, and Bacon, reductionism regards the natural world as a series of machines best understood by ever-more detailed examination of constituent parts. This mechanistic approach has generated a plethora of scientific breakthroughs—quantum theory, genetics, high-speed computers, and the germ theory of disease, to name a few—with each intoxicating success fueling ever-more intense investigation of nature's components. Yet it has also fostered a fundamental division between humans and the natural world, with the former envisioned as dominating the latter.
Moreover, the Cartesian perspective on nature has proven to have severe limitations within science. In particular, because of a myopic focus on the parts, little attention has been given to connections and relationships, let alone wholes. In response to this perceived gap in understanding, many disciplines have recently turned to a 'systems' approach that often unites once separate disciplines. Thus, there has been an ever-growing emphasis on interdisciplinary research, with, for example, geobiology and biocomplexity becoming legitimate fields of study. Simultaneously, many educators have begun to direct their efforts toward revealing the "web of life," including the myriad connections that link the living and non-living aspects of nature.
The underlying themes of the outdated, mechanistic perspective are isolation and permanence, with objects perceived as relatively permanent and distinct from one another. In contrast, the new worldview celebrates the opposite concepts: connections and change. And once again there is a firm grounding in science, which has demonstrated that natural systems are inextricably interconnected and continually undergoing change (particularly if one's perspective includes deep time).
Thanks in part to a global economy and the World Wide Web, the mantra of this new movement—"It is all connected"—has even made its way into the popular media. At a slow but increasing pace, people are becoming aware that their everyday decisions can have far-reaching, even global, effects. Surely there is hope and optimism to be found in the many recent movements toward sustainability, even if most of these efforts remain on a small scale.
Nevertheless, any optimism with regard to a growing environmental consciousness must be tempered with a double dose of reality. First, environmental changes are occurring at rates that are entirely unknown in human experience. To give just one case in point, the rate of species extinctions is about 1000 times greater than has been typical in earth history. Indeed the current human-induced mass extinction is on track to obliterate on the order of one half of all species on earth by the close of this century, with unpredictable (and perhaps unimaginable) ecological consequences. Thus, we have little time to make this transformational leap. The next few decades will be pivotal.
Second, the transition to a sustainable worldview will not occur simply through a sufficiently heightened fear of environmental collapse. No, such a fundamental shift will require no less than a transformation of our educational system, not only K-12 but higher education as well. We must equip parents and educators with the tools to be effective not only in communicating the science of natural systems, but also in fostering passion for nature ("biophilia", to use E. O. Wilson's term). By necessity, this process will involve getting children outdoors early and often, so that they have a chance to forge bonds with nature. First and foremost, education should be aimed at teaching children and adults how to live well in the world. Ultimately, in order for this pressing venture to be successful, scientists must become directly involved, communicating science to a broad audience at unprecedented levels. In other words, "Third Culture" must step up and take on a major role in this endeavor.
Good Choices Sometimes Prevail
I am cautiously optimistic about the state of the world, because: 1. Big businesses sometimes conclude that what is good for the long-term future of humanity is also good for their bottom line (cf. Wal-Mart's recent decision to shift their seafood purchases entirely to certified sustainable fisheries within the next three to five years). 2. Voters in democracy sometimes make good choices and avoid bad choices (cf. some recent elections in a major First World country).
People Will Increasingly Value Truth (Over Truthiness)
Optimism is an "ism" like any other. People reading these pages should recognize the responses as the hopeful beliefs that they are. With this caveat, I'm optimistic that people will increasingly value truth (over truthiness). After recent digressions into beliefs and images dominating current thought, I'm anticipating that society will increasingly recognize and understand the value of knowledge. People will want to make their own critical judgments, know more facts, and stop deferring to questionable authorities or visual media for their education. I don't necessarily think everyone will do so. But I'm optimistic that the ones who do won't remain a silent minority.
Part of my optimism stems from my experiences talking and writing about the future of particle physics to the public and the surge of interest I've found when people realize how much they can learn and understand. All of us in the particle physics community are eagerly awaiting the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), a proton-proton collider being built in Switzerland that will turn on in 2007 and begin its real operation in 2008. I'm optimistic (with calculations that support my optimism) that this machine will tell us about the nature of mass and explain to us the weakness of gravity relative to the other known elementary particle forces. I'm optimistic that we'll learn something truly new and exciting about the fundamental nature of matter and our world-maybe something as exciting as extra dimensions of space—or perhaps something no one has even thought about yet. Whatever the results will be, the LHC gives reason to be optimistic.
It's a turquoise sky on a December afternoon. Out of the window I see the Rhein river meandering far below me, the last rays of sunlight shimmering on the surface, a storm is passing through from France heading towards Cologne. To check on it, I push a button, the screen fills with dozens of little widgets: I have a quick look at the realtime weather animation loop for the last 6 hours and can see that most of it will pass to the North.
A little bell sound, ah, an sms text message coming in from my daughter in London: her final cake worked well! I smile, bet she is happy now, on the way to her diploma in Patisserie at the Cordon Bleu cooking school. I flip open the cell phone Qwerty keyboard and type a smiley with hugs at her with both thumbs.
Then a window pops up on the very large screen: it's my old pal Ben, who happens to be online in Santa Barbara. In the Chat window he sends me an image from NASA: the newly found evidence for water, flowing down the sides of a crater on Mars. He also pastes in a link to the NASA site: the super resolution files. I download a handful and watch a couple hundred megabytes come down.
That's a case for the other machine: I drag the images over to the T221, 9 million pixels at 200dpi, what a wonder to behold. Water on Mars! We had just seen the HD documentary by the BBC on the amazing tenacity of life, the Mariani trench 11,000m below the surface, they keeping finding life in surprising complexity in the most unlikely places. I smile again: In my lifetime there may be irrefutable evidence of life outside of Earth.
Ben suggests a Go game, but at the same time there is now a window with Matt and Mike: we have been working on cool new software for quite a while - except there is one twist: they happen to live outside of Auckland, in the forests of northern New Zealand, more like the antipode of my place in Europe. But it works well: the new version is ready, Matt sends it encrypted while the three of us chat together, with annotated screenshots of 'bugs'. We could switch to VoiP or live camera, but it's helpful to have the written record as well.
Yanking the mouse to a corner: the widgets re-appear and a few world-time clocks tell me that it's 8 am where they are, wow, up early! I glance at some headlines on slashdot, digg, heise, arstechnica, perlentaucher. I see the NPR news headlines, the Tate Gallery rss shows an exhibition of Holbein, sweet... didn't I just read about him on edge.org? Where is that Tate St. Ives anyway? I switch to Google Earth and swoop down on the UK from space.
Dragging the mouse to the other corner: the screen fills with tiny colorful images, probably 100 of them, all the files currently open shown in miniature. I find the NASA shots and drag them over to the side into a folder for science stuff. Quite a collection of bits and pieces there, years of collecting them. Attached for a few hundred bucks is a terabyte worth of muse and ponder. Dozens of reference books, the Encyclopedia Brittanica, what a dream.
Come to think of it, I should send that to the other two kids. My boys are 15 and 11 now, a voracious age. I ping the younger one, ask if he has time for Dad just now. I send him a sweet physics simulation LineRider and the lovely SandGame particle system applet, he will have fun with that. In the meantime a quick scan at the news for a good description of the water on Mars events. New Scientist has a nice writeup, Wired a good story with side by side comparisons. I print the page into a pdf file, drag it over to him. The older one pops up, has some new jokes for me. He loves to read them and to create his own. I tell him to google "2.3 trillion missing" and watch the YouTube video. Ponder a little.
They will come over here soon. Sweet, we can go to the mediaeval Christmas market. Drive down to Innsbruck for real snow. I should get a few movies for us to watch. Are they ready for "Aguirre"? Maybe "2001" ? Christopher sent "5th Element" on BluRay. Perhaps "Amelie", next summer we go to Paris. Now that piano is in my ear... A quick change to the music store, a search for Yann Tiersen, there is almost everything he ever made. A few clicks, a few bucks and the soundtrack is here. I burn a CD for the trip. Click in Wikipedia, what has he been up to? Duet with Jane Birkin and Cocteau Twins, neat, missed that!
My much-better-half comes over for a hug: time to go, we have lots of errands before the holidays. She flies across the autobahn past 220 km/h with a grin, the navigator detects a traffic jam ahead, rerouting us across the river, just a 10 minute detour, not bad. Could get some gas though: all the nearest gas stations are shown, I click on one, it takes us there. Pause the favorite song while I go in, grab a couple magazines and newspapers. No cash, I slide the plastic through the slit and leave. She already entered the address we want to go to first, tricky access through the maze of one-way streets around the old town area. Minus 3 outside, we snuggle in the heated seats, on the screen the closest Thai restaurants ...
Obviously I could go on ad nauseum here, but this is not a description of technology per se. The emphasis is on quality of life. On the benefits of tools, the liberating freedom. My real point: Humans are feeble. We forget. We have become numb to all the wonder.
To see the weather in pictures from space, animated over time, what a wonder that would have been to the Wright brothers...or James Cook, Vasco da Gama, Marco Polo..? To be in realtime communication with your family, what a wonder that would have been for Bach who had 20 children (half of which died in infancy. I didn't even touch on the advances in health and medicine, of course).
To see cellphones and billions of sms would have boggled Tesla, Edison, Bell, Reis, Meucci. To send a probe to other planets, and personally own the resulting images in startling clarity, what a dream that would have been for a Huygens, Mercator, Kepler, Galileo...
To collaborate on your work with colleagues on the other side of the world as if they are in the next room, how liberating is that freedom! To travel safely, quickly, effortlessly, with an all-knowing friend guiding you, what would any of them say to that? Researchers added up that Goethe traveled over 37.000 km in his lifetime, in more than 180 excursions but: on foot, horseback and carriages! Add a zero for a guy like Humboldt. They would have marveled — or cried — at our options to go anywhere, see anything, meet anyone.
To be able to see all the works of all the great artists, and keep a copy to then examine up-close, at your leisure, in your own home — to listen to the music of any composer, new or old...what an absolute dream in itself that would have been for any and all of them! Consider you hear about 'that new Beethoven symphony': you would have to physically travel to a performance somewhere, and even then you could only hear that one, not any of the others, and: you would likely forget it, since you would hardly get a chance to hear it again to build a long term memory of it. Never mind mentioning movies here, or radio, television, let alone the web.
To get to research done anywhere, by anyone, to share the findings and writings, duplicate them instantly, store them and save them, catalog them and index them, searchable among billions, in seconds...to have your own copy of the books, your own Brittanica, how blissful that would have made Jules Verne with his 20.000 wooden boxes of index card snippets, or any of the other universally interested scientists like Athanasius Kircher or T.H. Huxley, Newton or Leibniz. And what's more, your own Sphynx, divining nearly any answer to any question. find any fact, in minutes if not seconds, an advisor like no Sun-king or Emperor, Kaiser or Pharaoh could ever buy with all the gold in their empires.... that's Google now in a smartphone in the pockets of teenagers.
Surely any of the ancient Greeks would spontaneously combust at the sight of almost any household object on any shelf in any department store. And yes, I realize, that still won't make us automatically and constantly happy, duhh. And is there a list of evils and downsides that came with all those advances? You bet. I could switch hats and drown in drivel about all that...
But the question stands: what am I optimistic about? And I think it simply bears repeating:
Countless scientists over the millennia dedicated their lives to discoveries, to solutions, to inventions and explanations. They had visions of bettering the fate of humanity, of seeking truths and finding answers, and they paid for it with enormous efforts and in many cases with their life. Their combined body of bodies stands in front of us, in awe, and... in tears. We have achieved almost all their dreams, we have freedom in every sense like never before in history and: we are ungrateful bastards about it!
Let us just be content again. Plain happy. Period. I am calling for a New Contentism.
From that vantage point, looking at the incredible options and tools for all of us, is there reason to be optimistic for the future that we could make good use of them? You bet!
The Importance Of Innocence
"I don't think a lot of people realize how important innocence is to innocent people." These are haunting words spoken in the film "A Cry in the Dark"
The wrongful conviction of innocent people has been a serious problem in our society. It is a problem that we are now becoming acutely aware of through the release of individuals who were shown to be actually innocent by DNA testing. One happy consequence of these sad cases is the advent of a number of "innocence projects," typically operated out of law schools and dedicated to the freeing of those who were wrongfully convicted.
I wish I could say that I was optimistic that the problem of wrongful convictions will virtually disappear, sort of like polio. I can't. But I am optimistic that the problem of wrongful convictions will become smaller than it once was. Here's why. Just as the a plane crash leads to a microscopic analysis of what went wrong, so these cases of proven wrongful conviction have been dissected to determine what went wrong. The answer in the majority of cases is faulty memory. In a recent case, a rape victim misidentified a man as her attacker — a mistake of faulty memory. Readers can find out more about how these kinds of errors happen by reviewing the cases on the website of the Innocence Project.
The mistaken identification by the rape victim, and others similarly situated, comes as no surprise to scientists who have studied eyewitness memory. We have learned a great deal about what it is about our system that promotes these tragic errors. And finally our government is listening, a price paid by the hundreds individuals whose suffered through years of imprisonment and are now free. The Dept of Justice convened a committee to make recommendations to law enforcement for how witnesses and victims should be handled to preserve that valuable "memory evidence." Many states have recently adopted a package of reforms for how witnesses are interviewed and lineups are conducted. It has been a triumph of scientific discovery — a science that has taught us much about the workings of the human mind, and also has made a difference in the way our world works. But the science has only scratched the surface, and has layers upon layers to go. During this period we will see more memory science, more reforms in the justice system, and we will have fewer errors.
As we invest in the science, and make more progress, society needs to keep one important idea in mind. Memory, like liberty, must be cherished, nourished, and protected. Without one, we can easily lose the other.
When Men Are Involved In the Care of Their Own Infants the Cultures Do Not Make War
In the past 13 years we have been able to study 222 first born babies interacting with their new parents using video cameras and the Swiss Lausanne Triadic Play method. I am very impressed with babies and working with them has renewed my faith in our species. However, in the first study we did with 130 newlywed couples we discovered the grim fact that 67% of couples experienced a large drop in relationship satisfaction in the first 3 years of their baby's life. We also found that hostility between parents increased dramatically. The baby was deeply negatively affected by this increased hostility. In fact, from the way a couple argued in the last trimester of pregnancy we could predict with high accuracy how much their baby would laugh and cry.
But then we compared the 33% of couples who did not experience that negative drop in happiness when their first baby arrived with the 67% who did, and the two groups of couples turned out to be very different even a few months after the wedding. So my wife and I designed an educational workshop based on these differences. What I am really optimistic about is that now we have discovered in two randomized clinical trials that in just a 2-day workshop we can reverse these negative effects of the arrival of the first baby. That has renewed my faith in scientific research. Furthermore, we dramatically change fathers and have a large impact on the emotional and neurological development of their babies (even though the babies didn't take the workshop).
The other thing that I am optimistic about is how much men have changed in the past 30 years. Thirty years ago we'd have only women in our audiences. Men becoming dads really want to attend these workshops and they want to be better partners and better fathers than their own dads were. That makes me optimistic. We have found that change to be there in all walks of life, all socioeconomic levels, all the races and ethnic groups we have worked with in this country. We have now trained workshop leaders in 24 countries, so I am optimistic about prevention. I believe that this knowledge can change families, avoid the deterioration of couples' relationships, and contribute to Dan Goleman's social intelligence in a new generation of children. Peggy Sanday's study of 186 hunter-gatherer cultures found that when men are involved in the care of their own infants the cultures do not make war. This greater involvement of men with their babies may eventually contribute to a more peaceful world. That thought makes me optimistic.
I am very optimistic about growing older. I turned 60 this year and several decades ago I would have looked forward to a steady decline in all my physical and mental capabilities, leading into a long and messy death. The accelerating pace of biological and medical advances that are unfolding in front of us are heavily focused on reducing the infirmities of aging and curing or transforming the diseases of old age from fatal to chronic. It means that ninety really will be the new sixty and there is a good chance that I will be among the vigorous new centenarians of mid century, with most of my faculties working fairly well. Vision, hearing, memory, cognition, bone and muscle strength, skin tone, hair and of course sexual vigor will all be remediable in the near future. Alzheimer's may be curable and most cancers are likely to be treatable if not curable. And regenerative medicine may truly lead to real increase in youthfulness as new custom grown organs replace old less functional ones. And within a few decades we are likely to be able to slow aging itself, which could even lead to life beyond 120.
THE RETURN OF COMMERCIAL SAIL
I am optimistic about the return of commercial sail. Hybrid sail/electric vessels will proliferate by harvesting energy from the wind.
Two near-inexhaustible energy sources—sunlight and the angular momentum of the rotating earth—combine, via the atmosphere, to produce the energy flux we know as wind. We have two well-proven methods of capturing this energy: windmills and sailing ships. Windmills are real-estate limited, since most available land surface is already spoken for, and distribution-limited since wind-swept areas tend to be far from where large concentrations of people live. Sailing ships turn wind energy directly into long-distance transport, but the practice was abandoned in an era of cheap fuel. The prospects deserve a second look. It is possible to not only conserve, but even accumulate, fuel reserves by sailing around the world.
Modern sailing vessel design, so far, has been constrained by two imperatives: racing (for sport or against commercial competition) and ability to sail upwind. Under favorable conditions sails produce far more horsepower than is needed to drive a ship. At marginal sacrifice in speed, by running the auxiliary propulsion system in reverse, this energy can be stored for later use. Hybrid vessels, able to store large amounts of energy—in conventional batteries, in flywheels, or by disassociation of seawater—would be free to roam the world.
The trade winds constitute an enormous engine waiting to be put to use. When oil becomes expensive enough, we will.
War Will End
I'm optimistic that one day war—large-scale, organized, group violence—will end once and for all.
Many people find my optimism naive, if not delusional. Last semester, I taught a class called "War and Human Nature," and my students polled classmates on the following question: "Do you think humanity will ever stop fighting wars once and for all time?" Of the 205 respondents, 185 replied "No"; 20 said "Yes" or "Maybe. " Several of the "optimists" added comments like "Yes, war will end when the human race will end," and "Yes, because in the future the human species will unite to fight alien species. "
Recent scholarship on warfare seems, at first glance, to support this fatalism. Just a few decades ago, many scholars believed in the "myth of the peaceful savage," which depicts war as a byproduct of modern civilization that did not exist in pre-state societies. In his book Constant Battles, the anthropologist Steven LeBlanc debunks this myth, pointing out that the vast majority of primitive, pre-state societies engaged in at least occasional warfare. Mortality rates from violence in some societies reached as high as fifty percent.
But these grim statistics yield a surprisingly upbeat message: Things are getting better! Hard as it may be to believe, humanity has become much less violent than it used to be. In fact civilization, far from creating the problem of warfare, is apparently helping us to solve it. In War Before Civilization, the anthropologist Lawrence Keeley estimates that in the blood-soaked 20th century 100 million men, women, and children died from war-related causes, including disease and famine. The total would have been 2 billion, Keeley notes, if our rates of violence had been as high as in the average primitive society.
Moreover, conventional war between the armies of two or more nations is becoming rare. Three years have passed since the last international war. (Israel's incursion into Lebanon last summer doesn't count, because the Lebanese army did not fight. ) This is "the longest episode of interstate peace in more than half a century," the scholars Charles Kurzman and Neil Englehart point out in their recent essay "Welcome to World Peace. " Although they are dominating the headlines, civil wars have also declined since peaking in the early 1990s. We are dealing now with guerilla wars, insurgencies, terrorism—or what the political scientist John Mueller calls the "remnants of war. "
These statistics do not provide much solace to the victims of war's "remnants" in Iraq, Darfur, Sri Lanka, Palestine, Colombia and other troubled regions. But they show that we are moving in the right direction. Other recent events offer more grounds for optimism. As recently as the late 1980s, we still faced the threat of a global nuclear holocaust. Then, incredibly, the Soviet Union dissolved and the Cold War ended peacefully. Apartheid also ended in South Africa without significant violence, and human rights have advanced elsewhere around the world.
The first, crucial step toward ending war is to believe that we can do it. We should also recognize that war is over-determined—stemming from many different possible causes—and so peace must be over-determined too. In their final papers, most of my students wisely advocated pursuing not a single, silver-bullet solution to the problem of war but multiple approaches. Their proposals included supporting democracy in other countries, bolstering the U.N. 's peacekeeping efforts, fighting poverty and improving education, restricting or eliminating arms sales, inculcating tolerance for other cultures in children, giving women more of a role in government.
"Achieving peace on a global level will not be easy," one student wrote, "but things already seem to be moving in the right direction. Humanity's best shot at ending war is now. "
His optimism fuels my optimism.
HAR1 ( Human Accelerated Region 1) As a New Tool Leading Us Toward a Deep Understanding of Human Nature
I am generally optimistic because our human heritage seems to have equipped us very well for dealing with challenges, from ice-ages and cave-bears to diseases and over-population. The whole species did cooperate to eliminate small-pox, and the women of Mexico did reduce their average family size from seven to two and a half in fifty years. Science has helped us to understand challenges and also to defeat them.
I am especially optimistic just now because of a seminal discovery that was made recently by comparing genomes of different species. David Haussler and his colleagues at UC Santa Cruz discovered a small patch of DNA which they call HAR1, short for Human Accelerated Region 1. This patch appears to be strictly conserved in the genomes of mouse, rat, chicken and chimpanzee, which means that it must have been performing an essential function that was unchanged for about three hundred million years from the last common ancestor of birds and mammals until today.
But the same patch appears grossly modified with eighteen mutations in the human genome, which means that it must have changed its function in the last six million years from the common ancestor of chimps and humans to modern humans. Somehow, that little patch of DNA expresses an essential difference between humans and other mammals. We know two other significant facts about HAR1. First, it does not code for a protein but codes for RNA. Second, the RNA for which it codes is active in the cortex of the human embryonic brain during the second trimester of pregnancy. It is likely that the rapid evolution of HAR1 has something to do with the rapid evolution of the human brain during the last six million years.
I am optimistic because I see the discovery of HAR1 as a seminal event in the history of science, marking the beginning of a new understanding of human evolution and human nature. I see it as a big step toward the fulfillment of the dream described in 1929 by Desmond Bernal, one of the pioneers of molecular biology, in his little book, "The World, the Flesh and the Devil: An Enquiry into the Future of the Three Enemies of the Rational Soul". Bernal saw science as our best tool for defeating the three enemies. The World means floods and famines and climate changes. The Flesh means diseases and senile infirmities. The Devil means the dark irrational passions that lead otherwise rational beings into strife and destruction. I am optimistic because I see HAR1 as a new tool leading us toward a deep understanding of human nature and toward the ultimate defeat of our last enemy.
Personal Genomics Will Arrive This Year, and With It a Revolutionary Wave Of Volunteerism and Self-Knowledge
A small but crucial set of human pursuits have experienced smooth exponential growth for many decades—sometimes so smooth as to be hidden and then revealed with a jolt. These growth industries involve information—reading and writing complex artifacts made of electronic and/or DNA parts. The iconic example is the personal computer, which though traceable back to 1962, became manifest in 1993 when free web browsers spawned millions of personal and commercial web pages within one year. I’m optimistic that something similar is happening to personal genomics this year. We are in free-fall from a stratospheric $3 billion generic genome sequence (which only an expert could love) down to a sea level price for our personal genomic data. Early-adopters are posing and positing how to exploit it, while surrounded by envious and oblivious bystanders. We can now pinpoint the 1% of our genomes which in concert with our environment influences the traits that make us different from one another. Ways to tease out that key 1%, coalesce with "next-generation" DNA reading technology popping up this year, to suddenly bring the street-price down to $3000—about as easy (or hard) to justify as buying some bleeding-edge electronic gadget at an early stage when only minimal software is ready.
I am optimistic that while society is not now ready, it will be this year. The inevitable initial concerns about techno-downsides, e.g. the "Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act of 2005", are already morphing into concerns about how to make these new gifts useful and reliable. Witness just this August, the US Senate began consideration of the "Genomics and Personalized Medicine Act of 2006". Momentum is thus building for millions of people to volunteer to have their genome data correlated with their physical-traits to benefit the billions who will hang back (due to inertia or uncertainty). These volunteers deserve up-to-the minute education in genetics, media, and privacy issues. They deserve protection, encouragement and maybe even rewards. Many current medical research studies do not encourage their human research subjects to fully fathom the potential identifiability of both their personal genome and physical traits data, nor to learn enough to access and appreciate their own data. The cost of educating the subjects is far less than the other costs of such studies and yields benefits far beyond the immediate need for fully informed consent. In contrast, other studies like the Personal Genome Project, emphasize pre-education sufficient to choose among (1) opting-out of the study completely, (2) de-linking genomic and physical traits, (3) restricting linked data to qualified researchers, (4) allow peer-to-peer sharing, or (5) a fully open public database. The subjects can redact specific items in their records at any point, realizing that items used to support conclusions in published work cannot be easily reversed. The excitement and dedication of these volunteers is already awesome.
I am optimistic that millions more will share. Millions already do share to benefit society (or whatever) in old and new social phenomena ranging from the Red Cross to Wikipedia, from MySpace/YouTube to SEC compensation disclosures. We wear ribbons and openly share personal experiences on topics that were once taboo, hidden from view, like depression, sexual orientation, and cancer. Rabbis' daily tasks now include genetic counseling. Our ability to track disease spread, not just HIV, bird flu, or bioterrorism, but even the common cold, will benefit from the new technologies and the new openness—leading to a bio-weather map. We will learn so much more about ourselves and how we interact with our environment and our fellow humans. We will be able to connect with other people who share our traits. I am optimistic that we will not be de-humanized (continuing the legacy of feudalism and industrial revolution), but we might be re-humanized, relieved of a few more ailments, to contemplate our place in the universe, and transcend out brutal past.
