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What Should We Be Worried About?

By on January 16th, 2013

“We” in this instance refers to humanity.

Some background. Edge.org is a sort of “online salon,” a virtual Algonquin Roundtable where people engage in high-minded conversation and debate on a wide variety of issues, most of which I do not even understand. Every year, they pose an “annual question” and post responses from an extremely broad cross-section of scientists, philosophers, writers, artists, historians and other academicians—their Rolodex runneth over. Anyway, this year’s annual question is, “What should we be worried about?” That is, what hitherto unforeseen dangers pose threats of some kind to humanity?

It’s worth at least scrolling through the responses, but a few stood out:

We Are In Denial About Catastrophic Risks

Martin Rees

Former President, The Royal Society; Emeritus Professor of Cosmology & Astrophysics, University of Cambridge; Master, Trinity College; Author, From Here to Infinity

Those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, carcinogens in food, and so forth. But we are less secure than we think. We should worry far more about scenarios that have thankfully not yet happened—but which, if they occurred, could cause such world-wide devastation that even once would be too often.

Much has been written about possible ecological shocks triggered by the collective impact of a growing and more demanding world population on the biosphere, and about the social and political tensions stemming from scarcity of resources or climate change. But even more worrying are the downsides of powerful new technologies: cyber-, bio-, and nano-. We’re entering an era when a few individuals could, via error or terror, trigger a societal breakdown with such extreme suddenness that palliative government actions would be overwhelmed…

Worry About Internet Drivel

David Gelernter

Computer Scientist, Yale University; Chief Scientist, Mirror Worlds Technologies; Author, America-Lite: How Imperial Academia Dismantled our Culture (and ushered in the Obamacrats)

If we have a million photos, we tend to value each one less than if we only had ten. The internet forces a general devaluation of the written word: a global deflation in the average word’s value on many axes. As each word tends to get less reading-time and attention and to be worth less money at the consumer end, it naturally tends to absorb less writing-time and editorial attention on the production side. Gradually, as the time invested by the average writer and the average reader in the average sentence falls, society’s ability to communicate in writing decays. And this threat to our capacity to read and write is a slow-motion body-blow to science, scholarship, the arts—to nearly everything, in fact, that is distinctively human, that muskrats and dolphins can’t do just as well or better.

The internet’s insatiable demand for words creates global deflation in the value of words. The internet’s capacity to distribute words near-instantly means that, with no lag-time between writing and publication, publication and worldwide availability, pressure builds on the writer to produce more. Global deflation in the value of words creates pressure, in turn, to downplay or eliminate editing and self-editing. When I tell my students not to turn in first-drafts, I sometimes have to explain, nowadays, what a first draft is.

The Opinions Of Search Engines

W. Daniel Hillis

Physicist, Computer Scientist, Chairman of Applied Minds, Inc.; author, The Pattern on the Stone

Last year, Google made a fundamental change in the way that it searches. Previously a search for, say, “Museums of New York”, would return web pages with sequences of letters that matched your search terms, like M-U-S-E-U-M. Now, besides the traditional keyword search, Google also performs a “semantic search” using a database of knowledge about the world. In this case, it will look for entities that it knows to be museums that are located within the geographic region that is named New York. To do this, the computers that perform the search must have some notion of what a museum is, what New York is, and how they are related. The computers must represent this knowledge and use it to make a judgment.

A problem becomes apparent if we change the example from “Museums of New York” to “Provinces of China.” Is Taiwan such a province? This is a controversial question. With semantic search either the computer or the curator of the knowledge will have to make a decision. Editors of published content have long made such judgments; now, the search engine makes these judgments in selecting its results. With sematic search these decisions are not based on statistics, but on a model of the world.

What about a search for “Dictators of the World”? Here the results, which include a list of famous dictators, are not just the judgment of whether a particular person is a dictator, but also an implied judgment, in the collection of individual examples, of the very concept of a dictator. By building knowledge of concepts like “dictator” into our shared means of discovering information, we are implicitly accepting a set of assumptions.

Search engines have long been judges of what is important; now they are also arbiters of the truth.

What—Me Worry?

J. Craig Venter

A leading scientist of the 21st century for Genomic Sciences; Co-Founder, Chairman, Synthetic Genomics, Inc.; Founder, J. Craig Venter Institute; Author, A Life Decoded

As a scientist, an optimist, an atheist and an alpha male I don’t worry. As a scientist I explore and seek understanding of the world (s) around me and in me. As an optimist I wake up each morning with a new start on all my endeavors with hope and excitement. As an atheist I know I only have the time between my birth and my death to accomplish something meaningful. As an alpha male I believe I can and do work to solve problems and change the world.

