Must-know Terms for the 21st Century Intellectualby Lifeboat Foundation Scientific Advisory Board member George Dvorsky.
Before I get into the list, however, I’d like to clarify the purpose of this exercise.
First, I am trying to come up with a list of the most fundamental and crucial terms that are coming to define and will soon re-define the human condition, and that subsequently should be known by anyone who thinks of themselves as an intellectual. I admit that there’s an elitist and even pompous aspect to this exercise, but the fact of the matter is that the zeitgeist is quickly changing. It’s not enough anymore to be able to quote Dostoevsky, Freud and Darwin. This said, while my list of terms is “required” knowledge, I am not suggesting that it is sufficient.
My definition of an “intellectual” also requires explanation. To me an intellectual in this context is an expert generalist a polymath or jack-of-all-trades who sees and understands the Big Picture both past, present and future. While I value and respect the work of specialists, they can be frustratingly out of touch with other disciplines and some of the more broader applications of science, technology and philosophy. Given the obvious truism that nobody can know everything, there is still great value in having individuals understand a diverse set of key principles.
Also, I admit that my list is biased in favor of my own personal specialties and interests, but I have made a conscious effort to be as cross-disciplinary as possible. There are terms from computer science, cosmology, neuroscience, environmentalism, sociology, biotechnology, philosophy, astrobiology, political science, and many other fields.
Finally, I tried to be as generalized as possible and keep the number of terms down to a minimum; I made an effort to include other integral concepts in the descriptions.
With that lengthy preamble complete, here is my list:
Accelerating Change: That the pace of technological development is accelerating is now undeniable. The steady onslaught of Moore’s Law and its eerie regularity is the most profound example. As thinkers like Ray Kurzweil and others have shown, the onslaught of accelerating change throws commonly held time-frames out the window. And that this rate of change is exponential implies radical social disruption around the mid-point of the 21st Century.
Anthropic Principle: Once considered a philosophical lark, the anthropic principle has become an integral methodological tool with which to best analyze the extreme unarbitrariness of the Universe’s parameters. The AP, which suggests that our Universe’s qualities are unavoidable in consideration of the presence of observers, has helped cosmologists, astrobiologists and quantum physicists as they work with such related concepts as the fine-tuning hypothesis, string theory, and various multiverse theories.
Artificial General Intelligence: This ain’t your daddy’s AI. Rather, AGI describes the kind of intelligence that you and I have the commonsense know-how we have when we’re put into unfamiliar situations. Once developed, artificial agents endowed with AGI will be non-specialized intelligent entities that will come to represent the bona fide synthetic equivalent to human intelligence, and then move beyond.
Augmented Reality: AR describes the fusion of the real world with the virtual. By using eyetaps, eartaps and implants, individuals will be able to filter unwanted information from their sensory fields (such as annoying advertising and sounds). Alternately, users will have new information virtually inserted into their environment, including descriptions of landmarks, maps, or even an alert notification that a familiar person is approaching. Imagine the gaming possibilities…
Bayesian Rationality: Bayesian rationality is a probabilistic approach to reasoning. Bayesian rationalists describe probability as the degree to which a person should believe a proposition. They also apply Bayes’ theorem when inferring or updating their degree of belief when given new information. Some scientists and epistemologists hope to replace the Popperian view of proof with a Bayesian view.
Cosmological Eschatology (aka physical eschatology): CE is the study of how the Universe develops, ages, and ultimately comes to an end. While hardly a new concept, what is new is the suggestion that advanced intelligence may play a role in the universe’s life cycle. Given the radical potential for postbiological superintelligence, a number of thinkers have suggested that universe engineering is a likely activity for advanced civilizations. This has given rise to a number of theories, including the developmental singularity hypothesis and the selfish biocosm hypothesis.
Engineered Negligible Senescence: Aging is increasingly coming to be regarded as a disease, and as such it is privy to treatment and therapies leading to outright eradication. Indefinite lifespans may be as little as 50 years away.
Existential Risks: The development of nuclear weapons marked a disturbing turning point for the human species: we are increasingly coming into the possession of apocalyptic technologies. Soon to join the list are such problems as a malevolent superintelligence, deliberate or accidental misuse of nanotech, runaway global warming, a killer artificial virus, an antimatter holocaust, or a particle accelerator disaster. Read more here and here. Adding insult to injury is the Doomsday Argument.
Extended Identity: Human activity is increasingly migrating to the digital realm. The rise in popularity of MMORPGs such as Second Life and World of Warcraft show that the self can, to a non-trivial degree, be transferred to an alternative medium. With the maturation of these technologies will come distributed personhood and new legal protections to guarantee safe and ubiquitous online activity.
Fermi Paradox: The FP is the disturbing realization that, given the extreme age of the galaxy and the radical potential for post-Singularity intelligences (including their ability to disseminate Von Neumann replicators), our galaxy should be saturated with advanced civilizations and megaprojects by now. Yet, we see no signs of ETIs. Consequently, any predictions about the future of human intelligence must seek to reconcile this observation. Key theories to date include the Great Filter hypothesis, the migration hypothesis (pdf), and the transcension hypothesis which is the idea of inward migration into increasingly sophisticated and complex MEST space (Matter, Energy, Space, and Time).
