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Humans will not survive the Century


Humans will not survive the Century

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									Education summit Sydney 2006                            Humans will not survive the Century

                 Humans will not survive the Century

                                                                      Robert Cailliau — CERN
      (this text contains hyperlinks, some of which take you to the web; if you print the
      document you will lose those references)

This title sounds very pessimistic : it seems to say “We will all die.” Yes, we will, unless
we change things drastically and do it now.
The planet is our only space. We have not been able to escape Earth’s gravity and travel
to Mars or Venus, let alone to another star or another galaxy. Even the Moon is terribly
far away in terms of what it costs to get there. Physics does not show us any short-term
hope for technologies that might help.
Energy, or rather “free energy”, is in short supply : we have been fighting for access to
cheap oil since world war II, and there does not seem to be a good alternative in the near
future (hydrogen needs to be made from other energy first with more than the equiva-
lent ; solar panels are 15% efficient ; biomass displaces food crops, ...)
Needs rise rapidly : people now consume more, travel more and live longer than their
parents or grandparents. Since the population also grows (2 billion in 1930, 7 billion in
2010), the impact on our planet is changing beyond what people are able to imagine.
More importantly, the base technology is changing away from power conversion to in-
formatics : everything is becoming computerised, including biological systems.
This text presents many questions, and I do not have an answer to any of them...
      In this era of change, what should education try to do?

Plotting all the changes over known history we observe three things :
   • exponential growth in most areas
   • constancy in human brain potential and in planetary potential
   • informatics emergent everywhere
As long as the state of affairs at any point in history was understandable to our brains,
things were relatively fine. But this situation will change when exponential growth
is involved. The limited spheres of the brain and the planet are getting very crowded

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Humans will not survive the Century                         Education summit Sydney 2006

This may all be worrying enough, but there is another phenomenon at work, not entirely
expected : convergence. The technologies of informatics are beginning to pervade eve-
rything, not just your entertainment system. They are even taking over the production
of knowledge and the application thereof. Everything can be linked to everything else,
either physically or via the knowledge level.
This is a summit on education in which we discuss what education should look like,
some n years from now, where n is a small number.
A preceding question is : what is it that people should be educated for?
The platitudes are well-known : schooling used to serve you a lifetime, now the knowl-
edge important to your job has to be picked up on the job, and it changes every year. In
most top-level jobs one spends at least as much time and effort acquiring new knowl-
edge as actually doing the job. At the bottom, the outlook is increasingly the grim one
of unemployment and poverty. We know all this and brood over it.
      How will people cope with the world as it might be a decade from now, if that
      means ever more informatics and ever more “intertwinglings”?

Science as the basic tool for thinking
The scientific method is used to a certain extent by all of us every day. When we try to
understand a social situation we generate theories, test them and stick to the ones that fit
the facts best. Many of us do this instinctively, even unconsciously.
The “hard sciences” have refined this method into a very rigourous set of reasoning tools
and experimental procedures, but the general attitude is the same : observe the facts,
form theories and test those against the facts. Then discard what does not work.
Thus, the scientific method should perhaps just be called “thinking” or “reasoning”, and
its few principles should be the basic tool used in any discipline (Diana Issidorides, pres-
entation at the Einstein Conference in Düsseldorf, 2005). Its use should not be restricted
to a small number of subjects at school : all matter should be taught with an explicit
recognition of this underlying mechanism for progress in understanding the subject ma-
This of course excludes religion, a subject that explicitly refuses any questioning, doubt
or examination of its foundations.
Scientific knowledge gathering demands intellectual effort and experiment, it is never
complete but it progresses.
Religion is easy, comforting and complete : whatever appears mysterious is ascribed to
the inscrutable ways of the deity or deities.
Religion and science are in a clashing competition, since both try to explain the phenom-
ena that we experience.
There is a growing problem with the teaching of science though, and I have no clue
what to do about it. Over the 20th century the “hard sciences” progressed beyond what
the average person can grasp. To understand physics, you now absolutely must use
mathematics : language no longer suffices. This makes it impossible to explain some
knowledge to the lay public. But that means that the concepts communicated by to-
day’s scientists sound just like those of religious groups : there is very little possibility

