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looking forward: the next 50 years

New Scientist has a 50th anniversary issue which asks a lot of leading scientists What will be the biggest breakthrough of the next 50 years?. Some of their answers are pretty interesting.

"What will be the biggest breakthrough of the next 50 years? As part of our 50th anniversary celebrations we asked over 70 of the world's most brilliant scientists for their ideas."

This includes responses to their question by Steven Weinberg, Alex Vilenkin, Paul Davies, John Barrow, Benoit Mandelbrot, Gerard 't Hooft, Max Tegmark, Steven Pinker, Lisa Randall, Stephen Wolfram, Martin Rees, Frank Wilczek, Lawrence Krauss, Anton Zeilinger, Edward Witten, Kip Thorn, Jaron Lanier, Bill Joy, John Halpern, Freeman Dyson, Daniel Dennett, David Deutsch, Sean Caroll, and many more! (I only listed the people whose names I immediately recognize--most of them being physicists).

Some of my favorite responses:

"Talk of a scientific understanding of consciousness still evokes more sucking in of air than most other subjects. Sceptics are fond of saying that a "factor X" that cannot even be imagined at the moment is required. I would argue the opposite: it is here, and it will be commonplace by 2056. Factor X is a recognition that the brain, despite being the most complex machine on Earth, is nonetheless a machine, and an informational one at that. The notion that information has a physical basis, like the wind, is itself less than 50 years old. Those involved in the rapid development of computation now have the power to understand the brain-machine in a way that was not possible through classical sciences. They are beginning to formalise the many elements of what we call consciousness." - Igor Aleksander

"Psychological scientists have learned so much about planting false memories that some say we almost have recipes for doing so. But we haven't seen anything yet. Over the next 50 years we will further master the ability to create false memories. We will learn more about who is most susceptible and what works with what kind of people. The most potent recipes may involve pharmaceuticals that we are on the brink of discovering." - Elizabeth Loftus

"In the next 50 years we can solve the generic object recognition problem. We are no longer limited by lack of computer power, but we are limited by a natural risk aversion to a problem on which many people have foundered in the past few decades. If enough people spend enough time working on it, taking ideas that we are getting from psychophysics and brain imaging, I am confident we will come up with at least partial solutions. When we do, the possibilities for robots working with people will open up immensely." - Rodney Brooks

"String theory will continue to be an extremely fertile source of new ideas. It will still be viewed as the interesting candidate for quantum gravity, and may even be more or less understood by 2056." - Edward Witten

"US will follow the UK in realising that religion is not a prerequisite for ordinary human decency. Thus, science will kill religion - not by reason challenging faith, but by offering a more practical, universal and rewarding moral framework for human interaction. A naturalistic moral philosophy will replace the rotting fictions of theological ethics." - Geoffrey Miller

"A unified computer science will be able to produce computers with internal structures that connect via approximation instead of precise protocols. It is reasonable to guess that this unification will be bio-mimetic, and symbiotic to improved understanding of the brain." - Jaron Lanier

"Within 10 years, enough positive results could establish that there are special benefits from psychedelics. This may lead to a new field of medicine in which spirituality is kindled to help us accept our mortality without fear, and where those with addiction problems, anxiety or cluster headache discover a path to genuine healing. Capable of inducing the deeply mystical, these substances may prove to be a source for compassion and hope so desperately needed in these perilous times." - John Halpern

"The existence of such parallel universes will be no more controversial than the existence of other galaxies - then called 'island universes' - was 100 years ago. This idea was controversial until Edwin Hubble settled it in 1925." - Max Tegmark


( 14 comments — Leave a comment )
Nov. 18th, 2006 08:39 pm (UTC)
Nice :)

My favorite was a misread, from the above -- "String theory will continue to be an extremely fertile source of new ideas. It will still be viewed as the interesting candidate for quantum gravity, and may even be less understood by 2056." - (not) Edward Witten

Jaron Lanier's is the most beautiful, to my mind.
Nov. 18th, 2006 08:50 pm (UTC)
heh! yeah... I mostly threw in the Ed Witten quote for humor, anyway. People have already critized string theorists for taking too much time in trying to understand the theory. So I find it hilarious that instead of Witten saying "don't worry, we'll figure it out soon enough", here he is saying that after another 50 years maybe we'll "more or less understand it." Basically, the contrast of the short-sighted impatience of some for a final theory, and the infinite patience of others toward the same ideas.
Nov. 18th, 2006 09:19 pm (UTC)
"rotting fictions of theological ethics"

Lets hope so.
Nov. 19th, 2006 12:25 am (UTC)
what a heartwarming series of responses. ahhh, my heart leaps.
Nov. 19th, 2006 04:19 am (UTC)
I did handpick the most inspiring ones, however even most of the ones I didn't pick give me much hope for humanity.

stdv("The future's so bright, I gotta wear shades!")
Nov. 19th, 2006 10:04 am (UTC)
Thanks for the summary.

I don't think that human consciouness will be understood by 2056, probably 2035 or so.

false memories could be fun. Overcoming limiting beliefs, implanting all thos e math skills I missed.

I disagree about the religion, I suspect that it's only going to increase over the upcoming years, thought it's going to get more dilluted by the never ending stream of stuff out of VR and Mass Media. e.g. The recent movie Happy Feet has many religious (and anti-religious) tones.