There are many problems confronting humanity including providing enough food, water, housing, medicine and fuel for our ever-expanding population. I firmly believe that only science can provide solutions for these challenges, but the adoption of these ideas will depend on the will of governments and individuals.

The Rise Of Anti-Intellectualism And The End Of Progress

Tim O’Reilly

Founder and CEO of O Reilly Media, Inc.

For so many in the techno-elite, even those who don’t entirely subscribe to the unlimited optimism of the Singularity, the notion of perpetual progress and economic growth is somehow taken for granted. As a former classicist turned technologist, I’ve always lived with the shadow of the fall of Rome, the failure of its intellectual culture, and the stasis that gripped the Western world for the better part of a thousand years. What I fear most is that we will lack the will and the foresight to face the world’s problems squarely, but will instead retreat from them into superstition and ignorance….

Science By (Social) Media

Michael I. Norton

Associate Professor of Marketing, Harvard Business School; coauthor, Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending.

Check the “most emailed list” of websites for periodicals ranging from the New York Times to FoxNews.com and you’ll often see, sprinkled in with major world events and scandals, a story about a new scientific finding: “Red Wine Linked to Longevity” or “Climate Change Called into Question” or “Eating Dirt Is Good for You.”

While the increasing attention given to science by the media is primarily a positive development—surely we want a scientifically-literate population, and research appearing only in obscure journals will not help to achieve this goal—we should be worried about the exploding trend in “science by (social) media” for at least two reasons.

First, it is not clear that the best science is the science that gets known best. In one study that examined media coverage of research presented at a major scientific conference, fully 25% that appeared in the media never appeared in a scientific journal. That’s right: fully one quarter of the science that laypeople encountered was not solid enough to pass muster when reviewed by experts. This same trend was true for research that made the front page of major newspapers, the stories most likely to be read.

The problem is likely exacerbated by the rise of social media: even if we miss the initial coverage of some new scientific finding, we are now more likely to encounter it as a tweet, or a post on Facebook. Worse still, social media often encourages quick, superficial engagement. We see the title—”Red Wine Linked to Longevity”—without reading further to find out, for example, the amount of red wine that might have health benefits (one ounce a day? one gallon?) and for whom (everyone? only people with red hair?)….

And for those who recall some of my presentations back in the 2000s:

“The Singularity”: There’s No There There

Bruce Sterling

Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America

Since it’s 2013, ten years have passed since Vernor Vinge wrote his remarkably interesting essay about “the Singularity.”

This aging sci-fi notion has lost its conceptual teeth. Plus, its chief evangelist, visionary Ray Kurzweil, just got a straight engineering job with Google. Despite its weird fondness for AR goggles and self-driving cars, Google is not going to finance any eschatological cataclysm in which superhuman intelligence abruptly ends the human era. Google is a firmly commercial enterprise.

It’s just not happening. All the symptoms are absent. Computer hardware is not accelerating on any exponential runway beyond all hope of control. We’re no closer to “self-aware” machines than we were in the remote 1960s. Modern wireless devices in a modern Cloud are an entirely different cyber-paradigm than imaginary 1990s “minds on nonbiological substrates” that might allegedly have the “computational power of a human brain.” A Singularity has no business model, no major power group in our society is interested in provoking one, nobody who matters sees any reason to create one, there’s no there there.

So, as a Pope once remarked, “Be not afraid.” We’re getting what Vinge predicted would happen without a Singularity, which is “a glut of technical riches never properly absorbed.” There’s all kinds of mayhem in that junkyard, but the AI Rapture isn’t lurking in there. It’s no more to be fretted about than a landing of Martian tripods.

But then:

I’ve Given Up Asking Questions

Terry Gilliam

Acreenwriter, Film director, Animator, Actor; Member, Monty Python Comedy Troupe; Director, Brazil; Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas

I’ve given up asking questions. l merely float on a tsunami of acceptance of anything life throws at me… and marvel stupidly.

  1. One Response to “What Should We Be Worried About?”

  2. By Evans Graphics on Jan 17, 2013 | Reply

    Life is definately too short to worry about the things you cannot do anything about. Concentrate on the things you can influence and be positive.