We're Not Insignificant After All
When gazing up on a clear night, it's easy to feel insignificant. Since our earliest ancestors admired the stars, our human egos have suffered a series of blows. For starters, we're smaller than we thought. Eratosthenes showed that Earth was larger than millions of humans, and his Hellenic compatriots realized that the solar system was thousands of times larger still. Yet for all its grandeur, our Sun turned out to be merely one rather ordinary star among hundreds of billions in a galaxy that in turn is merely one of billions in our observable universe, the spherical region from which light has had time to reach us during the 14 billion years since our big bang. Then there are probably more (perhaps infinitely many) such regions. Our lives are small temporally as well as spatially: if this 14 billion year cosmic history were scaled to one year, then 100,000 years of human history would be 4 minutes and a 100 year life would be 0.2 seconds. Further deflating our hubris, we've learned that we're not that special either. Darwin taught us that we're animals, Freud taught us that we're irrational, machines now outpower us, and just last month, Deep Fritz outsmarted our Chess champion Vladimir Kramnik. Adding insult to injury, cosmologists have found that we're not even made out of the majority substance.
The more I learned about this, the less significant I felt. Yet in recent years, I've suddenly turned more optimistic about our cosmic significance. I've come to believe that advanced evolved life is very rare, yet has huge growth potential, making our place in space and time remarkably significant.
The nature of life and consciousness is of course a hotly debated subject. My guess is that these phenomena can exist much more generally that in the carbon-based examples we know of.
I believe that consciousness is, essentially, the way information feels when being processed. Since matter can be arranged to process information in numerous ways of vastly varying complexity, this implies a rich variety of levels and types of consciousness. The particular type of consciousness that we subjectively know is then a phenomenon that arises in certain highly complex physical systems that input, process, store and output information. Clearly, if atoms can be assembled to make humans, the laws of physics also permit the construction of vastly more advanced forms of sentient life. Yet such advanced beings can probably only come about in a two-step process: first intelligent beings evolve through natural selection, then they choose to pass on the torch of life by building more advanced consciousness that can further improve itself.
Unshackled by the limitations of our human bodies, such advanced life could rise up and eventually inhabit much of our observable universe. Science fiction writers, AI-aficionados and transhumanist thinkers have long explored this idea, and to me the question isn't if it can happen, but if it will happen.
My guess is that evolved life as advanced as ours is very rare. Our universe contains countless other solar systems, many of which are billions of years older than ours. Enrico Fermi pointed out that if advanced civilizations have evolved in many of them, then some have a vast head start on us — so where are they? I don't buy the explanation that they're all choosing to keep a low profile: natural selection operates on all scales, and as soon as one life form adopts expansionism (sending off rogue self-replicating interstellar nanoprobes, say), others can't afford to ignore it. My personal guess is that we're the only life form in our entire observable universe that has advanced to the point of building telescopes, so let's explore that hypothesis. It was the cosmic vastness that made me feel insignificant to start with. Yet those galaxies are visible and beautiful to us — and only us. It is only we who give them any meaning, making our small planet the most significant place in our observable universe.
Moreover, this brief century of ours is arguably the most significant one in the history of our universe: the one when its meaningful future gets decided. We'll have the technology to either self-destruct or to seed our cosmos with life. The situation is so unstable that I doubt that we can dwell at this fork in the road for more than another century. If we end up going the life route rather than the death route, then in a distant future, our cosmos will be teeming with life that all traces back to what we do here and now. I have no idea how we'll be thought of, but I'm sure that we won't be remembered as insignificant.
Humans Will Learn to Learn From Diversity
I am optimistic that humans might finally come to understand that they can learn from other humans who are not like them. The supposed 'curse' of the Tower of Babel, the diversity of languages and cultures, is perhaps our greatest hope for continued healthy occupancy of this rock we all share in our unforgiving universe. Sure, there are dangers in this diversity that have led to murder and suffering. Diversity can all too easily be interpreted as 'incomprehensibility, inferiority, wrong-headedness'. But I am optimistic that our species has grown tired of this view of diversity. And I am optimistic that groups we have heard very little from will motivate us all to learn new solutions to old problems in the coming years.
However we define the group to which we belong, ethnically, geographically, linguistically, or nationally, I believe that 2007 could be the year in which we come to embrace a symmetry of status between groups and a cross-pollination of ways of living and ways of thinking about the world.
Let me say what I think it means for people groups to learn from one another and then why I am optimistic about it.
The world presents us all with similar problems at the level of biological and emotional need. We need shelter, food, companionship, affection, sex, and opportunities to develop our abilities, among other things. As humans we also have intellectual and social needs that go beyond other species. We need affirmation, we need respect, we need to feel good about our lives, we need to feel like we are useful, and we need to feel optimistic. And we need to know how to get more meaning out of the world around us. And, especially, we need to learn to love more and tolerate more. But how do we learn these things? Where can we go for new ideas for the problems we are still beset by in 2007? Anthropological linguistics can offer some suggestions. We can learn from the stories and values of smaller, overlooked groups, endangered peoples, and even extinct peoples that we have records of, about how to live more harmoniously in the world.
For example, when we look back to the now extinct cultures of the Narragansett Indians the Northeastern British colonies in the early 18th century and before, we learn about their tolerance of difference. When Increase Mather and his father Cotton Mather expulsed Roger Williams from the colony of Massachusetts in 1735, during a ferocious winter, Mather expected Williams to do the right thing and freeze to death. Williams had expressed views of tolerance and respect for others and against tenets of the church of Mather that Mather and Governor Winthrop found intolerable. But Williams was taken in by the Narragansett and spent the winter safely with them, learning about their language and their philosophy of tolerance, of which he was living proof. When Williams later wrote about these people, his writings influenced the thought of Thomas Jefferson and eventually the Narragansett philosophy seems to have influenced, though indirectly, the writings and thought of William James as he helped to develop American Pragmatism, perhaps the only uniquely American contribution to world philosophy — a philosophy that evaluates ideas by their usefulness, by their tolerance of diverse ideas, and by their rejection of the idea that any one group holds a monopoly on Truth.
We have spent most of our existence on this planet in an attempt to homogenize it. To remove uncomfortable differences. But I believe that we are growing weary of this. I believe that this year the hurt and pain that our species is inflecting on itself will surpass, for many of us at least, what we are willing to bear. We are going to look for other answers. And we are going to need to turn to humans who have mastered the art of contentment and peace and tolerance. These people are found in various parts of the world. Zen Buddhists are one example. But there are others.
My thirty years of work with the Pirahãs (pee-da-HANs) of the Amazon rain forest, for example, has taught me a great deal about their remarkable lack of concern about the future or the past and their pleasure in living one day at a time, without fear of an afterlife, with full tolerance for others' beliefs. The Pirahãs know that people die, that they suffer, that life is not easy, through their daily struggle to provide food for their families without being bitten by snakes or eaten by jaguars and from loved ones they bury young, dead from malaria and other diseases. But this doesn't dampen their joy of life, their love for other Pirahãs or their ability to look at death without fear and without need for the idea of heaven to get them through this life, to them the only life.
Religions have a concept of Truth that lacks tolerance, a Truth that wants to missionize the world to eliminate diversity of belief. Western history has shown what that leads to. But peoples like the Narragansett, the Pirahãs, Zen Buddhists, and many others offer alternatives to homogenizing and destroying the diversity of the world. They show us how different people can solve the same problems of life in ways that can avoid some of the by-products of the violent homogenization of Western history. I believe that the impact of the internet and of rapid dissemination of research in popular and professional forums, coupled with widespread disgust at some of the things that our traditional cultural values have produced, can be the basis for learning from other peoples.
What is there to learn? Let me give some examples from my own field research among Amazonian peoples.
Cooperation: I once thought it might be fun to teach the Pirahã people about Western games. So I organized a 'field day', with a tug of war, a foot race, and a sack race, among other things. In the foot race, one Pirahã fellow got out in front of everyone else. He then stopped and waited for all the others to catch up so they could cross together. The idea of winning was not only novel but unappealing. We cross the line together or I don't cross it. And the same went for the sack race. The tug of war contest was a joke — just guys keeping the slack out of the rope talking. The people loved it all, laughing and conversing all day and told me they had a good time. They taught me more than I ever taught them: you can have a great time and have everyone win. That is not a bad lesson. That is a fine lesson.
Pluralism: The Pirahãs, like the Narragansett and other American Indians, believe that you use your knowledge to serve yourself and to serve others in your community. There is no over-arching concept of Truth to which all members of society must conform.
Communalism: The Pirahãs seem to accept only knowledge that helps, not knowledge that coerces. Think of our English expression 'knowledge is power'. The concept as practiced in most industrial societies is really that 'knowledge is power for me so long as I have it and you don't'. But to many peoples like the Pirahãs, knowledge is something for us all to share. It is power to the people, not power to a person. The Pirahãs don't allow top secret conversations. Every member of their society knows what every other member is doing and how they are doing it. There is a communal mind. There is freedom and security in group knowledge.
Toleration: In Western society we associate tolerance with education — the more you learn, the more you tolerate. But there is little evidence for this thesis when we look at our society as a whole (where education is even compatible with religious fundamentalism, one of the worst dangers for the future of our species). Yet among some hunter-gatherer societies, toleration of physical, mental, and religious diversity can be much greater than our so-called pluralistic Western societies. Not everyone has to look alike, act alike, behave alike, or believe alike. In fact, they don't even have to pretend to do so.
In the 1960s there was a similar optimism among my fellow hippies, as many of my generation went into fields like anthropology, literature, and science to learn more about diverse facts and truths and to give us a cornucopia of coping lessons for life. We are ready now for a new 60s-like exploration of diversity and I am optimistic that we will do this. I am optimistic that we will learn the simple and useful truths of cooperation, pluralism, communalism, and toleration and that no one Idea or Truth should be the ring to bind us all.
People Are Using Technology Effectively To Mediate Toward a Healthier Global Community
Ten years ago, the novelist Andrei Codrescu came to visit me at Microsoft, where, at the time, I was Director of the Virtual Worlds (now Social Computing) Group. As he watched me engage in conversation in V-Chat and Comic Chat, he mused skeptically about these virtual communities—until a soldier entered the conversation.
"Ask him where he is?!" Codrescu demanded. The soldier’s reply, "Stationed in Germany, fighting in Bosnia." Andrei grabbed the keyboard from me, full attention now on the soldier, as he was sucked into the virtual world. When he finally disengaged, he seemed fascinated by the possibilities.
Technology has advanced so significantly in the last decade, and many in the generation of kids, high school age and younger, are so fluent in every aspect of the technology that they have moved beyond being participants stimulated by the technology to being creators, creating both technology and content, collaborating and sharing every aspect of their lives, their opinions and their causes across borders that, to them, are increasingly invisible.
Everything can change when we change the way we look at it, and the generation coming of age sees a more global world and experiences a range of resources for creation and collaboration on a scale previous generations could only imagine. Through Podcasts, Youtube, blogs, MySpace, and emerging technologies, every issue we face today, from successful alternative energy solutions to avian flu outbreak areas to disaster recovery is part of the global conversation and there are many pathways to participate and co-create solutions.
Attention is the most powerful tool of the human spirit. The opportunity this generation can and appears to be seizing, is to move collective attention away from the type of anxiety and despair fueled by campaigns like the War on Terror and Climate Crisis and toward the most positive future we can create together, as highlighted by blogs like Worldchanging.com.
Through shared experiences, the generation growing up today has a broader sense of global issues and possibilities and a reality that moves beyond "my country," and, instead, embraces "our planet."
Our Civilisation Will Survive the Coming Climate Catastrophe
I am optimistic that our civilisation will survive the coming climate catastrophe.
A few years ago I was less so. I thought that the climate might just continue heating up until humans could no longer live on earth at all. Since then, watching the rapidly advancing climate science from outside, I now think it possible that the climate will shift into a new stable state. This may not be ideal for humanity, and billions of people may die through drought and starvation, but if there are at least some areas where people can still survive, then our culture will continue evolving during and beyond this crisis point.
Such crisis points may be a regular feature of any planet where life evolves. Imagine that a planet forms and cools, chemical reactions begin, and at some point a self-replicating molecule appears, producing lots of copies that compete to survive. More complex molecules outperform simpler ones, groups with membranes outperform isolated replicators and, with more variation and more materials to use, the process speeds up until complex organisms appear. This beautifully inevitable process may have happened zillions of times all over the universe—or maybe very few times. All we know for sure is that something like this happened on our planet and this first evolutionary step produced the DNA replication mechanism and an abundance of life.
A second step then becomes possible. That is, the organisms find new ways of copying information. This creates a second replicator and starts another evolutionary process, building on the first. This happened on earth when just one species, humans, became able to imitate each others' behaviour with sufficiently high fidelity to create a new replicator, memes. These memes (the behaviours, habits, and skills that were copied) evolved slowly at first and then faster and faster, creating our languages, social institutions, and complex culture.
I think this step to a second replicator is intrinsically very dangerous. The new replicator is like a parasite that uses its host's resources to get itself copied. As with any parasite, the balance can tip either way. The parasite may kill its host and itself die in the process, or both may pull through and coevolve to become symbiotic. We have no idea whether there were failures on other planets, or failures on earth before we humans began to imitate. Perhaps the Neanderthals, or other hominids, tried the experiment and failed—their memes were too destructive. Perhaps completely different species tried it and failed. All we know for sure is that we pulled through and coevolved along with our memes so that now we cannot live without them. A human without language or culture is hardly human at all.
But then a third step becomes possible—and it is another dangerous one. As memetic evolution accelerates, new and more efficient ways of copying and storing memes are invented, and the original, biological meme machines are left behind. Their messy, inaccurate copying, and their largely analogue memes, are no match for the more accurate and prolific copying of the new meme machines; printing presses, factories, fax machines, tape recorders and eventually digital systems that not only copy and store memes but recombine and select them as well.
That is the stage we have reached now on earth. The artificial systems we have built still depend on us, and would perish with us if we all died, but they are evolving far faster than we are, and are taking up the planet's resources in the process.
Some people still maintain the fantasy that we humans are in charge and can still control the memes we have let loose. Yet it must be increasingly obvious that we can't; that they are in the driving seat, not us. They are sucking up the planet's resources increasingly fast and, being selfish replicators, they have no foresight and don't care in the least what happens to us or the planet; they can't, they are just replicating information. So we are hovering at this second danger point right now.
Perhaps this critical point has been reached on countless planets and none pulled through—perhaps acquiring new replicators is so dangerous that memes (or their equivalents) always wipe out the original replicator that spawned them, explaining why we have not yet heard from any other intelligent beings out there. Or perhaps it is possible to for an intelligent species to work out what has happened, repair the damage and live in harmony with the creatures it unwittingly gave rise to.
I think it is, and I am optimistic that we will.
We Will Find New Ways To Block Pessimism
I am optimistic that we will soon find effective new methods for blocking pessimism. We are well on the way with antidepressants. Side-effects remain a major problem, and some people do not respond, but progress has been rapid. Findings from neuroscience and genetics will provide the foundation, but the engine that will drive new developments is the huge profit potential from agents that relieve negative emotions. The anxiety and depression drug market already tops 20 billion dollars per year just in the USA. The promise of profits will yield new agents. They will relieve much suffering.
I am pessimistic, however, about our ability to use them wisely. Pessimism is not a problem, it is a useful emotional state. When the boat overturns a mile out to sea, optimism about one's ability to swim to shore is deadly. When a hurricane is approaching, optimism is fine nine times out of ten, then comes Katrina. When deciding whether to invade a foreign country, optimism about receiving a warm welcome can result in a catastrophe that changes the whole course of history for the worse.
The tendency to think optimism is superior to pessimism is a deep-rooted illusion. Optimism is useful in propitious situations. Pessimism is useful in dangerous situations. For the fortunate, life now is vastly safer and more secure than it was, so pessimism is less necessary. But unintended consequences of blocking pessimism are likely. Already thousands of employees are subjected to motivational exercises to foster positive thinking. What will happen when we all can choose to feel positive most of the time? The world will be better in many ways, and worse in others that are hard to predict.
Widely Available, Constantly Renewing, High Resolution Images of the Earth Will End Conflict and Ecological Devastation As We Know It
I am not so much of a fool to think that war will end, no matter how much I wish that our shared future could include such a thing. Nor do I think that people will stop the careless destruction of flora and fauna for personal, corporate, national or international gain. I do believe that the advent of rapidly updating, citizenry-available high resolution imagery will remove the protection of the veil of ignorance and secrecy from the powerful and exploitative among us.
One cannot tell us that a clear cutting a forest isn't so bad if you can see past the half acre of preserved trees into the desert like atmosphere of the former rain forest. One cannot tell you that they are not destroying villages in Sudan if you can view the burned out carcasses of the homes of the slaughtered. One cannot intimate that the impact of a dam is minimal as humanity watches countless villages being submerged in real time. One cannot paint a war as a simple police action when the results of the carpet bombing will be available in near real time on the internet.
We have already started down this path, with journalists, bloggers and photographers taking pictures and in near real time uploading them to any of a variety of websites for people to see. Secrecy of this kind is dying, but it needs one last nudge to push our national and international leadership into a realm of truth unheard of to date.
With sufficient resolution, many things will be as clear to all: Troop movements, power plant placement, ill-conceived dumping, or just your neighbor building a pool. I am optimistic enough to think that the long term reaction to this kind of knowledge will be the recognition of the necessity, or the proper management and monitored phase out of the unwanted. I am not as optimistic about the short term, with those in power opting to suppress this kind of information access, or worse, acting on the new knowledge by launching into a boil the conflicts that have been simmering for uncountable years.
Can our leaders stand before us and say a thing is not occurring if we can see via our low earth orbiting eyes that it is in fact occurring? Only the truly deluded will be unable to see and then perhaps we can remove them and their psychopaths from power. A more honest existence, with humankind understanding the full, global, impact of its decisions, is in our future if we can reach it. It is likely to be a rough ride.
Whichever country I travel to for conferences on the subject of autism, I hear the same story: It's on the increase.
In 1978, the rate of autism was 4 in 10,000 children; today (according to a 2006 article in Lancet) it is 1 percent. No one can explain this increase, though conservatively it is put down to better recognition and broadening the diagnostic category to include milder cases, such as Asperger syndrome. It is neither proved nor disproved that the increase might reflect other factors, such as genetic change or some environmental (e.g., hormonal) change. For scientists to answer the question of what is driving this increase will require imaginative research comparing historical and cross-cultural data.
Some may throw up their hands at this increase in autism. They may feel that the future is bleak for all of these newly diagnosed cases. But I remain optimistic that for a good proportion of them it has never been a better time to have autism.
Why? Because there is a remarkably good fit between the autistic mind and the digital age. The digital revolution brought us computers, but this age is remarkably recent. It was only in 1953 that IBM produced their first computer; but a mere fifty-four years later many, children now have their own computer.
Computers operate on the basis of extreme precision, and so does the autistic mind. Computers deal in black-and-white binary code, and so does the autistic mind. Computers follow rules, and so does the autistic mind. Computers are systems, and the autistic mind is the ultimate systemizer. The autistic mind is only interested in data that are predictable and lawful. The inherently ambiguous and unpredictable world of people and emotions is a turn-off for someone with autism, but a rapid series of clicks of the mouse that leads to the same result every time that sequence is performed is reassuringly attractive. Many children with autism develop an intuitive understanding of computers in the same way that other children develop an intuitive understanding of people.
So, why am I optimistic? I anticipate that many among this new generation of children with autism will find ways to blossom, using their skills with digital technology to find employment, to find friends, and in some cases to innovate. When I think back to the destiny of children with autism some fifty years ago, I imagine fewer opportunities for them. When I think of today's generation of children with autism, I do not despair. True, many of them will have a rocky time during their school years, when their peer group shuns them because they cannot socialize easily. But by adulthood, a good proportion of these individuals will have not only found a niche in the digital world, but will be exploiting that niche in ways that may bring economic security, respect from their peers, and a sense of worth because of the contribution they are making.
Such opportunities may be open only to those individuals with autism who have language and otherwise normal intelligence, but this is no trivial subgroup. For those more severely affected—by language delay and learning difficulties—the digital age may offer less, though even for this subgroup I remain optimistic that new computer-based teaching methods will have an appeal that can penetrate the wall that separates autism from the social world. The autistic mind—at any level of IQ—latches onto those aspects of the environment that provide predictability, and it is through such channels that we can reach in to help.
Finding Mental Illness Genes
When I trained in psychiatry in the 1960s, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder were blamed on bad mothering. Now we know that the pathogenic stuff that mothers (and fathers) transmit is genes.
Once this was established, scientists began searching for the genes that are involved. The main thing we have learned so far is that variants of quite a few different genes (maybe dozens or even more) may each increase the risk of developing one of these disorders; and that several (or more) of these variants must work together in a particular person to produce an appreciable increase in risk. Because so many combinations of gene variants may each produce the same pattern of mental illness, it has proved to be very difficult to identify any one of them with the techniques that identified the single genes that cause some other disorders, such as rare forms of Alzheimer’s disease.
To have a good chance of identifying the combinations of genes that influence the development of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder two things are needed: thousands of DNA samples, each from a person who is clearly suffering from the disorder being studied (to compare with controls); and an affordable technique for scrutinizing each DNA sample in sufficient detail to identify all the salient genetic variations. Both these requirements are now being met. Groups of researchers have been collecting the requisite number of DNA samples from patients with clear-cut cases of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder; and the costs of detailed genomic analyses keep coming down. When the numbers of samples are big enough and the costs of analysis are small enough, the relevant genes should be found. Already a few gene variants have been tentatively implicated as risk factors for schizophrenia.
Nevertheless, there are skeptics. Unconvinced by the tentative findings, their biggest worry is that there may be so many different kinds of schizophrenia or bipolar disorder that any collection of DNA samples, no matter how large, will be a jumble, and that the many relevant gene variants in the samples will all elude detection.
This is where optimism comes in. I am optimistic that this approach can work now, if it is adequately funded. And I am disappointed that there are enough influential pessimists to limit the wholehearted support that it needs to succeed. What makes this so important is that identification of these genes will have important practical consequences in the design of new treatments to replace the unsatisfactory ones that we presently employ.
We are at the point where a concerted effort to find the gene variants that predispose to disabling mental illnesses has a high probability of success. It is a time for optimism. It is a time for funding with a full hand.
Sometime In the Twenty-First Century I Will Understand Twentieth-Century Physics
I am optimistic that sometime in the twenty-first century I will understand twentieth-century physics.
Not that I haven't tried before. Over years—decades, really—I have enlisted some of the finest minds of the era to help me grasp relativity, quantum mechanics and superstring theory: Richard Feynman, Sheldon Glashow, Paul Davies, Stephen Hawking, and even Einstein himself, whose 1916 book "Relativity: The Special and General Theory" was the prototype for all subsequent efforts to explain the universe in words rather than equations. It marked the earliest appearance of that ubiquitous character, the man on the train, a faceless stick figure glimpsed through a coach-car window as he zooms past at nearly the speed of light. Remarkably, we can observe him as he goes about his obsessive tasks: bouncing a Ping-pong ball on a table, or shining a flashlight at a mirror on the ceiling, or holding up a clock for us to compare to the identical one we just happen to hold. Many hours have I devoted to contemplating his inertial frame of reference and trying to reconcile it to my own, standing motionless on the platform. I have engaged him in my own thought experiments, even conjuring a gedanken companion who rides a train on the adjacent track. If they each pass my position at the same instant, traveling at three-quarters the speed of light in opposite directions, then their speed relative to each other is one and a half times the speed of …wait a second, that can't be right, can it?
What I'm up against here is a problem in translation; the laws of nature are written in equations, but I read only English. I have the same problem with anything written in French, of course, but I can accept a second-hand version of Proust more easily than Einstein or Heisenberg. My understanding of the world is not dependent on Proust, the way it is on the double-slit experiment. Everything I know about the basic stuff of the universe—the very atoms I am made of myself, the gravity that glues me to my bed at night—I know second-hand, through the imperfect medium of language and metaphor. I don't even know what it means to "solve" an equation in relativity or quantum mechanics. Here's an equation involving a man on a train that I can solve: If he leaves Chicago at 6 a.m. at 70 miles an hour, when will he pass someone who left St. Louis three hours earlier at 50 miles an hour? But when physicists "solve" an equation, what emerges isn't a quantity, it's a new law of nature. How do they do that?
That's what keeps me awake at night, reading. It is much too late for me to go back and learn enough math to meet Einstein on his own terms, much less Heisenberg or Hawking. But I am sustained by optimism that someday I will transcend my own limitations, that I will achieve the conceptual breakthrough necessary to grasp relativity, quantum mechanics and the rest of it on a deep level. Someday I will understand not just the epiphenomena of physics, the trains and the slits and the cats in boxes, but their mathematical essence. Their metaphysics. I'm optimistic. Really.
We Will Lead Healthy and Productive Lives Well Past Our Tenth Decade
I am optimistic that by the middle of this century, it will not be uncommon for people to lead healthy and productive lives well past their tenth decade. This means that the high school kids of today who believe they will be forever young might well have their fantasy fulfilled, albeit in modified form. My optimism is based on three factors.
First, there is a clear trend for life spans in developed countries to be getting progressively longer; so-called senior citizens are now engaging in activities previously reserved for those yet to reach what was once considered middle age. The current mantra that today's 60 is the 35 of previous generations is more than just advertising hype. The reasons for this are complex, but certainly the psychological state of the today's seniors — their refusal to simply accept old age — is a prime contributor.
The other two factors fueling my optimism stem from recent advances in biomedical sciences that offer not just hope, but a virtual guarantee, that we'll soon be living longer and better lives. What are those recent advances? They come from two major research fronts.
There are some very exciting results showing that manipulations of basic cellular functions can prolong longevity. The literature on this topic is too extensive to summarize here, but one example will suffice. A molecule produced by a variety of plants called resveratrol (think red wine) has been found to significantly improve the lifespan of many different organisms, as much as by 59%, and this even occurs in obese animals! The significance of the latter point is that until recently it was thought that the only way to increase longevity is by going on a strict starvation diet, but now it seems that you can eat your cake and expand your lifespan!