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Education summit Sydney 2006                           Humans will not survive the Century

to check their truth (e.g. of relativity, quantum mechanics), so even the educated layman
is reduced to accept much on blind faith.
This increasing complexity of scientific knowledge has been noticed long ago by sci-
ence-fiction writers : Clarke’s first law is that all sufficiently advanced technology looks
like magic ; Asimov says that the difference between the religion of science and other
religions is that science works.
Unlike art and the so-called “alpha”-sciences, the “hard” sciences are un-human. They
are independent of the nature of the animal Homo Sapiens. Beings in another galaxy
would find exactly the same laws of physics as we do. Though they may not appreciate
our art, they could certainly understand our mathematics.
Science on Earth is however done by humans. There are scandals of fraud and tinker-
ing with data. These may appear to give some “human face” to science, but in fact they
tend to place science alongside religion in the mind of many. When science becomes
incomprehensible, religion becomes a viable alternative to scientifically acquired knowl-
The basis of science is not a number of facts, formulae and bespectacled old men in white
frocks. It is a way of thinking, and that’s what schools should teach in the first place,
over and over again.
      Education should focus on transmitting the scientific method as a tool for under-
      standing all aspects of life.

General Education instead of Specialised
Giorgio Margaritondo of the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne has a nice story
in the first pages of his introductory course of physics. He argues with an imaginary
student why learning fundamentals is more important than learning only the practical
stuff. He makes the student think of the next twenty years : they will be full of change
in whatever branch the student will work, and thus only the fundamental knowledge
will be future-proof.
Probably the only skill educators should try to transmit is effective self-teaching. There
may just not be time enough for anything else and there is so much out there in the Ma-
      Education should be as general as possible and geared towards teaching the student
      how to learn, independent of the learning environment.

The Capacity of our Brains
We are born with a brain that evolved for hunting in packs. It is good at some forms
of social interaction, at working in a small hierarchy and at building and manipulating
simple tools. It is not good at precise reasoning and not very good at abstraction.
It is also limited in capacity : it is slow in taking up new knowledge and can’t handle
much at once. Our brains are too small for the current volume of data-information-
knowledge-wisdom. Attacking problems in teams helps, but only so much. Physics
experiments currently planned at CERN involve almost 2’000 physicists. Such a number
creates its own problems of organization.

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Humans will not survive the Century                             Education summit Sydney 2006

When we say “normal people” we mean persons with average brains. They are simply
incapable of understanding the new knowledge, whether it be in biology, physics or in-
formatics. They can have a gut feeling that they don’t like genetically modified crops,
but they cannot acquire an informed opinion unless they can understand the science
behind the issue. Even the scientists who gather the new knowledge are incapable of
seeing the implications that using the knowledge may have.
We can no longer understand individually what we know collectively. That is a dra-
matic situation for the educator : what to do now?
      People are better off with a few basic intellectual tools that they can fully grasp
      than advanced knowlegde in vague and undigested fragments.

The Matrix
Humans do not like the physical world. We have invented fairy worlds since we could
speak. On-line virtual 3D worlds in which people can build their own imaginary do-
mains are now drawing increasing numbers of “players”. Real crimes are already tak-
ing place in these games. Objects in the simulated worlds are sold between players for
money. Some people make a living off creating then selling virtual characters. One
game company has set up its own auction site for such transactions.
The terms of service of one of the game companies has this phrase :
      Blizzard Entertainment does not recognize any property claims outside of World of
      Warcraft or the purported “sale” in the “real world” of anything related to World
      of Warcraft. Accordingly, you may not sell items for “real” money or trade items
      for things of value outside of World of Warcraft.
Note the use of the quotes...
The distinction between the physical world and the simulated digital world will blur
more and more. The real world is imperfect and its laws cannot be changed. The simu-
lated world is much more attractive.
      Will education cope with people who are increasingly disinterested in the real

The Singularity
Kurzweil and others have pointed out for some time that human life as we know it can
not go on for very long. The exponential growth in knowledge and the derived tech-
nologies will force some huge change.
The melding together of biology, informatics and nano-engineering will create a “singu-
larity” in our history. A singularity is a point at which classic laws no longer hold and
the state of affairs cannot be described. The concept comes from mathematics, where it
describes a point in space where a function does not have defined properties. In physics
there are two well-known singularities : the state of the universe at the moment of the
Big Bang, and the state of space-time in a black hole. A sociological equivalent might be
the point at which a civil war breaks out.
Nanoscopic computing machines have been made from DNA components. They could
be incorporated into living beings to help fight diseases but also to change the genetic

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Education summit Sydney 2006                              Humans will not survive the Century

makeup. Science-fiction like combinations of machines and people could be here soon.
When people acquire strange new abilities, are they still human?˜ Are they “more” or
perhaps “less”? What will education be for a modified human or for an artificial intel-
      Whether we like it or not, the minimal scenario is that humans will change into
      something else “real soon now”; the more likely scenario is the appearance of an
      artificial intelligence.

