What Would Change Everything?

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The 2009 EDGE annual question is out: “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” Given that there are over a hundred responses from the Brockman mafia of brainy third culture types so far, I decided to condense the text of every answer into a Wordle in hopes of one-stop grokking. Full size version is here.

Favorite answers after the jump:
Kevin Kelly, whose description of ubiquitous AI nearly triggered a singularity in my brain:

When this emerging AI, or ai, arrives it won’t even be recognized as intelligence at first. Its very ubiquity will hide it. We’ll use its growing smartness for all kinds of humdrum chores, including scientific measurements and modeling, but because the smartness lives on thin bits of code spread across the globe in windowless boring warehouses, and it lacks a unified body, it will be faceless. You can reach this distributed intelligence in a million ways, through any digital screen anywhere on earth, so it will be hard to say where it is. And because this synthetic intelligence is a combination of human intelligence (all past human learning, all current humans online) and the coveted zip of fast alien digital memory, it will be difficult to pinpoint what it is as well. Is it our memory, or a consensual agreement? Are we searching it, or is it searching us?

Freeman Dyson on empathetic telepathic communication:

[The aforementioned] physical tools would make possible the practice of “Radiotelepathy”, the direct communication of feelings and thoughts from brain to brain. 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.

Danny Hillis on massive-scale collaboration and decision-making:

What is still missing is the ability for a group of people (or people and machines) to make collective decisions with intelligence greater than the individual. This can sometimes be accomplished in small groups through conversation, but the method does not scale well. Generally speaking, technology has made the conversation larger, but not smarter. For large groups, the state-of-the-art method for collective decision-making is still the vote. Voting only works to the degree that, on average, each voter is able to individually determine the right decision. This is not good enough. We need an intelligence that will scale with the size of our problems.

So this is the development that will make a difference: a method for groups of people and machines to work together to make decisions in a way that takes advantage of scale. With such a scalable method for collective decision-making, our zillions of transistors and billions of brains can be used to advantage, giving the collective mind a way to focus our collective actions. Given this, we will finally have access to intelligence greater than our own. The world mind will finally have a forebrain, and this will change everything.

Chris Anderson (the TED version) on a new generation of web-based teaching tools:

There are many scary things about today’s world. But one that is truly thrilling is that the means of spreading both knowledge and inspiration have never been greater. Five years ago, an amazing teacher or professor with the ability to truly catalyze the lives of his or her students could realistically hope to impact maybe 100 people each year. Today that same teacher can have their words spread on video to millions of eager students. There are already numerous examples of powerful talks that have spread virally to massive Internet audiences.

Driving this unexpected phenomenon is the fact that the physical cost of distributing a recorded talk or lecture anywhere in the world via the internet has fallen effectively to zero. This has happened with breathtaking speed and its implications are not yet widely understood. But it is surely capable of transforming global education.

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