- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 29, 1999


"I do not know whether I was then a man dreaming I was a butterfly, or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man."
Chuang Tzu, ancient Chinese philosopher


The future, it seems, is all in your head.
At least that's what some of the brightest minds in the world today think.
As our jump-cut, hip-hop, plugged-in, tricked-out, Internet-ready, media-savvy, computer-literate society races like a smart bomb toward the new millennium, pushing the boundaries of knowledge, time and space, some deep thinkers say the real final frontier is right here, between our ears.
The human brain. Three pounds of neurons, electrical impulses and gray matter, but alive with what French philosopher Rene Descartes once called the divine spark of consciousness.
The ability, in other words, to THINK.
The ability, in other words, to compute, to create, to scheme, to speculate, to dream. The ability to adjust, to anticipate, to learn, to love, to feel and to ache.
With apologies to the heart let's face it, a muscle is just a muscle the brain, friends, is where reality really happens.
A thousand years ago, the most learned men in the world were cloistered monks who hoarded knowledge history, science and the ability to read, write and calculate the way Microsoft guards the market share of its operating system. At the turn of the last millennium, the promise of human intelligence seemed like a prospect limited to a select few.
If you had asked someone in 1000 A.D. about the mind, they might well have said the future belongs to "supermonks," says James Burke, one of the world's best-known science writers and host of the long-running television science show "Connections."
A future dominated by the super-religious seemed reasonable enough in those days, Mr. Burke says, because knowledge existed almost exclusively in monasteries.
But instead of a small group of clerics controlling the accumulated knowledge of mankind, intelligence has been democratized. First with books, newspapers and films, now with computers and the Internet. For good or bad, the sum total of the human experience is within ready grasp of more people around the world today than ever before and the trend shows no sign of slowing.

Express yourself

Today, we are smarter, we learn faster, we absorb more information. Here, the child really is father to the man, as the young lead the revolution of the wired mind. Minds are changing, and they're changing fast.
Virtual reality computer-generated worlds designed to seem real to the human brain is cutting edge today, but the technology is in its infancy. Imagine what a thousand years will bring. (Heck, just wait and see what they roll out next year for Christmas.)
One possibility, according to Mr. Burke and others: Humans will be able to spend our lives in individual worlds created by our own minds minds enhanced by new medical discoveries, augmented by computers and accelerated by genetic advances.
Over the next few centuries, Mr. Burke sees the end to what he calls the "culture of scarcity" that has dominated history to date.
Because of technological limitations, only a tiny fraction of all the human beings who ever lived have had the opportunity to live a life of the mind. Almost everybody's been busy producing food, building shelter, accumulating wealth and fighting wars.
"But at the end of the millennium coming up, we won't have those limitations, and therefore, one has the appalling thought that every single human being on the planet might be able to fully express their creative intelligence," Mr. Burke speculates. "What the heck we do with that, I haven't the faintest idea."
In a world where the masses seem content to satiate themselves on increasingly lowbrow pop-culture mutations like "The Jerry Springer Show," the World Wrestling Federation and MTV, Mr. Burke's concern is understandable.
But there's reason to be optimistic. As mankind evolves, so will our obsessions, amusements and dreams.
Imagine a world in which Garrison Keillor held sway over more than the legions of "Prairie Home Companion" listeners. That's what psychologist Joyce Brothers predicts: that those with imagination, not technocrats, will rule the world.
"People who are storytellers will be kings and queens of our culture," Mrs. Brothers says.
Eventually, she says, we will all be able to decide how long we want to live. Technology will make us all but immortal almost every part of the human body eventually will be replaceable, like a part on an antique automobile.

Supersize that brain, sir?

