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George Whiteside

  1. Mar 29, 2005 #1
    I attended a lecture by George Whiteside


    yesterday entitled "The future of Science and Technology" in which he outlined what he thought was the best way to predict the world changing technologies of the future and the science involved. His idea in this admitadly (by him and me) very difficult task was that one should not try to think of a certain technology and then go to how it will be developed and then think about how it will be applied and then think about what the consequences will be. Instead he chose to think about some assumptions that we make about the world and then think about science and technology that has the potential to change those assumptions.

    He gave a list of 10 assumptions that he thought would end up being not so easy to classify as obviously true in the next 10 to 20 years. I list them here and wonder what people think about them changing the world. There is a lot of room for lee way here, but we can always start sub threads.

    1. we are mortal

    telomere shortening

    2. human life is invaluable

    expensive procedures vs. termination of life
    extended life spans and periods of fertility

    3. all people are born equal

    prediction of performance (in society, against diseases, standardized tests...) through knowledge of a persons genes

    4. animals and machines are different

    showed a picture of "robo roach" a roach that had a reciever interfaced with its brain and could be driven like a RC car

    5. only living things think, we think best

    turing test and advances in AI and its use in society
    brought up a story (by Asimov I believe) about a telephone network starting to think after a certain number of connections had been achieved

    6. earth will remain habitable

    earth (unlike mars and venus) is not in thermodynamic equilibrium, frequency of asteroid strikes, super bugs

    7. nations are the most powerfull human institutions

    (his) personal story of being involved in a DOD war game where countries were grouped with huge corporations and surprise about how much this changed the outcome of a simulated conflict.

    8. we are individuals and privacy is important

    the huge amount of data that is now in the public domain, and the way that it can be filtered, analyzed, and used to gather information on groups

    9. we consult a limited number of experts for advice (Drs, lawyers, ...)

    example of web MD where patients can interact with large numbers of other patients. situation where a patient can walk into a Dr's office and know more about their affliction than the Dr. I was thinking of the blogging thats going on these days

    10. capitalism is the most efficient economic system

    as was pointed out. errors in some of the initial theories about trickle down, long term stability.

    What science or technology (if any) do people think will change these assumptions?
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2005
  2. jcsd
  3. Mar 29, 2005 #2

    matt grime

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    7. is almost certainly false already. I'm sure everyone has their favourite statisitic about their least favourite corporation making more money than country X. For a more explicit idea how about, a slightly tongue in cheek answer admittedly, of MacDonalds' new apple dippers that have really very radically altered the growing habits of fruit farmers in the US following a statement by one of their executives that they only wanted to buy two varieties. And with special interest groups having such lobbying powers arguably many of the national decisions are already in some sense controlled by institutions other than nations. Of course we'd need do state at what level something ceases to be part of a nation and becomes independent of it. I think George Whiteside ought to read up on the East India Company to see the historical precedences that show his theory here has already happened in the past.

    10. is probably also already false, though what we mean by capitalism needs greater definition here. The old capitalist ideas of trickle down have been adequately rebuffed, and the notion that we have a fair, or even vaguely fair, capitalistic system in place is very wrong. One need only look at the necessary state intervention in economic decisions to aid supposedly unrestrained free markets to see that we only have a laughably biased free market economy.
  4. Mar 29, 2005 #3
    I hope I do not sound cynical, but #2 is not a widely held assumption, so its contribution to the list seems empty. The further one goes back in history, the value of human life was even less than it was today. So, if anything the trend has been moving towards the assumption that life is invaluable, and not away! But in any case, human life cannot be invaluable if there are things which make it worth sacrificing. I mean this not only in the "classic" romantic concepts of freedom and love, but also of the more sinister, such as power, revenge, masochism, and religion (to name a few). It may be summarily, if inaccurately, said that the things which are more valuable than life are the extremities of virtue and vice (the sacrifice of one's own life and the sacrifice of the lives of others, respectively).

    Empirically, #2 is already false and always has been false.

    I am very confused by the placement of #2 on the list, and I fail to see its significance regarding technological advancement. Allday, can you expand on the comments he made regarding #2?
  5. Mar 29, 2005 #4
    hey telos

    Yes. The assumptions definitely need some sketching out. They were all just briefly gone over in the talk and mayber one or two frontier technologies mentioned which is why I posted it here (to get some help in hashing them out). The emphasis was on emerging technologies and not necessarilly philisophical truths or falsities. So while it may be true that the value of life has been increasing throughout history, the "problem backwards" method of predicting big future technologies involves imagining what techs would reverse or radically change the trend/assumption. In the talk he placed it right after the "we are mortal" assumption because he had us picture for a moment the state of the world if the average lifespan was 150 years and women remained fertile until 70 (not immortal by a longshot, but it would cause a substantial change). He then proceeded with a discussion of the balance between the termination of life and the administration of an expensive treatment. As a final statement on this subject he pondered whether or not the termination of life would ever be on the same footing as recreational birth control. Im going to go back and add in his comments to the assumptions and see if that makes things clearer.
    Last edited: Mar 29, 2005
  6. Mar 30, 2005 #5
    Oh, I see now. Thank you! He means in the context of overpopulation and euthanasia. In that sense, it's almost strictly about the value of a family member's life.

    There seems to be a great deal of social confusion and inequality on the value of life. The life of an Afghan civilian may be "collateral damage" while the life of an Air Force POW might be worth a rescue team. In the eyes of a mother, the life of her baby may be more important than her own. The son of a dying man may feel more grief than his thrice removed grand-cousin. People sense the responsibilities of birth and death the closer they are to the ones birthing and dying. So the assumption "human life is invaluable" may categorically just apply to friends and family.

    I would like to think that technology will actually sustain the trend - that technology will bring the world closer together and therefore spread the value of human life to everyone, along with the value of human rights (not just the right to life, but the right to freedom, education, vote, etc.). If this does not happen, it will not be because of technology, but because of our already existing contempt for life.
  7. Mar 30, 2005 #6


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    One thing I think marxism got right is "The unity and struggle of opposites". Technology may have this uniting affect on many, but as fast as those many convert, just as many will reject and fight against the trend. The one never exists without the other.

    Computers and globalized commerce were supposed to bring us all together ten years ago, and look what happened!
  8. Mar 30, 2005 #7
    What happened? Do you mean anything in particular?
  9. Mar 30, 2005 #8


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    Terrorism, 9/11, Bush's attack on Iraq, toruture, you name it.
  10. Mar 31, 2005 #9
    Can you show that any of this things are a result of the spread of computers and the Internet?

    I know that's probably not what you meant. More likely you meant computers and the Internet did nothing to prevent these events. But these conflicts have been growing throughout long histories and have reached a "mature strength." Don't you think the power of computers and the Internet are still in their infancy?
    Last edited: Mar 31, 2005
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