The Edge Annual Question now has 160 answers from scientists around the world. The 2007 question is:
As an activity, as a state of mind, science is fundamentally optimistic. Science figures out how things work and thus can make them work better. Much of the news is either good news or news that can be made good, thanks to ever deepening knowledge and ever more efficient and powerful tools and techniques. Science, on its frontiers, poses more and ever better questions, ever better put.
What are you optimistic about? Why? Surprise us!
There are many, many fascinating answers. To begin, here are Ray Kurzweil’s comments. His point on solar energy is a good one — that nano-scale assembly with create cheap, efficient solar cells within twenty years, and that the storage problem will be overcome by distributed, safe nanotechnology-based fuel cells. For some reason such optimism isn’t favored by such as the NY Times…
I’m Confident About Energy, the Environment, Longevity, and Wealth; I’m Optimistic (But Not Necessarily Confident) Of the Avoidance Of Existential Downsides; And I’m Hopeful (But Not Necessarily Optimistic) About a Repeat Of 9-11 (Or Worse)
Optimism exists on a continuum in-between confidence and hope. Let me take these in order.
I am confident that the acceleration and expanding purview of information technology will solve the problems with which we are now preoccupied within twenty years.
Consider energy. We are awash in energy (10,000 times more than we need to meet all of our needs falls on the Earth) but we are not very good at capturing it, but that will change with full nanotechnology based assembly of macro objects at the nano scale controlled by massively parallel information processes, which will be feasible within twenty years. Even though our energy needs are projected to triple within 20 years, we’ll capture that .0003 of the sunlight needed to meet all of our energy needs with no use of fossil fuels using extremely inexpensive, highly efficient, lightweight, nano engineered solar panels, and store the energy in highly distributed (and, therefore, safe) nanotechnology-based fuel cells. Solar power is now providing one part in a thousand of our energy needs but that percentage is doubling every two years, which means multiplying by a thousand in 20 years. Almost all of the discussions I’ve seen about energy and its consequences such as global warming fail to consider the ability of future nanotechnology based solutions to solve this problem. This development will be motivated not just by concern for the environment, but by the $2 trillion we spend annually on energy. This is already a major area of venture funding.
Consider health. As of just recently, we now have the tools to reprogram biology. This is also at an early stage but is progressing through the same exponential growth of information technology, which we see in every aspect of biological progress. The amount of genetic data we have sequenced has doubled every year and the price per base pair has come down commensurately. The first genome cost a billion dollars, NIH is now starting a project to collect a million genomes at a thousand dollars a piece. We can turn genes off with RNA interference, add new genes (to adults) with new reliable forms of gene therapy, and turn on and off proteins and enzyme at critical stages of disease progression. We are gaining the means to model, simulate, and reprogram disease and aging processes as information processes. These technologies will be a thousand times more powerful than they are today in ten years, and it will be a very different world in terms of our ability to turn off disease and aging.
Consider prosperity. The inherent 50 percent deflation rate inherent in information technology and its growing purview is causing the decline of poverty. The poverty rate in Asia, according to the World Bank, declined by 50 percent over the past ten years due to information technology, and will decline at current rates by 90 percent in the next ten years. All areas of the world are being affected, including Africa which is now undergoing a rapid invasion of the Internet. Even Sub Saharan Africa had a 5% growth rate last year.
Okay, so what am I optimistic, but not necessarily confident, about?
All of these technologies have existential downsides. We are already living with enough thermonuclear weapons to destroy all mammalian life on this planet, which incidentally are still on a hair trigger. Remember these? They’re still there, and they represent an existential threat.
The existential bio-terror threat is a very real worry. The Kurzweil-Joy rapid response proposal should be getting a LOT more attention:
We have a new existential threat which is the ability of a destructively minded group or individual to reprogram a biological virus to be more deadly, more communicable, or (most daunting of all) more stealthy (that is, having a longer incubation period so that the early spread is not detected). The good news is that we do have the tools to set up a rapid response system, like the one we have for software viruses. It took us five years to sequence HIV, but we can now sequence a virus in a day or two. RNA interference can turn viruses off since viruses are genes albeit pathological ones. Bill Joy and I have proposed setting up a rapid response system that could detect a new virus, sequence it, design an RNAi medication (or a safe antigen-based vaccine) and gear up production in a matter of days. The methods exist, but a working rapid response system does not yet exist. We need to put one in place quickly.
So I’m optimistic that we will make it through without suffering an existential catastrophe. It would be helpful if we gave the two existential threats I discuss above a higher priority.
And, finally, what am I hopeful, but not necessarily optimistic, about?
Who would have thought right after September 11, 2001 that we would go five years without another destructive incident at that or greater scale? That seemed very unlikely at the time, but despite all the subsequent turmoil in the world, it happened. I am hopeful that this will continue.
On the bio-terror threat, Kurzweil is in a good position to know what is being done [or rather Not Done] today. His 2005 Glenn Reynolds interview:
Iâ€™m on the Army Science Advisory Group (a board of five people who advise the Army on science and technology), and the Army is the institution responsible for the nationâ€™s bioterrorism protection. Without revealing anything confidential, I can say that there is acute awareness of these dangers, but there is neither the funding nor national priority to address them in an adequate way.