Friendly AI: If we are going to survive the Singularity and the onset of greater-than-human AI, it had better be friendly. And if it turns out to be friendly, it won’t be by accident. Computer science theorists such as Eliezer Yudkowsky and Ben Goertzel are already working on what may ultimately prove to be an intractable problem. A poorly programmed, malevolent, or misguided SAI could destroy all of humanity with a mere thought. Asimov’s Three Laws will do little against incomprehensibly powerful autopotent entities (a term coined by Nick Bostrom indicating total self-awareness and ability to self-modify).
Let’s hope AI is friendly!
Human Enhancement: Humans are about to decommission natural selection in favor of guided evolution. Darwinian processes gave humanity a good start, but Homo sapiens can be improved. Owing to advances in genetics, cybernetics, nanotechnology, computer science, and cognitive science, humans are set to redefine the human condition.
Future humans can look forward to longer lives, enhanced intelligence, memory, communication and physical skills, and improved emotional control. Humans may eventually cease to be biological and gendered organisms altogether, giving rise to the posthuman entity. Human enhancement will irrevocably alter social arrangements, interpersonal relationships, and society itself. And there’s also the added potential for nonhuman enhancement.
Human Exceptionalism (aka human racism): Not everyone is in favor of human enhancement and the prospect of greater-than-human intelligence. Nor is everyone in favor of extending personhood outside the human sphere. These “human exceptionalists”, a group that includes anti-transhumanist Wesley Smith, argue that being human is what matters, and that to give equal moral currency to non-humans is a violation of human dignity and worth. The opposing viewpoint to this is that of Non-Anthropocentric Personhood the notion that nonhumans, be they animals, robots, or uploaded minds, have the potential for personhood status, and by consequence, are worthy of moral consideration.
Information Theoretic Death: New technologies will soon demand that we redefine what we mean by death. It is becoming increasingly unsatisfactory to declare death when the heart stops. As long as the information within the brain can be preserved and restored, a person should not be considered irrevocably dead. Given the potential for molecular nanotechnology and other future biotechnological advances, it is reasonable to suggest that most cognitive impairment will someday be repairable. Consequently, we will need to reconsider the status of persons frozen in cryonic stasis or hooked up to life support systems.
Mass Automation: The robotic revolution has only just begun. Robots, AI and automated systems are poised to dramatically reduce the amount of manual labor performed by humans. For example, we are less than 10 years away from the advent of self-driving cars. What will that mean for taxi and bus drivers? Checkouts at grocery stores are already becoming automated as are a significant number of factory jobs. The good news is that a lot of demeaning, difficult and dangerous work is about to be eliminated, the bad news is that it will likely cause serious employment issues.
Robots may cause unemployment.
Memetic Engineering: This is the radical and controversial idea that the propagation and quality of information should be monitored and managed. Memetic engineering is a term coined by Richard Dawkins, and has been elaborated upon by such thinkers as James Gardner, Robert Wright, Daniel Dennett (who calls for increased cultural health) and William Sims Bainbridge (to enhance group and societal outcomes). For example, advocates of ME would argue that some religious memes are viral and and need to curbed. I have also argued along these lines. On a related note, a burgeoning movement is afoot to help people overcome their biases.
Mind Transfer (aka “uploading”): Uploading is the theoretical prospect of transferring cognition and consciousness to a digital medium, namely supercomputers. Recent advances in neuroscience are increasingly coming to re-enforce functionalist interpretations of mind. Given the Church-Turing theory of universal computational compatibility, there is strong reason to suspect that the mind’s processes can be duplicated in computers.
This has led to speculation about massive societal uploads, entire civilizations living within massive supercomputers, extreme life extension, and entire lifespans lived in open-ended virtual reality environments and simulations. A number of thinkers, including roboticist Hans Moravec, have outlined various uploading techniques. Personally, I believe the jury is still out on whether or not we will be able to code an algorithm for consciousness.
Molecular Assembler: If you’re familiar with a Star Trek replicator you know about molecular assemblers. These devices could take a clump of matter and reconstitute it into anything we desire, so long we have the molecular schematics. The device would work in a similar manner to the way in which genes and ribosomes function to produce protein. Needless to say, the impacts of an assembler would be monumental.
The humanitarian impact would be great, creating unprecedented material wealth and access to resources. At the same time however, it would be the most dangerous invention ever devised, capable of creating any kind of apocalyptic device and even self-replicating entities that could cause global ecophagy.
Neurodiversity: Pending biotechnologies will create a multiplicity of psychological modes of being. Today, recreational drug users and the autistic rights community contend that the obsession with maintaining “neurotypicality” is a form of oppression. In the future, technologies such as neuropharmaceuticals, cybernetics and other cognotech will offer individuals an unprecedented opportunity to experience alternative subjective mental states. Like anything, however, neuroenablement and cognitive liberty are rights that will have to be fought for.
Neural Interface Device: An NID is any device that enables the brain to interface with a computer. Today, paraplegics use NIDs to move computer cursors with their thoughts alone. Eventually this will lead to advanced prostheses, novel remote control concepts, and even the almighty brain-jack as portrayed in such sci-fi films as The Matrix.
