INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
The Guardian JANUARY 1, 2009 - by James Randerson
LEADING THINKERS PREDICT TECHNOLOGIES THAT WILL TURN THE WORLD UPSIDE-DOWN
Flying cars, personal jetpacks, holidays on the moon, the paperless office - the predictions of futurologists are, it seems, doomed to fail. The only thing predictable about the future is its unpredictability.
But that has not stopped edge.org - the online intellectual salon - asking which ideas and inventions will provide humanity's next leap forward. In its traditional New Year challenge to the planet's best thinkers it asks, "What will change everything - What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?"
World-changing technology has a habit of arriving out of the blue and turning society on its head. The printing press, electricity, antibiotics, the pill, mobile phones and the internet have all transformed human experience in ways that their inventors could scarcely have imagined. So the more than one hundred and ten respondents - including scientists, authors, philosophers, musicians and journalists - have a tough job on their hands. Their life-changing ideas span everything from new forms of energy, mind-reading and foreign life forms living among us, to the ability to reprogram life. Here's a taste.
Ian McEwan: author
By nearly all insider and expert accounts, we are or will be at peak oil somewhere between now and the next five years. Even if we did not have - profound concerns about climate change, we would need to be looking for different ways to power our civilisation. How fortunate we are to have a safe nuclear facility a mere ninety-three million miles away and fortunate too that the dispensation of physical laws is such that when a photon strikes a semiconductor, an electron is released. My hope is that architects will be drawn to designing gorgeous arrays and solar towers in the desert - as expressive of our aspirations as medieval cathedrals once were. We will need new distribution systems too, smart grids - perfect Rooseveltian projects for our hard-pressed times. Could it be possible that in two or three decades we will look back and wonder why we ever thought we had a problem when we are bathed in such beneficent radiant energy?
Steven Pinker: psychologist and author
This past year saw the introduction of direct-to-consumer genomics. A number of new companies have been launched. You can get everything from a complete sequencing of your genome (for a cool three hundred and fifty thousand dollars), to a screen of more than a hundred Mendelian disease genes, to a list of traits, disease risks, and ancestry data. Here are some - possible outcomes: personalised medicine, in which drugs are prescribed according to the patient's molecular background rather than by trial and error; an end to many genetic diseases; cafeteria insurance [where you choose your own level of cover] will no longer be actuarially viable if the highest-risk consumers can load up on generous policies while the low-risk ones get by with the bare minimum; the ultimate empowerment of medical consumers, who will know their own disease risks and seek commensurate treatment, rather than relying on the hunches and folklore of a paternalistic family doctor.
REWRITING THE SOFTWARE OF LIFE
Craig Venter: genome scientist, J. Craig Venter Institute
We have now shown that DNA is absolutely the information-coded material of life by completely transforming one species into another simply by changing the DNA in the cell. By inserting a new chromosome into a cell and eliminating the existing chromosome all the characteristics of the original species were lost and replaced by what was coded for on the new chromosome. Very soon we will be able to do the same experiment with the synthetic chromosome. We can start with digitised genetic information and four bottles of chemicals [the four nucleotides of the genetic code] and write new software of life to direct organisms to do processes that are desperately needed, like create renewable biofuels and recycle carbon dioxide. As we learn from three and a half billion years of evolution we will convert billions of years into decades and change not only conceptually how we view life but life itself.
Daniel Dennett: philosopher, Tufts University, Medford, US
The question itself and many of the answers already given by others here on edge.org point to a common theme: reflective, scientific investigation of everything is going to change everything. The snowball has started to roll and there is probably no stopping it. Will the result be a utopia or a dystopia? Which of the novelties are self-limiting and which will extinguish institutions long thought to be permanent? Will universities and newspapers become obsolete? Will hospitals and churches go the way of corner grocery stores and livery stables? Will reading music soon become as arcane a talent as reading hieroglyphics? When you no longer need to eat to stay alive, or procreate to have offspring, or locomote to have an adventure-packed life, when the residual instincts for these activities might be simply turned off by genetic tweaking, there may be no constants of human nature left at all. Except, maybe, our incessant curiosity.
Freeman Dyson: physicist, Institute of Advanced Studies, Princeton, US
Neurology will change the game of human life drastically, as soon as we develop the tools to observe and direct the activities of a human brain in detail from the outside. The ancient myth of telepathy, induced by occult and spooky action-at-a-distance, would be replaced by a prosaic kind of telepathy induced by physical tools. To make radiotelepathy possible, we have only to invent two new technologies, first the direct conversion of neural signals into radio signals and vice versa, and second the placement of microscopic radio transmitters and receivers within the tissue of a living brain. I do not have any idea of the way these inventions will be achieved, but I expect them to emerge from the rapid progress of neurology before the twenty-first century is over. It is easy to imagine radiotelepathy as a powerful instrument of social change, used either for good or for evil. It could be a basis for mutual understanding and peaceful co-operation of humans all over the planet. Or it could be a basis for tyrannical oppression and enforced hatred between one society and another.
Irene Pepperberg: psychologist, Harvard
Knowledge of exactly how the brain works will change everything. Just as we are beginning to learn that it is not the gene that controls what happens in our bodies, but rather the interplay of many genes, proteins, and environmental influences that turn genes on and off, we will learn how the interplay of various neural tissues, the chemicals in our body, environmental influences, and possibly some current unknowns, come together to affect how the brain works. We will, for example: ameliorate diseases in which the brain stops working properly - from diseases involving cognitive deficits such as Alzheimer's to those involving issues of physical control such as Parkinson's; understand and repair brains susceptible to addictions or criminality; develop models of brain function for advanced robotics and computers to design 'smart' interactive systems for, for example, space and ocean exploration; and maybe, frighteningly, attempt to improve upon the current human brain.
THE END OF OPTIMISM
Brian Eno: musician, composer, producer
Many of us grew up among the reverberations of the 1960s. At that time there was a feeling that the world could be a better place, and that our responsibility was to make it real by living it. But suppose the feeling changes: that people start to anticipate the future world not in that way but instead as something more closely resembling the nightmare of desperation, fear and suspicion. What happens then? Humans fragment into tighter, more selfish bands. Big institutions, because they operate on longer timescales and require structures of social trust, don't cohere. There isn't time for them. Global projects are abandoned - not enough trust to make them work. Resources that are already scarce will be rapidly exhausted as everybody tries to grab the last precious bits. Any kind of social or global mobility is seen as a threat and harshly resisted. Freeloaders and brigands and pirates and cheats will take control.