EDGE Annual Question: What Will Change Everything?

16 01 2009

“What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”


The 2008 question seemed more personal and introspective — also the 2007 question, come to think about it — but this new one is unquestionably cosmic:

New tools equal new perceptions.

Through science we create technology and in using our new tools we recreate ourselves. But until very recently in our history, no democratic populace, no legislative body, ever indicated by choice, by vote, how this process should play out.

Nobody ever voted for printing. Nobody ever voted for electricity. Nobody ever voted for radio, the telephone, the automobile, the airplane, television. Nobody ever voted for penicillin, antibiotics, the pill. Nobody ever voted for space travel, massively parallel computing, nuclear power, the personal computer, the Internet, email, cell phones, the Web, Google, cloning, sequencing the entire human genome. We are moving towards the redefinition of life, to the edge of creating life itself. While science may or may not be the only news, it is the news that stays news.

And our politicians, our governments? Always years behind, the best they can do is play catch up. . .

—John Brockman
Editor and Publisher

Life on Mars? It’s here. Mastering Death? Yep, along with Interstellar Viruses and Automated Universal Translation. JJ’s own favorite cognitive specialists are here too, of course: Howard Gardner’s answer is “CRACKING OPEN THE LOCKBOX OF TALENT” and Roger Schank writes about (ta-da!) literal power of story, in “Wisdom Unborn”:

There is too much in a typical encyclopedia entry, not to mention the absurd amount of information in a book. People are set up to hear stories and stories don’t last all that long before we lose our ability to concentrate on their main point, their inherent wisdom, if you will. People tell each other stores all the time, but when they write or lecture they are permitted (or encouraged) to go on way too long (as I am doing now.)

Wisdom depends upon goal directed prompts that say what to do when certain conditions are encountered. To put this another way, an archive of key strategic ideas about how to achieve goals under certain conditions is just the right resource to be interacting with enabling a good story to pop up when you need it. The solution involves goal-directed indexing.

To see what the world’s greatest thinkers made of this question, start here. There are pages and pages and pages of brilliance, enough to leave you weak-kneed and gasping for air. PZ Myers of Pharyngula blogging fame is here:

Biologist, University of Minnesota; blogger, Pharyngula

The question, “what will change everything?” is in the wrong tense: it should be “what is changing everything right now?” We’re in the midst of an ongoing revision of our understanding of what it means to be human—we are struggling to redefine humanity, and it’s going to radically influence our future.

And I had to stop for a brain break after I read The Liberation of Time, for example:

. . .Getting economic theory right has implications for a wide range of policy decisions, and how time is treated is a key issue. An economics that assumes that we cannot predict key innovations must be very different from one that assumes all is knowable at any time.

The view that time is real and truth is situated within the moment further implies that there is no timeless arbiter of meaning, and no transcendent or absolute source of values or ethics. Meaning, values and ethics are all things that we humans project into the world. Without us, they don’t exist.

This means that we have tremendous responsibilities. . . Because time is real and the future does not yet exist, the imaginative and social worlds in which we will live are to be brought into being by the choices we will make.





One response

17 01 2009

From page 15 —

Edwin Howard Armstrong Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University; Author: Complexity and Information


On January 20, 2009, our nation’s leaders will gather in Washington for the inauguration of the 44th President of the United States. How many more such public inaugurations will we see?

Due to the threat from increasing precision, range, and availability of weapons, will it be safe for our nation’s leaders to gather in one public place? Such weapons are or will be available to a variety of nations, NGOs, and terrorist groups. It might well be in someone’s interest to wipe out the nation’s leadership in one blow.

Why am I willing to announce this danger publicly? Won’t it give terrorists ideas? I’ve come to believe that terrorist groups as well as other nations are smart and will identify such opportunities themselves.

What can be done about the potential physical threat when our leaders are gathered in one place?

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