Mrs. Brothers also believes, like many others, that medical science soon will unlock the potential of the human brain. We will be able to choose to be smarter. And we will be able to choose more intelligent, genetically enhanced children.
The ethical considerations of designer children will be left in the dust, as those with the means and know-how rush to create generations of superintelligent offspring. If it can be done, it will be done.
"It will probably be considered immoral not to give your kid the best start," says science author James Trefil, a physics professor at George Mason University.
Besides, sociologist Charles A. Murray says, setting intelligence levels will seem like pretty tame stuff compared with some of the looming moral quandaries of the next millennium.
Mr. Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute and co-author of the 1994 book "The Bell Curve," says it is anyone's guess what work will be done on advancing the upper limits of intelligence. But don't be surprised if parents settle for above-average, rather than supergenius levels, he says.
Superintelligence, after all, traditionally has been viewed with some skepticism, if not alarm, by the populace at large. Mad scientists and evil geniuses are stock villains in everything from Gothic horror novels to science-fiction yarns. Ask readers of Marvel or DC comic books: Any character called the Brain is generally bad news.
On IQ tests, a score of 100 is considered average. When parents are given the option, some will aim for the stars. But most will settle for an IQ in the 120 range, Mr. Murray predicts. That's smarter than most of us around today, but not so advanced that parents won't be able to understand their kids.
No one, Mr. Murray says, will want children with IQs under 100. In the end, there will be a much narrower gap between the lowest end and the middle of the pack.
Losing the lower end, he says, means eliminating many of the problems associated with low IQ, including finding those people a place in the work force. Mr. Murray says he could not hazard a guess as to what we will lose in the narrowing, "but I presume there will be all sorts of unintended consequences."

Like father, like son

Scott Adams, creator of the "Dilbert" comic strip, also predicts changes in intelligence. But he sees a different mechanism at work what he calls the "Microsoft effect."
That, he says, is the unprecedented grouping of brilliant people in the same geographic area, leading to their mating and producing genius children.
Today, companies like Microsoft pluck the most intelligent from anywhere on the globe and plop them down on a central campus. Genetics suggests the children of the "genius pack" are likely to be as brilliant as they are.
Good news for Seattle, maybe. Could be trouble for places like, say, Miami.
"We're practically going to have a differentiation of species at that point," Mr. Adams predicts.
Unlike Mr. Murray, though, the cartoonist thinks that if we can call the shots, we will choose for our children the same IQs we have a sort of "if it's good enough for me, it's good enough for my children" scenario. He sees a big spike in the 160-plus group, but the vast majority will stay between 90 and 140.
Mr. Adams likens it to performance sports cars there's a gigantic gap between Porsches at $40,000 or $50,000 and Ferraris at the top end because the market just below the top is so small.
"I think the bell curve will turn into a bell curve with a big bump on the smart side," Mr. Adams says.

Win one for homo sapiens

Custom-designed children, virtual worlds, replaceable parts it's a scenario that sounds, in some respects, dehumanizing. And some experts say, so be it: Mankind's species-centric view of itself, divinely inspired and in search of some greater meaning, is self-indulgent drivel, they argue.
Just a machine, says Gilbert Ryle, who wrote the landmark 1949 book "The Concept of Mind," which dismisses the idea of a soul.
But others insist intelligence and consciousness are uniquely human.
Yes, a machine was created that could "think" well enough to defeat the world's best human chess player. But chess is, in the final analysis, just a math problem. And computers are great at math.
Deep Blue the machine may have beaten Garry Kasparov the man, but will Deep Blue or any of its descendants ever feel a sense of exhilaration in the accomplishment?
Computers will be able to perform more and more complicated tasks, but some experts say artificial intelligence always will be just that: artificial.
Despite the romantic appeal, it may be impossible ever to create characters out of science fiction, such as Data, the humanoid robot on "Star Trek: The Next Generation," says Joel Benjamin, a former U.S. chess champion who helped IBM create Deep Blue.
Research on artificial intelligence shows we can build computers that can match or best humans at particular tasks, Mr. Benjamin says. But those computers go about it in very nonhuman ways.
Artificial intelligence may well be possible, but it probably will be an intelligence quite different from human intelligence, says Mr. Trefil, the GMU professor.
All of which raises the question of how to treat artificial consciousness which raises the broader question of how humans will reconcile this mental development with morals and responsibility.