The other relevant scientific breakthroughs come from neurobiology, my field of expertise. We used to think that with age there is a progressive deterioration in brain cell structure and function. But that widespread assumption has proved wrong. New nerve cells have been found to be generated in the brains of old animals, and we're learning more and more how this amazing property of the aged brain can be manipulated. Low levels of regular exercise, for instance, have been found to significantly enhance neurogenesis in the hippocampus, a brain structure that deals with memory. Moreover, a recent study from my laboratory showed that certain nerve cells in the eyes of old mice are capable of growing new processes. We have also found such growth of nerve cells in the eyes of old people. And then there is the tremendous promise of stem cell research that is still in its infancy for replacing damaged or dysfunctional body organs.
Taken together, the implications of these and many other findings in the biomedical sciences are clear. We will be able to regenerate parts of the brain that have been worn out or damaged during the course of a lifetime, providing renewed capabilities to those who are currently considered old folks. So better start thinking what you'll be doing with all those extra years of life.
We Will Overcome Agnotology (The Cultural Production Of Ignorance)
Have you heard this one by Conan O'Brien: Yesterday, a group of scientists warned that because of global warming, sea levels will rise so much that parts of New Jersey will be under water. The bad news? Parts of New Jersey won't be under water. Or this one by Jay Leno: Heating bills this winter are the highest they've been in five years, but the government has a plan to combat rising bills. It's called global warming. Not their best jokes, but this year global warming became one of the staple topics of late night monologues.
This makes me very optimistic, because jokes are hard evidence of sociological currents. A joke can only work on national TV, if the majority of viewers is able to understand the cultural reference in a split-second and if a general consensus allows the joke to take sides. If Leno makes fun of global warming—great. It's now part of the collective subconscious. It means the general public made up its mind on the subject.
This is quite a change from just two and a half years ago. In the summer of 2004 Hollywood director Roland Emmerich released his disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow. He openly said he wanted to use his film to combat the widespread ignorance about climate change in the US. To emphasize how serious he thought the subject, he invited numerous scientists and activists to make the point that very ignorance about global warming might be one of the greatest obstacles for a solution.
His film was written accordingly. To bring the audience up to speed, large parts of the first act were spent on Dennis Quaid as a paleoclimatologist, who did a lot of reciting of scientific facts and fictions, not unlike the endless science dialogues between Spock and Kirk, which had to set up the outer worldly realities in Star Trek.
Emmerich’s disaster might have bombed at the box office, but it did trigger a chain reaction. Media attention to climate change rose. TV features about endangered polar bears created emotional impact. Sales of hybrid cars went up. Seven Northeastern states have signed the Kyoto protocol, an initiative followed by more than 300 cities. Several Hollywood stars like Brad Pitt, Keanu Reeves and Leonardo di Caprio currently work on documentaries about global warming, which will raise the topic's profile for an audience normally not interested in scientific matters even further. Now even notoriously fatalistic Christian fundamentalists see earth as a gift from God mankind has to protect.
This is of course not just about the power of pop culture. It's not even just about climate change. This is about a society's choice between listening to science and falling prey to what Stanford science historian Robert N. Proctor calls agnotology (the cultural production of ignorance), Production has been booming. The editing of NASA reports about climate change. The political sanctification of coma patient Terri Schiavo. The introduction of intelligent design into curriculae. All those efforts have all just served the purpose of creating a widespread will to ignore facts and reason.
If a nation purposely kept in the dark about an imminent danger for so long manages to overcome public inertia and become acutely aware of a complex issue like global warming in the span of two years, it means that the power of reason is ultimately able to overcome the forces of ignorance driven by economic interests and religious dogma. This is a universally optimistic outlook on history. And not to forget that this ability to swiftly react as a collective is still most important in the US. The number of leading research facilities, the economic power, the pioneering spirit and entrepreneurial verve put the US in a leadership position that can affect not just global affairs, but down the line maybe even the weather.
A Breakthrough In Understanding Intelligence Is Around The Corner
The clinically depressed often have a more realistic view of their problems than those who are optimistic. Without a biological drive for optimism it might be difficult to motivate humans to take on difficult problems and face long odds. What optimistic view of the future drives string theorists in physics working on theories that are probably hundreds of years ahead of their time? There is always the hope that a breakthrough is just around the corner.
In 1956 a small group of optimists met for a summer conference at Dartmouth, inspired by the recent invention of digital computers and breakthroughs in writing computer programs that could solve mathematical theorems and play games. Since mathematics was among the highest levels of human achievement, they thought that engineered intelligence was immanent. Last summer, 50 years later, another meeting was held at Dartmouth that brought together the founders of Artificial Intelligence and a new generation of researchers. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, the pioneers from the first meeting were still optimistic and chided the younger generation for having given up the goal of achieving human level intelligence.
Problems that seem easy, like seeing, hearing and moving about, are much more difficult to program than theorem proving and chess. How could this be? It took hundreds of millions of years to evolve efficient ways for animals to find food, avoid danger and interact with one another, but humans have been developing mathematics for only a few thousand years, probably using bits of our brains that were meant to do something altogether different. We vastly underestimated the complexity of our interactions with the world because we are unaware of the immense computation our brains perform to make seeing objects and turning doorknobs seem effortless.
The early pioneers of AI sought logical descriptions that were black or white and geometric models with a few parameters, but the world is high dimensional and comes in shades of gray. The new generation of researchers has made progress by focusing on specific problems in computer vision, planning, and other areas of AI. Intractable problems have yielded to probabilistic analysis of large databases using powerful statistical techniques. The first algorithms that could handle this complexity were neural networks with many thousands of parameters that learned to categorize input patterns from labeled examples. New machine learning algorithms have been discovered that can extract hidden statistical structure from large datasets without the need for any labels. Progress is accelerating now that the internet provides truly large datasets of text and images. Computational linguists, for example, have adopted statistical algorithms for parsing sentences and language translation, having found transformational grammars too impoverished.
One of the most impressive learning systems is TD-Gammon, a computer program that taught itself to play backgammon at the championship level. Built by Gerald Tesauro at IBM Yorktown Heights, TD-Gammon started out with little more than the board position and the rules of the game, and the only feedback was who won. TD-gammon solved the temporal credit assignment problem: If after a long string of choices you win, how do you know which choices were responsible for the victory? Unlike rule-based game programs, TD-Gammon discovered better ways to play positions on its own, and developed a surprisingly subtle sense of when to play safely and when to be aggressive. This captures some important aspects of human intelligence.
Neuroscientists have discovered that dopamine neurons, found in the brains of all vertebrates, are central to reward learning. The transient responses of dopamine neurons signal to the brain predictions for future reward, which are used to guide behavior and regulate synaptic plasticity. The dopamine responses have the same properties as the temporal difference learning algorithm used in TD-Gammon. Reinforcement learning was dismissed years ago as too weak a learner to handle the complexity of cognition. This belief needs to be re-evaluated in the light of the successes of TD-Gammon and learning algorithms in other areas of AI.
What would a biological theory of intelligence look like, based on internal brain states derived from experimental studies rather than introspection? I am optimistic that we are finally on the right track and that, before too long, an unexpected breakthrough will occur.
The Return of the Discipline of Experiment Will Transform Our Knowledge of Fundamental Physics
In science as in politics it seems that Eldredge and Gould's metaphor of punctuated equilibrium holds. When progress happens, it happens fast and the whole culture vibrates with the excitement of it. We have had a bit too much equilibrium lately, of disappointed expectations following as a natural consequence of unwisely reduced ambitions. But I am optimistic that the next decades will see breakthroughs in key problems on which we now seem stuck. In physics, new experiments including the LHC, AUGER, GLAST, PLANCK, LIGO and others are likely to transform our knowledge of fundamental physics, and end the long period when theory sought to progress without the discipline of experiment. Very likely we will be surprised and humbled by what is seen, but this will be followed by rapid progress as new ideas are quickly invented to explain the surprising data.
How can I be optimistic without knowing what direction science will take? This is exactly the point. There are two kinds of optimism, the optimism of people who think they know the future and the optimism of people who believe the future will be more interesting and, if always imperfect, more wonderful than they can imagine. I am of the second kind. The first kind sometimes comes along with a belief that time and change are illusions, and that the world is evolving towards an eternal timeless state of perfection. This is the optimism of religious fundamentalists and orthodox Marxists, and one sees it reflected also in the cosmologies in which our evolving universe is just a transient fluctuation in an otherwise permanent state of thermal equilibrium. The opposite kind of optimism lies behind the evolutionary theorists who believe the world is so intricate that the simplest mechanism that could predict the future of life and the cosmos is the universe itself. If we are the first kind of optimist we seek to transcend the complexities of life to discover something eternal behind it, something like the imagined view of God. If we are the second, we seek to live and think within the swirl of life; we aim for comprehension and wisdom but have no illusions of transcendence or control.
Things Could Always Be Worse
Things could always be worse. Is this a cause for optimism? And if so, is this a form of optimism worth having — a wimpy, agnostic, non-committal, damn-with-faint-praise kind of optimism? Quite the contrary. It’s a rough-and-ready, rustic kind of optimism. This optimism is suited for everyday life and doesn’t fold under pressure. We have all heard of the "grass is greener" syndrome. This is its "grass is browner" counterpart, the achievable anecdote for broken dreams, and bolster of the status quo.
Psychophysics — the study of the psychological impact of physical events — indicates that more is not always better, and that greener grass, once acquired, quickly starts to yellow. We keep order in our lives because two inches always seem twice as long as one inch, but unlike length, other sensations do not grow in a linear manner. A tone, for example, must be much more than twice as powerful as a standard to sound twice as loud. As with tones, the quirks of our brain doom a path to happiness based on the accumulation of stuff. The second million dollars, like the second Ferrari, does not equal the satisfaction provided by the first, and a second Nobel is pretty much out of the question, a dilemma of past laureates. Goals once obtained become the new standard, to which we adapt, before continuing our race up the escalating, slippery slope of acquisitiveness and fame. Philosophers and scientists from antiquity to the present generally agree that life is a marathon, not a sprint, and the formula for happiness and well-being is the journey — not achievement of the goal — and the comfort of friends and family.
This brings me back to my proposal, "things could always be worse." It finesses our biologically determined law of diminishing returns and the impossibility of keeping up with the Joneses. Lacking the understated nobility of "we have nothing to fear, but fear itself," my slogan would not lift the spirits of a depression-era nation, serve a candidate seeking political office, nor provide a philosophy of life, but it does help me to slog on. Best of all, my modest proposal is unconditionally true for anyone healthy enough to understand it. When things take a nasty turn, as they often do, celebrate the present and recite my slogan —"things could always be worse."
Our Ability As a Species to Respond To the Challenge Presented By Peak Oil
I am optimistic about our ability as a species to respond to the challenge presented by peak oil, the end of the cheap energy era that has lasted about 200 years, and to enter a new cultural phase in our evolution. There are several key developments that, despite the unprecedented challenge of this transition, encourage me to believe that we can make it. These come from both our scientific and technological insights into ways of resolving some deep problems in present cultural habits, and from shifts of perception that are occurring in cultural values.
The primary factor in scientific insight that is producing a major shift of awareness is the recognition that our dependence on cheap fossil fuel to satisfy our needs and desires has now entered the phase of disruption of the complex web of relationships on which the life of our planet depends. This has come from an understanding of the ways in which climate change due to the heating of the planet is causing average temperatures to rise, a consequence of releasing carbon dioxide from its buried condition in oil deposits into the atmosphere. Among the many consequences are the disturbed weather patterns due to the excess energy that gets dissipated through increasingly destructive hurricanes and the rise in sea levels as the polar ice caps melt, threatening all coastal habitation, in particular the majority of cities. This awareness is becoming more and more widespread, leading to both global action as in the Kyoto agreement and in various forms of carbon trading, and in local initiatives to shift our energy source from oil to renewables. There is no guarantee that we will survive this learning process. Every species throughout evolution has had to make hard choices in learning to live the path of sustainable relationships with others, or has gone extinct. We face the same alternative possibilities. We are special in our own way, as is every species, but not different regarding this fundamental dichotomy of life or death.
A shift has also begun within the culture of science itself, where it is becoming clear why our separation of nature from culture has been a useful but dangerous assumption. Although this distinction was made in modern science in order to separate the 'objective' from the 'subjective', reliable knowledge of nature from idiosyncratic expression of human creativity, it has now exceeded its usefulness and encourages us to see nature as a separate reality outside us that is ours to use for our own cultural purposes. However, we are nature, and nature is culture. That is, we are embedded in and reflective of the principles that govern the rest of reality, not separate as a result of our evolutionary gifts such as consciousness and language. So we are all participants in the same evolutionary adventure. This insight came first in physics when quantum mechanics showed us that nature is holistic, not causally separable into independent, objective elements, while 'subjective' observers are contributors to this reality. And now in biology we are learning that it is not the genome that makes the organism but the networks of molecular elements in and between cells that selectively read and make sense of the information in the genes, creating organisms of specific form. The nature of this creative agency is what we are currently trying to understand. As I read the evidence this is leading us to the realisation that organisms use language as part of their creativity, as we do. Networking is also the principle of Gaia, the complex pattern of relationships between living organisms and the earth, the seas and the atmosphere that results in the remarkable properties of our planet as a place fit for continuously evolving life. We are not passengers on the planet but participants in this evolution.
Finally, what encourages me to believe that we have a chance of getting through the most difficult transition that we have ever faced as a species is the proliferation of new technologies, and experiments in trading and monetary systems, that could result in robust local communities that are self-sufficient and sustainable in energy, food production, and other human needs. The key here is again inter-relatedness and networking. Whatever renewable, sustainable energy process is used, whether solar or wind or water or biofuels or other (the combination will vary with geographic location and bioregion) will become the basis of a trading system that naturally links together the components of the community into a coherent, holistic pattern of relationships that is responsive to local conditions and responsible in its actions toward the natural world. These local communities will also trade with one another, but will preserve their distinctness so that diversity is both inherent and valued, unlike the homogenisation of current global relationships. Whatever the population size that emerges in such organic human networks will necessarily be within the carrying capacity of the bioregions that support them. Life will be comfortable but not indulgent, and there will be a great capacity to celebrate the life of quality that emerges. The deep expression of our capacity to make this transition is evident in powerful expressions of public awareness, as in this insight from 'A Book of Miracles':
"Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate.
Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure.
It is not our darkness but our light that frightens us most".
We do indeed have the power and are equipped to make the transition, though it requires a fundamental shift in what drives our power, from fear of nature to a deep sense of connection with her. This new organic way of living that combines science, technology, art, craft and ritual in unified, coherent patterns of learning and doing and celebrating has now become a dream to be realised because it is not only possible; it has also become a necessity.
We Are Making Moral Progress
No one has ever mistaken me for an optimist. And yet, when I consider what is perhaps the most pristine source of pessimism—the moral development of our species—I find reasons for hope. Despite our perennial mischief, I believe that we have made unmistakable progress in our morality. Our powers of empathy appear to be growing. We seem to be more likely now than at any point in our history to act for the benefit of humanity as a whole.
Of course, the 20th century delivered some unprecedented horrors. But those of us living in the developed world are becoming increasingly alarmed by our capacity to do one another harm. We are less tolerant of "collateral damage" in war—undoubtedly because we now see images of it—and we are less comfortable with ideologies that demonize whole groups of human beings, justifying their abuse or outright destruction.
Taking a somewhat provincial example: racism in the United States has unquestionably diminished. If you doubt this, consider the following Los Angeles Times editorial, written in 1910, in response Jack Johnson's successful heavyweight title defense against Jim Jeffries, the so-called "Great White Hope":
A Word to the Black Man:
Do not point your nose too high
Do not swell your chest too much
Do not boast too loudly
Do not be puffed up
Let not your ambition be inordinate
Or take a wrong direction
Remember you have done nothing at all
You are just the same member of society you were last week
You are on no higher plane
Deserve no new consideration
And will get none
No man will think a bit higher of you
Because your complexion is the same
Of that of the victor at Reno
A modern reader could be forgiven for thinking that this dollop of racist hatred was printed by the Ku Klux Klan. Rather, it represented the measured opinion of one of the most prominent newspapers in the United States. Is it conceivable that our mainstream media will once again give voice to such racism? I think it far more likely that we will proceed along our current path: racism will continue to lose its subscribers; the history of slavery in the United States will become even more flabbergasting to contemplate; and future generations will marvel at the ways we, too, failed in our commitment to the common good. We will embarrass our descendants, just as our ancestors embarrass us. This is moral progress.
I am bolstered in my optimism by the belief that morality is a genuine sphere of human inquiry, not a mere product of culture. Morality, rightly construed, relates to questions of human and animal suffering. This is why we don't have moral obligations toward inanimate objects (and why we will have such obligations toward conscious computers, if we ever invent them). To ask whether a given action is right or wrong is really to ask whether it will tend to create greater well-being, or greater suffering, for oneself and others. And there seems little doubt that there are right and wrong answers here. This is not to say that there will always be a single right answer to every moral question, but there will be a range of appropriate answers, as well as answers that are clearly wrong. Asking whether or not an action is good or bad may be like asking whether a given substance is "healthy" or "unhealthy" to eat: there are, of course, many foods that are appropriate to eat, but there is also a biologically important (and objective) distinction between food and poison.
I believe that there are right and wrong answers to moral questions in the same way that there are right and wrong answers to questions about biology. This commits me to what philosophers often call "moral realism"—as opposed to anti-realism, pragmatism, relativism, post-modernism, or any other view that places morality entirely in the eye of the beholder. It is often thought that moral realism fails because it requires that moral truths exist independent of minds (it doesn't). Indeed, this worry partly explains humanity's enduring attachment to religion: for many people believe that unless we keep our moral intuitions pegged to the gold-standard of God's law, we cannot say that anyone is ever right or wrong in objective terms.
Consider the phenomenon of "honor-killing": throughout much of the Muslim world at this moment, women are thought to "dishonor" their families by refusing to enter into an arranged marriage, seeking a divorce, committing adultery—or even by getting raped. Women in these situations are often murdered by their fathers, husbands, or brothers, sometimes with the collaboration of other women. Is honor-killing wrong? I have no doubt that it is. But is it really wrong?
There seems to be no question that we are wired in such a way that love is more conducive to happiness than hate, fear, and shame are. If this is true, honor-killing would be wrong even if a majority of human beings agreed that it was right. It would be wrong because this practice (along with the intentions that give rise to it) reliably diminishes human happiness: it creates immense suffering for women and girls; it conditions men to feel that their personal dignity is predicated upon something that it need not be predicated upon; it deranges the relationships between men and women, making them far less loving and compassionate (and therefore a lesser source of happiness) than they might otherwise be. While these are claims about human subjectivity, they are also, at bottom, objective claims about the real foundations of human happiness.
All of this implies, of course, that morality is a potential branch of scientific inquiry—not merely that science will one day describe our moral judgments at the level of the brain, but that science may one day be able to tell us what is good (that is, it will tell us which psychological intentions and social practices are truly conducive to the deepest happiness).
Because I believe that moral truths transcend the contingencies of culture, I think that human beings will eventually converge in their moral judgments. I am painfully aware, however, that we are living in a world where Muslims riot by the hundreds of thousands over cartoons, where Catholics oppose condom use in villages decimated by AIDS, and where the only "moral" judgment that seems guaranteed to unite the better part of humanity at this moment is that homosexuality is wrong. Which is to say that I am here celebrating our moral progress while being convinced that billions of my neighbors are profoundly confused about good and evil.
I may be a bigger optimist than I thought.
The Future of Software
I am optimistic about the future of software, because more and more people are coming out of the closet every month — admitting in public that they hate their computers.
Within the last month I've heard three people shouting (or muttering) curses at their machines. One was a bona fide software virtuoso! These particular three were ticked off about (1) an airline website that was so badly designed it was useless, (2) a commercial web-site-building tool (bought for real money) that made it nearly impossible to build simple structures and (3) a home PC that, despite reasonably sophisticated software counter-measures, was so junked-up with viruses that starting a word processor took five minutes.
The file systems and desktop and spreadsheets, the word processors and mailers and database programs we rely on are vintage 1984 or older. They're as obsolete as a 1984 PC. When I first described the "empty computer" model in the early '90s, people thought I was crazy. Many still do—but fewer each year (and I guess that's progress). There was a larger jump in admitted cases of computer- and software-hatred in '06 than in any previous year I remember.
Technologists who blandly assume that hardware will (somehow) keep getting better while software stays frozen in time are looking wronger every month. In the empty-computer world of the near future, your information assets have all been bundled-up, encrypted and launched into geosynchronous orbit in the Cybersphere; computers are interchangeable devices for tuning in information. (If computers are so cheap, why does everyone need to carry one around with him? We don't make you carry a desk and chairs around with you; we can afford to provide chairs and flat surfaces wherever you need them.)
In the empty computer world it will take five minutes to upgrade to a new machine (throw the old one out, plug the new one in—your information stays in orbit where it's always been); comfortable large-screen public computers will be available all over the place. And instead of expanding into a higher-and-higher-entropy mess, the Web will implode into a "blue hole": a single high-energy information beam that holds all the world's digital assets.
Gelernter's Law: the computer industry revolutionizes itself at least once a decade. We're nearly due for the next revolution.
Optimism Needs To Have Bite So That Pioneering Work In Early Cancer Detection Is Championed and Funded
Thinking of myself as a perennial optimist, I was surprised how challenging this question turned out to be. I realise that it's because my optimism is an attitude, rather than founded on careful estimation, and therefore bears little scrutiny. A corollary of this is that my optimism makes little difference to what I manage to achieve in a typical day apart from, importantly, getting out of bed in the morning.
Turning to a dictionary I confirm that optimism is either "a doctrine that this world is the best possible world" or" an inclination to put the most favorable construction upon actions and events or to anticipate the best possible outcome" (both from Webster). An attitude, therefore, of questionable robustness, and idiotically dangerous in some circumstances. But amongst several similar definitions in the Oxford English Dictionary I also find something less loaded: "Hopefulness and confidence about the future or the successful outcome of something". This permits optimism also to be rational.
And, to get serious, if I look for one aspect of life where both rationality and hope are essential, and where both seem to be paying off, it's in the battle against cancer. I focus my optimism on what currently looks like a peripheral flank in that battle, but could — and I think eventually will — become a more central focus of attention. We should of course be delighted by the few instances of drugs that hit a cancer target, even when the target wasn't the one originally intended. But just as important to me is the prospect of the use of proteins or other markers that permit the early detection and identification of cancer, hugely increasing the prospects of survival.
An early-detection cancer diagnostic needs to show low rates of false positive and false negative outcomes, should be able to distinguish tumours needing therapy from those that will do no harm, and should be acceptable in term of cost and practicality. This combination is a very tall order.
But hope arises from the unprecedented sensitivities of mass spectrometers, of single-molecule detection and of DNA amplification, not to mention the power of high-throughput biological screening. These bring us the almost unimaginable prospect of successful discrimination of cancer or — even better — pre-cancer marker-molecules within the bloodstream. The recent discovery in mice of genetic pathways underlying progression from precursor to advanced stages of ovarian cancer is another milestone to sustain optimism.
Although the US National Institutes of Health has made early detection a priority, it remains relatively underfunded in most cancer agencies. It has big challenges of clinical validation ahead of it. At the policy level, health planners and drug companies will need to be sure of its societal cost-effectiveness.
These considerations, and the fact that diagnostics are less scientifically sexy than 'cures', can deter researchers from pursuing early detection studies. So it's precisely now that optimism needs to have bite, so that pioneering work in early cancer detection is championed and funded despite the daunting obstacles ahead.
The Survival of Friendship
I am optimistic about human relationships — in particular, about friendship. Perhaps you have heard gloomy predictions about friendship: it's dying out, people no longer have friends they can confide in, loneliness is on the rise.
But friendship isn't dying out: it's just changing, adapting to the changes in the world. People are discovering different ways of getting together. It may be harder to find a bowling partner, but it's easier to find someone to chat with because there are many more ways to chat.
When I was a child, people with chronic illnesses were described as "shut-ins." Now a person can be shut in without being shut out. I have friends whom I know only through e-mail conversations but who are as dear to me as my college roommate and dearer by far than my next-door neighbor.
The desire to form and maintain relationships is one of the built-ins of human nature. Primates are social animals, and humans are the most social of all. An extravagant amount of mental capacity is devoted to relationships. We can recognize at a glance the faces of thousands of different people and, with equal ease, remember whether or not we like them. With a bit more effort, we can dredge up other useful information about most of them: their names or professions or where we met them. Throughout our lives we collect and store information about specific individuals, so that — just in case we ever run into them again — we will know how to act. We even store information about people we have never met and whose faces we have never seen.
Collecting people information is something we do without training and with no reward other than the enjoyment we get from doing it. We don't need a nudge from the conscious mind, telling us that the information may come in handy someday. But in fact it may come in handy. People we have never met before may be important to us in the future. They may become our trading partners or employers. They may become our lovers or our rivals.
Or they may simply become our friends.
Human Intelligence Can Be Increased, and Can Be Increased Dramatically
I am optimistic that human intelligence can be increased, and can be increased dramatically in the near future. I see three avenues that will lead to this end.
First, the fruits of cognitive neuroscience and related fields have identified a host of distinct neural systems in the human brain. Different combinations of these systems are used in the service of accomplishing different tasks, and each system can be made more efficient by "targeted training." Such training involves having people perform tasks that are designed to exercise very specific abilities, which grow out of distinct neural networks. Just as a body builder can do curls to build up biceps and dips on parallel bars to build up triceps, we can design computer-game-like tasks that exercise specific parts of the brain—mental muscles, if you will. By exercising the right sets of systems, specific types of reasoning not only can be improved but—the holy grail of training studies—such improvement can generalize to new tasks that draw on those systems.
Second, people often grapple with problems in groups, be they formally designated teams or casual huddles around the water cooler. I am optimistic that understanding the nature of such group interactions will increase human intelligence. Just as a mechanical calculator can extend our mental capacities, other people help us extend our intelligence—both in a cognitive sense (as required to solve problems) and in an emotional sense (as required to detect and respond appropriately to emotions, ours and those of others). In this sense, other people can serve as "social prosthetic systems," as extensions of our own brains; a wooden leg can fill in for a missing limb, and others' brains can fill in for our cognitive and emotional limitations. To the extent that researchers come to understand how such social prosthetic systems arise and operate, they will understand how to increase human intelligence.
