So you may know Edge.org, and the Edge books that editor John Brockman puts out periodically. He got the idea, in his own words:
Anybody who has followed my blog or books know that this is a pretty central concern for me. Basically, that the core human problems consciousness, free will, morality, meaning, how to be happy, how to be good are at least 5,000 (and probably more like 100,000) years old. But that it looks like answers to, or at least new slants on, these questions are being provided by certain sciences and technologies that are about 5 seconds old. You can see the import here: we're finally working out, in some measure, what it really is to be human. (Which I still maintain is the strangest thing in the universe, being human.)
Anyway, so Brockman gets together a bunch of luminaries like Steve Pinker (cognitive psychology), Lee Smolin (astrophysics), Craig Venter (genomics), Dawkins (evolutionary biology/amateur theology), Leda Cosmides (evolutionary psychology), Eric Drexler (nanotechnology), Esther Dyson (technology entrepreneurism and philanthropy), Nassim Taleb (probability), Rodney Brooks (robotics), Kevin Kelly (Internet), Daniel Dennett (philosophy of mind), Jonathan Haidt (positive psychology/happiness), Aubrey de Grey (longevity) &c. &c. and asks them one really big question periodically and publishes all the answers.
In part because I'm struggling to keep my mind wrapped around them, and in part just to preserve the sense of wonder these engender (and perhaps also as antidote to the logic of human self-destruction in my latest book), and also because some are entertaining or even hilarious, I've decided to publish some excerpts. Because it's Christmas, I'm starting with a nice happy one. And also because I hear we might be having a rough (post-Mayan) weekend:
The Decline of Violence, by Steven PinkerThe most important and underappreciated 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 midsemeanors, assassination as a means of political succession, pogroms as an outlet for frustration, and homicide as the major means of conflict resolution all were unexceptional 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.
War Will End, by John HorganIn 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 if our rates of violence had been as high in the average primitive society… We are now dealing primarily with guerrilla wars, insurgencies, terrorism or what the political scientist John Mueller calls "the remnants of war."
World Peace, by John McCarthyWorld 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 developing countries. Only Africa and the Arab world are in bad shape… 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, The Modern Traveller
The Divide Between Scientific Thinking and the Rest of Our Culture Is Decreasing, by Carlo RovelliHumans are increasingly realizing that rational thinking is better for them than irrational thinking… Nonscientific thinking is still everywhere, but it is losing ground… The number of people who have realized how much of religious belief is nonsensical continues to grow, and no doubt this will help decrease belligerency and intolerance.
The Evaporation of the Powerful Mystique of Religion, by Daniel C. DennettI'm so optimistic that I expect to live to see the evaporation of the powerful mystique of religion. Why? Mainly because of the asymmetry in the information explosion… it is no longer feasible for guardians of religious traditions to protect their young from exposure to the kinds of facts 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. Around the world, the category of "not religious" is growing faster than the Mormans, faster than the evangelicals, faster even than Islam. Eventually the truth will set us free.
The War Between Science and Religion Will See New Light, by Marcelo GleiserAlthough I'm an atheist, I do not forget what is behind the power of religious thought: quite simply, hope. Life is tough, people suffer, and, rightly or wrongly, religion offers something for people to hold on to… 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 or acceptance… It is futile and naive to simply dismiss the need people have for spirituality.
The First Coming, by Martin P. SeligmanOmniscience is arguably the ultimate end product of science. Omnipotence is arguably the ultimate end product of technology. Goodness is arguably the ultimate end product of positive institutions. Perhaps just perhaps God comes at the end… A meaningful life is a life that joins with something larger than itself. We can choose to be a tiny part of this process.
Bullish on Cosmology, by Paul SteinhardtThe conventional wisdom is that the universe sprang into existence 14 billion years ago in a Big Bang. However, 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.
The Return of the Discipline of Experiment Will Transform our Knowledge of Fundamental Physics, by Lee Smolin…the evolutionary theorists who believe that the world is so intricate that the simplest mechanism that could predict the future of life and the cosmos is the universe itself.
The Optimism of Scientists, by Karl SabbaghIs this optimism unique to science? I believe it is. Few people have a comparably strong faith in the future benefits of politics or economics or art or philosophy or technology.
What Lies Beyond the Cosmic Horizon, by Alexander VilenkinThere 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. Objects more distant than that cannot be observed, because their light has not yet reached Earth. But the universe does not end at the horizon, and the question is, What lies beyond?
We're Not Insignificant After All, by Max TegmarkOur human egos have suffered a series of blows. Eratosthenes showed that Earth was larger than millions of humans had thought… 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… Darwin taught us that we're animals, Freud taught us that we're irrational… machines outsmarted our chess champion.
Yet… my guess is that evolved life as advanced as ours is very rare. 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. 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 the universe. We'll have the technology either to self-destruct or seed our cosmos with life. 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, all of which can be traced back to what we do here and now.
