Sunday, January 20, 2013

A Range of Worries from Edge 2013

Reading through all of the answers to this year's question from Edge, "What Should We Be Worried About?", is a hard slog, so I offer this greatest hits version for my readers. The biggest worries among these scientists and technologists seem to be: global warming and other versions of the human impact on the planet; concern that immersion in digital technology is doing nefarious things to our brains, or those of our children; and a fear among physicists (Edge polled a lot of physicists) that the progress in physics is coming to an end. Some other answers:

We should all be worried about the gaping psychological chasm separating humanity from nature. (Scott Sampson, paleontologist)

Global greying. . . . out of the 9 billion people expected when the Earth's population peaks in 2050, the World Health Organization expects 2 billion—more than one person in five—to suffer from dementia. Is any society ready for this? Is any really talking about how to be ready? (David Berreby, journalist)

The dangerous fascination of imagination. . . . A number of my colleagues in theoretical physics have spent their life studying a possible symmetry of nature called "supersymmetry". Experiments in laboratories like Geneva's CERN seem now to be pointing more towards the absence than the presence of this symmetry. I have seen lost stares in the eyes of some colleagues: "Could it be?", how dare Nature not confirm to our imagination? The task of separating the good thoughts from the silly ones is extremely hard, of course, but this is precisely where intelligence matters, what should be nurtured. Isn't it? . . . To a large extent, we live in narrations we weave ourselves. So, why not just go for the sweetest of these? After we have freed ourselves from the close-mindedness of the past, why not feel free? We can create enchanting explanations, images of ourselves, of our own great country, of our great society. We can be fascinated by our own dreams. But something tells me we should worry. We live inside a real world, where not all the stories are equally good, equally effective. One dream out of many is the good one.(Carlo Rovelli, physicist)

Losing our hands. I don't mean that someone is going to come and chop our hands off. I mean that we are unwittingly, but eagerly, outsourcing more and more of our manual skills to machines. Our minds are losing touch with our bodies and the world around us, and being absorbed into the evolving technosphere. (Susan Blackmore, psychologist)

Homogenization of the human experience (Scott Atran, anthropologist)

Unmitigated arrogance. (Jessica Tracy, psychologist)

When the value of human labor is decimated by advances in robotics and artificial intelligence, serious restructuring will be needed in our economic, legal, political, social, and cultural institutions. Such changes are being planned for by approximately nobody. This is rather worrisome. (David Dalrymple, "researcher")

Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. (Brian Eno, composer)

The power of bad incentives. (Sam Harris, celebrity atheist)

The recent reset of the long-count Maya calendar didn't end the world. But there are serious scientists who worry that Armageddon could soon be headed our way, although from a different quarter—an attack by malevolent, extraterrestrial beings. The concern is that future radio broadcasts to the stars, intended to put us in touch with putative aliens, might carelessly betray our presence to a warlike society, and jeopardize the safety of Earth. (David Shostak, SETI)

Morbid anxiety. (Joel Gold, psychiatrist)

Governments and corporations have woken up to the fact that not only can they use the Internet, they can control it for their interests. Unless we start deliberately debating the future we want to live in, and information technology in enabling that world, we will end up with an Internet that benefits existing power structures and not society in general. (Bruce Schneir, security expert)

An exploding number of new illegal drugs. . . . A total of 49 new psychoactive substances were officially notified for the first time in 2011 via the EU early-warning system. (Thomas Metzinger)

We have next to no idea which things in the world around us are conscious and which are not. (Timo Hannay, science writer)

Unknown unknowns. (Gary Marcus, cognitive scientist)

Data disenfranchisement. (David Rowan, editor)

There are two kinds of fools: one who says this is old and therefore good, and the other who says this is new and therefore better. The argument between the two is as old as humanity itself, but technology's relentless exponential advance has made the divide deeper and more contentious than ever. My greatest fear is that this divide will frustrate the sensible application of technological innovation in the service of solving humankind's greatest challenges. (Paul Saffo, "Technology Forecaster")

We should be worried about the state of water resources. (Giulio Goccaletti, physicist)

Arthur C. Clarke famously observed that "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." That's what I'm worried about. . . . We can now create life from scratch, and model the global climate, yet battles rage over the teaching of evolution or human impact on the environment that Darwin or Galileo would recognize as challenges to the validity of the scientific method. There is a cognitive dissonance in fundamentalists using satellite phones in their quest for a medieval society, or creationists who don't believe in evolution receiving a flu shot based on genetic analysis of seasonal mutations in influenza virus. These are linked by workings that are invisible: deities behave in mysterious ways, and so do cell phones. We're in danger of becoming a cargo cult, living with the inventions of Ancestors from a mythical time of stable long-term research funding. (Neil Gershenfeld, physicist)

Chinese eugenics. (Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist)

The loss of death. . . .The prolonging of the human lifespan is often lauded in the media but it is almost never questioned. Nobody seems to doubt that we should push forward with aging research, identify those genes, tinker with them, make them work for us. For nobody wants to die, and so we all want this research to succeed. We want it for ourselves, and our families. We want ourselves and our loved ones to live as long as possible—forever, if we can. But is it the best thing for our species? Have four billion years of evolution been wrong? We are not Antarctic sponges or blue-green algae—we die for a reason. We die so that our youth—those better versions of ourselves—can flourish. We should worry about the loss of death. (Kate Jeffrey, neuroscientist)

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