Third, the line between animate and inanimate information processing is becoming increasingly blurry as research in multiple fields proceeds apace. I expect that engineers will continue to press forward, designing increasingly powerful machines to help us extend our intelligence. For example, some people carry computers with them everywhere they go, and treat Google as an extension of their own knowledge bases. Or, in my case, my PDA extends my organizational ability enormously. We soon will have a wide variety of mechanical helpmates. The distinction between what goes on in the head and what relies on external devices is becoming more subtle and nuanced, and in so doing human intelligence is being extended.
Crucially, each of these three developments amplifies the effects of the others, producing synergies: As "brain exercises" enhance our personal intellectual abilities, we can learn how to make better use of mechanical aids and how to rely more effectively on other people. The confluence of all three types of developments will produce positive feedback loops, where the very act of interacting with others or working with smart devices will help us continue to develop our brains, and as our brains develop we will in turn be able to use increasingly sophisticated devices and rely on people in more complex and powerful ways.
With luck, such developments will produce news sorts of extended social links and highly integrated social networks, and a new kind of "smart society" will emerge. And, who knows, such a society may not only be smarter, but also wiser.
I'm optimistic about death. For the first time in the history of life on Earth, it is possible—not easy, but possible—for conscious animals like us to have a good death. A good death is a great triumph, and something to be sought, accepted, and cherished. Indeed, a good death should be recorded and broadcast as a moral example to us all.
What do I mean by a good death? I do not mean opiate-fuelled euthanasia, or heroic self-sacrifice during flash-bang tactical ops, or a grudgingly tolerated end to a millennium of grasping longevity. I do not mean a painless, clean, or even dignified death. I mean a death that shows a gutsy, scientifically informed existential courage in the face of personal extinction. I mean a death that shows the world that we secular humanists really mean it.
There is, of course, no way to escape the hardwired fears and reactions that motivate humans to avoid death. Suffocate me, and I'll struggle. Shoot me, and I'll scream. The brain stem and amygdala will always do their job of struggling to preserve one's life at any cost.
The question is how one's cortex faces death. Does it collapse in mortal terror like a deflated soufflé? Or does it face the end of individual consciousness with iron-clad confidence in the persistence of virtually identical consciousnesses in other human bodies? My optimism is that in this millennium, well-informed individuals will have a realistic prospect of sustaining this second perspective right through the end of life, despite death's pain and panic.
When I die in 50 years, or next week, or whenever, here's what I hope I remember:
- My genes, proteins, neural networks, beliefs, and desires are practically identical to those sustaining the consciousness of 6 billion other humans, and countless other animals, whose experiences will continue when mine do not.
- Since life must be common throughout the universe and resilient across time, such subjective experiences will continue not just on Earth in the short term, but across many worlds, for billions of years.
- There is no spooky personal after-life to fear or hope for, only this wondrous diversity of subjectivity that trillions of individuals get to partake in.
- The more science one knows, the more certain and comforting this knowledge is.
These life-lessons are, to me, the distilled wisdom of evolutionary psychology.
Many people resist this knowledge. They listen only to the hair-trigger anxieties of the amygdala—which constantly whispers 'fear death, fear death'. They construct pathetic ideologies of self-comfort to plug their ears against such mortal terror. They nuzzle through reality's coarse pelt for a lost teat of supernatural succor. I call them the Gutless, because they aren't bright enough or brave enough to understand their true place in the universe. A whole new branch of psychology called Terror Management Theory studies the Gutless and their death-denying delusions.
A great ideological war is raging between the Godless—people like me, who trust life—and the Gutless—the talking heads of the extreme, religious right, who fear death, and fear the Godless, and fear ongoing life in the future when they no longer exist. I'm also optimistic about the outcome of this war, because people respect guts and integrity. People want moral role models who can show them how to live good lives and die good deaths. People want to believe that they are participating in something vastly greater and more wonderful than their solipsism. Science quenches that thirst far more effectively, in my experience, than any supernatural teat sought by the Gutless.
I'm Confident About Energy, the Environment, Longevity, and Wealth; I'm Optimistic (But Not Necessarily Confident) Of the Avoidance Of Existential Downsides; And I'm Hopeful (But Not Necessarily Optimistic) About a Repeat Of 9-11 (Or Worse)
Optimism exists on a continuum in-between confidence and hope. Let me take these in order.
I am confident that the acceleration and expanding purview of information technology will solve the problems with which we are now preoccupied within twenty years.
Consider energy. We are awash in energy (10,000 times more than we need to meet all of our needs falls on the Earth) but we are not very good at capturing it, but that will change with full nanotechnology based assembly of macro objects at the nano scale controlled by massively parallel information processes, which will be feasible within twenty years. Even though our energy needs are projected to triple within 20 years, we'll capture that .0003 of the sunlight needed to meet all of our energy needs with no use of fossil fuels using extremely inexpensive, highly efficient, lightweight, nano engineered solar panels, and store the energy in highly distributed (and, therefore, safe) nanotechnology-based fuel cells. Solar power is now providing one part in a thousand of our energy needs but that percentage is doubling every two years, which means multiplying by a thousand in 20 years. Almost all of the discussions I've seen about energy and its consequences such as global warming fail to consider the ability of future nanotechnology based solutions to solve this problem. This development will be motivated not just by concern for the environment, but by the $2 trillion we spend annually on energy. This is already a major area of venture funding.
Consider health. As of just recently, we now have the tools to reprogram biology. This is also at an early stage but is progressing through the same exponential growth of information technology, which we see in every aspect of biological progress. The amount of genetic data we have sequenced has doubled every year and the price per base pair has come down commensurately. The first genome cost a billion dollars, NIH is now starting a project to collect a million genomes at a thousand dollars a piece. We can turn genes off with RNA interference, add new genes (to adults) with new reliable forms of gene therapy, and turn on and off proteins and enzyme at critical stages of disease progression. We are gaining the means to model, simulate, and reprogram disease and aging processes as information processes. These technologies will be a thousand times more powerful than they are today in ten years, and it will be a very different world in terms of our ability to turn off disease and aging.
Consider prosperity. The inherent 50 percent deflation rate inherent in information technology and its growing purview is causing the decline of poverty. The poverty rate in Asia, according to the World Bank, declined by 50 percent over the past ten years due to information technology, and will decline at current rates by 90 percent in the next ten years. All areas of the world are being affected, including Africa which is now undergoing a rapid invasion of the Internet. Even Sub Saharan Africa had a 5% growth rate last year.
Okay, so what am I optimistic, but not necessarily confident, about?
All of these technologies have existential downsides. We are already living with enough thermonuclear weapons to destroy all mammalian life on this planet, which incidentally are still on a hair trigger. Remember these? They're still there, and they represent an existential threat.
We have a new existential threat which is the ability of a destructively minded group or individual to reprogram a biological virus to be more deadly, more communicable, or (most daunting of all) more stealthy (that is, having a longer incubation period so that the early spread is not detected). The good news is that we do have the tools to set up a rapid response system, like the one we have for software viruses. It took us five years to sequence HIV, but we can now sequence a virus in a day or two. RNA interference can turn viruses off since viruses are genes albeit pathological ones. Bill Joy and I have proposed setting up a rapid response system that could detect a new virus, sequence it, design an RNAi medication (or a safe antigen-based vaccine) and gear up production in a matter of days. The methods exist, but a working rapid response system does not yet exist. We need to put one in place quickly.
So I'm optimistic that we will make it through without suffering an existential catastrophe. It would be helpful if we gave the two existential threats I discuss above a higher priority.
And, finally, what am I hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic, about?
Who would have thought right after September 11, 2001 that we would go five years without another destructive incident at that or greater scale? That seemed very unlikely at the time, but despite all the subsequent turmoil in the world, it happened. I am hopeful that this will continue.
The Baby Boomers Will Soon Retire
I am optimistic about the future of social science research because the influence of the baby boom generation on the culture and agenda of the social sciences will soon decrease. Don't get me wrong, many of my best friends are boomers, and technically I'm one too (born in 1963). I am grateful for the freedom and justice that the activists of the 1960s and 1970s helped bring to the United States. But if there is a sensitive period for acquiring a moral and political orientation, it is the late teens and early 20s, and most of those whose sensitive periods included the Vietnam war and the struggles for civil rights seem to have been permanently marked by those times. Many young people who entered Ph.D. programs in the social sciences during the 1970s did so with the hope of using their research to reduce oppression and inequality. This moral imprinting of a generation of researchers may have had a few detrimental effects on the (otherwise excellent) science they produced. Here are two:
1) Moralistic antinativism. The deep and politicized antipathy to 1970s sociobiology produced a generation of social scientists wary of nativism in general and of evolutionary thinking in particular. Nobody these days admits to believing that the mind is a blank slate at birth, but in practice I have noticed that social scientists older than me generally begin with a social learning explanation of everything (especially sex differences), and then act as though it is "conservative" (scientifically) or "liberal" (politically) to stick with social learning unless the evidence against it is overwhelming, p<.05, which it rarely is. But shouldn't we use p<.5 here? Shouldn't we always let nativist and empiricist explanations both have a go at each question and then pick the one that has the better fit, overall, with the evidence? I look forward to the day when most social scientists learned about the astonishing findings of twin studies in their twenties, and very few know who Stephen Jay Gould was.
2) Moral Conformity Pressure. Imagine an industry in which 90% of the people are men, male values and maleness are extolled publicly while feminine values are ridiculed, and men routinely make jokes, publicly and privately, about how dumb women are, even when women are present. Sounds like a definition of hostile climate” run wild? Now replace the words male” and female” with liberal” and conservative,” and we have a pretty good description of my field —social psychology—and, I suspect, many other areas of the social sciences. I have no particular fondness for conservatives. But I do have a need for them. I study morality, and I have found that conservative ideas (about authority, respect, order, loyalty, purity, and sanctity) illuminate vast territories of moral psychology, territories that have hardly been noticed by psychologists who define morality as consisting exclusively of matters of harm, rights, and justice. If social psychology had been a morally diverse field, we would have done a much better job of studying the full expanse of human morality, and we'd be in a much better position right now to understand the morality of radical Islam.
Will younger social scientists be more morally diverse than the baby boom generation? Maybe not. But if they make it through their sensitive periods without seeing themselves as part of a revolution, they just might be more open to diverse ideas about the origins of mind, the scope of morals, and the workings of society.
The Future Of String Theory
I am optimistic about the future of our thinking regarding string theory and the early universe. Until fairly recently I did not feel this way since string theory seemed to be a community unto itself, albeit a very talented one. Controversy has created an important dialogue and strife has erupted. I think this is all to the good. The basis for the disagreement goes back 30 years.
A unified understanding or so-called "theory of everything" has long been sought. The standard model that emerged in the 1970s provided a very significant step forward but left undetermined some 20 parameters: the values of the six quark and six lepton masses, various couplings etc. Initially it was hoped that string theory, aside from a unification of forces with quantum gravity, would determine the values of these parameters. That dream has not been realized.
A very significant group of theoretical physicists has now abandoned the dream. Pointing out that even string theory supports the view that an essentially infinite number of possibilities can be realized for a universe, the so-called landscape, they maintain that we live in one of these choices, the universe where the 20 or so parameters are fixed to be the values we observe. Other universes, with other values of the parameters, are continuously emerging and dying and still others live by our side. However we are limited in the possibility of observations and measurements to our own universe so that, in a deep sense, the 20 parameters that determine our world are completely arbitrary. We would not exist if they were not what they are, but there is no further understanding of their values.
A second group maintains that abandoning the dream that set elementary particle physics on its course a century ago, that of determining the forces and parameters of the sub-atomic world, is both premature and intellectually wrong. They maintain this is not science.
There is an intermediate position that, understandably, has not been embraced vigorously by either side. Perhaps very few of the 20 or so parameters, some of the mass scales, correspond to the universe we live in, but the others are set by string theory or some future theory we have not yet discovered. This could happen if e.g. the quark and lepton masses are calculable numbers that multiply a mass given by the particular universe we happen to live in. In this case both sides would be right. The numbers would be set by the theory and the mass scale by the choice of universe. I find the notion intriguing, but it may also be that both sides are wrong and some other stunning synthesis will emerge.
So why am I optimistic? Because I believe that controversy, with clearly drawn out opposing positions, galvanizes both sides to refine their opinions, creates excitement in the field for the participants, stimulates new ideas, attracts new thinkers to the fray and finally because it provides the public at large with an entrée into the world of science at the highest level, exhibiting for them heated arguments between great minds differing on questions vital to them. What could be more exciting?
We're Recognizing That the World Is a Wunderkammer
Several years ago, I became fascinated with cabinets of curiosity. The Renaissance predecessor to modern day museums, these cabinets, sometimes entire rooms, were filled with a mish-mash of objects, both natural and artificial, that embodied the wonder of the world. (The German term for these collections, wunderkammer, literally means "chamber of wonders.") Inside, you might find a mummy's hand, a "unicorn's horn," exotic seashells from distant lands, odd insects pinned and cataloged, and possibly even a two-headed lizard in a jar of formaldehyde. As Tradescant the Elder, one of the most notable cabinet keepers in history, requested in a letter to the Secretary of the English Navy in 1625, this was a quest for "Any thing that is strang."
Inspired by this celebration of science, art, and the strang(e), I picked up an old Chinese tea cabinet at a flea market and began to build my own wunderkammer. I quickly filled the shelves with items of the type I thought were "supposed" to be in any wunderkammer worth its weight in weirdness—antique medical instruments, a primitive eye gouging weapon from Rarotonga, a Balinese shadow puppet, a snake stuffed in a perpetual strike. Things became more interesting though once the collection process became more organic and I added items that genuinely spoke to my personal sense of the curious : a 1/1 millionth scale model of Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, fabricated by engineers Ken Goldberg and Karl Bohringer using techniques borrowed from microscale manufacturing; a vial of carbon nanotubes; a Houdini automaton's autograph; a resin model of a telerobotic insect outfitted with solar cells for wings.
Now, this small cabinet in the corner of my office serves as a constant reminder for me that the world is filled with wonder, and curiosity is something to be cultivated at every opportunity. Indeed, we're at our best when we're curious. And the beauty of curiosity is that we're all naturals. Curiosity is how babies learn. In fact, sparking someone's curiosity, at any age, seems to be perfect pedagogy. And, as the professor says in The Day The Earth Stood Still, "It isn't faith that makes good science...It's curiosity."
Now, I wouldn't dare suggest that there's a Renaissance revival afoot, but I'm optimistic that the pendulum is swinging at least slightly back toward the hey-day of natural history, citizen science, backyard astronomy, and other spirited intellectual pursuits. Several recent museum exhibitions have explored the cabinets of curiosity as an organizational principle, including one dedicated to the appropriately odd juxtaposition of art and cryptozoology. Even the wunderkammer aesthetic has bubbled up into popular consciousness.
Many blogs, including the one I co-edit, have been described as virtual cabinets of curiosity—storehouses of unusual links, odd memes, fringe culture, and weird news. Nearly every major city has at least one carefully-curated "Olde Curiosity Shoppe" selling strange objets d'art and natural oddities packaged as Victorian chic. In fact, I was recently struck by the obviously wunderkammer-inspired display of mounted insects and red coral on sale at a mainstream home decor store in the mall. And in the ultimate evidence of a trend, at least two coffee table books on the subject have been published in the last few years.
Most of all though, I'm heartened by the unbridled curiosity fueling today's passionate DIY movement. A growing number of ingenious individuals are hacking Priuses to boost the gas mileage, installing Linux on iPods to record high-quality audio, and building backyard weather balloons. On one hand, these makers are dissatisfied with off-the-shelf products. At a deeper level though, they're driven by a daring inquisitiveness about what lies "under the hood" of today's technology and how they can better what they buy, or build it from scratch. For these makers—in the tradition of crafters, tinkers, scientists, engineers, artisans, and hot rodders who came before—the process is the product. The fun is in the fix. No user serviceable parts inside? Says who.
I'm optimistic that in the coming few years, the DIY movement will reach not only widespread awareness but widespread participation. I'm optimistic that smart companies, instead of criminalizing hackers, will encourage these user-innovators and solicit their feedback to design better products. I'm optimistic that science education in the United States can be saved if students are given the opportunity to learn by doing, not just by reading about what someone else has done.
When I watch a screwdriver-wielding maker eagerly voiding another warranty, I see a spark of the same childlike curiosity that fills a baby's eyes as he first explores his world, optimistic that something wonderful lies ahead.
What Lies Beyond Our Cosmic Horizon?
There is a limit to how far we can see into the universe. Our cosmic horizon is set by the distance traveled by light since the big bang. More distant objects cannot be observed, because their light has not yet reached the Earth. But of course the universe does not end at the horizon, and the question is what lies beyond. Is it more of the same — more galaxies, more stars, or could it be that remote parts of the universe are very different from what we see around here? I am optimistic that we will be able to answer this question and understand the structure of the universe as a whole, even though we can observe only a small part of it.
Until recently cosmologists made the simplest assumption — that the universe is homogeneous, i.e. looks everywhere more or less the same. (It was glorified under the name of "Cosmological Principle", but it was still only an assumption.) Now, recent developments in cosmology and particle physics have led to a drastic revision of this view and to a heated debate about the future of our science. According to the new worldview, most of the universe is in the state of explosive, accelerated expansion, called "inflation". In our local region, inflation ended 14 billion years ago, and the energy that drove the expansion went to ignite a hot fireball of elementary particles. This is what we call the big bang. Other big bangs constantly go off in remote parts of the universe, producing regions with diverse properties. Some of these regions are similar to ours, while others are very different.
The properties of any given region are determined by the quantities we call "constants of nature". These include particle masses, Newton's constant, which controls the strength of gravity, and so on. We do not know why the constants in our region have their observed values. Some physicists believe that these values are unique and will eventually be derived from some fundamental theory. However, string theory, which is at present our best candidate for the fundamental theory of nature, suggests that the constants can take a wide range of possible values. Regions of all possible types are then produced in the course of eternal inflation. This picture of the universe, or multiverse, as it is called, explains the long-standing mystery of why the constants of nature appear to be fine-tuned for the emergence of life. The reason is that life evolves only in those rare regions where the constants happen to yield suitable chemistry and physics. The values of the constants in our own region are then determined partly by chance and partly by how suitable they are for the evolution of life.
Many of my colleagues find this multiverse picture very alarming. Since all those regions with different values of the constants are beyond our horizon, how can we verify that they really exist? Is this science — to talk about things that can never be observed? In my view, it is science, and there are good reasons to be optimistic about the new picture. If the constants vary from one part of the universe to another, their local values cannot be predicted with certainty, but we can still make statistical predictions. We can try to predict what values of the constants are most likely to be observed. One such prediction, that the vacuum should have a small nonzero energy, has already been confirmed. We have only started along this path, and formidable challenges lie ahead. I believe, however, that what we are facing now is not the end of cosmology, as some people fear, but the beginning of a new era — the exploration of the multiverse.
We Have the Capacity to Understand One Another
Sharp polarities between clashing points of view are wreaking all sorts of havoc in the world right now. Perhaps for many of us the divide that cuts closest to the quick is that between science, reason, and logic, on the one hand, and sectarianism, faith, and religion, on the other. My optimism is anchored to one aspect of human nature: We have the capacity to understand one another. Evolution has bequeathed us a sketchy folk psychology, just as it has a sketchy folk physics. We come equipped with the understanding that we are engaged with others who manifest propositional attitudes—beliefs, desires, regrets, dreads, hopes: the whole gamut. We come equipped, too, with skills for discovering what those propositional attitudes of others might be.
Since at least the 1940s social psychologists have been studying our capacity to attribute mental states to others. In one early important experiment (Heider & Simmel 1944), almost every single subject, when shown a short movie consisting of geometrical shapes moving on a screen, attributed propositional attitudes to the shapes. Subsequent research has strengthened the view that our capacity for mental attribution is universal and nearly reflexive—in short, an aspect of human nature.
Our folk physics—involving ideas about space and time, about objects and forces—can be extended and deepened, refined and corrected by that sophisticated enterprise we call science. So, too, can our primitive folk psychology be expanded and refined. We can even come to understand those whose propositional attitudes diverge significantly from our own. We humans may never be able to know what it's like to be a bat, but Daniel Dennett could, in principle, know what it's like to be a believer, to hold that life has meaning only if it conforms to some larger-than-life purpose, say, or to be the victim of a dread of death so overwhelming that comfort is gained only from denying the reality of mortality altogether. And so, too, Pope Benedictus XVI could, in principle, understand the propositional attitudes of a proponent of naturalism, determined to trim his ontology to the entities required only by science because of a higher-order desire never to be duped into believing something which is false and, therefore, committed to the highest standards of empirical evidence. (Not all propositional-attitude bearers share this higher-order desire not to be duped, which can come as a shock to many in the scientific community. )
Quite obviously, to understand the propositional attitudes of another is not to endorse them; it isn't the same as wanting them for one's own, although that can, of course, occur—as when, as occasionally happens, we learn from one another. Still, to come to know better the propositional attitudes of others, grasping what the world is like for them, can be intrinsically interesting. It can also be useful—in fact, often essential to survival and reproduction. (A seducer will get nowhere without at least a rudimentary grasp of the propositional attitudes of the seducee. ) It is also implicated in widening the circle of sympathy that promotes the outward dissemination of ethical attitudes.
And of course the most effective means for changing someone's mind usually involves grasping the mind he already has.
Just as science improves on our primitive folk physics, we have an enterprise that extends the primitive skills of folk psychology, refining them into a means of arriving at a complex and shared knowledge of what it's like to have propositional attitudes and representational structures quite different from one's own. This enterprise is the narrative arts. What gives me any optimism at all in this dark season of dangerous divides is that there is a trend among contemporary novelists to turn their artistic attention to the divisive themes of the day. Given the nature of the literary enterprise—what it is that novels do—this effort to develop narrative techniques for taking the full human measure of such divides can only contribute to deepening our understanding of what lies behind what seem like irreconcilable differences—and which often are just that: irreconcilable. We are not, ever, going to become an attitudinally homogenous species. Someone who desires, above all, not to be duped into believing something false will not be turned into someone who, say, wants his beliefs, above all, to affirm his affinity with his community, nor vice versa. Still, it's instructive for both to make their way into the other's mind. There's even a slight chance that someone's mind might be changed in the process. But the deepening of understanding isn't measured solely by changes of that sort.
So, at the end of the day, I am tethering my optimism to the work of our contemporary novelists—which is probably another way of saying that I'm pretty darned pessimistic.
The future. That's what I'm optimistic about. The historian Macaulay said, in 1830: 'We cannot absolutely prove that those are in error who tell us that society has reached a turning point, that we have seen our best days. But so said all who came before us and with just as much apparent reason.' The eternal, enduring pessimism of human beings about the future does real harm by persuading people, especially the young, to retreat from adventure and enterprise into anomie. Sure, the world has problems: AIDS, Islamofascism, carbon dioxide. But I bet we can solve them as we have solved others, such as smallpox, the population explosion and the high price of whale oil.
Pessimistic In Its Optimism
It's easy to be a pessimist. These are dark times for physics in the United States. One by one, national laboratories are shuttering their high-energy physics experiments; within a few years there won't be a single U.S. accelerator exploring the energy frontier. As NASA squanders billions and billions of dollars on the International Space Station and on lunar exploration, it is tearing the guts out of its other programs—the ones that provide actual scientific discoveries.
Physics is a transplant to the U.S. Before 1900, you could count the number of great American physicists on one hand. A few decades later, the U.S. had become the premier power in theoretical and experimental physics, thanks to refugees from Hungary, from Austria, from Germany, from Italy, from Denmark, and from all across Europe. The transplant took root and flourished.
Even though the future is dimming for American physics, there is room for optimism—the prospects for major discoveries are the brightest they've been in years. We are in the midst of a cosmological revolution; we are beginning to understand the physical laws that governed the early universe. Before the end of the decade, European experiments, such as the Planck satellite and the Large Hadron Collider at CERN will allow physicists to delve deeper than ever before into the story of the infant cosmos. While physics in the United States is withering, there will be fertile soil where a transplant can take root once again.
"Monocausalitis" — Pessimistic Optimism To Overcome a Common Disease
Since the question is in "edge world" it has thought implicitly day and night in my brain what I could be optimistic about, (on the explicit level I had to do also some other things). Frankly speaking with respect to the "big questions" nothing came to the surface of my mind. Can I be optimistic as a scientist or as a citizen about such questions like: Can we come to sustainable peace? Will we really solve one day the question how our brain functions? Are we going to win the battle against diseases? Will it once be possible to be free from prejudices? Etc, etc. The answer is an emphatic "no". There is no reason to be optimistic about such "big questions".
On the other hand, I look at myself as an optimistic person; on a personal level I am optimistic about the future of my children and grandchildren, about the career of my doctoral students then and now, about the realization of some new research projects in the near future, about my health after some problems in the past; etc. etc. Thus, if everybody would be optimistic about personal matters (which empirically speaking is unfortunately not the case), possibly in the big picture there could be a reason for an optimistic attitude towards others and the world. Such optimism would be an expression of trust, not an expression of solving the problems of humankind.
On the other hand: It would be great if I could be optimistic about fighting successfully a disease of all humans, namely "monocausalitis". (But again: there is no reason to be optimistic; we better be realistic). Humans have the urge to explain everything in a monocausal way. We are always looking for one reason only. The philosophical sentence "nothing is without reason" (nihil est sine ratione) is usually misunderstood as "nothing is without one reason". Occam's razor, i.e. to look for the simplest solution of a problem is OK, as long as a solution is not too simple. We are apparently victims of our evolutionary heritage being satisfied only if one and only one cause for the solution of a problem is identified (or claimed).