Coraggio, Domani Sara Peggio, by George F. Smoot"Courage, for tomorrow will be worse!" The whole Mikly Way Galaxy will use up its available energy resources on a time scale roughly ten times the present 14-billion-year lifetime of our observed universe… It is culture and knowledge that offer us the hope of being at least as successful as the dinosaurs, which dominated Earth for nearly a hundred times as long as humans have.
Courage, optimism, hope… people still do great and glorious deeds: They build civilizations, cure disease, fight for social justice. One simply depends on courage to go forward… Going forth is fulfilling, satisfying, important to living; it provides a connection to past and future human generations… The genius works produced by the great writers, activists, artists, musicians, and scientists are proof of the power of the human spirit and what can result when innate talent is combined with hard work and devotion.
Progress Is Surprisingly Durable, by James O'DonnellIn the long run, the idiots are overthrown, or at least they die, whereas creativity and achievement are abiding. The discoveries of scientists, the inventions of engineers, the advances in the civility of human behavior are surprisingly durable.
How Technology Is Saving the World, by Diane F. HalpernI can read the uncensored thoughts or home video of anyone who wishes to share them. 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 Power of Educated People to Make Important Innovations, by Nathan MyhrvoldPerhaps the biggest reason I am optimistic is that I am a great believer in the power of educated people to make important innovations. The trends in China and India and elsewhere toward educating millions of people in science, engineering, and technology is tremendously positive.
Once and Future Optimism, by Seth LloydI 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 the Andean hinterlands and the Hindu Kush as they are in London and Los Angeles. Human beings are humanity's greatest resource, and when all those humans start becoming scientists, watch out!
The Sunlight-Powered Future, by Alun AndersonThe sun is providing 7,000 times as much energy as we are using. We don't have a long-term energy problem. There are plenty of radical new ideas… here are just three of my favorites:
(1) Reprogramming the genetic makeup of simple organisms so that they directly produce usable fuels hydrogen, for example.
(2) Self-organizing polymer solar cells.
(3) Artificial photosynthesis.
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 a winner much earlier.
The Sorcerer's Apprentice, by Gregory CochranHardly anyone seems to realize it, but we're on the threshold of an era of unbelievable abundance. Within a generation, we will be able to make a self-replicating machine… If it could make 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.
Aristotle thought that slavery would end only when looms wove by themselves. We're almost there.
Right now the human race uses about 13 trillion watts per day. The solar cells required to produce that much power would take up less than 0.2 of 1 percent of 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 still 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.
New Children Will Be Born, by Alison GopnikThe 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…
Everything in the room I write in now not only the computer and the electric light but also 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 could not have existed in the Pleistocene, or even in the only slightly less Neolithic atmosphere of the universities of fifty years ago.
We change our 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.
By the Early 22nd Century, We Will Be Living on More Than One Little Tiny Ball in Our Solar System, by Rodney BrooksNot long ago, I met a number of people from the 22nd century, and they were delightful. We smiled and giggled together a lot, though none of them spoke 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.
Humanity's Coming Enlightenment, by Larry SangerI am optimistic about humanity's coming enlightenment… A well-educated, well-plugged-in intelligentsia from every uncensored place on the map could have many remarkable effects.
Metcalfe's Law of Minds, by Chris AndersonConnecting minds allows our collective intelligence to grow with each person who joins the global conversation. The result, I think, will be the fastest increase in human knowledge in history.
The End of the Commoditization of Knowledge, by Roger C. SchankFifteen years ago, I was asked to join the board of editors of Encyclopaedia 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 conversations with newspaper editors, librarians, heads of testing services, and faculty at top universities.
Metacognition for Kids, by Gary F. MarcusI am not sure it ever served a purpose for children to memorize the capitals of all fifty states, but in the age of Google, continued emphasis on memorization is surely largely a waste of time.
The average person tends to have a shaky grasp of 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 while forgetting about or ignoring data that refute them. 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.
What today's children need is not so much a large stock of readily Googleable information as a mental toolkit for parsing what they hear and read. 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, to make choices in ways that better suit our long-term goals.
High-Resolution Images of Earth Will Thwart Global Villainy, by Chris DiBonaNo one can tell you that 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. No one can tell you that they are not destroying villages in Sudan, if you can view the burned-out homes of the slaughtered. No one can tell you that the impact of a dam is minimal, as humanity watches countless villages being submerged. No one can 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.
Power Is Moving to the Masses As a Market, by Esther DysonMany of the venture capitalists I know are turning to 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 United States.
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.
Capitalism Is Aligning with the Good, by Jason McCabe CalacanisThe most successful businesspeople in the world have decided to dedicate their brains and bank accounts to fixing the world, leaving politics and politicians on the sidelines. Bill Gates, Warren Buffett, Richard Branson, John Doerr, and Pierre Omidyar among many others are demonstrating the true goal of winning is giving.