Artificial Intelligence
The web is being given the beginnings of autonomy in decision making with the intro-
duction of semantics. It is unclear how the semantic web will evolve, but the goals are
clear : making it possible for machines to understand the meaning of web pages as eas-
ily as humans do. Is this the start of an Artificial Intelligence (AI)?
The coming singularity will likely be the point at which the AI ignites. AI as a discipline
has made almost no progress for a long period since its inception in the early 60’s, to the
point that many researchers abandoned the field in the 80’s. That was mainly due to
the lack of computing power and the lack of sensing systems. Today attempts are made
at simulating meaningful parts of a human brain, even though those parts are still very
small and the computers the most powerful available today. But the same was true
of image processing : a decade ago it was reserved to a few systems, today walking
around in 3D virtual worlds is within reach of anybody with an off-the-shelf personal
Progress towards an Artificial Intelligence is speeding up : in the DARPA autonomous
vehicle race no machine finished in the 2004 Grand Challenge, but all did in the 2005 is-
sue. Artificial Intelligence is finally getting the computing power it needs for lift-off. It
is possible that humans are not clever enough to design an AI. But suppose we are. It
will start with some relatively clumsy machines, but advances will be rapid. We tend
to think in terms of robots as AIs, and there are already groups studying the ethics of
robots, responsibility and liability and so on. But here I want to address the general
issue of an AI.
Edward Fredkin tells a simple story of the universe :
      There are three great events in history.
      One : the creation of the universe.
      Two : the appearance of life.
      The third one, which I think is equal in importance, is the appearance of artificial
      intelligence. This is a form of life that is very different, and that has possibilities
      for intellectual achievement that are hard for us to imagine. These machines will
      evolve : some intelligent computers will design others, and they will get smarter
      and smarter. ...
Note that to him the appearance of intelligence is just the last phase of biological life and
irrelevant as long as it permits the transition to artificial intelligence.
Here is my personal definition of an AI :
      An AI is an entity capable of redesigning its own cognitive processes.

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Humans will not survive the Century                          Education summit Sydney 2006

That implies a rapid progression to ever smarter “machines”. We will simply not un-
derstand what their motives might be. Even the concept “motive” is very human-re-
lated and may not apply. We may not even know that there is an Artificial Intelligence
when it comes into being.
I go a step further than Fredkin : evolution is a biological process ; it has a side effect
called ‘competition’. AIs would not evolve by being selected for fitness to an environ-
ment and therefore do not have to compete. They would likely be cooperative and
amalgamate into a single AI. I believe in fact that there is room for only one single AI on
the planet. Will it appear within our livetimes?
      What should educators do about a world with AIs?

Closer to us
In the 2006 exams for the French baccalauréat the following appeared as subjects for dis-
sertation in philosophy :
      Can cultural values be absolute and can a culture be judged objectively?
      Is truth to be preferred over happiness?
Both subjects are clearly linked to recent geopolitical happenings : the clash between
fundamentalist attitudes and free-thinking philosophies, and the rise of anti-science re-
ligious groups.

      Will we survive the clash between rationality and neo-feudal religious supersti-

Convergence of Politics, Technology, Science
The world is full of serious problems on a global scale. Some can be solved easily (pov-
erty) others will be difficult (ethics of bio-engineering).
There is no doubt that all of us should direct our efforts towards understanding the
problems and then towards solving them. The old ideologies of left and right, tradition
and religion, market and directed economies are irrelevant. What we need now is an
approach in which politicians present a vision for the future that addresses the coming
changes and can mobilise the energies of individuals and companies.
Instead of being pushed by our history, we should be pulled by our vision (E. De Bono,
We can only do this with real knowledge, which comes only from applying the scientific
method ; with good tools, which come from better technologies ; with good leader-
ship, which comes from better politicians.
A viable vision for the future must be one in which everyone participates, both in creat-
ing it and then in implementing it. Only a well-educated population is capable of han-
dling the coming changes in a non-catastrophic fashion.
In this century, the world will become one, or it will not be.

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Education summit Sydney 2006                           Humans will not survive the Century

short-term : for me this is at least ten years.
long-term : for me this is at least a hundred years.
free energy : the potential for energy delivery. Since energy cannot be created or de-
stroyed, there actually in no energy crisis possible. When people say energy they really
mean the potential to do useful work, and that means degrading the quality of some
energy : the transformation of orderly energy (water behind a dam) into disorderly
energy (the random motion of molecules in the water you heated electrically with the
electricity generated by the water flowing from the dam through turbines). Energy in
a system is the sum of the free energy (usable, orderly energy) and the entropy (useless,
disorderly energy).

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