Ready to enter the Matrix?
Noosphere (aka metaconsciousness): Human communication and interaction may eventually advance to the stage where even conscious thought may be globalized and massively shared. This will lead to the rise of the so-called noosphere.
Open Source: This is a term that most people are familiar with, but it’s worth re-stating. The open source revolution, where information is freely distributed and editable, is already reshaping a number of industries and upsetting traditional economic and intellectual property models. Wikipedia has very quickly become the world’s largest repository of encyclopedic information. Linux and other open source software continue to rival the big players. And looking further down the line, there’s the potential for open source science, culture, and the disturbing potential for open source warfare.
Participatory Panopticon: An offshoot of David Brin’s transparent society, Steve Mann’s sousveillance, and Charlie Stross’s panopticon Singularity, the Participatory Panopticon is a proposed strategy for dealing with the onset of ubiquitous surveillance. Coined by environmentalist and forward thinker Jamais Cascio, the PP is the suggestion that all citizens will soon have the tools with which they can watch each other and keep themselves accountable for their actions.
Political Globalization: Though it lags behind economic and cultural globalization, political globalization and the thrust towards world federalism is happening nonetheless. While it may be a while before borders completely dissolve, nations and institutions are already developing cooperative and positive-sum arrangements. This process may unfold quicker than expected. It was only 60 years ago that Europe tore itself apart; today Europe forms the world’s most powerful economic and political union.
Post-Scarcity Economy: A post-scarcity economy is a hypothetical form of economy or society in which things such as goods, services and information are free, or practically free. Such a future could come about due to abundance of fundamental resources (think nano, AI, alternative energy, etc.), in conjunction with sophisticated automated systems capable of converting raw materials into finished goods (namely by molecular assemblers). In such a world, manufacturing would be as easy as duplicating software.
Quantum Computation: Today’s computers run on what’s called a Von Neumann architecture. This basic idea has existed for decades, but there is a new concept under development an idea for computation in which bits (or qbits) are stolen from alternate universes. Seriously. The basic principle is that the quantum properties of particles can be used to represent and structure data, and that quantum mechanisms can be devised and built to perform operations with this data.
The long-and-the-short of this means that future computers running on such a platform would be ludicrously powerful and fast. As an example, some modern simulations that are taking IBM’s Blue Gene supercomputer years would take a quantum computer only a matter of seconds. The prospect of quantum computers throws projections of an upper bound on computation out the window. Thinkers like David Deutsch have suggested that our universe may be a kind of quantum computer, while Stuart Hameroff notes that brains may also be a type of quantum machine.
Radical Luddism: Unabomber Theodore Kaczynski may have been the first of a new breed of radical anti-technology terrorists. In his manifesto, titled Industrial Society and Its Future, he argued that his actions were a necessary (although extreme) ruse by which to attract attention to what he believed were the dangers of modern technology. Given the extreme and disruptive potential for biotechnology, AI, nanotechnology and cybernetics, it is safe to assume that a fringe segment of society will take it upon themselves to prevent their development by any means necessary.
Remedial Ecology: Humans have really messed up this planet, but that doesn’t mean we can’t fix what we’ve broke. Remedial ecology is the notion that with the right tools and know-how we can repair the damage that’s been done. By using bioremediative processes, for example, we can use genetically engineered microorganisms to remove toxic or unwanted chemicals from the environment, or break down hazardous substances into less toxic or nontoxic substances in soil, groundwater, sludge and sediment. And looking further into the future there’s the added potential for not just repair but also redesign. Bruce Sterling’s Viridian movement is a step in this direction.
Simulation Argument: The SA, which suggests that we may be living inside a computer simulation, is important from metaphysical, cosmological, and philosophical perspectives in that it sweepingly upsets conventional notions of existence and our place in the Universe. It also gives us a potential glimpse into the activities of superintelligences.
The SA, aside from its Cartesian epistemological implications, gives rise to a host of ethical issues, including the ethics of simulating conscious beings and their potential moral worth. This has already given rise to the reactionary concept of substrate chauvinism, which is the conviction that only biological matter can carry moral worth. Substrate chauvinism is also used to dismiss the idea that self-aware robots could ever be regarded as persons.
Is life really just a ride in a simulation?
Soft Paternalism (aka Libertarian Paternalism): States are increasingly working to protect their citizens from themselves. People have bad habits, are prone to ignorance, and are often capable of self-destruction. Instead of using coercion, however, states are softly encouraging their citizens to take better care of themselves and their affairs. For example, in such an “avuncular state” employees would be signed up for company pension schemes by default. Freedom of choice is maintained, but default policies protect the ignorant and lazy from the consequences of their mistakes.
Technological Singularity: Accelerating change may lead to an existential paradigm shift for the human species. How this will look like and how it will come about is still a mystery, giving rise to a social event horizon known as the Technological Singularity. In all likelihood it will come about through the advent of superintelligence. It has also been referred to as a potential “intelligence explosion”, or a time when the speed of technological development reaches maximal levels. Such an event could lead to human extinction or the advent of posthuman existence.