Friday, January 2, 2009

Edge Question 2009

Every year asks a group of notable thinkers a provocative question and the resulting answers usually makes for fascinating and thought-provoking reading. (I blogged about last year's question here). This year's question is "What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?". I must say, I'm not a fan of the question: I agree with Pinker that it's an invitation to speculate wantonly... and look really dumb in 50 years. Human beings just aren't very good at predicting the future, and it seems likely that many things that won't change anything have been prophesied and the things that will change (nearly) everything have not. That said, several of the respondents focused on the relatively short-term and their speculations are therefore significantly more reasonable and interesting. My picks from among the latter:

Chris Anderson (the TED curator, not Wired editor) argues there will be a revolution in education due to the internet. Some of the best lecturers and teachers in the world, he says, will soon be available via video to anyone for free, unleashing a torrent of previously untapped talent and potential.

Jonathan Haidt's answer may prove to be the most controversial: the recent conclusion that evolution by natural selection may operate significantly faster than previously thought, he says, suggests there are significant biological differences between human groups. (He's careful to argue that these groups will likely not map onto social constructs like race).

Sam Harris thinks accurate and reliable lie-detectors will be invented in the next couple of decades, assuring that, whenever the stakes are high, truth-telling will be taken for granted.

Laurence Krauss' answer is deeply depressing, mostly because it's so plausible: the use of nuclear weapons against a civilian population. A nuclear exchange between India and Pakistan, for example, is certainly possible and Krauss is right that the consequences (social, political, environmental, intellectual) would be immense.

Nicholas Humphrey argues, in effect, that nothing will change everything because human nature is stubbornly persistent. We are far more technologically advanced than the Romans, he points out, but the major themes of the human biography - sex, children, politics, intrigue and so on - remain unchanged.

Craig Venter, predictably, thinks synthetic biology will change everything. He's probably right.

Other titbits:

Why oh why does the pseudoscientist and crackpot Rupert Sheldrake keep being included in this exercise? This time round Sheldrake argues the end of materialism is nigh. Sigh.

PZ Myers produced a wonderfully quotable quote: "We are not the progeny of gods, we are the children of worms; not the product of divine planning, but of cruel chance and ages of brutal winnowing."

The youngest respondent seems to be David Dalrymple, a 17 year-old MIT graduate student. Wow.

(Via: The Thinking Meat Project)

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