As Martin Seligman noted, "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."
Individuals are Empowered in a Knowledge-Driven Economy, by Juan EnriquezOur freedom to create, to work, to fundamentally alter our circumstances, is unprecedented… It used to be that the bright had to leave India, Pakistan, China, or Mexico to make a living or have a global impact. No more. 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.
A knowledge-driven economy allows individuals to lead millions out of poverty in a single generation. You no longer need to take what your neighbor has in order to survive. You can build or make your own.
The Human Response to Vast Change Will Involve Strange Bounces, by Joel GarreauThe 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… 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.
Getting It All Wrong, by Steve GrandWhat I'm most optimistic about is the strong possibility that we've got everything horribly wrong. All of it. Badly.
Sometimes we manage to convince ourselves that we have a handle on what's going on, when in fact we're just turning a blind eye to contradictory information. We discard information 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 a while goes by before we realize that the problem doesn't lie with the facts but with our assumptions.
My field is artificial intelligence… 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.
We need an "Aha!" moment… 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.
The Baby Boomers Will Soon Retire, by Jonathan HaidtI 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.
Many young people who entered PhD programs in the social sciences in 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.
Imagine an industry in which 90 percent of people are men, male values and maleness are extolled while feminine virtues 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.
The Evolutionary Ability of Humankind to Do the Right Things, by Haim HarariI 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 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.
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 their nationality or religion is bad, so will the Muslim world during the new century.
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 advancement of education in the rest of the world.
Solving the Mind-Body Problem, by Donald D. HoffmanNeurophysics, 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.
Scientists, when pushed to the wall by recalcitrant data and impotent theories, have repeatedly proved willing to reexamine dearly held presuppositions and to revise or jettison the ineffectual in favor of unorthodox assumptions… Copernicus proposed a heliocentric solar system; Newton proposed action at a distance; Einstein proposed quanta of light and distortions of spacetime; Bohr proposed probability waves, superpositions, and nonlocality. Theories of quantum gravity now posit at least eleven dimensions, vibrating membranes, pixels of space and time.
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.
A New Contentism, by Kai KrauseTo see the weather in pictures from space, animated over time what a wonder that would have been to the Wright brothers, or James Cook, or Vasco da Gama, or Marco Polo. To be in realtime communication with your family what a wonder that would have been for Bach who had twenty children. (Half died in infancy. I haven't even touched on the advances in health and medicine.)
To see cell phones and billions of SMSes would have astonished Tesla, Edison, Bell, Reis, Meucci. To personally own the images from a planetary probe 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 were 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? They would have marveled or cried at our ability to go anywhere, see anything, meet anyone.
To be able to see all the works of all the great artists and to keep a copy to 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 that would have been, for any and all of them! Imagine that you'd heard about that new Beethoven symphony: You would have had to physically travel to a performance somewhere, and even then you could have heard only that one performance, not any of the others, and you would likely forget the music, since you would hardly ever get a chance to hear it again, to build a long-term memory of it.
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 Britannica how blissful that would have made Jules Verne, with his 20,000 wooden boxes of index-card snippets, or any of the other polymaths, like Huxley, or Newton, or Leibniz. To have your own diviner of answers to any question, finder of any fact, in minutes or even seconds, an adviser like no Sun King or emperor, kaiser or pharaoh, could ever buy with all the gold in his empire. That's Google, now, in a smartphone, in the pockets of teenagers.
I think it bears repeating: Countless scientists over the millennia had visions of bettering the fate of humanity, of seeking truths and finding answers. We have achieved almost all their dreams. We have freedom, in every sense, as 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.
Optimism on the Continuum Between Confidence and Hope, by Ray KurzweilI am confident that the acceleration and expanding purview of information technology will solve within twenty years the problems that now preoccupy us.
We are awash in energy (10,000 times more than required to meet all our needs falls on Earth) but we are not very good at capturing it. We'll [do so] using extremely inexpensive, highly efficient, lightweight, nano-engineered solar panels, and we'll store the energy in highly distributed (and therefore safe) nanotechnology-based fuel cells. Almost all 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.
Consider health. As of just recently, we have the tools to reprogram biology… 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 enzymes at critical stages of disease prevention.
Consider prosperity. 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 affected, including Africa, which is now undergoing a rapid invasion of the Internet. Even sub-Saharan Africa has had an average 5-percent economic growth rate in the last few years.
All of these technologies have existential downsides. We are already living with enough thermonuclear weapons to destroy all mammalian life on this planet. Remember those? 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 undetected). I'm optimistic that we will make it through without suffering an existential catastrophe. It would be helpful if we gave the two aforementioned existential threats a higher priority.
The Best Is Yet to Come, by Nicholas Humphrey
So let me say straight out: In , 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 currently unimaginable aesthetic and moral force.