March 11, 2010

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This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future, edited by John Brockman, 2010, HarperPerennial, 390 pages.
It’s all about the robots.

And our evolving computerized robotic brains and the evolving brain-merged robotic Internet — and possibly some aliens.

With a few people off to the side concerned with either planet’s ecosphere or the nature of space and time.

This is my takeaway from the scientists and thinkers who answered the question “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” for publication in this book from Edge.org.

I was surprised nobody mentioned matter compilers.

A few of their answers are disappointingly vague and some skirt the question outright, saying “who really knows?” or “well, not in my lifetime but someday” or “here’s what would be cool if it did happen.” Some come right out and say that they’re skirting the question — e.g. Steven Pinker says, “Technology may change everything, but it’s impossible to predict how” before he offers (“if you insist”) a few speculations, and Seth Lloyd says, “I could tell you that quantum computers will drastically change the way the world works during our lifetime. But I’m not going to do that, for the simple reason that I have no idea whether it’s true or not.” Others ramble without acknowledging that they’re not addressing the question that was asked. No matter, it’s interesting futurey stuff, seems to be the thought. (And sometimes it is.) Famed geneticist Craig Venter phones in a few words about how genetic technology is generally amazing and transformative, for instance. A few folks talk about what we should do or what we are doing.

But some are bold.

Rodney Brooks: “I am very sure that in my lifetime we will have a definitive answer to … whether or not there is life on Mars….”

David Eagleman: “we will find ourselves able to digitally copy the brain’s structure and download the conscious mind into a computer.”

Gregory Paul foresees “a world of immortal superminds with unlimited intellectual capacity” in which “most humans will choose to become robotic.” Alison Gopnik envisions “extended childhood” in humans, Kevin Slavin expects “the ebb of memory,” and Corey Powell (editor of Discover magazine) puts odds on a handful of predictions — five percent for an antigravity device, 50-50 for conscious machines, 95 percent for the end of oil.

Sherry Turkle: “I will see the development of robots that people will want to spend time with.”

James Geary: “I expect to live to see … the moment when a robotic device achieves the status of a living thing.”

Donald D. Hoffman: “Everything will change with the advent of the laptop quantum computer.”

W. Daniel Hillis: “The world mind will finally have a forebrain, and this will change everything.”

Peter Schwartz: “We are not far from being able to ‘jack in’ to the Web.”

You see what I mean about the robot-brain-Internet thing.

Which, when you think about it, isn’t really news. But this book is a way for us laypeople to check in and see that, yep, that’s still what the future-tech types are on about. They haven’t, like, given up on that and moved on to some other mind-expanding wonderment while we weren’t looking.

Two of the book’s most memorable points for me are not predictions at all; they are British philosopher Barry C. Smith’s observation that “To lose contact with [the Internet] even temporarily can make one feel that one has been stripped of a sense, like the temporary loss of one’s sight or hearing” (which does kind of describe my feeling during the recent power outage) and his intriguing reference to the time in the Middle Ages “when humans transformed their cognitive lives by learning to read silently. … With this simple adjustment, seemingly miraculous at the time, a great transformation of the human mind took place, and so began the age of intense private study so familiar to us now.” He wonders if we will eventually converse without talking out loud.

This is a very good book for skimming; each essay is short, it’s easy to quickly tell which ones interest you, and they’re ordered so that similar ones mostly appear near each other — the book moves roughly in a spectrum from genetics to conscious computers to alien life to brain tinkering to climate stuff to social stuff to far-out abstract physics and then the ideas that didn’t really fit any of the above. You will not have heard of many of the authors, but each gets a quick byline with title, and some are more or less well-known — Richard Dawkins, Brian Eno, Daniel Goleman (the EQ guy), Robert Sapolsky.

The term “change everything” is interpreted at different levels: Daniel L. Everett’s “automated, near-universal [language] translation” hardly seems about to change everything the way that, say, Kenneth W. Ford’s mind-reading and implantable thoughts would.

A few are depressing, a few brightly optimistic, the majority rather objective — the value judgment’s up to you. They are not all mutually compatible. Some will happen only if others don’t. In some cases, it’d be a case of which manages to happen first — will “an ever-faster accumulation of small, useful improvements … turn Homo sapiens into a new hominid” (Juan Enriquez) before or after we start downloading our minds into computer hardware?

Whatever — read the book now, so that when the Roombas take over, you’ll be able to say to them, in a last defiant gasp of supremacy, “I knew you were going to do that.”

BLisa Parsons