Journalist John Horgan has made an intriguing argument that humanity is nearing the End of Science which is marked by diminishing returns and higher expenses with regard to finding out new deep mysteries of the universe. He claims applied science will still continue, but we will mostly be filling in gaps rather than solving big mysteries.
While he is simply mistaken about the idea, it does raise interesting questions. The fact that Horgan responded to most of the counter-arguments that I am aware of from a well-researched and humanistic perspective is what impressed me about him. Yet, there is much to be optimistic with regarding science’s continuing capacity for discovering the mysteries of the universe, and especially science’s capacity for using applied technologies to colonize space, conquer aging, and create smarter-than-human intelligence.
One thing he didn’t discuss in depth was just how powerful the "knowledge begets knowledge" idea is. Anyone who reads the news should be startled virtually daily by new breakthroughs in information technology, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and so forth.
Communications technology has allowed for the free flow of scientific information beyond anyone’s wildest dreams (save William Gibson), and now we have the Internet which gives scientists access to virtually all scientific knowledge, preventing the duplication work.
This also makes possible new modes of scientific research. Though this mode of research has yet to be fully explored, futurist Kevin Kelly predicts that it will soon be common for hundreds of scientists to collaborate on one project through open source software such as MediaWiki, the software that powers Wikipedia, allowing for transparency and peer review along the entire process. This is just one of the many sweeping changes that he predicts will radically reshape science in the near future.
Of course with the rapidly accelerating improvements in computing power this will give scientists more power to more quickly analyze mountains of genetic or cosmological data. Moore’s Law is not only remaining true, but is actually being outpaced! The possibilities for computer simulation seem endless.
As seen before with the Internet, new technologies in one area can speed up developments in other areas. Whenever a new nanomaterial is developed, it could have applications for all sorts of things, including computer technology, solar technology, medical technology, or space technology.
Now because of nanomaterials, NASA has put up prize money for the creation of "space elevator" technology which could allow for transportation into space at a tiny fraction of the current cost.
Of course even with the current costs, there is a race between a handful of companies, such as Virgin Galactic, for space tourism as we speak. The first flights will happen in 2008.
It makes sense why these developments are happening so rapidly. It has been said that there are more scientists alive today than there was in the entire history of science combined. Couple this with improvements in communications and computer science, and the potential becomes all the more startling.
I have a feeling that before you know it, we will be on the moon harvesting that helium 3 that Horgan was talking about, if not mining asteroids made of solid platinum. Furthermore, if we really do begin to conquer the process of aging itself (as opposed to its symptoms like cancer), then this would allow everyone, including scientists, to live much longer. Imagine how much would have been accomplished if Einstein were still alive today.
But I think this is a far too narrow look into the future. What happens when we create smarter-than-human intelligence is where it gets really exciting. After all, even Einstein only possessed human intellect. Smarter-than-human intelligence could be accomplished by modifying human beings through genetic engineering, psychopharmacology, and brain-computer interfacing. It could also be accomplished through the creation of an artificial intelligence capable of broad pattern recognition and learning ability.
While humans have far better abilities with regard to pattern recognition and creativity, computers have certain superior aspects such as processing speed, memory, and inability to become bored doing repetitive tasks. What happens when either the human gains the positive traits of a computer or a computer gains the creativity traits of a human? The resulting intelligence would be far better at producing even smarter intelligences. What would the smarter intelligences do? Create even smarter intelligences, and so on. This could happen at lightning speed given the characteristics of the new intelligences, creating what futurists call a a technological singularity.
We can already create freakin Black Holes in particle accelerators with our mere human intellect.
Considering this, what sorts of things would be possible from smarter-than-human intelligence? This is where all we currently think about the future is thrown out the window. There is really no way to predict. Of course we can make feeble attempts at guesses.
* Upload Consciousness – Gradually replace our neurons with artificial neurons until we are completely artificial, and then become digital beings capable of being simulated at a very fast speed. According to computational neuroscience, it is possible, knowing current laws of physics, to run a simulation of the human brain at a rate of billions of years per minute in a processor weighing one gram.
* Dyson Spheres – A megastructure that would encase an entire star and harvest all of its incomprehensibly vast energy, and use that to power a computer and/or space colony that is so vast and so powerful that it would be able to sustain quadrillions lifeforms, both virtual and physical. (or one lifeform quadrillions of times smarter than us)
* Molecular Manufacturing – Using self-replicating nano-robots to rearrange matter in any way desired.
* Femtotechnology – Like nanotechnology, but an order of magnitude smaller than nanotechnology
* Ontotechnology – The speculated capabilities of things like femtotechnology. Being able to reshape the laws of nature and redefine the kinds of things that are possible. This could include creating new universes.
* Von Neumann Probes – Create self-replicating space probes to survey the universe.
* Discover the Multiverse – There could be an infinite number of both parallel and nested dimensions, or we could discover that our entire universe or multiverse is itself simply a computer simulation by some other advanced civilization.
This type of stuff is a mere glimpse at what the future could hold, though it is inherently impossible for a human to predict what something smarter than a human could accomplish. If even 1/1000th of what I said is true, the idea that we are at the End of Science is so ridiculously wrong that there are no words for it.
Alas, even if I am completely wrong and we really are nearing the End of Science, then it isn’t even all that big of a problem. What is really important is the elimination of suffering, as Horgan implied by suggesting we pool our knowledge to study how best to end war and sustain perpetual peace. Yet, hand in hand with the elimination of suffering is the maximization of happiness. Working towards vastly increasing the level of happiness that is currently possible with our physiology seems to be an achievable goal. Indeed, the most noble goal of all.
Furthermore, even if we can merely create fully immersive virtual reality, then we will be able to do whatever we like, including experience a kind of future where such things I mentioned are actually possible. This is highly likely in the near future considering the rapid progress with regard to photorealistic video games.
What is real to us is what we see, hear, and sense. With virtual reality we could create our own realities to be however we’d like. These realities dont even have to follow the laws of physics and could be epic stories complete with magic and so forth. However, maybe we ought to refine our definition of technology and magic. As Arthur C Clarke once said, "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."