The 2009 quest for Edge is “What will change everything?”. There are lots of great ideas, many of them transhumanist in flavor, including indefinite lifespans and superintelligence. Below are some of my favorites:
The Limits of Reductionism in an Open Universe from Stuart Kauffman:
The evolution of the biosphere, the economy, our human culture and perhaps aspects of the abiotic world, stand partially free of physical law and are not entailed by fundamental physics. The universe is open. Many physicists now doubt the adequacy of reductionism, including Philip Anderson, and Robert Laughlin. Laughlin argues for laws of organization that need not derive from the fundamental laws of physics.
I’ll give one example – autocatalytic sets. The central point about the autocatalytic set theory is that it is a mathematical theory, not reducible to the laws of physics, even if any specific instantiation of it requires actual physical “stuff”. It is a law of organization that may play a role in the origin of life. But then it is not true that the unfolding of the universe is entirely describable by natural law. This contradicts our views since Descartes, Galileo and Newton. The unfolding of the universe seems to be partially lawless. In its place is a radically creative becoming.
The Renaissance of Global Education:
Haim Harari has this to say:
First, a technology-driven globalization is forcing us to see, to recognize and to fear the enormous knowledge gaps between different parts of the world and between segments of society within our countries. It is a major threat to everything that the world has achieved in the last 100 years, including democracy itself. Today’s world, its economy, industry, environment, agriculture, energy, health, food, military power, communications, you name it, are all driven by knowledge. The only way to fight poverty, hunger, diseases, natural catastrophes, terrorism, war, and all other evil, is the creation and dissemination of knowledge, i.e. research and education. The time is with cheap and ubiquitous communication technology to make all the worlds knowledge available to everyone.
As someone whose spent any years teaching young people, I found Chris Anderson‘s words inspiring.
Take this simple thought experiment. Pick your favorite scientist, mathematician or cultural hero. Now imagine that instead of being born when and where they were, they had instead been born with the same in-built-but-unlocked abilities in a typical poverty-stricken village in, say, Ethiopia of 1980. Would they have made the contribution they made? Of course not. They would never have received the education and encouragement it took to achieve what they did. Conversely, an unknown but vast number of those grinding out a living today have the potential to be world-changers… if only we could find a way of unlocking that potential.
Two ingredients might be enough to do that. Knowledge and inspiration. If you learn of ideas that could transform your life, and you feel the inspiration necessary to act on that knowledge, there’s a real chance your life will indeed be transformed. Five years ago, an amazing teacher or professor with the ability to truly catalyze the lives of his or her students could realistically hope to impact maybe 100 people each year. Today that same teacher can have their words spread on video to millions of eager students.
The realization that today’s best teachers can become global celebrities is going to boost the caliber of those who teach. For the first time in many years it’s possible to imagine ambitious, brilliant 18-year-olds putting ‘teacher’ at the top of their career choice list. Indeed the very definition of “great teacher” will expand, as numerous others outside the profession with the ability to communicate important ideas find a new incentive to make that talent available to the world.
Achieving A Type I Civilization
A lot my thinking, especially recently, has centered around how we can become a Type 1 Civilization. Doing so means we have grown up and matured out of our technological adolescence. We’ve achieved global peace and prosperity, created a total regenerative and environmentally sustainable economy, and abundant clean energy. It means we have learned to live in peace with ourselves and our fragile planet, and our ready to move off-world and begin colonizing the galaxy. (See my post Healing the Planet, on some ways we might achieve this).
From Michael Shermer:
This January, 2009, in particular, finds us at a crisis tipping point both economically and environmentally. If ever we needed to look to the past to save our future it is now. In particular, we need to do two things: (1) stop the implosion of the economy and enable markets to function once again both freely and fairly, and (2) make the transition from nonrenewable fossil fuels as the primary source of our energy to renewable energy sources that will allow us to flourish into the future. Failure to make these transformations will doom us to the endless tribal political machinations and economic conflicts that have plagued civilization for millennia. We need to make the transition to Civilization 1.0.
Let me explain. In a 1964 article on searching for extraterrestrial civilizations, the Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev suggested using radio telescopes to detect energy signals from other solar systems in which there might be civilizations of three levels of advancement: Type 1 can harness all of the energy of its home planet; Type 2 can harvest all of the power of its sun; and Type 3 can master the energy from its entire galaxy.
We are close. Looking from this past toward the future, we can see that the forces at work that could prevent us from reaching Civilization 1.0 are primarily political and economic, not technological. The resistance by non democratic states to turning power over to the people is considerable, especially in theocracies whose leaders would prefer we all revert to Type 0.4 chiefdoms. The opposition toward a global economy is substantial, even in the industrialized West, where economic tribalism still dominates the thinking of most people. The game-changing scientific idea is the combination of energy and economics — the development of renewable energy sources made cheap and available to everyone everywhere on the planet by allowing anyone to trade in these game-changing technologies with anyone else. That will change everything.
The Transhuman Cambrian Explosion
I think the metaphors most futurists use limit the imagination of what’s possible. Talk of “machines” or “robots” or “artificial intelligence” simply doesn’t do the post-human universejustice. I do like Andy Clark‘a crack at it:
But what really matters is the way we are, as a result of this tidal wave of self- re-engineering opportunity, just starting to know ourselves: not as firmly bounded biological organisms but as delightfully reconfigurable nodes in a flux of information, communication, and action. As we learn to celebrate our own potential, we will embrace ever-more-dramatic variations in bodily form and in our effective cognitive profiles. The humans of the next century will be vastly more heterogeneous, more varied along physical and cognitive dimensions, than those of the past as we deliberately engineer a new Cambrian explosion of body and mind.
A Never-Ending Childhood Through Re-establishing Brain Plasticity in Adults
From Leo Chalupa:
Several laboratories have already discovered ways to manipulate the brain in ways to make mature neurons as plastic as during early development. Such studies have been done using genetically engineered mice with either a deletion or an over-expression of specific genes known to control plasticity during normal development. Moreover, drug treatments have now been found to mimic the changes observed in these mutant mice.
In essence this means that the high degree of brain plasticity normally evident only during early development can now be made to occur throughout the life span. Imagine being able to restore the plasticity of neurons in the language centers of your brain, enabling you to learn any and all languages effortlessly and at a rapid pace. This technology could provide a powerful means to combat loss of neuronal connections, including those resulting from brain injury as well as various disease states.
I am optimistic that these treatments will be forthcoming in my lifetime. Indeed a research group in Finland is about to begin the first clinical study to assess the ability of drug treatments to restore plasticity to the visual system of adult humans.
See Alison Gopnik for more implications of this.
Beyond Governments and Markets: Fluid Social Cooperatives
New social systems have been the hope of utopian and hippie thinkers, but maturing networked communications technology could make it practical and achievable.
From Yochai Benkler:
The Great Deflation of 2008 has shown the utter dependence of human society on the possibility of well-functioning government to assure some baseline stability in human welfare and capacity to plan for the future. On the other hand, a gradual rise in volunteerism and cooperation, online and offline, is leading to a reassessment of what motivates people, and how governments, markets, and social dynamics interoperate. I expect the binary State/Market conception of the way we organize our large systems to give way to a more fluid set of systems, with greater integration of the social and commercial; as well as of the state and the social. So much of life, in so many of our societies, was structured around either market mechanisms or state bureaucracies. The emergence of new systems of social interaction will affect what we do, and where we turn for things we want to do, have, and experience.