It’s that time of the year again, when John Brockman attempts to “arrive at the edge of human knowledge” by asking some of the world’s most unique thinkers a single big-picture question. Reading the Edge contributions is always a pleasure, but this year’s question is especially pertinent to me, because I’ve become very interested in a relatively new field called existential risk. Scholars in xrisk, as it’s also called, try to bring all the modern tools of philosophy, mathematics, and science to bear on addressing issues which threaten the survival of humanity. Extinction-level scenarios range from thermonuclear war to alien invasion to runaway-AI to out-of-control climate change. I hardly think I need to stress this research’s importance; it comforts me a great deal that minds like Nick Bostrom’s are devoted full-time to making sure that we don’t all die.
I’m working my way through these essays one-by-one, and writing short summaries in the process. Here is the first round:
1) Geoffrey Miller worries that the West will have a poor response to what he sees as effective eugenics on the part of China. To him it seems plausible that a combination of public policy, culture, and research will see the average IQ of Chinese people creeping up from generation to generation, leaving the West behind. He endorses the sort effort that would allow us to follow suit (though, of course, he never sanctions anything like the murder of ‘genetically unfit’ people).
Science, genetics, culture
2) Nassim Nicholas Taleb builds on his previous work by making the case that many of our statistical tools are pretty well useless, especially when applied to finance and economics. He concludes that the only thing which can prevent further financial disasters like the one the world is still reeling from is for investors to have ‘skin in the game’. People make very different decisions when they will be directly harmed by misunderstanding risk.
3) William McEwan’s essay is extremely specific and centers on virus mutation rates. He fears that we will not learn how to push viruses over the “error catastrophe threshold”. Remember that DNA replication is not error-free, a fact which is part of what allows evolution and diversity. Compared to mammals viruses have many more errors in replication which, coupled with their short life cycles, enables them to evolve much more quickly than humans. But at the error catastrophe threshold there are enough errors that an organism simply can’t replicate. We need to design drugs which get viruses there without harming us in the process.
Biology, Evolution, Medicine
4) Helena Cronin is troubled by the public reception of evolutionary psychology, particularly when it has ‘politically incorrect’ things to say about sex differences between men and women. She writes with force that humans have an evolved nature but that, in the public marketplace of ideas, dubious opinions to the contrary are juxtaposed with empirical facts and little distinction is made between them. Science is science and fact is fact, she reminds us, and these are not matters to be decided by public opinion.
Culture, Science, Evolutionary Psychology
5) Dan Sperber begins by pointing out that worrying is an investment of emotional and cognitive resources. There are therefore good investments of worry (where the next meal will come from) and bad ones (whether or not the gods will kill you for wearing your hair a certain way). In a fast-changing world of staggering complexity, he fears that humans will get worse and worse at picking the right things to worry about.
6) Martin Rees believes that people are simply not worried enough by existential risk; that is, but extremely low probability, high impact events. These include things like nanotechnology, global warming, system-wide internet failures, and the like. He notes that most people didn’t realize until after the fact how close nuclear war came to erupting during the Cold War, and that a host of new threats just as dangerous faces us in the next century.
7) Barbara Strauch is worried about a great — and growing — disconnect in culture surrounding the communication of science. There is simultaneously a decrease in science coverage in general-interest newspapers, an increase in scientific ignorance in many places (most conspicuously in political figures), mountains of misinformation, but also an insatiable appetite for science news from a significant number of people. The ramifications for science funding, science education, and public understanding of science is cause for worry.
8) John Tooby’s sweeping contribution covers two vast sources of worry: the world outside our heads and the world inside it. On the one hand, civilization has flourished within a wildly improbable bubble of safety, which could at any moment be popped by a gamma ray burst or a coronal mass ejection. Meeting these threats will require forging a far more technologically advanced civilization that the one we have now. Unfortunately, standing in the way of this project are the myriad evolved biases –groupthink, status-seeking, etc — which plague human thinking. We must deepen our understanding of the human mind’s many failure modes before it is too late.
Evolutionary Psychology, Evolution, Physics
9) David Gelertner thinks that the internet has devalued the written word. Because so many people can write and publish their opinions, the market has essentially been flooded with words, with each one getting less attention from both writers and readers. Consequently the quality of much writing has dropped.
Culture, Writing, The Internet
10) Brian Eno notes that lots of smart people steer clear of politics, and as a result less intelligent people end up being the ones who do politics. The result is the geopolitical mess which we see today.
11) Seth Lloyd compares huge financial institutions to stars and the fiscal meltdown to the formation of a black hole. We should be worried anytime we see enormous institutions leveraging themselves to the hilt.
Physics, Finance, Economics
12) Danny Hillis says that more sophisticated search engines should worry us because they will increasingly be not a reflection of statistics but rather a conceptual model of the world. Searching for ‘dictators’ will return a list which reflects the assumptions built into the search engine about what constitutes a ‘dictator’. This could be very powerful, but it puts a greater share of the the task of deciding what’s true into the hands of machines; this could increase the insulation of echo chambers or serve to expose us to unfamiliar points of view.
13) David Buss thinks we should be more aware of the evolutionary logic behind the people we choose to pair up with. In his view, a significant chunk of infidelity, marital dissatisfaction, stalking, and domestic violence can be explained by looking at the dynamics of dating up and dating down. Men are more likely to stalk women when they sense that they may not be able to attract as high-caliber a mate again. Extremely attractive women are beset on all sides by ‘mate poachers’ seeking to lure them away from current relationships. None of this excuses lying, cheating, or abuse, but with understanding comes the ability to modify our own behavior accordingly.
Evolutionary Psychology, Biology
14)David Bodanis is worried about the confluence of two things: the long-term consequences of extreme wealth inequality and the emotional wiring that make fascism an attractive choice for the oppressed. He invites us to imagine what might happen when only the rich can afford the kind of medical treatments that make them young, beautiful, and long-lived while the vast majority of people go on suffering illness and death. The result might be Fascism-fueled retribution, but that would be disastrous for technological progress.
15) Benjamin Bergen thinks everyone should calm the fuck down over the use of bad words, particularly when ‘protecting children’ is used as a justification. There is nothing in the sound or idea behind words which makes them inherently bad; indeed, swear words derive their power exclusively from out reaction to them. We should not be so worried about the possibility of children hearing foul language. Language, Culture, Censorship 16) David Rowan acknowledges the power of Big Data, but worries that a ‘data underclass’ will not benefit from it. Those without access to massive stores of information are at a disadvantage in a variety of markets. Further, many of us are in danger of being unable to escape the crude portrait drawn by our online data, and this portrait is fast becoming what matters in deciding our prospects, even when it’s mistaken or outdated. Something should be done to empower individuals in the yottabyte age.
Technology, Data, The Internet
16) David Rowan acknowledges the power of Big Data, but worries that a ‘data underclass’ will not benefit from it. Those without access to massive stores of information are at a disadvantage in a variety of markets. Further, many of us are in danger of being unable to escape the crude portrait drawn by our online data, and this portrait is fast becoming what matters in deciding our prospects, even when it’s mistaken or outdated. Something should be done to empower individuals in the yottabyte age.
Technology, Data, The Internet