Hooked on high tech

"Intelligence is inherently good. But what we do with intelligence that is the question," author and futurist David Zach says.
Mr. Zach recalls a quote from Stewart Brand, editor of Whole Earth Review magazine: "We're becoming like gods, so we'd better get good at it."
"That's a pretty interesting statement, and it has a lot of truth to it in that, if we're able to choose whether it's skin color, eye color, height or even intelligence it's fraught with dangers and possibilities there," Mr. Zach says.
One danger is that we become overreliant on the technology we've created. We're already seeing that in some ways.
Chances are the average first-grader cannot tell time from a traditional clock or watch, one with hands pointing to numerals, because all he's ever seen are digital clocks.
That's not to say the mind will lose the capability, but it will be out of practice.
Dave Remine, chairman of Mensa International, the genius group, recalls a university study that showed just how far we've already gone down that path.
Student subjects first took a test, unaided, then used a calculator to review their answers. But the calculator had been doctored to give wrong answers. The students, convinced the calculator could not be wrong, ended up changing their correct answers to what the calculator showed.
In the bigger picture, Mr. Remine asks, "Is it critical that I can't figure out how much change I get back from my $50 bill for a pack of gum if I even get any change in 1,000 years?
"Well, I guess it does matter… . I guess it depends on whether you believe we'll have one of those ultimate disasters nuke war, or an asteroid or something," he says, meaning whatever could leave us fending for ourselves without the technology we've come to depend on.

Sorry, Dave, I can't do that

In the past 1,000 years, Copernicus redrew Earth's place in the heavens, thus redrawing humanity's place in the world; in the past 100 years, Albert Einstein recalculated the limits of reality around us; in the past 50 years, computers made us think about the uniqueness of human consciousness.
That process continues for the next millennium, and at an ever more brisk pace but with a new understanding that discovery isn't really discovery. It's just the manufacturing of knowledge, Mr. Burke says.
"The universe is what our tools tell us it is, and the tools are what we make. So as long as we can think up tools, we will manufacture knowledge," Mr. Burke says. "The universe keeps changing as we change the tools."
That leads to the startling conclusion that humans might lose interest in exploring the stars.
"If you believe the universe is made of omelets, you build instruments to look for traces of intergalactic egg. You don't look for anything else. And therefore, why go to space when all you are going to do is prove what you've already proved by saying this is the instrument to use for it?" Mr. Burke says.
Some say that realization could lead to a more fundamental change the disappearance of organized religion.
Both Mr. Burke and Mr. Adams predict the demise of religion rather soon in the next millennium. But faith itself will remain for those for whom it serves some utility.
Mr. Zach, the futurist, vehemently disagrees.
"That's a bunch of spoiled baby boomers who don't like being told what to do," he says of those who think organized religion will soon top the historical trash heap.
"I think we have survived and we have progressed that being an important part of survival … but it always must be founded or must have a foundation that we are not in charge, or we are not gods. That there must be humility there," Mr. Zach says.
"We will survive if we remember that we are human beings, that we are flawed, that we are imperfect, and that it is only through faith, grace and all those things that we will survive. But if we forget we are only human beings, then it's likely we will not."

Muddling through

Understandable, the futurists say. Would any of us really want to live in a world like that?
But consider the man from A.D. 1000. He never conceived of harnessing electricity or jet propulsion.
Mr. Zach and others figure that despite the questions and uncertainty, humanity will somehow muddle through.
Two years after Deep Blue defeated Mr. Kasparov in a match touted as the ultimate test of human control over the mind the world goes on. We have adjusted to or ignored the implications of our species ceding mastery of the game once considered the ultimate test of intellect.
These predictions like those about the body, machines and the world in the rest of this series are the roughest of guesses. Even spirituality which seems on its face to be an easy question of: Will we believe or not? becomes difficult on closer inspection.
Still, predicting changes in the mind, as uncharted as its abilities are, may top the list as most difficult.
Mr. Adams says the one surety is we will have realized how wrong we have been in our conceptions of the brain and reality.
"The power of the brain is to create illusion. It is not to interpret reality," Mr. Adams says.
"Sooner or later, we'll find out the brain's just a machine, and 1,000 years from now, we'll laugh" at current theories of the mind, he says.
But that shouldn't stop us from predicting away.
"At least nobody's going to be around to see you were wrong," Mensa's Mr. Remine says.

LOAD COMMENTS ()

 

Click to Read More

Click to Hide