Tuesday, March 12, 2013

A Talk About the Future

This Thursday, March 14, 2013, I will be giving a talk at Vanier College in the auditorium (room A103) entitled "Robo Sapiens" at 2:30 pm.  The one hour presentation is about the reasonably near-term future of mankind: the next three decades.  It deals specifically with physiological enhancement by way of robotics and biomedical engineering as well as artificial intelligence and the technological singularity.

As most of my readers will not be in attendance, I will briefly discuss some of the content below.

In particular, I want to address the very notion of predicting the future.  Perhaps you have heard the term 'futurist' or 'futurologist' - such a designation befits a person whose predictions for the future are sought by industry, world leaders, and members of society.  It is a sweet gig: state what you think is going to happen in the world of technology, the economy, societies, and our civilization at large some time from now, and no one will fault you if you turn out to be wrong.  Who will bother to look it up?  Rather than dwell on the past, people will still wish for insight into the future.

What process does one use to predict the future anyway?  One usually examines historical trends, takes a close look at the current state of things and the directions in which they are currently headed, and then extrapolates forward.  The result is a guess, but an educated one.

Science has always been interested in predicting the future state of a system.  And, for simple systems, like a body in freefall, it has done an extremely good job of it.  Where it runs into trouble is with complex systems, like the weather.  The limited success of physics in predicting the future can be understood by examining its two distinct branches: classical physics and quantum physics.

The key difference between these branches is that classical physics assumes that a given system with a given initial state has just one possible future, while quantum physics assumes that it has many, and associates a specific probability with each one.  Though it is at first hard to accept, countless experiments have indeed revealed that the 'multiple futures' assumption inherent to quantum physics is generally correct, while classical physics is only a good assumption for very simple systems.

It all boils down to Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, which places a limit on the absolute certainty of a particle's position and momentum at any given time.  One cannot be absolutely sure of both at once, regardless of the sophistication of one's measurement tools.  The consequences of this on a falling apple are not noticable, as its mass and corresponding momentum are substantial, and besides, even 1 mm of uncertainty in position is relatively small for an apple.  We need not evoke quantum physics in this case. 

If, however, we wish to predict the future state for all of the electrons inside the falling apple, the uncertainty principle is of great significance.  An electron has a mass that is order -31 kg, and its momentum is thus tiny.  Furthermore, that same 1 mm of uncertainty is huge for an electron, whose range of motion within an atom is on the scale of nanometers.  Thus, we must evoke quantum physics in this case.

How does all of this relate to the future of the human race?  Our civilization can be thought of as a complex system, a chaotic one, like the weather, but further complicated by psychology and sociology.  Quantum physics says that regardless of how advanced our computing power becomes, and how detailed our simulators are, there will be a limitation on the certainty of our weather predictions (we have not hit that limit yet, but we probably will one day).  There will always be a 50% chance of rain, and a 1-3 mm range in the expected accumulation. 

Correspondingly, the most we can ask from a futurist is to give us a probability for a given prediction.  We cannot ask for absolute certainty; in fact, quantum physics suggests that any expert who attaches a 100% probability to their fortune-telling is a fraud (the 'medium' on your local late night radio show comes to mind).

One particular futurist who is discussed in my talk is Ray Kurzweil.  He is also an inventor, which calls his ability as a futurist into question - after all, could he not predict some new technology will transform society, and later go on to invent it?  It's kind of like a CEO taking part in insider trading.

All joking aside, Kurzweil is the head of engineering at Google, which adds creedence to some of his contraversial predictions about the future.  By 2029, he predicts that man will be able to synthesize a human brain.  This is a key step along the seemingly inevitable road towards artificial intelligence.  Also, be sure to mark 2045 down as a big year: Kurzweil predicts that around that time, the technological singularity will begin, and there will no longer be a distinction between man and machine.  That seems awfully soon to me, but I'm no futurist.

As physics divides into two branches, so do I.  I adore classical physics because it makes me feel powerful and in control.  It is what drew me towards physics in the first place: the notion that I could use the laws of the universe to predict the future state of a system given its current state.  The funny thing is that this very notion means that I must surrender control... of myself.  If there is only one future, then my future is already decided, and there is no free will.  Here is where I take solace in the fact that quantum physics has been proven correct, as it restores free will, and suggests that my choices are in fact choices, and that many possible futures exist.

As a scientist, I am drawn to simple and predictable systems, as they suggest a certain order in the universe.  On a personal level, however, I am comforted by the existence of quantum physics.  I rarely need it, but I am glad to know it is out there, because it renders the future how it ought to be: uncertain.  


theromanticretard said...

This sort of makes me want to skip chemistry to go see this talk.

The Engineer said...

Why not ask your prof to bring the whole class? Anyway, tell your friends to come check it out :)

Anonymous said...

It was a very interesting talk for which I skipped a class. I'm already looking forward for next year's presentation even though I won't be at vanier anymore!

The Engineer said...

Can't say I support skipping class... but I'm glad you enjoyed it ;)

May said...

I really wished to be there,
is there any chance to have it like a video clip, youtube or like that?