In understanding biological processes, for instance brain processes, and how they control the "mindworks", we better free ourselves from this monocausal trap. I am not only referring to the problem of the many hidden variables which have to be accepted in any analysis of a biological process and which create the typical headache of an experimenter — it is never possible to control every variable —, but I am referring also to a structural problem. Biological phenomena can better be understood, if multicausality is accepted as a guiding principle. In particular, I would like to promote "complementarity as a generative principle". In quantum mechanics to the best of my knowledge complementarity is a descriptive principle; in biology it is a creative principle. Just one example: It does not make much sense to explain human behaviour only on a genetic basis; genetic and environmental information have to come together to form for instance the matrix of our brain. This and many other examples are so self-evident that it is even embarrassing to refer to them.
But still, if one looks at the expressed optimism that may save our world or that gives the final insight into mother nature's tricks we are confronted with monocausal solutions. Possibly, if we accept our evolutionary heritage, the burden of "monocausalitis", we may overcome this disease, at least partially.
Strangers In Our Midst
I am optimistic about the prospect of detecting alternative life. All life that we know, as different as it may appear in size and shape, shares a common heritage at the biochemical level. From amoebas to zebras, familiar life is dominated by two types of large molecule—nucleic acids and proteins. This biochemical similarity, which extends to many other features as well, implies that we are all products of a single life-starting event.
If this event was extremely improbable, then Earth may be the only seat of life in an immense and barren universe. This picture would be little changed if our kind of life has drifted across empty space to fertilize our nearest planetary neighbors. As Jacques Monod commented: "The universe was not pregnant with life nor the biosphere with man. Our number came up in the Monte Carlo game."
As no firm evidence exists that supports or denies this package of gloom, we are not obliged to purchase it. A different scientific position holds that the generation of life is written into the laws that govern the universe. If a limited set of environmental requirements are satisfied—a supply of useful energy, fertile material to absorb and use the energy, and a fluid medium to support the transaction, then life will emerge. In the words of biologist Stuart Kauffman: "If all this is true, life is vastly more probable than we have supposed. Not only are we at home in the universe, but we are far more likely to share it with unknown companions."
The issue can be settled by scientific exploration. The discovery of life forms sufficiently different from our own to indicate a separate origin would tilt the debate decisively in favor of a fertile universe. The search for such life has traditionally been directed to extraterrestrial locales. Spacecraft have conducted preliminary surveys of Mars, Europa, Titan and Enceladus, and discovered that one or more of the necessary requirements have been met. As human have not yet traveled further than the Moon, the search for novel life forms on these worlds is likely to be carried out will be carried out by robots. If any creatures are encountered, then their biochemical characterization will also be conducted with the use of pre-programmed instruments, but weight limitations will constrain the versatility of the tools that can be landed on these distant worlds. The Viking missions of 1976 illustrated the ambiguities that can arise in such explorations. Even if encouraging data was returned to Earth, a sample return mission would most likely be needed to settle a question of such magnitude. Considerations of safety would make stringent quarantine measures mandatory for any returned samples.
Extensive planning and testing would be needed in advance to design a weight-limited apparatus capable of identifying alternative life. As astrobiology budgets are often under pressure, some delays would also be likely before such an apparatus was launched. Further, all of the above listed sites except Mars would require a number of years of travel time to bring the instrument package to its destination. Thus, even if the fertile universe view was correct, many decades might pass before the issue was settled.
Fortunately, a new strategy has emerged that is capable of providing much more rapid returns. One world exists that is known to have all of the capabilities needed to generate and sustain life. It is close at hand, so that any possible samples of alternative life could quickly be subjected to examination in depth, using the best instruments that science can provide. Human scientists would supervise the studies directly, and modify them as needed. That world is Earth.
The suggestion that alternative, novel life forms might be found on our own planet runs of course directly into the obstacle of an entrenched paradigm. Biologists have characterized hosts of life forms, particularly at the microbial level, and encountered the familiar nucleic acid-protein based system every time. Our type of life reigns on this planet. If alternative creatures ever existed, then surely they were eliminated during the intense combat of evolution. The fact that no such creatures had turned up despite the intense efforts that biologists have expended in studying life on Earth has served to reinforce this widely accepted conclusion.
Recently, however, two papers have challenged this assumption. One, written in Australia, was provided by physicist Paul Davies and mathematician Charles Lineweaver. The other was authored by Colorado-based philosopher Carol Cleland and microbiologist Shelley Copley. Three of these writers and a number of other scientists who have been interested in the question of extraterrestrial life (myself included) gathered at Arizona State University to discuss this possibility. A central conclusion that emerged was that alternative Earth life may simply have been overlooked because microbiological search techniques were targeted at our own kind of life. Many diverse cell-like objects can be observed when samples taken from soil or water are examined under the microscope. Only about 1 % of them choose to multiply when conventional growth media are added to the mixture and these colonies are the easiest to characterize. In some cases, newer techniques based upon nucleic acid sequencing have been used to identify additional species. Some of them represent early and unexpected branches from our presumed universal tree of life. The existence of truly different organisms in that mix, for example ones that lacked nucleic acids entirely and stored their hereditary information in some other way, was hardly considered. If such organisms existed, they would most likely be products of that speculative second origin.
How could such organisms have survived the competition of our robust nucleic acid based life? In one scenario, they may have preferred to dine upon alternative food stuffs not favored by familiar life, selecting for example arsenate in place of phosphate, unfamiliar amino acids or mirror image forms of conventional biomolecules. The most extreme example of this type may be the speculative mineral-based life forms suggested by Scottish chemist Graham Cairns-Smith.
A different strategy would also allow alternative Earth life to flourish without direct competition. The organisms may have selected environments that are uninhabitable by conventional life. Conventional terrestrial organisms have shown great versatility in adapting to extremes of acidity, temperature, dryness, saltiness, radiation and other variables. Even so, their adaptability is not unlimited and some niches yet remain which they cannot utilize. Yet organisms with a very different set of internal chemicals might find them to be ideal dwelling places. One such locality that was mentioned at the conference was Iron Mountain, California, from whose interior extremely acidic waters emerge.
Ironically (forgive the pun) a front page story in the New York Times of Dec. 23, 2006, derived from a paper published in Science a day earlier reported the isolation of novel microorganisms from the waters of Iron Mountain. Their novelty arose from the record-breaking smallness of the cells, rather than from a difference in their internal biochemistry sufficient to suggest a separate origin. Yet the group of California-based scientists that had made the discovery also noted the presence of "rounded objects" that "were not shown to contain DNA."
How could such objects, or others that may turn up if a deliberate search for biochemically novel organisms is made, be shown to be offspring of a second origin? My own suggestion is that an inventory be made, as complete as possible, of their chemical contents. Many advanced instruments have been devised in recent years that can perform a microchemical analysis of tiny samples. No questions of instrument payload, robotic analysis or sample return need be considered, in contrast to the case of specimens taken on other worlds. If the analysis should reveal a chemical suite that differed notably from those derived from conventional life and from the near-random mixtures produced by abiotic processes, then we would have a strong indication that we may have hit a scientific jackpot. Another approach to the identification of alternative life would involve the use of unorthodox culture media, toxic to conventional life, that induce the alternative organisms to grow. More ingenious strategies may emerge when the energies of additional scientists are turned toward this question.
Of course, a thorough search of this planet may yet return empty-handed. My own optimism is based on my particular outlook on the mechanisms involved in the origin of life. But that is another story.
A Second (and Better) Enlightenment
Like some other respondents, I'm not particularly optimistic at the moment. Human civilization, however, seems to proceed in cycles overall, and I believe that we are due—even if not quickly enough for my tastes—for a new positive cycle. Every Golden Age—the flowering of reason and good—has been followed by a withering, a decay, a rotting, a descent into superstition, prejudice, greed (pick your own favorite ill); somehow, though, the seeds of the next pinnacle begin their growth and ascent, seemingly finding nourishment in the detritus left by the past. A particular civilization may end, but new ones rise to take its place. I'm optimistic that the current nadir in which we find ourselves (e.g., a world mostly heedless of ongoing genocides, global warming, poverty, etc…) or toward which we see ourselves heading will lead to a renaissance, a new enlightenment…a profound, global shift in the world view for the better.
The Birth of Stochastic Science
I have seen in Richard Dawkins' work many references to the difficulty people have, when looking at an animal, in accepting that it is not the product of a top-down design, but the result of a random process — more exactly the upper bound of a random process, in which (roughly, and only roughly) the most successful mutations tend to make it. Yet my problem is that when those who accept the evolutionary argument look at a computer, at a laser beam, at a successful drug, at a surgical technique, at the spread of a language, at the growth of a city, or at an commercial enterprise, they tend to fall for the belief that its discovery or establishment partook of some grand design. And, in hindsight, some "explanation" will be given as to why it happened: there was a plot — it could not have been an accident.
Alas, we are victims of the narrative fallacy — even in scientific research (but while we learned how to manage it in religion, and to some degree in finance, we do not seem to be aware of its prevalence in research). The pattern-seeking, causality producing machine in us blinds us with illusions of order in spite of our horrifying past forecast errors. I hold that not only discoveries are also largely the result of a random process, but that their randomness is even less tractable than, and not as simple as, biological evolution. While nature might produce milder form of stochasticity, the environment for manmade discoveries is governed by a far, far more severe, wilder form of processes, those called "fat tailed".
Against what one might expect, this makes me extremely optimistic about the future in several selective research-oriented domains, those in which there is an asymmetry in outcomes favoring the positive over the negative — like evolution. These domains thrive on randomness. The higher the uncertainty in such environments, the rosier the future — since we only select what works and discard the rest. With unplanned discoveries, you pick what's best; as with a financial option, you do not have any obligation to take what you do not like. Rigorous reasoning applies less to the planning than to the selection of what works. I also call these discoveries positive "Black Swans": you can't predict them but you know where they can come from and you know how they will affect you. My optimism in these domains comes from both the continuous increase in the rate of trial and error and the increase in uncertainty and general unpredictability.
I am convinced that the future of America is rosier than people claim — I've been hearing about its imminent decline ever since I started reading. Take the following puzzle. Whenever you hear or read a snotty European presenting his stereotypes about Americans, he will often describe them as "uncultured", "unintellectual" and "poor in math" because, unlike his peers, they are not into equation drills and the constructions middlebrows people call "high culture". Yet the person making these statements will be likely to be addicted to his Ipod, wearing t-shirts and blue jeans, and using Microsoft Word to jot down his "cultural" statements on his (Intel) PC, with some Google searches on the Internet here and there interrupting his composition. Well, it so happened that the U.S. is currently far, far more tinkering an environment than that of these nations of museum goers and equation solvers — in spite of the perceived weakness of the educational system, which allows the bottom-up uncertainty-driven trial-and-error system to govern it, whether in technology or in business.
It fosters entrepreneurs and creators, not exam takers, bureaucrats or, worse, deluded economists. So the perceived weakness of the American pupil in conventional and theoretical studies is where it very strength lies — it produces "doers", Black Swan hunting, dream-chasing entrepreneurs, or others with a tolerance for risk-taking which attracts aggressive tinkering foreigners. And globalization allowed the U.S. to specialize in the creative aspect of things, the risk-taking production of concepts and ideas, that is, the scalable and fat-tailed part of the products, and, increasingly, by exporting jobs, separate the less scalable and more linear components and assign them to someone in more mathematical and "cultural" states happy to be paid by the hour and work on other people's ideas. (I hold, against the current Adam Smith-style discourse in economics, that the American undirected free-enterprise works because it aggressively allows to capture the randomness of the environment — "cheap options"— not much because of competition and certainly less because of material incentives. Neither the followers of Adam Smith, nor to some extent, those of Karl Marx, seem to be conscious about the role of wild randomness. They are too bathed in enlightenment-style causation and cannot separate skills and payoffs.)
The world is giving us more "cheap options", and options benefit principally from uncertainty. So I am particularly optimistic about medical cures. To the dismay of many planners, there is an acceleration of the random element in medicine putting the impact of discoveries in a class of Mandelbrotian power-law style payoffs. It is compounded by another effect: exposure to serendipity. People are starting to realize that a considerable component of the gravy in medical discoveries is coming from the "fringes", people finding what they are not exactly looking for. It is not just that hypertension drugs lead to Viagra, angiogenesis drugs lead to the treatment of macular degeneration, tuberculosis drugs treat depression and Parkinson's disease, etc., but that even discoveries that we claim to come from research are themselves highly accidental, the result of tinkering narrated ex post and dressed up as design. The high rate of failure should be sufficiently convincing of the lack of effectiveness of design.
But if the success rate is very low, the more we search, the more likely we are to find things "by accident", outside the original plan — or the more an unspecified original "plan" is likely to succeed. Looking at the swelling pipeline, something tells me that the discovery of cures, or near-cures for unspecified diseases is about to happen — except that I do not know which one, nor do I know where it is coming from. More technically, I see the sign of fractal randomness in these payoffs from the fact that results are more linear to the number of investments than they are to quantities invested — thus favoring the multiplication of small bets.
All the while institutional science is largely driven by causal certainties, or the illusion of the ability to grasp these certainties; stochastic tinkering does not have easy acceptance. Yet we are increasingly learning to practice it without knowing — thanks to overconfident entrepreneurs, naive investors, greedy investment bankers, and aggressive venture capitalists brought together by the free-market system. I am also optimistic that the academy is losing its power and ability to put knowledge in straightjackets and more out-of-the-box knowledge will be generated Wiki-style. But what I am saying is not totally new. Accepting that technological improvement is an undirected (and unpredictable) stochastic process was the agenda of an almost unknown branch of Hellenic medicine in the second century Mediterranean Near East called the "empirics". Its best known practitioners were Menodotus of Nicomedia and my hero of heroes Sextus Empiricus. They advocated theory-free opinion-free trial-and-error, literally stochastic medicine. Their voices were drowned by the theoretically driven Galenic, and later Arab-Aristotelian medicine that prevailed until recently.
This idea applies to so many other technological domains. The only bad news is that we can't really tell where the good news are going to be about, except that we can locate it in specific locations, those with a high number of trials. More tinkering equals more Black Swans. Go look for the tinkerers.
Human Beings Are Different
Now that we've gotten false notions of "god" out of the way, we come up against the question from which He insulated us: if human beings are not the "chosen" species, then are we at least capable of transcending nature, from which we emerge?
Our most natural inclination should be to kill each other, one way or another. From plankton to pachyderms, the myth of nature as a sustainable and loving collaborative is about as absurd as that of a Creator Being. Unless we prove different from every other species, we will continue to compete with the rest of the planet for a disproportionate share of its resources — and with one another for the spoils of this ongoing war. That's just life.
I'm optimistic that human beings can be different than the species from which we evolved, and that the endless comparisons between human culture and other species are, ultimately, specious. I hope that just because sponge colonies will fight endlessly with those of a different color need not mean that humans are destined to do the same thing.
I'm optimistic that, having been liberated from the myth of intrinsic meaning, human beings will gain the capacity to make meaning, instead. And that this unique ability will give us the opportunity to disobey biology's commands.
The Climate Optimist
Mention global warming at a seasonal social gathering and see what happens, now that skepticism has turned into concern and sorrow. They will assume that you're a pessimist about our prospects. "Not really," I protest. That earns me a quizzical look.
"Wait a minute," she says. "If you're an optimist, why do you look so worried?"
"So you think it's easy, being an optimist?"
Many scientists look worried these days. We've had a steady diet of bad news coming from climate scientists and biologists. To become even a guarded optimist, you have to think hard.
First, I reflected, the history of science and medicine shows that, once you mechanistically understand what's what, you can approach all sorts of seemingly unsolvable problems. I'm optimistic that we will learn how to stabilize climate.
Unfortunately the window of opportunity is closing. Fifty years have now passed since the first unequivocal scientific warnings of an insulating blanket of CO2 forming around the planet. Politicians apparently decided to wait until something big went wrong.
It has. We have already entered the period of consequences. Climate scientists have long been worried about their children's future. Now they are also worried about their own.
Our Faustian bargain over fossil fuels has come due. Dr. Faustus had 24 years of party-now, pay-later—and indeed, it's exactly 24 years since Ronald Reagan axed the U.S. budget for exploring alternative fuels. This led to doubling our use of cheap coal, the worst of the fossil fuels. They're planning, under business as usual, to re-double coal burning by 2030—even though we can now see the high cost of low price.
The devil's helpers may not have come to take us away, but killer heat waves have started, along with some major complications from global warming. We're already seeing droughts that just won't quit. Deserts keep expanding. Oceans keep acidifying. Greenland keeps melting. Dwindling resources keep triggering genocidal wars with neighbors (think Darfur). Extreme weather keeps trashing the place.
All of them will get worse before they get better.
Worse, tipping points can lead to irreversible demolition derbies. Should another big El Niño occur and last twice as long as in 1983 or 1998, the profound drought could burn down the rain forests in Southeast Asia and the Amazon—and half of all species could go extinct, just within a year or two.
Time has become so short that we must turn around the CO2 situation within a decade to avoid saddling our children with the irreversible consequences of a runaway warming. That means not waiting for a better deal on some post-Kyoto treaty. It means immediately scaling up technologies that we know will work, not waiting for something better that could take decades to debug.
This isn't optional. It is something that we simply have to do. The time for talk is past.
"I see why you're worried," she says. "But what's your optimistic scenario for dealing with this fossil fuel fiasco?"
For starters, I think it likely that the leaders of the major religious groups will soon come to see climate change as a serious failure of stewardship. And once they see our present fossil fuel use as a deeply immoral imposition on other people and unborn generations, their arguments will trump the talk-endlessly-to-buy-time business objections— just as such moral arguments did when ending slavery in the 19th century.
Second, the developed nations are fully capable of kick-starting our response to global warming with present technology—enough to achieve, within ten years, a substantial reduction in their own fossil fuel uses. How?
Wind farmers will prosper as pastures grow modern windmills to keep the cows company.
Giant parking lots, already denuded of trees, are perfect places for acres of solar paneling. Drivers will love the shaded parking spaces they create.
The Carbon Tax will replace most of those deducted from paychecks and create a big wave of retrofitting homes and businesses.
Big brightly lit grocery stores with giant parking lots will compete poorly with warehouses that deliver web and phone orders within the hour, like pizza. Smaller neighborhood grocery stores will once again do a big walk-in business and they will compete with the warehouses by offering "green bicycle" delivery.
High-speed toll gates will become the norm on commuter highways. (Yes, I know, but remember that the paycheck was just enriched by eliminating withholding for income tax.)
Speed limits will be lowered to 50 mph (80 kmh) for fuel efficiency and, as in 1973, drivers will marvel at how smoothly the traffic flows. Double taxes will apply to vehicles with worse-than-average fossil fuel consumption, reducing the number of oversized vehicles with poor streamlining. Hybrids and all-electric cars will begin to dominate new car sales.
A firm, fast schedule will be established for retiring or retrofitting existing coal plants. My bet is that adding nuclear power plants—France gets 78% of its electricity that way, New Jersey 52%—will prove safer, cheaper, and faster than fixing coal.
On the quarter-century time scale, let us assume that the new rapid transit systems will reduce car commuting by half. The transition to electric and hydrogen vehicles will shift transportation's energy demands to greener sources, including biofuels, geothermal, tidal, and wave generation.
The highly efficient binding energy extractors (BEEs, the fourth-generation nuclear power plants) will be running on the spent fuel of the earlier generations.
The low-loss DC transmission lines will allow, via cables under the Bering Strait, solar-generated electricity to flow from the bright side to the dark side of the earth.
And in this 25-year time frame, we ought to see some important new technology making a difference, not just improvements in what we already use. For example, we might encourage rapid adaptation of the whale's favorite food, the tiny phytoplankton which provide half of the oxygen we breathe as they separate the C from the CO2.
Since the shell-forming plankton sink to the ocean bottom when they die, their carbon is taken out of circulation for millions of years. Forests can burn down, releasing their stored carbon in a week, but limestone is forever. If shell-forming plankton could thrive in warmer waters with some selective breeding or a genetic tweak, their numbers might double and start taking our excess CO2 out of circulation.
But even if we invent—and debug—such things tomorrow, it can take several decades before an invention makes a dent in our urgent problem. And all this assumes no bad surprises, such as the next supersized El Niño killing off the Amazon and, once we lack all those trees, increasing the rate of warming by half.
By mid-century, let us suppose that we have begun extracting more CO2 from the atmosphere than we add.
This will only happen if the technology of the developed world has become good enough to compensate for what's still going on in the overstressed nations that are too disorganized to get their energy act together.
When CO2 levels fall enough to counter the delayed warming from past excesses, we will begin to see a reversal of droughts and violent weather— though the rise in sea level will likely continue, a reminder to future generations of our 20th-century Faustian bargain.
As Samuel Johnson said in 1777, "when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully."
We need to turn on a dime—by which I mean, close to what we saw in the United States after the bombing of Pearl Harbor.
From a standing start in late 1941, the automakers converted—in a matter of months, not years—more than 1,000 automobile plants across thirty-one states... In one year, General Motors developed, tooled, and completely built from scratch 1,000 Avenger and 1,000 Wildcat aircraft... GM also produced the amphibious 'duck'—a watertight steel hull enclosing a GM six-wheel, 2.5 ton truck that was adaptable to land or water. GM's duck `was designed, tested, built, and off the line in ninety days'... Ford turned out one B-24 [a bomber] every 63 minutes....
— Jack Doyle, Taken for a Ride, 2000
Now there's a source of optimism: we did it before. Indeed, GM currently needs a new purpose in life (and I'd suggest repurposing the manned space program as well). All of that talent is badly needed.
With great challenges come great opportunities and I'm an optimist about our ability to respond with innovation. Countries that innovate early will have an economic edge over the laggards.
Our present civilization is like a magnificent cathedral, back before flying buttresses were retrofitted to stabilize the walls. Civilization now needs a retrofit for stabilizing its foundations. It will be a large undertaking, not unlike those that once went into building pyramids and cathedrals. I'm optimistic that the younger generation can create a better civilization during the major makeover—provided that those currently in the leadership can stop this runaway coal train, real fast.
Climate change is a challenge to the scientists but I suspect that the political leadership has the harder task, given how difficult it is to make people aware of what must be done and get them moving in time. It's going to be like herding stray cats, and the political leaders who can do it will be remembered as the same kind of geniuses who pulled off the American Revolution.
Once and Future Optimism
I am optimistic about the past. It's looking better and better every day. A couple of hundred years from now, when the Greenland and Antarctic ice caps have melted and sea levels have risen by two hundred feet, our genetically engineered descendants will be sitting by their ocean-front property in Nevada reminiscing about the high old times in those now submerged cities of New York, London, and Tokyo. From their perspective, the past is really going to look good.
I'm also optimistic about the future. It is well within our power as a species to avert the environmental catastrophe envisaged in the previous paragraph. Prudent investment in carbon conserving technologies and economic strategies can postpone or prevent entirely the more extreme consequences of global warming. I am hopeful that policy makers will realize that relatively small sacrifices made voluntarily now, can prevent much larger, involuntary sacrifices later.
Let's be realistic: we human beings are addicted to damaging ourselves and others. When one rationale for conflict loses force, we seek out a new one, no matter how trivial, for prolonging the strife. Nonetheless, we are capable of pulling back from the brink. During the cold war, the strategy pursued the United States and the Soviet Union was officially called MAD, or Mutually Assured Destruction: anyone who started a nuclear war was guaranteed to be annihilated themselves. While risky in the long run — if the radar confuses a flock of geese with an incoming missile, we're all dead — the strategy worked for long enough for our leaders to realize just how mad MAD was, and to begin to disarm. We are currently on the brink of a major environmental catastrophe; but there is still time to pull back.
Even if global warming does flood most of the world's major cities, human beings will survive and adapt. Just how they will adapt, we can't predict: but they will. Technology got us into this mess in the first place by providing the wherewithal for modern industrial society. I am optimistic that our descendants will develop technologies to cope with whatever mess we leave them. The technologies for survival into the twenty third century need not be high technologies: simple, low technologies of water and fuel conservation will suffice. If we're careful with our basic resources, there should be enough left over to keep on playing video games.
We need not even leave the world a mess. The key to using resources wisely is to distribute them fairly. If only because the global distribution of resources such as money and energy is currently so skewed, I am guardedly optimistic that our increasingly globalized society can make progress towards a world in which each human being has equal access to food, clean water, education, and political representation. This optimism is tempered by the acknowledgement that the world's 'haves' have little motivation to share the world's resources with its 'have nots' We are unaccustomed to thinking of democracy as a 'technology,' but that is what it is: a systematic arrangement of human beings into a social machine that functions better in many respects than the social machine of totalitarianism. The real technology that we currently require is not a more fuel-efficient SUV, but rather a political system that gives each human being on earth a voice in policy.
Finally, I am wildly optimistic about the future of scientific ideas. Wherever I travel in the world — first, second, or third — I meet young scientists whose ideas blow me away. The internet distributes cutting edge scientific work much more widely and cheaply than ever before. As a result, the fundamental intellectual equality of human beings is asserting itself in a remarkable way: people are just as smart in Peru and Pakistan as they are in London and Los Angeles, and those people can now participate in scientific inquiry with far greater effectiveness than ever before. Human beings are humanity's greatest resource, and when those humans start becoming scientists, watch out!
I am optimistic about optimism. It has a bright future.
Not long ago, a few decades back, it became fashionable to be pessimistic. Gloomy predictions were sexy and sure signs of a progressive mind. Any true intellectual was sceptical about the survival of humanity.
There were good reasons for that. In the early 1980s we seemed to be a little stuck. A major nuclear exchange between superpowers was a very real threat, the environmental crisis was not recognised by the public (and much less by the politicians) and the world population just seemed to grow exponentially forever.
But the mood changed. A nuclear disarmament spiral started, most populations in industrialized countries became aware of the environment and demanded political action, the growth of the world population started to slow down.
Also, the internet and the web seemed to offer technologies for change and democratization. During the 1990s optimism boomed.
Boom! But then came the dot-com crash and 9/11. The liberating force of the internet was still there, even if hopeful and greedy investors didn't make money on it (but as we now know, it was released by the Open Source movement and phenomena like Web 2.0). Despite terrorism, the safety situation has not really changed in any quantitative sense.
