A fascinating SALT seminar featuring physicist Freeman Dyson and his children Esther and George [One hour 21 minute podcast from October 5th, 2005. SALT is an acronym for the Long Now Foundation's Seminars About Long-Term Thinking].
The main point he made before the session was opened to questions was about the “domestication of biotechnology”. I.e., what I would call widespread access to synthetic biology. Freeman described a future where:
soon biotech will become small, cheap, and user-friendly, to be employed by gardeners, naturalists, and kids to make their own creations… where people can program new genomes… a new artform as lively as cinema or painting or sculpture…
It’s OK for the kids to play around with dinosaurs, but they shouldn’t play around with viruses [he explained briefly that the high risk arena is microbes, not new roses or lizards].
A few other selected Freeman Dyson comments — loosely paraphrased:
On how we deal with the risks of biotechnology: Dyson talked a bit about regulation [prompted by Esther's obvious horror of the prospects], but it was clear that wasn’t where his heart was. His enthusiasm is for “more space” — e.g., to colonize the solar system. Then biotech experiments with enhanced humans [ala Kurzweil] could be conducted in isolation:
On “global warming”:
I’m a skeptic about about “global warming”. The phrase “climate change” is perfectly acceptable, it has real meaning as that is what is really happening, for all kinds of reasons, most of which we don’t understand.
OTOH, “global warming” tries to reduce everything to a single number, the average temperature over land, which isn’t really that significant. What is significant is how much rainfall, how many hurricanes — all difficult problems we don’t the answers to. It’s clear to me there is no understanding today that is good enough to take substantial actions at the present time… the only thing I agree with George Bush on.
On the future of computers: Dyson recalled Von Neumann’s answer when the US government asked him how many computers the nation would need. His reply “eighteen”.
Kevin Kelly provided a few notes from the meeting — unfortunately there’s no video available — I would love to see the visuals and videos which George Dyson used:
Instead of one podium there were four chairs on the stage of Wednesday’s seminar. In three seats, three Dysons: Esther, George and Freeman. They were appearing together on stage for the first time. The fourth held Stewart Brand who led the three through an evening of queries. The questions came from Stewart himself, from the audience, and from one Dyson to another Dyson — a first for this format in a Long Now seminar.
George introduced his dad with an exquisite slideshow of Freeman’s prime documents. He began with a scan of a first grade school paper Freeman wrote on “Astronimy.” Besides the forgivable misspellings, the essay was full of fantasy. Freeman did not just copy material from an encyclopedia. He imagined what should be and wrote it as fact. George then showed a later blue-book essay of Freeman’s fiction, but it was studded with numbers and calculations. Right there was the pattern for Freeman’s many other publications (first pages shown by George): speculations built upon calculations. We saw one paper inscribed by Freeman with the note: “From one crackpot to another!” His most famous speculation is for a solar system-sized enclosure around a sun now called a Dyson Sphere. George’s presentation on Freeman ended with a video clip of a Star Trek episode where the befuddle Captain Piccard ponders a mysterious hollow solar-sized ball blocking their way and gasps, “Could it be a dyson-sphere?!!”
It’s difficult to summarize such a wide-ranging conversation. Enjoy the podcast!