Space Exploration and Fragile Systems: Edge 2013 Questions, IV

49) Scott Sampson posits that love is required to accomplish large-scale conservation projects. Reasoning that humans will not be inspired to save something they don’t love, he concludes that we must forge an emotional connection with the natural world. Though we need more science, it has also been a major contributing factor to our growing distance from the natural world.

Psychology, Nature

50) Gino Segre sees that a hyperconnected world has brought many benefits, but he worries about the numerous downsides to connectivity. Rather than making any sweeping conclusions, he examines just one area in which these downsides are clear: that of professorships and academia. At least in some ways, he argues, all that connectivity can encourage groupthink and conformity at the expense of fostering wild and creative ideas.

Technology, Connectivity

51) Joseph Ledoux claims that though humans are generally an anxious species – a toll paid for having a future-predicting brain – everyone has a different natural level of anxiety. Since anxiety isn’t going anywhere, we should be trying to find ways of using our anxiety.

Stress, Psychology

52) Michael Vassar says that in order for real innovation to occur, humans need to have more than just basic needs satisfied; they must climb higher up Maslow’s hierarchy. The danger in not realizing this is relegating all innovation to a handful of startup founders, CEOs, and the very rare thinker for whom esteem is simply not important.


53) John Naughton is worried about the incompetent systems in which we are all embedded. These are systems which are broken, but which fixing would require expensive coordination on the part of many different people. As an example he cites the Intellectual Property regime in the U.S., an incompetent system designed for a pre-computer world. Unfortunately repairing it would require many powerful institutions – who have a vested interest in keeping things the same – to voluntarily give up their positions and work together. This probably won’t happen.

Complexity, Culture

54) Steven Strogatz thinks we we may be too connected for our own good. “Coupling” is a state in which the elements of a system are free to influence one another. With the rise of digital technology, GPS, social media, etc., humans are becoming very coupled – and coupled systems are fragile. The much-lauded ‘wisdom of the crowd’ will only work when people are independent actors. It’s possible that with our insatiable desire for more connection, we may get more than we bargained for.

Social Media, Technology

55) Bruce Schneider reminds us that the internet doesn’t just enable the powerless, it also enables the powerless as well. While individuals can sometimes organize around issues like SOPA/PIPA, generally speaking institutions like the government, the military, or massive companies such as Google, are the ones shaping the future of the internet. The ethical and political realities surrounding the internet are complex, but not enough people are taking an interest in them. This should worry us.

The internet

56) Kai Krause is worried because, instead of the EDGE question being about picking a single problem and solving it, it is instead about coming up with more stuff to worry about. He thinks our current system and methodology are broken from the bottom to the top, and what we need is to design a system in which the best ideas truly are rewarded.


57) Mario Livio points out that many physicists are worried about the future of fundamental science. It is an oft-repeated truism that scientific theories must be falsifiable; that is, they must make testable predictions which could prove them wrong. Recently ideas like the multiverse hypothesis may be putting the goal of falsifiability out of reach. Livio is not as worried as his colleagues, however, as it may be the case that the multiverse hypothesis will make enough predictions to be believed in. Alternatively, we could have been mistaken about what to expect from ‘fundamental science’ to begin with, in which a new phase of scientific thinking is beginning.
Science, Philosophy

58) Rolf Dobelli is worried about what he calls the ‘paradox of material progress’, the fact that even as technology makes many goods and services available to ever-broader swaths of humanity, some status-conferring goods — like original paintings or private audiences with the pope — will remain out of reach. Non-reproducible goods such as these will likely increase in value as demand increases, the result could be an erosion of support for capitalism and free trade.


59) Randolph Nesse thinks everyone should be concerned about how fragile the complex systems that make our lives possible really are. He notes the historical example of the powerful solar flare that knocked out the telegraph system in the mid-19th century, and wonders what would happen should this even occur today. From GPS to food distribution networks to the internet, we float atop a dazzling array of complex, efficient, fragile systems which are vulnerable to single-point failures.


60) Gregory Benford examines the breathtaking array of possibilities afforded by an expansion into space. He believes that we should be encouraged by both the entrepreneurial successes of companies like SpaceX and also by the plans to build space hotels, more efficient rockets, and interplanetary mining operations. The possibility of missing this opportunity concerns him, however, as empires in the past have turned away from their horizons. Given how much need there is in the world, and how much opportunity awaits, we can’t afford to not push our civilization into the stars.

Space Colonization

61) Ursula Martin notes simply that extremely detailed observation is a hallmark of science, and the in/ability to do it affects and will continue to affect scientific projects, including those done by ‘citizen scientists’. Massive datasets and tools like Google are only as useful as their inputs, which means they won’t be very useful if the people creating the inputs can’t do the kind of careful observation and description required for good science.

Description and Observation

62) David Berreby is concerned about the ‘greying’, or aging, of the global population. According to current studies and projections, the global average population is rising, bringing with it a host of novel problems. Not only are most societies not ready for, say, a population where 1 in 3 people is 60, few people are discussing the problem. This massive demographic shift might also lead to a variety of political and cultural changes as well, the potential effects of which are poorly understood.


63) Bruce Parker is worried about what he calls the “Fourth Culture”, which is the massive and still-growing culture of entertainment. Fueled by the internet, this culture is not limited to music and movies, but can also include politics and religion, among other things. According to Parker, it fails to promote intelligence, critical thinking, compassion, etc. and, most troubling, is also very influential. We should be concerned that we live in a world where elected officials who make decisions for millions and billions of people often win because of their entertainment value and ability to play on emotions rather than their ability to think carefully.

Politics, Entertainment, Culture

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