Also, climate researchers have now reached agreement that the global warming is really here. The explanation is our own stupid and wasteful use of fossilized depots of energy in a world full of an energy flow from the Sun much, much larger than the what we need.
So it is time to be pessimistic again? No way! The environmental problems are much too serious to be left to the pessimists.
We need to make a change and do it right away. But we know what to do. We need a suite of high tech solutions that will enable us to plug into the good old resource base of humanity: Solar energy, recycled materials and a decentralized, peer-to-peer network to enable information flow.
We are about to make a very old niche in nature habitable for a huge human population through the use of hi tech solutions from the info, nano and bio toolboxes. We must awaken the enlightening spirit of reinventing everything, the future included.
We have to rethink the civilization we have developed since the introduction of agriculture in the last great climate crisis, at the end of the last Ice Age.
We have to create a Civilization 2.0 and we have to do it now. And the fine thing is that we have already started creating the technology and the dreams. Human beings have a talent for crisis management.
Without optimism, we would not be here. The rational evidence for giving up is always there, but we survived thanks to the the faith and the strength to go on and on, despite all warnings.
Pessimism is a self-falsifying prophecy. Optimism always wins. Until nobody is around to know that it did not.
A Knowledge Driven Economy Allows Individuals to Lead Millions Out of Poverty In a Single Generation
Freedom to create, to work, to fundamentally alter is unprecedented. For better and worse, science and technology provide ever greater power. Individuals and small groups can leverage this power to set their own rules, make their own lives, establish their own boundaries. Paradoxically, this is leading to massive global networks and ever smaller countries.
Don't like your country or your neighbors? Had enough of the religious, nationalist, or ethnic fanatics nearby? Groups that like to speak obscure languages, that want to revise the heroes in the grammar school textbooks, or who advocate a different set of morals are increasingly able to do so. Borders and boundaries in both rich and poor countries are breeding like rabbits. In Europe there are demands for autonomy or outright separation in the former United Kingdom, France, Belgium, Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Italy...
It used to be the bright had to leave India, Pakistan, China, and Mexico to make a living, to lead and have a global impact. No more. There are ever more powerful enclaves and zip codes within countries where there is a concentration of smarts and entrepreneurship. If their neighbors let them, these groups and networks flourish. If not they separate or they leave.
As long as you can become and remain a part of the network, the power of place matters ever less. Who your parents were, where you were born, is irrelevant as long as you have access to and interest in education, technology, science, and networks. Every time you open a science magazine, research a new material or gene, map a brain, ocean, or piece of the universe there is a smorgasbord of opportunities to learn and build something new, to create, to accumulate enough prestige, wealth, or power to fundamentally change many lives.
A knowledge driven economy allows individuals to lead millions out of poverty in a single generation. Many within the biggest, China and India, as well as the smallest Singapore and Luxembourg can thrive. One no longer needs to take what the neighbor has to survive. One can thrive by building something complementary, by thinking up something better. Knowledge unlike land, oil wells, gold mines, is ever expanding. Someone's success depends ever less on taking what the other had. You can build and make your own.
Sometimes the real and cyber merge and cross over. Second lifers, inhabitants of a virtual world, are free to become whatever they wish, wherever they wish. Their creations and wealth are increasingly crossing boundaries into the real world of corporate planning, art, and dollars. This is just a foreshadowing of real world governance going forward as the digital becomes the dominant language and means of generating wealth on the planet.
Throughout the world, likely your grandpa's favorite sports team moved, his flag changed, and his job merged, moved, and morphed. All of this implies an accelerating set of shifts in allegiance and identity. Politicians and citizens who wish to preserve and protect the current country are well advised to pay attention to these trends as more have a choice and as ever more debate whether to become a more compact few. For the illegitimate or the slow, it will be harder to maintain boundaries and borders. There is little margin for error; each government and temporarily dominant party can screw up the whole. And the whole can be spit very fast. But you have any options. You can fight to preserve that you love or you can choose to build or inhabit an alternative space. Your choice.
The End of the Commoditization of Knowledge
Fifteen years ago I was asked to join the board of editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. In short order, I learned that these editors saw themselves as guardians of knowledge. They knew what was true and what was important and only knowledge that fit those criteria would be in their encyclopedia. I asked if the encyclopedia could be say, ten times bigger, economic issues aside, and they said ‘no' the right information was already in there. I started to explain that the world as they knew it was going to change before their eyes and they would soon be toast, but they didn't understand.
I have had similar conversation with newspaper editors, librarians, heads of testing services, and with faculty at top universities. Like the Britannica folks, they see themselves as knowing what is true and what is not and what is important and what is not.
I am optimistic that this is soon all about to change.
What I mean by ‘this' is the era that we have lived in, ever since the invention of the book, but clearly including the era where knowledge was contained in scrolls. In this era, knowledge is a commodity, owned and guarded by the knowledge elite and doled out by them in various forms that they control, like books, and, newspapers, and television, and schools. They control who can get access to the knowledge (through admission to elite schools for example) and exactly what knowledge matters (through SATs but also through intellectual publications that true knowledge owners would be embarrassed to have failed to have read.)
We are beginning to see the change in all this now. If anyone can take Harvard's courses on line then one wonders why one has to go to Harvard. Elite universities have struggled with this new world, but eventually people will take whatever course they want from whomever they want and a real competition about quality will take place.
We no longer have only three TV networks, so more points of view are available, but the cost of running a TV station is still high and there are barriers to entry and there is still the idea that a TV station broadcasts all day even if it has nothing to say. Soon this too will disappear. You tube is just they beginning.
Today print media is being challenged by on line material, but it is still prestigious to publish a book and newspapers still exist. More importantly, schools still exist. But they are all going away soon. There is no need to buy knowledge when it available for free, as newspapers are learning. When everyone has a blog and a website, the question will be whose information is reliable and how to find it. No one will pay a dime. Knowledge will cease to be a commodity.
I consider this to be a very good thing. I believe that those who own and dispense knowledge have turned off at last one and maybe more generations of thinkers to believe that all the important ideas are known and it is sad that you just don't know them. Religions have operated on this principle of knowing what is in the sacred scrolls for a very long time. Schools have acted similarly. Soon no one will be able to claim they know what is true because people will be able to create debates for themselves. Google has helped make this happen already but you ain't seen nothin' yet.
You may want to pay for the knowledge of someone who you believe to be very valuable to help you in doing something that you want to do, but that kind of knowledge will acquired ‘just in time,' sort of the way consultants operate today, but for everyone and there will be hundreds of thousand of choices.
More importantly the size of information will change. Today the size is a book or an article or a lecture or a course, But soon it will be a sound bite (or a paragraph.). Yes — those terrible sound bites which the owners of knowledge like to complain about. Nuggets of knowledge will win because they always have won. People used to have conversations, sound bite followed by sound bite, directed towards a mutual goal held by the conversationalists. This will soon be possible on line. You will able to start a conversation with (an electronic version of ) anyone who wants to offer this service. We will be able to get information in the size that we got it thousands of years ago — in a size that we can process and respond to. No more blank-eyed listeners as people ramble on. Information will find us and we will express our thoughts back. Knowledge will mostly be free and the owners of knowledge will need to go into another line of work. Knowledge will cease to be a controlled commodity.
Transparency is Inevitable
I live in a bowl-shaped valley on the edge of the Berkshire hills in New England. The prevailing winds come from the southwest. As it happens, a coal-burning electric plant sits in the dip next to the Holyoke Range at the southern edge of the valley, perfectly placed to fill the air with its unsavory mix of particulates — the plant is a dinosaur, one that due to various regulatory loopholes has been able to dodge costly upgrades that would make its emissions less toxic.
Nobody seems to mind. True, the head of pulmonary medicine at the local medical center bemoans the toll of the plants' particulates on the respiratory tracts of those who live in the valley, particularly its children. But those who operate the Mt. Tom power plant blithely buy carbon-pollution credits that let it avoid the expense of upgrading its scrubbers.
The indifference of those of us whose respiratory systems routinely become inflamed, I'm convinced, is due in large part to a failure in collective awareness. As we join the throngs in the waiting room of the local asthma specialist, we make no connection between our being there and that smokestack, nor between our own use of electricity and the rate at which that smokestack belches its toxins.
I'm optimistic that, one day, the people in my valley will make the connections between the source of our electric power and its role in the inflammations in our lungs — and more especially our children's lungs. More generally, I believe that inexorably the world of commerce will surface the invisible toll our collective habits of consumption wreak on our environment and our health.
My optimism does not hinge on the promise of some new technological fix or scientific breakthrough. Rather my hope stems from the convergence of market forces with off-the-shelf possibilities from an oft-ignored field that has already reshaped our lives: information science.
"Ultimately, everybody will find out everything," as a saying at the Googleplex has it – Google's corporate headquarters harboring perhaps the world's densest aggregate of specialists in data mining and other applications of information science. Information science, the systematic organization and meta-knowing of all we know, has been steadily increasing the sheer quantity of what each of us can find out.
One branch of this science, medical informatics, has transformed medicine by making available in an instant to the physician treating a patient a vast array of background data on his condition, history, prognosis and best treatment.
One of the more hopeful applications of information science would be something we might call "consumer informatics," which would do something akin to what is being done for medicine, but for the marketplace: make visible the elusive links between what we buy and do and the impacts on our body and on nature of the processes that support these activities.
Take, for example, the hidden costs of a t-shirt. The book Stuff: The Secret Lives of Everday Things deconstructs ordinary products into the chemical impacts their manufacture has had. Chemical by-products of textile dyes include chlorine, chromium and formaldehyde; because cotton resists coloring, about a third of the dyes fail to adhere and so end up in wastewater. There are correlations between high levels of dye run-off in groundwater and rates of leukemia in local children.
For that reason Bennett & Company, a supplier of clothes to companies like Victoria's Secret and Polo.com, has formed a partnership with the dye works that supplies its plants in China. The partnership allows the clothes manufacturer to ensure that the wastewater from the dyes it uses will go through a series of cleansing pools before returning to the water supply, rather than simply being dumped.
Here's the challenge for information science: quantify the environmental and health impacts of the standard processes used in manufacturing goods. Then tag a given product on a store shelf with the relative merits of the impacts it has had, so that consumers can weight its virtue into its value. Let us know which t-shirt has what consequences.
Some mechanics of that challenge may be less daunting than they seem at first glance. For one, all large retailers now use an electronic tagging system for inventory control. This lets a store manager know the history of every item on its shelves, including the factory where it was made. One next step would be to document the manufacturing practices at that factory, and so to tag the item with its environmental/public health legacy. This, of course, would require the assist of industry insiders, failing cooperation from the company itself.
The global diamond industry offers a rough model via its Kimberly Process, which requires nations that export diamonds to document that the stones were not "blood diamonds," mined in a war zone. Imperfect as that system may be in practice, it stands as a demonstration that an industry can tag a specific item from its source as better or worse on a criterion of virtue.
Here market forces may assist, encouraging companies to provide such information in the interests of competitive advantage. Some marketers have long touted product virtues in marketing. For example, Cascade toilet paper claims manufacturing methods that use 80% less water than the industry average and use no chlorine; some energy providers offer an option to purchase electricity from renewable sources like wind power. That's a bare beginning, one which lets a company select the criterion for the virtue of a given product rather than having it be evaluated more objectively.
If companies themselves do not take such steps, there are alternatives. Already anyone can go into a store and, using a Palm Pilot to scan the bar code, be whisked to a website that could reveal information about that product's level of virtue, say in terms of toxic chemicals unleashed during its manufacture.
But for such a website to have both credibility and teeth demands a sustained collaboration between information science and engineers, chemists, physicists, environmental scientists, public health and other medical specialists — to name but a few disciplines — as well as manufacturers. The mass of data potentially would be immense; information science sorts out the signal from the noise, or re-organizes noise into signal.
That task may be daunting. But I feel optimistic that through a sustained effort in consumer informatics, we're heading to the day we will be able to vote with our wallets every time we go shopping.
Doubling Hearing Aid Functionality
I foresee a friendlier future for us 31 million Americans with hearing loss. It's no news that cochlear implants, which were unavailable to my late-deafened mother, should spare me her fate. But few people are aware that many more of us could benefit by doubling the functionality of our hearing aids.
We can dream of a future where hearing aids serve not only as sophisticated microphone amplifiers, but also as wireless loudspeakers that deliver clear, customized sound. In theatres, auditoriums, worship centers, airport lounges, drive-up order stations, and home TV rooms, sound signals will be transmitted via in-the-ear loudspeakers, much like wi-fi transmissions to laptops.
Good news! That future has arrived in the UK and much of Scandinavia, and now here in more than one hundred west Michigan facilities, and it is coming to several other American cities. When people experience public address or TV sound via "hearing aid compatible assistive listening" (with their flick of a hearing aid switch) they typically respond with amazed joy. What's more, they report increased satisfaction with their hearing aids.
It's a challenge to persuade a nation to exchange its current hearing assistive technology (which requires locating, checking out, and wearing conspicuous headsets) for a technology that many more people would actually use. But the results of our west Michigan experiment, and another in 1000 California homes, supports my optimism. Doubling hearing aid functionality will greatly increase hearing aid acceptance and use.
With on-the-horizon technology, we can also foresee music buffs with wireless ear bud loudspeakers. When that day comes, having something in one's ear will become as mundane as glasses for the eyes, and millions of people with hearing loss will be enjoying fuller and more connected lives.
We Will Finally Get Mathematics Education Right
For the first time since Euclid started the mathematics education ball rolling over two thousand years ago, we are within a generation of eradicating innumeracy and being able to bring out the mathematical ability that research has demonstrated conclusively is within (almost) everyone's reach. The key to this development (actually two developments, one in the developing world, the other in affluent, technology-rich societies) is technology (actually two technologies).
First the developing world. Forget the $100 laptop, which I think has garnered the support it has only because of the track record and charisma of its principal advocate (Nicholas Negroponte), the ubiquitous computing device that will soon be in every home on the planet is the mobile phone. Despite the obvious limitations of a small screen and minimal input capability, with well-crafted instructional materials it will provide the developing world with accessible education in the basic numerical and quantitative reasoning skills that will enable them to escape from the poverty trap by becoming economically self-sufficient. Such a limited delivery system would not work for an affluent consumer who has choices, but for someone highly motivated by the basic desires of survival and betterment, who has no other choice, it will be life transforming.
At the other end of the economic spectrum, the immersive, three-dimensional virtual environments developed by the gaming industry make it possible to provide basic mathematical education in a form that practically everyone can benefit from.
We have grown so accustomed to the fact that for over two thousand years, mathematics had to be communicated, learned, and carried out through written symbols, that we may have lost sight of the fact that mathematics is no more about symbols than music is about musical notation. In both cases, specially developed, highly abstract, stylized notations enable us to capture on a page certain patterns of the mind, but in both cases what is actually captured in symbols is a dreadfully meager representation of the real thing, meaningful only to those who master the arcane notation and are able to recreate from the symbols the often profound beauty they represent. Never before in the history of mathematics have we had a technology that is ideally suited to representing and communicating basic mathematics. But now, with the development of manufactured, immersive, 3D environments, we do.
For sure, not all mathematics lends itself to this medium. But by good fortune (actually, it's not luck, but that would be too great a digression to explain) the medium will work, and work well, for the more basic mathematical life-skills that are of the most value to people living in modern developed societies.
Given the current cost of developing these digital environments (budgets run into the millions of dollars), it will take some years before this happens. We can also expect resistance from mathematics textbook publishers (who currently make a large fortune selling a product that has demonstrably failed to work) and from school boards who still think the universe was created by an old guy with a white beard (no, not Daniel Dennett) 6,000 years ago. But as massive sales of videogames drives their production costs down, the technology will soon come within reach of the educational world.
This is not about making the learning of mathematics "fun." Doing math will always be hard work, and not everyone will like it; its aficionados may remain a minority. But everyone will achieve a level of competency adequate for their lives.
Incidentally, I don't think I am being swayed or seduced by the newest technology. Certainly, I never thought that television, or the computer, or even artificial intelligence, offered a path to effective math learning. What makes immersive 3D virtual environments the perfect medium for learning basic math skills is not that they are created digitally on computers. Nor is it that they are the medium of highly seductive videogames. Rather, it is because they provide a means for simulating the real world we live in, and out of which mathematics arises, and of doing so in a way that brings out and confronts the player (i.e., learner) with the underlying mathematical structure of our world. If Euclid were alive today, this is how he would teach math.
Malthus was wrong
When I was growing up, the problem at the heart of every environmental question was human population growth. If there aren't many people around, what they do matters little. If there are lots, even careful living is likely to have bad environmental consequences. At that time, the Earth's population was about three billion. It has now doubled to six. Not, on the face of things, great grounds for optimism.
The population curves in the newspapers and television programmes of my youth went relentlessly upwards. That was because they had only one, exponential, term. A real population curve, however, is logistic, not exponential. It does not rise indefinitely. Eventually, it reaches an inflection point and starts to level off. That is because a second term in the form of lack of space, lack of resources, disease or direct conflict between individuals stabilises it by matching the birth and death rates. And that was the fate the environmentalists of the 1970s predicted for humanity.
Such pessimism, however, failed to take account of the demographic shift that all populations (so far) have undergone as they have enriched themselves. For the negative exponent is starting to show up, and its cause is not lack of space or resources, nor yet is it conflict or disease (even AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis make only a small difference in global terms). Instead, it is the thing that the doomsters feared most after population growth — economic growth.
As a quondam evolutionary biologist, I find the demographic transition in response to higher living standards hard to explain. On the face of things, better conditions should lead to larger families, not smaller ones. However, it is impossible to argue with the facts, and the facts are that the rate of population increase is dropping, and that the drop is correlated with increases in personal economic well-being.
Perhaps the answer lies in the old idea of r and K selection. Indeed, the terms r and K come from variables in two-term logistic equation that describes real population dynamics. K-selected species, people may remember from their college ecology classes, have few offspring but nurture them lovingly. Those that are r-selected have lots, but display a Devil-take-the-hindmost attitude to their issue's survival. The crucial point is that K-selected species live in safe, predictable environments, while r-selected ones live in unsafe, unpredictable ones. If the individuals of a species were able to shift opportunistically between r and K strategies in response to shifts in the environment, then something like the demographic transition in response to wealth might be the result.
None of this means that the eventual human population of, say, ten billion will be easy for the planet to support. But such support will not be impossible, particularly as it is also the case that economic growth in rich countries is less demanding of natural resources for each additional unit of output than is the case for growth in poor countries.
Malthus was wrong to observe that population increases geometrically while the resources available to support it increase arithmetically. It was an understandable mistake. It flies in the face of common sense that population growth will actually slow down in the face of better resources. But that is what happens, and it might yet save humanity from the fate predicted for it by the Club of Rome.
Science and The Decline of Magic
I am optimistic that science is winning out over magic and superstition. That may seem irrational, given the data from pollsters on what people believe. For example, a 2005 Pew Research Center poll found that 42 percent of Americans believe that "living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time." The situation is even worse when we examine other superstitions, such as these percentages of belief published in a 2002 National Science Foundation study:
ESP 60% UFOs 30% Astrology 40% Lucky numbers 32% Magnetic therapy 70% Alternative medicine 88%
Nevertheless, I take the historian's long view, and compared to what people believed before the Scientific Revolution, there is much cause for optimism. Consider what people believed a mere four centuries ago, just as science began lighting candles in the dark. In 16th- and 17th-century England, for example, almost everyone believed in sorcery, werewolves, hobgoblins, witchcraft, astrology, black magic, demons, prayer, and providence. "A great many of us, when we be in trouble, or sickness, or lose anything, we run hither and thither to witches, or sorcerers, whom we call wise men…seeking aid and comfort at their hands," noted Bishop Latimer in 1552. Saints were worshiped. Liturgical books provided rituals for blessing cattle, crops, houses, tools, ships, wells, and kilns, not to mention the sick, sterile animals, and infertile couples. In his 1621 book, Anatomy of Melancholy, Robert Burton explained, "Sorcerers are too common; cunning men, wizards, and white witches, as they call them, in every village, which, if they be sought unto, will help almost all infirmities of body and mind."
Just as alcohol and tobacco were essential anesthetics for the easing of pain and discomfort, superstition and magic were the basis for the mitigation of misfortune. As the great Oxford historian of the period, Keith Thomas, writes in his classic 1971 work Religion and the Decline of Magic, "No one denied the influence of the heavens upon the weather or disputed the relevance of astrology to medicine or agriculture. Before the seventeenth century, total skepticism about astrological doctrine was highly exceptional, whether in England or elsewhere." And it wasn't just astrology. "Religion, astrology and magic all purported to help men with their daily problems by teaching them how to avoid misfortune and how to account for it when it struck." With such sweeping power over nearly everyone, Thomas concludes, "If magic is to be defined as the employment of ineffective techniques to allay anxiety when effectives ones are not available, then we must recognize that no society will ever be free from it." The superstitious we will always have with us.
Nevertheless, the rise of science ineluctably attenuated this near universality of magical thinking by proffering natural explanations where before there were only supernatural ones. Before Darwin, design theory (in the form of William Paley's natural theology, which gave us the "watchmaker" argument) was the only game in town so everyone believed that life was designed by God. Today less than half believe that in America, the most religious nation of the developed democracies, and in most other parts of the world virtually everyone accepts evolution without qualification. That's progress.
The rise of science even led to a struggle to find evidence for superstitious beliefs that previously needed no propping up with facts. Consider the following comment from an early 17th-century book that shows how even then savvy observers grasped the full implications of denying the supernatural altogether: "Atheists abound in these days and witchcraft is called into question. If neither possession nor witchcraft (contrary to what has been so long generally and confidently affirmed), why should we think that there are devils? If no devils, no God."
Magic transitioned into empirical magic and formalized methods of ascertaining causality by connecting events in nature—the very basis of science. As science grew in importance, the analysis of portents was often done meticulously and quantitatively, albeit for purposes both natural and supernatural. As one diarist privately opined on the nature and meaning of comets: "I am not ignorant that such meteors proceed from natural causes, yet are frequently also the presages of imminent calamities."
Science arose out of magic, which it ultimately displaced. By the 18th century, astronomy replaced astrology, chemistry succeeded alchemy, probability theory dislodged belief in luck and fortune, city planning and social hygiene attenuated disease, and the grim vagaries of life became less grim, and less vague. As Francis Bacon concluded in his 1626 work, New Atlantis: "The end of our foundation is the knowledge of causes and the secret motions of things and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible."
Sic itur ad astra — Thus do we reach the stars.
Scientistific Discoveries Are Surprisingly Durable
Anna Karenina famously begins with the line, "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." A little less famously and a great deal more astutely, Nabokov turned the line on its head at the opening of Ada: "All happy families are more or less dissimilar; all unhappy ones are more or less alike." I'm with Nabokov, and that's why I can be an optimist.
Of course in the long run, optimism is impossible. Entropy is unforgiving: even a historian knows that.
And history repeats itself. The same stupidities, the same vengeances, the same brutalities are mindlessly reinvented over and over again. The study of history can help the educated and the wise avoid the mistakes of the past, but alas, it does nothing for helping the numbskulls.
But the study of the past and its follies and failures reveals one surprising ground for optimism. In the long run, the idiots are overthrown or at least they die. On the other hand, creativity and achievement are unique, exciting, liberating—and abiding. The discoveries of scientists, the inventions of engineers, the advances in the civility of human behavior are surprisingly durable. They may be thwarted or attacked, and at any given moment it may seem that the cause of women's rights is beleaguered in too many places in the world. But the idea of women's equality with men is not going away. Too few students may master the natural sciences, but the understanding enshrined in Newton's laws of motion and the calculus are not going away. Too many people may eat and smoke their way to early graves, but the accurate understanding of the mechanisms of the human body and how they can be healed and repaired and kept healthy—that's not going away either.
After all, we started out in the African savannah, trying to run fast enough to catch up with things we could eat and fast enough to stay away from things that could eat us. Our natural destiny is to squat in caves and shiver, then die young. We decided we didn't like that, and we figured out how to do better. Even if the numbskulls get their way and we were to wind up back in a cave, we would remember—and we wouldn't be in the cave long. We do not remember everything, and there are losses. But we turn out to be a stubbornly smart, resilient and persistent species, and we do not forget the most important things.
Systemic Flaws In the Reported World View
Paradoxically, one of the biggest reasons for being optimistic is that there are systemic flaws in the reported world view. Certain types of news — for example dramatic disasters and terrorist actions — are massively over-reported, others — such as scientific progress and meaningful statistical surveys of the state of the world — massively under-reported.
Although this leads to major problems such as distortion of rational public policy and a perpetual gnawing fear of apocalypse, it is also reason to be optimistic. Once you realize you're being inadvertently brainwashed to believe things are worse than they are, you can... with a little courage... step out into the sunshine.
How does the deception take place?
The problem starts with a deep human psychological response. We're wired to react more strongly to dramatic stories than to abstract facts. There are obvious historical and Darwinian reasons why this should be so. The news that an invader has just set fire to a hut in your village demands immediate response. The genes for equanimity in such circumstances got burned up long ago.
Although our village is now global, we still instinctively react the same way. Spectacle, death and gore. We lap it up. Layer on top of that a media economy that's driven by competition for attention and the problem is magnified. Over the years media owners have proven to their complete satisfaction that the stories that attract large audiences are the simple human dramas. Rottweiler Savages Baby is a bigger story than Poverty Percentage Falls even though the latter is a story about better lives for millions.
Today our media can source news from 190 countries and 6 billion people. Therefore you can be certain that every single day there will be word of spectacularly horrifying things happening somewhere. And should you get bored of reading about bombs, fires and wars, why not see them breaking live on cable 24/7 with ever more intimate pictures and emotional responses.
Meta-level reporting doesn't get much of a look-in.