Jaron I so hope is right, but I'm not sure I see the financial icentive or know how to do what he dreams. We keep building tools with the same basic language constructs. Sure development tools is making this faster, but still it's a long way from the goals of Intentional and Aspect Oriented programming.
Nov. 19th, 2006 10:05 pm (UTC)

I don't think that human consciouness will be understood by 2056, probably 2035 or so.

So you expect it to be fully understood in just 30 years? (Your sentence is worded a bit confusingly, so correct me if I misinterpretted it.) I think it depends on what level of understanding we want. Right now, I think we have only a very vague understanding of conciousness, although I agree with Igor Aleksander that we probably already have factor X, and it's just the insight that the mind is an information processor. I expect our understanding of its actual organizational structure to be much more solid after 30 years, and even moreso within 50 years. I suspect that before we fully understand how it works, we'll be able to build a similar consciousness in silicon by trial and error. However, I could also imagine it happening in the opposite order.
Nov. 19th, 2006 11:32 pm (UTC)
yes i think we will figure out consciousness by 2035 or so. But I suppose it depends on how we define consciousness. I don't think we will necessarily understand a particular person consciousness unless someone figures out efficent scanning tech (e.g. nanobots) and way to translate that into something useful.

While todays in some ways we are still in the dark ages, on the other hand we are already interfacing with the brain via chip-to-neuron level and doing useful things. We are already recording the signals and beginning to understand what those signallings mean. I anticipate that this data will be ameniable to computer pattern recognition and thus regeneration for talking back to the brain/senses. I suspect that we are already on the brink to having the computing power to simulate a human brain at a molecular level, though we don't have the speed to process it in real time yet.

I actually don't think that consciousness is as complex as the myriad of functionality provided by subconscious. It's like the difference between a General of the US army and the coach of a basketball team. Both the general and a coach have basically the same job, just one has lots more heirachies beneath it.

In particular if we look at the animal kingdom closely we can find just about any specific mental attribute we have, just not all of them together. So in some senses I think we glorify our intellect and discount others.
Nov. 20th, 2006 01:24 am (UTC)

I actually don't think that consciousness is as complex as the myriad of functionality provided by subconscious.

See, I think of the subconscious as a big part of understanding consciousness. If we don't understand how the subconscious mind works, then we don't really understand consciousness. I like your general/basketball coach analogy, but I think it's probably a big simplification in some ways. My guess is that we will never find a way to cleanly seperate conscious processes from subconscious processes, we'll just start identifying some processes as more important or more central to consciousness than others.
Nov. 20th, 2006 05:38 am (UTC)
We disagree.

I think there is a pretty clean separation between consciousness and subconsciousness, though part of the definition of being conscious is being able to 'unbox' and rewire behavior at lower levels, much akin to editing source code, compiling and running it in a backgroudn process.

I think we both agree that consciousness has lots of factors to it. Part of the reason why it's so amorphous is there is no objective measurement definining all the boundary conditions of what is and what is not consciousness, this is especially true if you include spirtuality in the mix.
Nov. 21st, 2006 03:05 am (UTC)

Part of the reason why it's so amorphous is there is no objective measurement definining all the boundary conditions of what is and what is not consciousness

This is mostly what I was really getting at regarding the distinction between consciousness and the subconscious. I don't think there's a clear boundary between the two. I think we have an animal level of consciousness, with higher levels of consciouness sort of stacked on top of that, but there's no place where behaviour suddenly shifts from being instinctual or automatic to intentional and deliberate.
Nov. 20th, 2006 01:03 am (UTC)
thanks for the links, those were pretty good. hard to top steven pinker's, though:

I absolutely refuse even to pretend to guess about how I might speculate about what, hypothetically, could be the biggest breakthrough of the next 50 years. This is an invitation to look foolish, as with the predictions of domed cities and nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners that were made 50 years ago
Nov. 20th, 2006 01:15 am (UTC)
Yeah, he's got a good point. The biggest breakthroughs are surely going to be the ones we least suspected... if they were already foreseen then they just aren't going to seem as big. And I noticed that most of the responders mentioned something or other about what's going on in their particular field of expertise... presumably they don't all really think that that whatever they're guessing or working on is going to be the one thing which has the most global significance to humanity. So yeah, I think if you interpret the question literally, the best answer by far is "I refuse to ansewr". The problem with that is... it's no fun. ;) So the next best thing you can do is interpret it loosely and respond with one thing or another you think will be really big... something with signs we can already see coming.
Nov. 20th, 2006 01:50 am (UTC)
right, to make an interesting "big" prediction, it should be one that relatively unsuspected, but that also means you are opening yourself up to being spectacularly wrong. however, it certainly is no fun to say "um, I don't know."

as for the scientists responding with some development in their field, I guess there are two ways to explain this: 1) they are humble, and realize they are only experts in their given field, and thus people should probably only accept their predictions about something they are experts in, rather than pontificating about things they don't have any more competence in than anybody else. alternatively: 2) they are arrogant, and think that whatever they do is intrinsically amazingly important and relevant. not sure which is the best explanation.

i'm also suprised there aren't simpler ideas supported by anyone (that I have read so far): some type of supercheap, supereasy delivery device for medications for people in the third world, for instance, or some development that helps lift lots of people worldwide out of poverty, or things of that nature are probably going to have more impact on humanity than many of the ideas people talked about.
( 14 comments — Leave a comment )


domino plural

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