So for example, the publication last year of a carefully researched Human Security Report received little attention. Despite the fact that it had concluded that the numbers of armed conflicts in the world had fallen 40% in little over a decade. And that the number of fatalities per conflict had also fallen. Think about that. The entire news agenda for a decade, received as endless tales of wars, massacres and bombings, actually missed the key point. Things are getting better. If you believe Robert Wright and his NonZero hypothesis, this is part of a very long-term and admittedly volatile trend in which cooperation eventually trumps conflict. Percentage of males estimated to have died in violence in hunter gatherer societies? Approximately 30%. Percentage of males who died in violence in the 20th century complete with two world wars and a couple of nukes? Approximately 1%. Trends for violent deaths so far in the 21st century? Falling. Sharply.
In fact, most meta-level reporting of trends show a world that is getting better. We live longer, in cleaner environments, are healthier, and have access to goods and experiences that kings of old could never have dreamed of. If that doesn't make us happier, we really have no one to blame except ourselves. Oh, and the media lackeys who continue to feed us the litany of woes that we subconsciously crave.
Understanding What Really Happens To Humans In Groups
At seventeen I saw that contemporary literature—I studied it then, and hoped eventually to be part of it—is an abyss of despair. No surprise: it reflects the unspeakable circumstances of the 20th century. Even so, it's no good thing to be seventeen and without hope. Luckily, chance brought me together with some scientists, and I discovered that in science, optimism was, and is, abundant.
Since then, I've spent much of my life trying to persuade my friends in the humanities that optimism on behalf of the human condition is a plausible point of view. It isn't the only point of view—the 20th century's horrors are a fact, and most of them happened through human agency. But the full life can support several points of view, often simultaneously, and my personal inclination is toward optimism, however qualified it must be.
For a long time my optimism centered on computing in general, and what kinds of benefits it might bring us. Events have shown I entertained far too modest an optimism—I'm embarrassed to say that the impact of the Internet, in particular the World Wide Web, eluded me completely at first. A few years ago, I returned to artificial intelligence, which I'd written about early on, and then gone away from. Press narratives were uncritical about the field's death throes, and I expected to write an elegy. Instead, I found a revelation. Artificial intelligence is not only robustly healthy, building on its very significant gains since I first wrote about it, but the field's present ambitions burst with, well, vitality.
Lately I've been examining a new aspect of computing, the modeling of human behavior in groups, small and large, beginning from the bottom up, playing out dynamically, as only computer models allow. Years ago, in a casual dinner conversation with a social scientist, I wondered aloud if what prevented us from understanding what really happens to humans in groups is that we haven't found the code. I meant to make a vague comparison between the genetic code and something hypothetical that encoded human behavior. Instead of laughing, she solemnly agreed.
Such a code is not yet on the horizon, but thanks to some marvelous new work by very gifted social scientists, its intimations are teasing us. I'm optimistic that it will eventually be found. When it is, it will be a scientific triumph. It will open not just the future to our understanding, but also the past. It will be a human triumph.
What will it mean to have such a code? For one thing we can plan more intelligently. Want to wage a war? Call in the experts to run a few scenarios for you, laid out in bottom-up detail, humans and their interactions with each other and the terrain they're going to fight it out on.
Watch silicon agents melt away to fight you another day; watch them reach out for help elsewhere. Once you watch the model run its course, maybe you don't want to fight that particular war after all. Want to predict the possible spread of a disease? Good, the silicon model will tell you how many will fall, and where you can intervene to pinch off contagion effectively, where it's a waste of effort. Want to figure out the ebb and flow of urban crime waves? And then how to prevent them? Play it out in silicon first. Why do humans cooperate, at least as much as they compete? Compare identical silicon societies, same people, same resources, but vary the amount of cooperation, the amount of competition. Which one collapses? Which one survives? Which one thrives? Where's the tipping point?
Perhaps as interesting, we'll be able to reach backward in time. How, really, did Mesopotamia become a desert when once it had supported a network of rich societies? How much of that collapse was climate change, how much human folly? Build a model of early modern Europe and show what really caused the European Renaissance. Compute in detail how Great Britain came to rule the waves—and then didn't any more.
We assume we've solved some of these problems, though historians dispute one another ferociously, as do epidemiologists, as do economists, sometimes over details, sometimes over emphasis, sometimes over fundamental assumptions. Here comes a chance to nail it down, and these techniques offer us insights we couldn't get any other way. Finding the code I once thought was only hypothetical will revolutionize our view of who we are, how we got that way, and who we might become, the same way cracking the genetic code revolutionized biology.
But of course I'm chronically too modest in my hopes, so you can comfortably hope for more.
The First Coming
I am optimistic that God may come at the end.
I've never been able to choke down the idea of a supernatural God who stands outside of time, a God who designs and creates the Universe. There is, however, an alternate notion of God relevant to the secular community, the skeptical, evidence-minded community that believes only in nature.
Isaac Asimov wrote a short story in the 1950's called "The Last Question." The story opens in 2061 with the Earth cooling down. Scientists ask the giant computer, "can entropy be reversed?" and the computer answers "not enough data for a meaningful answer." In the next scene, earth's inhabitants have fled the white dwarf that used to be our sun, for younger stars; and as the galaxy continues to cool, they ask the miniaturized supercomputer, which contains all of human knowledge, "can entropy be reversed." It answers "not enough data." This continues through more scenes, with the computer even more powerful and the cosmos even colder. The answer, however, remains the same. Ultimately trillions of years pass, and all life and warmth in the Universe have fled. All knowledge is compacted into a wisp of matter in the near-absolute zero of hyperspace. The wisp asks itself "can entropy be reversed?"
"Let there be light," it responds. And there was light.
There is a theory of God imbedded in this story that is based not on faith and revelation, but on hope and evidence. God in the Judeo-Christian theory has four properties: omnipotence, omniscience, goodness, and the creation of the universe. I think we need to give up the last property, a supernatural creator at the beginning of time. This is the most troublesome property in the Judeo-Christian theory: it runs afoul of evil in the universe. If God is the designer, and also good, omniscient, and omnipotent, how come the world is so full of innocent children dying, of terrorism, and of sadism? The creator property also contradicts human free will. How can God have created a species endowed with free will, if God is also omnipotent and omniscient? And who created the creator anyway?
There are crafty, involuted theological answers to each of these conundrums. The problem of evil is allegedly solved by holding that God's plan is inscrutable: 'What looks evil to us isn't evil in God's inscrutable plan.' The problem of reconciling human free will with the four properties of God is a very tough nut. Calvin and Luther gave up human will to save God's omnipotence. In contrast to this Reformation theory, modern "process" theology holds that God started things off with an eternal thrust toward increasing complexity (so far, so good). But mounting complexity entails free will and self-consciousness, and so human free will is a strong limitation on God's power. This theory of God gives up omnipotence and omniscience to allow human beings to enjoy free will. To circumvent 'who created the creator,' process theology gives up creation itself by claiming that the process of becoming more complex just goes on forever: there was no beginning and will be no end. So the process theology God allows free will, but at the expense of omnipotence, omniscience, and creation.
There is a different way out of these conundrums: It acknowledges that the creator property is so contradictory to the other three properties as to mandate jettisoning the property of Creator. Importantly, this very property is what makes God so hard to swallow for the scientifically minded person. The Creator is supernatural, an intelligent and designing being who exists before time and who is not subject to natural laws; a complex entity that occurs before the simple entities, thereby violating most every scientific process we know about. . Let the mystery of creation be consigned to the branch of physics called cosmology. 'Good riddance.'
This leaves us with the idea of a God who had nothing whatever to do with creation, but who is omnipotent, omniscient, and righteous? Does this God exist?
Such a God cannot exist now because we would be stuck once again with two of the same conundrums: how can there be evil in the world now if an existing God is omnipotent and righteous, and how can humans have free will if an existing God is omnipotent and omniscient. So there was no such God and there is no such God now.
Consider now the principle of NonZero that Robert Wright (2000) articulates in his book of the same name. Wright argues that the invisible hand of biological and cultural evolution ineluctably select for the complex over the simple because positive sum games have the survival and reproductive edge over zero sum games, and that over epochal time more and more complex systems, bulkily, but necessarily, arise. Space does not allow me to expand on Wright's thesis and I must refer the justifiably unconvinced reader to his very substantial arguments.
A process that selects for more complexity is ultimately aimed at nothing less than omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness. Omniscience is, arguably, the literally ultimate end product of science. Omnipotence is, arguably, the literally ultimate end product of technology. Righteousness is, arguably, the literally ultimate end product of positive institutions. So in the very longest run the principle of Nonzero heads toward a God who is not supernatural, but who ultimately acquires omnipotence, omniscience and goodness through the natural progress of Nonzero. Perhaps, just perhaps, God comes at the end
So I am optimistic that there may be in the fullness of time a First Coming. I am optimistic that this is the door through which meaning may enter our lives. A meaningful life is a life that joins with something larger than the self and the larger that something is, the more meaning. I am optimistic that as individuals we can choose to be a tiny part of this process. Partaking of a process that has as it ultimate end the bringing of a God, who is endowed with omniscience, omnipotence, and goodness joins our tiny, accidental lives to something enormously larger.
Renewal of Science for the Public Good
I am optimistic that after almost 30 years of sensory deprivation in the field of particle physics, during which much hallucination (eg. string theory) has occurred by theorists, within 3 years, following the commissioning next year of the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva, we will finally obtain empirical data that will drive forward our understanding of the fundamental structure of nature, its forces, and of space and time.
My biggest optimism is that the data will be completely unexpected, forcing revisions in all our carefully prepared ideas about what will supplant the Standard Model of elementary particle physics. Since 1975 or so, every single experiment done at the microscopic forefront has been consistent with the predictions of the Standard Model, giving little or no direction to what lies behind it, what is the origin of mass, why there are three families of elementary particles, why some quarks are heavy, and why neutrinos are very light.
Yes, neutrino masses were discovered, but that was no big surprise, and no insight at all into their origin has been obtained thus far. With empirical data, theoretical particle physics might once return to the days when the key to distinguishing good theory from bad was how many empirical puzzles the theory might resolve, rather than how fancy it might look.
I am also completely optimistic that within what I hope will be my lifetime we will unlock the secret of life, and finally take our understanding of evolutionary biology back to that remarkable transition from non-biological chemistry to biology. Not only will we be able to create life in the laboratory, but we will be able to trace our own origins back, and gain insight into the remarkable question of how much life there is in the universe. We will surely discover microbial life elsewhere in our solar system, and I expect we will find that it is our cousin, from the same seed, if you will, rather than being truly alien. But all of this will make living even more fascinating.
The tools for cultural production and distribution are in the pockets of 14 year olds
The tools for cultural production and distribution are in the pockets of 14 year olds. This does not guarantee that they will do the hard work of democratic self-governance: the tools that enable the free circulation of information and communication of opinion are necessary but not sufficient for the formation of public opinion. Ask yourself this question: Which kind of population seems more likely to become actively engaged in civic affairs — a population of passive consumers, sitting slackjawed in their darkened rooms, soaking in mass-manufactured culture that is broadcast by a few to an audience of many, or a world of creators who might be misinformed or ill-intentioned, but in any case are actively engaged in producing as well as consuming cultural products? Recent polls indicate that a majority of today's youth — the "digital natives" for whom laptops and wireless Internet connections are part of the environment, like electricity and running water — have created as well as consumed online content. I think this bodes well for the possibility that they will take the repair of the world into their own hands, instead of turning away from civic issues, or turning to nihilistic destruction.
The eager adoption of web publishing, digital video production and online video distribution, social networking services, instant messaging, multiplayer role-playing games, online communities, virtual worlds, and other Internet-based media by millions of young people around the world demonstrates the strength of their desire — unprompted by adults — to learn digital production and communication skills. Whatever else might be said of teenage bloggers, dorm-room video producers, or the millions who maintain pages on social network services like MySpace and Facebook, it cannot be said that they are passive media consumers. They seek, adopt, appropriate, and invent ways to participate in cultural production. While moral panics concentrate the attention of oldsters on lurid fantasies of sexual predation, young people are creating and mobilizing politically active publics online when circumstances arouse them to action. 25,000 Los Angeles high school students used MySpace to organize a walk-out from classes to join street demonstrations protesting proposed immigration legislation. Other young people have learned how to use the sophisticated graphic rendering engines of video games as tools for creating their own narratives; in France, disaffected youth, the ones whose riots are televised around the world, but whose voices are rarely heard, used this emerging "machinima" medium to create their own version of the events that triggered their anger (search for "The French Democracy" on video hosting sites). Not every popular YouTube video is a teenage girl in her room (or a bogus teenage girl in her room); increasingly, do-it-yourself video has been used to capture and broadcast police misconduct or express political opinions. Many of the activists who use Indymedia — ad-hoc alternative media organized around political demonstrations — are young.
My optimism about the potential of the generation of digital natives is neither technological determinism nor naive utopianism. Many-to-many communication enables but does not compel or guarantee widespread civic engagement by populations who never before had a chance to express their public voices. And while the grimmest lesson of the twentieth century is to mistrust absolutist utopians, I perceive the problem to be in the absolutism more than the utopia. Those who argued for the abolition of the age-old practice of human slavery were utopians.
Breaking Down the Barriers Between Artists and the Public
For me, the most interesting development in the art world is what Charles Saatchi is doing with The Saatchi Gallery (www.saatchi-gallery.co.uk), his new online gallery which opens Summer 2007. It is a tool that is immensely powerful as it is open on both sides to the artists and to the public without interference of curators, editors, dealers, critics, etc. This is exactly the way Contemporary Art should be presented. The artists can show whatever they want and the public can see whatever they choose to look at, there is no more the barrier of the museum or the gallery or the art magazine between the artists and the public. I find this immensely refreshing and interesting.
The recent creation of YouTube is another very interesting and important development which provides Internet users with a cheap and easy way to make and post short videos. I think we have just begun to touch the surface of this huge iceberg. It means that anyone who sees a policeman beating someone up, or someone kicking their dog, or Paris Hilton kissing a young man in a car, or someone being mistreated in a hospital, etc. can post it on YouTube and have the entire world see it in less than ten minutes. People can write great editorials and post great blogs, but the power of a short film is a thousand times stronger than any well written anything anywhere. I am excited and also terrified by this new opportunity.
The Sunlight-Powered Future
I'm optimistic about…a pair of very big numbers. The first is 4.5 x 10ˆ20. That is the current world annual energy use, measured in joules. It is a truly huge number and not usually a cause for optimism as 70 per cent of that energy comes from burning fossil fuels.
Thankfully, the second number is even bigger: 3,000,000 x 10ˆ20 joules. That is the amount of clean, green energy that pours down on the Earth totally free of charge every year. The Sun is providing 7,000 times as much energy as we are using, which leaves plenty for developing China, India and everyone else. How can we not be optimistic? We don't have a long-term energy problem. Our only worries are whether we can find smart ways to use that sunlight efficiently and whether we can move quickly enough from the energy systems we are entrenched in now to the ones we should be using. Given the perils of climate change and dependence on foreign energy, the motivation is there.
Can it be done? I'm lucky that as a writer I get to meet some of the world's brightest scientists each year, and I know that out there are plenty of radical new ideas for a future in which sunlight is turned straight into the forms of energy we need. Here are just three of my favourites out of scores of great ideas. First, reprogramming the genetic make-up of simple organisms so that they directly produce useable fuels (hydrogen, for example). That will be much more efficient than today's fashionable new bioethanol programs because they will cut out all the energy wasted in growing a crop, then harvesting it and then converting its sugars into fuel. Second, self-organizing polymer solar cells. Silicon solar cells may be robust and efficient but they are inevitably small and need a lot of energy to make. Self-organizing polymer cells could be ink jetted onto plastics by the hectare, creating dirt cheap solar cells the size of advertising hoardings. Third, there's artificial photosynthesis. Nature uses a different trick from silicon solar cells to capture light energy, whipping away high-energy electrons from photo-pigments into a separate system in a few thousand millionths of a second. We are getting much closer to understanding how it's done, and even how to use the same principles in totally different nano-materials.
But what of the pessimist's view that we can are just too entrenched in our current energy systems to change? There is a world-wide boom in investment in green technology already under way. And there are many transition technologies coming into operation that enable practice runs for more radical genome reprogramming and creation of new nano-structures. Although the consensus view is that the sunlight-powered future won't be taking over until 2050, I'd place an optimistic bet that one of the many smart ideas being researched now will turn out to be an unforeseen winner much earlier.
The Increasing Coalescence of Scientific Disciplines
Under our very eyes, research in science has been taking a courageous and promising turn, to realize in our time an ancient dream.
Since Thales and other philosophers on the island in the Ionian Sea, over 2500 years ago, there has been an undying hope that under all the diverse and fluctuating phenomena, there could be found in Nature a grand, majestic order. This fascination, the "Ionian Enchantment," persisted ever since in various forms.
Thus, Isaac Newton thought mechanical forces that explained the motions of the solar system would also turn out to run all else, including human senses. After Darwin's magnificent synthesis, many attempts were made to extend it to include all societal phenomena. The influential Austrian polymath, Ernst Mach, to whom young Einstein referred as one of his most important influences, taught that the true task of scientific research is to establish a form of fundamental science, an Einheitswissenschaft, on which is based every different specialty. From about 1910 on, an increasing number of scientists in Europe and America gave allegiance to the idea of the "Unity of Science," a widespread movement hoping to find functioning bridges between not only different sciences but also between science and philosophy—Niels Bohr being one of the prominent promoters.
But, by and by, it became clear that such hopes were at best premature, that there was not enough of what William James had called "cash value," in terms of having secured many actual accomplishments—not least in attaining a Unified Field Theory. At one of the last meetings devoted to discussions about the Unity of Science, in 1956, J. Robert Oppenheimer, with typical eloquence, offered a valedictory to the Ionian Enchantment, with these words:
"It may be a question [whether there] is one way of bringing a wider unity in our time. That unity, I think, can only be based on a rather different kind of structure than the one most of us have in mind....The unity we can seek lies really in two things. One is that the knowledge that comes to us in such terrifyingly inhumanly rapid rate has some order in it....The second is simply this: We can have each other to dinner. We ourselves, and with each other by our converse, can create, not an architecture of global scope,but an immense, intricate network of intimacy, illumination, and understanding."
But even as such opinions were accepted with resignation, something new had been born, quietly grew, and in our time has become the source of increasing optimism about the value of the old dream—by turning in a new direction. I mean that scientific research, at first only sporadically during the last century, but more and more in our time, has been successfully reaching out for a new sort of unity—in practice, for an integration among disciplinary fragments. This time the movement is not driven by a philosophy of science or a search for the Ur-science. Rather it is appearing as if spontaneously in the pursuit and progress of research science itself.
There is an increasing coalescence of scientific disciplines in many areas. Thus the discovery of the structure of the genome not only required contributions from parts of biology, physics, chemistry, mathematics, and information technology, but in turn it led to further advances in biology, physics, chemistry, technology, medicine, ecology, and even ethics. And all this scientific advance is leading, as it should, to the hopeful betterment of the human condition (as had been also one of the platform promises of the Unity of Science movement, especially in its branch in the Vienna Circle).
Similar developments happen in the physical sciences—a coalescence of particle physics and large-scale astronomy, of physics and biology, and so forth. It is a telling and not merely parochial indicator that about half of my 45 colleagues in my Physics Department, owning to their widespread research interests, now have joint appointments with other departments at the University: with Molecular and Cellular Biology, with Mathematics, with Chemistry, with Applied Sciences and Engineering, with History of Science. Just now, a new building is being erected next to our Physics Department. It has the acronym LISE, which stands for the remarkable name, Laboratory of Integrated Science and Engineering. Although in industry, here and there, equivalent labs have existed for years, the most fervent follower of the Unity of Science movement would not have hoped then for such an indicator of the promise of interdisciplinarity. But as the new saying goes, most of the easy problems have been solved, and the hard ones need to be tackled by a consortium of different competences.
From other parts of this university, plans are under way to set up a program for higher degrees in the new field of Systems Biology, which has the goal of reaching "an integrated understanding" of biological/medical processes; that program is to bring together faculty and students from biology, medicine, chemistry, physics, mathematics, computation and engineering. And these parochial examples are indications of a general trend in many universities. The new password to success is now "integration" and "interdisciplinarity." If an "official" sacralization of this movement were needed, it would be the 2005 release of a big volume by the National Academy of Sciences, with the title "Facilitating Interdisciplinary Research."
All this is not precisely what the philosophers and scientists, from Thales on, were hoping for. We will not, at least not for a long time, have that grand coalescence of all sciences and more. What has come lacks exalted philosophical pretensions, being instead a turn to weeks and years of many-heads-together, hands-on work on specific, hard problems of intense scientific interest, many of them also of value to society at large.
And, of course, these co-workers can also still have each other to dinner.
That We Will Embrace the Reality of Progress
I am optimistic about the only thing—by definition—that we can be optimistic about: the future. When I tally up the plus and minuses at work in the world, I see progress. Tomorrow looks like it will be better than today. Not just progress for me, but for everyone on the planet in aggregate and on average.
No sane person can ignore the heaps of ills on this planet. The ills of the environment, of inequality, of war and poverty and ignorance, and the ills of body and soul of many billion inhabitants are inescapable. Nor can any rational person ignore the steady stream of new ills that are bred by our inventions and activities, including ills generated by our well-intentioned attempts to heal old ills. The steady destruction of good things and people seems relentless. And it is.
But the steady stream of good things is relentless as well. Who can argue with the goodness of antibiotics—even though they are over-prescribed? Electricity? Woven cloth? Radio? The list of desirable things is endless. While they all have their downsides, we acknowledge the goodness of these inventions by purchasing them in bulk. And to remedy currently perceived ills, we keep creating new good things.
Some of these new solutions are often worse than the problems they were supposed to solve, but it is my observation that on average and over time, the new solutions slightly outweigh the new problems. As Rabbi Zalman Schacter-Shalomi once said, "There is more good than evil in the world—but not by much." Unexpectedly "not much" is all that is needed when you have the power of compound interest at work—which is what culture is. The world needs to be only 1% (or even one-tenth of 1 %) better day in and day out to accumulate civilization. As long as we create 1% more than we destroy each year, we have progress. This delta is so small that it is almost imperceptible, particularly in the face of the 49% of death and destruction that is in our face. Yet this tiny, slim, and shy differential generates progress.
But is there really even 1% betterment? I think the only evidence we have of this is people's behavior. When we watch what people do, we see they inevitably, unwaveringly head towards more choices, more options, and the increased possibilities offered by the future.
No one I know has yet found a way to live in the future. Maybe someday we'll invent inexpensive time machines and we can vacation a hundred years into the future. Right now if we want to live in "tomorrow"—that place which is just a little better than today—the best we can do is to live in the most forward-looking city on earth. Cities are where the future happens. It is where there are increased choices and possibilities. Everyday one million people move from the countryside into cities. This journey is less a trip in space as in time. These migrants are really moving hundreds of years forward in time; relocating from medieval villages into 21st century sprawling urban areas. The ills of these slums are very visible and don't stop the arrivals. They are coming—as we all do—for the slightly increased number of freedoms and options they didn't have in their past. This is the very same reason we are living where and the way we do—to have 1% more choices.
Moving back into the past has never been easier. Citizens in developing countries can merely walk back to their villages, where they can live with age-old traditions, and limited choices. If they are eager enough, they can live without modern technology at all. Citizens in the developed world can buy a plane ticket and in less than one day can be settled in a hamlet in Nepal or Mali. If you care to relinquish the options of the present and adopt the limited choices of the past you can live there the rest of your life. Indeed you can choose your time period. If you believe the peak of existence was reached in Neolithic times you can camp out in a clearing in the Amazon; if you suspect the golden age was in the 1890s, you can find a farm among the Amish. We have the incredible opportunity to head into the past, but it is amazing how few people really want to live there. Except for a few rare individuals, no one does. Rather, everywhere in the world, at all historical periods, in all cultures, people have stampeded by the billions into the future of "of slightly more options" as fast as they can.
Why? Because the future is slightly better than the past. And tomorrow will be slightly better than today. And while everyone's actions confirm the essential reality of progress, progress is not something we have been willing to admit to in public. I am optimistic that in the coming years we'll embrace the reality of progress.
Early Detection of Learning Disabilities or Difficulties
When, at John Brockman's urging, I don the hat of "scientific optimism," I think of the early detection of learning disabilities or difficulties, coupled with interventions that can ameliorate or even dissipate these difficulties. In the near future we will be able to use neural imaging techniques to determine which infants or toddlers are at risk of having problems in reading, writing, calculating, spelling, mastery spatial relations, mastering social relations, and the like. (We may even have genetic markers for these risk factors). And I believe that the more specific the detection of the disorder (i.e. which kind of reading problem, what sort of social deficit), the more likely that we can ultimately devise interventions that directly address a particular problem.
But as soon as I have unloaded this optimistic view, another less happy scenario immediately floods my consciousness. The same means of early detection can so easily be put to malevolent purposes. First of all, we won't just determine deficits that can be addressed, but also ones that cannot be addressed. Second, we run the risk of stigmatizing children from birth—"Oh, you are destined to be illiterate," or "you'll never be likeable, because of your social deficits." Moreover, we will be likely soon to turn not just to deficits, but to efforts to produce the perfect child—to enhance perfectly adequate capacities through genetic, neural, or pharmacological interventions. Not only does this seem to go against human nature and fate as we have known it; it will also privilege further those who are already privileged.
Thus, challenging the spirit of The Edge Annual Question, I think that to speak to science apart from its use and its users, its misuse and its misusers, is simply naïve. And so, I have to add some political remarks.
In recent years in the United States, we have seen ample examples of how science can be distorted for political purposes. In this context I recall a remark made to me several years ago, by John Gardner, the great American civic leader (no relation). Gardner said "There've never been so many young people in America involved in public service, community service, social entrepreneurship, and other efforts to promote the common good." But, Gardner added somberly, "This commitment won't add up unless these young people become involved in the political process. Because while they may be helping dozens or even hundreds of individuals, laws are being passed that harm thousands or millions of persons."
After the election of November 7, 2006, I feel a shade more optimistic about America. More young people are engaged in politics, and more idealistic youths are running or considering a run for office. America will be in better shape when the leaders and graduates of organizations like Teach for America or City Year meld their sense of public service with political involvement. And this realignment should benefit the rest of the world as well. And, most important for the Edge community, such individuals may be able to help ensure that science and technology—never good nor evil in themselves—will be put to benevolent purposes.
We Will Soon Devise a Scientific Theory for the Perennial Mind-Body Problem
The enigmatic relation between conscious experiences and the physical world, commonly known as the mind-body problem, has frustrated philosophers at least since Plato, and now stonewalls scientists in their attempts to construct a rigorous theory. Yet I am optimistic that, despite millennia of prior failures, we will soon devise a scientific theory for this perennial problem.
Why such optimism? First, the mind-body problem is now recognized as a legitimate scientific problem. In 2005, the journal Science placed it second in a list of 125 open questions in science. During the twentieth century, a multi-decade detour into behaviorism sidelined scientific investigation of the mind-body problem. But three decades into the cognitive revolution, the problem was dusted off and again given serious scientific attention.
Second, scientists soon rediscovered that the problem is surprisingly hard. Neurophysics, real and artificial neural networks, classical and quantum algorithms, information and complexity—standard tools that prove powerful in the study of perception, cognition and intelligence—have yet to yield a single scientific theory of conscious experiences. We cannot, for instance, answer the basic question: Why must this particular pattern of neural activity or this functional property cause, or be, this particular conscious experience (say, the smell of garlic) instead of that other conscious experience (say, the smell of a truffle), or instead of no conscious experience at all? Precise predictions of this type, de rigueur for genuine scientific explanations, have yet to be fashioned, or even plausibly sketched, with the standard tools.
Third, although science is laudably conservative, yet when pushed to the wall by recalcitrant data and impotent theories, scientists have repeatedly proved willing to reexamine dearly held presuppositions and to revise or jettison the ineffectual in favor of unorthodox assumptions, provided that these assumptions permit the construction of explanatory theories that answer to data. Aristarchus, then Copernicus, countenanced a heliocentric solar system, Newton action at a distance, Einstein quanta of light and distortions of space-time, Bohr probability waves, superpositions and nonlocality. Theories of quantum gravity now posit eleven dimensions, vibrating membranes, and pixels of space and time. The initial response to such proposals is, invariably, widespread incredulity. But considerations of explanatory power and empirical adequacy, wherever they point, eventually win the day. Scientists revise their offending presuppositions, adjust psychologically as best they can to the new world view, and get on with the business of science in the new framework.
Evidence is mounting that the mind-body problem requires revision of deeply held presuppositions. The most compelling evidence to date is the large and growing set of proposals now on offer. All are nonstarters. They are, to quote Pauli, not even wrong. We have yet to see our first genuine scientific theory of the mind-body problem. This has prompted some to conclude that homo sapiens has been cheated by evolution and simply lacks the requisite concepts: Those concepts necessary for us to survive long enough to reproduce did not include those necessary to solve the mind-body problem. If so, there is little hope, at present, for swift progress.
I am optimistic, however, that the obstacle is not in our genes but in our presuppositions. Tinkering with presuppositions is more clearly within the purview of current technology than tinkering with our genes. Indeed, tinkering with one's presuppositions requires no technology, just a ruthless reconsideration of what one considers to be obviously true. Science has risen to the task before. It will rise again. But progress will be tortuous and the process psychologically wrenching. It is not easy, even in the light of compelling data and theories, to let go of what once seemed obviously true.
Here are some obvious truths that guide current attempts to solve the mind-body problem: Physical objects have causal powers. Neural activity can cause conscious experiences. The brain exists whether or not it is observed. So too does the moon, and all other physical objects. Consciousness is a relative latecomer in the evolution of the universe. Conscious sensory experiences resemble, or approximate, true properties of an independently existing physical world.
Will we soon be forced to relinquish some of these truths? Probably. If so, the current ontological predilections of science will require dramatic revision. Could science survive? Of course. The fundamental commitments of science are methodological, not ontological. What is essential is the process of constructing rigorous explanatory theories, testing them with careful experiments, and revising them in light of new data. Ontologies can come and go. One might endure sufficiently long that it is taken for a sine qua non of science. But it is not. An ontology breathed into life by the method of science can later be slain by that same method. Therein lies the novel power of science. And therein lies my optimism that science will soon succeed in fashioning its first theory of the mind-body problem. But at the feet of that theory will probably lie the slain carcass of an effete ontology.
The Evolutionary Ability of Humankind To Do the Right Things
I am optimistic about the evolutionary ability of humankind to do the right things, even though it sometimes happens only after all possible mistakes are exhausted.
I am optimistic about technology and world leaders (in that order) discovering ways to combine energy savings and alternative sources of energy (in that order), so that our planet is saved, while we still have a reasonable standard of living.
I am optimistic about the irreversible trend of increasing the economic value of knowledge and decreasing the relative economic importance of raw materials, reducing the power of ruthless primitive dictators and increasing the rewards for education and talent.
I am optimistic about the emerging ability of the life sciences to use mathematics, computer science, physics, and engineering in order to understand biological mechanisms, detect and prevent medical problems and cure deadly diseases.
I am optimistic that more scientists will understand that public awareness and public understanding of science and technology are the only weapons against ignorance, faith healers, religious fanaticism, fortune tellers, superstitions and astrology, and that serious programs will emerge in order to enhance the contribution of the scientific community to this effort.
I am optimistic that, in the same way that Europe understood during the last Fifty years that education for all and settling disputes peacefully are good things, while killing people just because of their nationality or religion is bad, so will the Muslim world during the new century.
I am optimistic that we will soon understand that wise medical and genetic ethics mean that we should not absolutely forbid any technology and we should not absolutely allow any technology, but find ways to extract the good and eliminate the bad, from every new scientific development.
I am optimistic about the fact that an important fraction of the nations on this planet succeeded in refuting the extrapolations concerning a population explosion and I hope that the remaining nations will do likewise, for their own advancement and survival.
I am optimistic about the power of education to alleviate poverty and advance health and peace in the third world and I am hopeful that the affluent world will understand that its own survival on this planet depends on its own help to the rest of humanity in advancing its education.
I am not at all optimistic that any of the above will happen soon. All possible mistakes and wrong turns will probably be attempted. The weakest link is our chronic short sightedness, which is bad in the case of the general public and is much worse for its elected political leaders, who think in terms of months and years, not decades and certainly not centuries.
The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion
I’m so optimistic that I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion. I think that in about twenty-five years almost all religions will have evolved into very different phenomena, so much so that in most quarters religion will no longer command the awe it does today. Of course many people–perhaps a majority of people in the world–will still cling to their religion with the sort of passion that can fuel violence and other intolerant and reprehensible behavior. But the rest of the world will see this behavior for what it is, and learn to work around it until it subsides, as it surely will. That’s the good news. The bad news is that we will need every morsel of this reasonable attitude to deal with such complex global problems as climate change, fresh water, and economic inequality in an effective way. It will be touch and go, and in my pessimistic moods I think Sir Martin Rees may be right: some disaffected religious (or political) group may unleash a biological or nuclear catastrophe that forecloses all our good efforts. But I do think we have the resources and the knowledge to forestall such calamities if we are vigilant.
Recall that only fifty years ago smoking was a high status activity and it was considered rude to ask somebody to stop smoking in one’s presence. Today we’ve learned that we shouldn’t make the mistake of trying to prohibit smoking altogether, and so we still have plenty of cigarettes and smokers, but we have certainly contained the noxious aspects within quite acceptable boundaries. Smoking is no longer cool, and the day will come when religion is, first, a take-it-or-leave-it choice, and later: no longer cool–except in its socially valuable forms, where it will be one type of allegiance among many. Will those descendant institutions still be religions? Or will religions have thereby morphed themselves into extinction? It all depends on what you think the key or defining elements of religion are. Are dinosaurs extinct, or do their lineages live on as birds?
Why am I confident that this will happen? Mainly because of the asymmetry in the information explosion. With the worldwide spread of information technology (not just the internet, but cell phones and portable radios and television), it is no longer feasible for guardians of religious traditions to protect their young from exposure to the kinds of facts (and, yes, of course, misinformation and junk of every genre) that gently, irresistibly undermine the mindsets requisite for religious fanaticism and intolerance. The religious fervor of today is a last, desperate attempt by our generation to block the eyes and ears of the coming generations, and it isn’t working. For every well-publicized victory–the inundation of the Bush administration with evangelicals, the growing number of home schoolers in the USA, the rise of radical Islam, the much exaggerated “rebound” of religion in Russia following the collapse of the Soviet Union, to take the most obvious cases–there are many less dramatic defeats, as young people quietly walk away from the faith of their parents and grandparents. That trend will continue, especially when young people come to know how many of their peers are making this low-profile choice. Around the world, the category of “not religious” is growing faster than the Mormons, faster than the evangelicals, faster even than Islam, whose growth is due almost entirely to fecundity, not conversion, and is bound to level off soon.
Those who are secular can encourage their own children to drink from the well of knowledge wherever it leads them, confident that only a small percentage will rebel against their secular upbringing and turn to one religion or another. Cults will rise and fall, as they do today and have done for millennia, but only those that can metamorphose into socially benign organizations will be able to flourish. Many religions have already made the transition, quietly de-emphasizing the irrational elements in their heritages, abandoning the xenophobic and sexist prohibitions of their quite recent past, and turning their attention from doctrinal purity to moral effectiveness. The fact that these adapting religions are scorned as former religions by the diehard purists shows how brittle the objects of their desperate allegiance have become. As the world informs itself about these transitions, those who are devout in the old-fashioned way will have to work around the clock to provide attractions, distractions—and guilt trips—to hold the attention and allegiance of their children. They will not succeed, and it will not be a painless transition. Families will be torn apart, and generations will accuse each other of disloyalty and worse: the young will be appalled by their discovery of the deliberate misrepresentations of their elders, and their elders will feel abandoned and betrayed by their descendants. We must not underestimate the anguish that these cultural transformations will engender, and we should try to anticipate the main effects and be ready to provide relief and hope for those who are afflicted.
I think the main problem we face today is overreaction, making martyrs out of people who desperately want to become martyrs. What it will take is patience, good information, and a steady demand for universal education about the world’s religions. This will favor the evolution of avirulent forms of religion, which we can all welcome as continuing parts of our planet’s cultural heritage. Eventually the truth will set us free.
The End of ISMs
Racism, Sexism, Species-ism, Age-ism, Elitism, Fundamentalism, Atheism. These –isms, and others, have fueled hatred, inspired war, justified torture, divided countries, prevented education, increased disparities in wealth, and destroyed civilizations. For some, they represent ideas to die for. For others, they represent ideas to destroy. Though the targets differ, there is a single underlying cause: a brain that evolved an unconscious capacity to seek differences between self and other, and once identified, seek to demote the other in the service of selfish gains. It is a capacity that is like a heat sensing missile, designed to seek and destroy. It achieves its ends by exceptionally clever tactics that involve an ever escalating arms race between demoting the other to the level of a pestilent parasite while raising the self and its accompanying brethren to the level of virtuous saints. This is the bad news.
The good news is that science is uncovering some of the details of this destructive capacity, and may hold the key to an applied solution. My optimism: if we play our cards correctly, we may see the day when our instinctive prejudice toward the other will dissolve, gaining greater respect for differences, expanding our moral circle in the words of Peter Singer. Here's the playbook, building on several recent ideas and scientific findings:
1. Decide what is fair by living under a veil of ignorance.
The late political philosopher John Rawls argued that every human being will default to a selfish position, a bias that grows out of survival instincts, and in current evolutionary parlance, the biasing of genetic kin. To avoid such biases and achieve impartiality, we must imagine a set of principles that would apply while ignorant of others' political affiliations, wealth, age, gender, and religious background. As a device, the veil of ignorance works wonders because it feeds into our selfishness. Let's say that I think university professors should obtain the highest salaries, while athletes should obtain the lowest. I can only entertain this principle of income distribution if I would be satisfied in a world where I was the professional athlete making the lowest salary. The veil of ignorance guarantees impartiality. Teach it to your children, friends, colleagues, and enemies.
2. Recognize the universality of our moral intuitions.
Peel away the explicit rules of action handed down by such institutions as religion and government, and one finds a common moral code. Those with a religious background tend to believe that abortion is wrong and so too is euthanasia. Atheists see life through a different lens. Remove the doctrinal rules and our intuitive moral psychology propels us ¾ our species that is ¾ to decide what is morally right or wrong based on general principles concerning the welfare of others and our own virtues. If the Protestant and Catholic Irish can see past their religious beliefs, empathize with the other, recognize their shared underlying humanity and settle into peaceful co-existence, why not other warring factions?
3. Be vigilant of disgust!
The most virulent of human emotions is disgust. Although disgust was born out of an adaptive response to potential disease vectors ¾ starkly, things that are normally inside but are now outside such as vomit, blood, and feces ¾ it is a mischievous emotion, sneaking into other problems, alighting, wreaking havoc on group structure, and then spreading. Throughout the history of warfare, every warring group has tagged their enemy with qualities that are reminiscent of disease, filth, and parasites. The imagery is overwhelming, beautifully designed to trigger the rallying cry. Though the destruction of 6 million Jews by the Nazis was made possible by an extraordinary advertising campaign, it was made all the more possible by the carefully crafted manipulation of disgust: in the Nazis' hands, the Jews were vermin, dirty, diseased, and thus, disgusting. Wouldn't we all be better off without disgust? What if we could remove this emotional card?
Would we knock the sails out of our efforts to denigrate the other? Intriguingly, there are some people who never experience disgust and don't recognize it in others, even though they experience and recognize all of the other familiar emotions ¾ sadness, happiness, fear, surprise, anger. These people are carriers of the genetic disorder Huntington's Chorea. Though they suffer from significant deterioration of the motor systems, they are disgust-free. So too are carriers that are pre symptomatic. Although we don't know whether patients with Huntington's are immune to the nefarious propaganda that might come their way should someone wish to foist their prejudices upon them, my hunch is that science will confirm this relationship. And if that is the case, perhaps modern molecular techniques will one day find a way to cure Huntington's, but along the way, work out a method to crank down or turn off our disgust response, while preserving our motor systems.
This is a playbook for today. It is not a final solution. It provides, I believe, a breadth of hope that someday we may see greater peace in this world, greater respect for the other.
A Proper Scientific Understanding of Irrationality In General, and of Religion In Particular
I'm not actually optimistic about anything very much, but it's clear that if civilisation is to survive, we need a proper scientific understanding of irrationality in general, and of religion in particular. To be optimistic about that is a precondition for optimism about anything else. What might such an understanding look like?
For a start, it would be naturalistic and empirical. It would not start from definitions of religion or faith, but from a careful study, in the spirit of William James, of how it is that religious people actually behave and believe. What would be found, again in a Jamesian spirit, is that there are varieties of religious behaviour, as there are varieties of religious experience. We would need to know how these are related to each other, and to other things that are not described as religious. It may well be that "religion" is a concept no more useful than phlogiston.
It would take seriously Dan Dennett's distinction between beliefs and opinions—more seriously, I think, than he sometimes does himself. A belief, in Dennett's sense, is a kind of behaviour or a propensity to behave as if certain things were true. It need not be conscious at all. The kind of conscious, articulable propositions about the world which most people mean by "belief" he calls an "opinion".
In this sense, an enquiry into religious belief would be distinct from an enquiry into religious opinions: Religious "belief" would involve all of the largely unconscious mechanisms which lead people to behave superstitiously, or reverently, or with a disdain for heretics; religious opinions would be the reasons that they give for this behaviour. We need to understand both. It may be that their opinions would correspond to their beliefs but that is something to be established in every case by empirical enquiry. It's obvious that in most cases they don't. Intellectuals are supposed to be motivated by their opinions; some of them actually are. But everyone is motivated by their beliefs and prejudices as well.
In particular, such an enquiry would be very careful about what counts as evidence. A friend of mine who does consciousness research once said sourly that "The problem with the brain is that if you go looking for something in there, you're very liable to find it." Similarly, if you go looking for some particular quality in religious belief you are likely to find it there, as well as its opposite. What's needed is the distinctly scientific attitude that takes disconfirming evidence seriously, and doesn't respond to it by simply repeating the confirming evidence.
I happened to see a play "On Religion" by the British atheist philosopher AC Grayling last night, which is an excellent dramatisation of some of these issues. The atheist character, a woman lecturer, is given a speech in which she recounts the story of a scientist who has spent fifteen years arguing that the Golgi apparatus does not in fact exist. It is an artifact of the inadequacies of our microscopes. Finally, he attends a lecture from a visiting cell biologists who proves conclusively that the Golgi apparatus does exist. And, just as the whole department is trying to avoid his eye from sympathetic shame, he rushes up to the lecturer, grabs his hand, and says "My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years." It is an improving and inspiring story, which pitches over into bathos as soon as the atheist spells out the moral. "No religious person could ever say that" she says. Has she really never heard of the phenomenon of conversion? What do the converted say, if not that some evidence has convinced them they were wrong all their lives before?
So, I think, if I am to be optimistic, that there will be a real breakthrough in the empirical study of religion, at the end of which no scientist will ever feel able to assert that "no religious person could ever say" without making a careful enquiry into what religious people actually do say and what they mean by it.
The Divide Between Rational Scientific Thinking and the Rest of Our Culture Is Decreasing
Some days I wake up optimistic, others not at all. When I am optimistic, I think that humans are increasingly realizing that rational thinking is indeed better for them than irrational thinking. In the process, scientific thinking is growing in depth, healing itself from a certain traditional superficiality, re-gaining contact with the rest of the culture, learning to deal with with the complexity of the search for knowledge, and with the full complexity of the human experience. Non-scientific thinking is still everywhere, but it is losing ground.
In the small world of the academia, the senseless divide between science and the humanities is slowly evaporating. Intellectuals on both sides realize that the complexity of contemporary knowledge cannot be seen unless we look at it all. A contemporary philosopher that ignores scientific thinking is out of the world, but an increasing number of theoretical physicists are also realizing, for instance, that to solve quantum gravity we cannot avoid addressing foundational "philosophical" questions. And an increasing number of scientists coming out of the lab, and speaking out (here on Edge, for instance).
When I am pessimistic, I think that history shows that human madness with us to stay: war, greed for more power and more richness, religion, certainty to be the depositary of the ultimate Truth, fear of those different from us ... I see all this madness solidly in control of the planet's affairs. And even some of my scientists friends trust homeopathy.
When I am optimistic I think that the past was worse: we are definitely going towards a better and more reasonable world. There are countries today that have not started a war in decades, and, in fact, these countries are the majority: it is something new in the history of the world. The number of people that have realized how much nonsensical is there in religion continues to increase, and no doubt this will help decrease belligerency and intolerance.
But the process is in both sides. In a recent interview with CNN, the Dalai Lama was asked how it feels to be the leader of a major religion in a secular world. He smiled and answered that he was happy to see that the modern word has a rich secular spiritual life. A secular spiritual life is a life rich intellectually and emotionally. The next question was whether he really believed he was the Dalai Lama, reincarnation of previous Dalai Lamas. This time he laughed, and answered "of course I am the Dalai Lama", but to be the "reincarnation" of previous Lamas, he continued, does not mean to "be them": it means to continue something that they had been developing. Not all our major religious leaders are so reasonable, of course. But if one can be so, can't we hope, at least in our optimistic moments, the others will follow?
Twenty six centuries have lapsed since Anaximander suggested that rain is not sent by Zeus. Rather, it is water evaporated by the sun and carried by the wind. The battle to realize that the scientific method of representing knowledge and the science-minded mode of thinking is deeper, richer and better for us than any God, is still ongoing, but by no means is it lost, as it often seems.
Print As a Technology
I am very optimistic about print as a technology. Words on paper are a wonderful information storage, retrieval, distribution, and consumer product. That is why I appreciate the fact that many Edge forums are transformed into books, and it's why I hope someday that there is a gorgeous Edge Magazine that I can flip through and touch. Imagine if we had been getting our information delivered digitally to our screens for the past 400 years. Then some modern Gutenberg had come up with a technology that was able to transfer these words and pictures onto pages that could be delivered to our doorstep, and we could take them to the backyard, the bath, or the bus. We would be thrilled with this technological leap forward, and we would predict that someday it might replace the internet.
The Decline of Violence
In 16th century Paris, a popular form of entertainment was cat-burning, in which a cat was hoisted on a stage and was slowly lowered into a fire. According to the historian Norman Davies, "the spectators, including kings and queens, shrieked with laughter as the animals, howling with pain, were singed, roasted, and finally carbonized."
As horrific as present-day events are, such sadism would be unthinkable today in most of the world. This is just one example of the most important and under appreciated trend in the history of our species: the decline of violence. Cruelty as popular entertainment, human sacrifice to indulge superstition, slavery as a labor-saving device, genocide for convenience, torture and mutilation as routine forms of punishment, execution for trivial crimes and misdemeanors, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution—all were unexceptionable features of life for most of human history. Yet today they are statistically rare in the West, less common elsewhere than they used to be, and widely condemned when they do occur.
Most people, sickened by the headlines and the bloody history of the twentieth century, find this claim incredible. Yet as far as I know, every systematic attempt to document the prevalence of violence over centuries and millennia (and, for that matter, the past fifty years), particularly in the West, has shown that the overall trend is downward (though of course with many zigzags). The most thorough is James Payne’s The History of Force; other studies include Lawrence Keeley’s War Before Civilization, Martin Daly & Margo Wilson’s Homicide, Donald Horowitz’s The Deadly Ethnic Riot, Robert Wright’s Nonzero, Peter Singer’s The Expanding Circle, Stephen Leblanc’s Constant Battles, and surveys of the ethnographic and archeological record by Bruce Knauft and Philip Walker.
Anyone who doubts this by pointing to residues of force in America (capital punishment in Texas, Abu Ghraib, sex slavery in immigrant groups, and so on) misses two key points. One is that statistically, the prevalence of these practices is almost certainly a tiny fraction of what it was in centuries past. The other is that these practices are, to varying degrees, hidden, illegal, condemned, or at the very least (as in the case of capital punishment) intensely controversial. In the past, they were no big deal. Even the mass murders of the twentieth century in Europe, China, and the Soviet Union probably killed a smaller proportion of the population than a typical hunter-gatherer feud or biblical conquest. The world’s population has exploded, and wars and killings are scrutinized and documented, so we are more aware of violence, even when it may be statistically less extensive.
What went right? No one knows, possibly because we have been asking the wrong question—"Why is there war?" instead of “Why is there peace?" There have been some suggestions, all unproven. Perhaps the gradual perfecting of a democratic Leviathan—"a common power to keep [men] in awe"—has removed the incentive to do it to them before they do it to us. Payne suggests that it’s because for many people, life has become longer and less awful—when pain, tragedy, and early death are expected features of one’s own life, one feels fewer compunctions about inflicting them on others. Wright points to technologies that enhance networks of reciprocity and trade, which make other people more valuable alive than dead. Singer attributes it to the inexorable logic of the golden rule: the more one knows and thinks, the harder it is to privilege one’s own interests over those of other sentient beings. Perhaps this is amplified by cosmopolitanism, in which history, journalism, memoir, and realistic fiction make the inner lives of other people, and the contingent nature of one’s own station, more palpable—the feeling that "there but for fortune go I."
My optimism lies in the hope that the decline of force over the centuries is a real phenomenon, that is the product of systematic forces that will continue to operate, and that we can identify those forces and perhaps concentrate and bottle them.
The Real Purity of Pure Science
I grew up reading heroic stories about progress in science, the absolute superiority of the scientific method, the evil of superstition, and other one-dimensional optimistic views.
Almost half a century later, I have a much more nuanced view of progress, method, and ways of looking at the world. What has been presented as the scientific method, at any given time, has been a simplified snapshot of an intrinsically much more opportunistic enterprise. As such, much damage has been done by suggesting that others areas, from social science and economy to politics, should adopt such a simple and always outdated picture.
The strength of science is not at all its currently accepted method. The strength is the fact that scientists allow the method to change.
The way the method changes is the exact same way through which progress is made by applying the method in doing everyday research. Change of method takes place slowly and carefully, through long and detailed peer discussions, and may be almost imperceptible in any given field during the lifetime of a scientist. The scientific method is like spacetime in general relativity: it provides the stage for matter to play, but the play of matter in turn affects the stage.
The real basis for the success of science is its unique combination of progressive and conservative elements. A scientist gets brownie points for crazy new ideas, as long as they are really interesting and stimulating, and also for being extremely conservative in criticizing any and all new ideas, as long as the criticism can be shown to be valid. What is interesting in new ideas and what is valid in criticism thereof is determined solely by peer review, by the collective opinions of the body of living scientists, not by falling back on some kind of fixed notion of a method.
My optimism is that other areas of human activities can learn from science to combine conservative and progressive approaches, taming the usual black-white duality in a collaborative dance of opposites.
Pure science has been held up as a beacon of hope, as a way to allow scientists to pursue their own intuitions, and thus to find totally new solutions to old problems. This is seen in contrast to applied science, where short-term goals do not allow sufficient room for finding really new approaches. Indeed, the irony here is that the best applications of sciences are ultimately based on pure, rather than applied research.
The moral of the story has been to say that long-term research should not focus on goals, but rather it should let the scientific method follow its own course. Purified from goals, the scientific method is held up as the beacon to follow. But I think this story is still misleading. The greatest breakthroughs have come from a doubly pure science, purified from goals and methods alike. In small and large ways, each major breakthrough was exactly a breakthrough because it literally broke the rules, the rules of the scientific method as it had been understood so far. The most spectacular example has been quantum mechanics, which changed dramatically even the notion of experimental verification.
I am optimistic that all areas of human activities can be inspired by the example of science, which has continued to thrive for more than four centuries, without relying on goals, and without even relying on methods. The key ingredients are hyper-critical but non-dogmatic conservatism, combined with wildly unconventional but well-motivated progressiveness. Insofar as there is any meta-method, it is to allow those ingredients to be played off against each other in the enactments of scientific controversies, until consensus is reached.