The Scientific American piece “20 Big Questions about the Future of Humanity” is loads of fun, setting the huge issues (consciousness, space colonization, etc.) before top-shelf scientists. The only disappointment is University of New Mexico professor Carlton Caves stating that human extinction via machine intelligence “can be avoided by unplugging them.” One can only hope he was being flippant, though it’s not a useful response regardless. Three entries:
1. Does humanity have a future beyond Earth?
“I think it’s a dangerous delusion to envisage mass emigration from Earth. There’s nowhere else in the solar system that’s as comfortable as even the top of Everest or the South Pole. We must address the world’s problems here. Nevertheless, I’d guess that by the next century, there will be groups of privately funded adventurers living on Mars and thereafter perhaps elsewhere in the solar system. We should surely wish these pioneer settlers good luck in using all the cyborg techniques and biotech to adapt to alien environments. Within a few centuries they will have become a new species: the post-human era will have begun. Travel beyond the solar system is an enterprise for post-humans — organic or inorganic.”
—Martin Rees, British cosmologist and astrophysicist
3. Will we ever understand the nature of consciousness?
“Some philosophers, mystics and other confabulatores nocturne pontificate about the impossibility of ever understanding the true nature of consciousness, of subjectivity. Yet there is little rationale for buying into such defeatist talk and every reason to look forward to the day, not that far off, when science will come to a naturalized, quantitative and predictive understanding of consciousness and its place in the universe.”
—Christof Koch, president and CSO at the Allen Institute for Brain Science; member of the Scientific American Board of Advisers
10. Can we avoid a “sixth extinction”?
“It can be slowed, then halted, if we take quick action. The greatest cause of species extinction is loss of habitat. That is why I’ve stressed an assembled global reserve occupying half the land and half the sea, as necessary, and in my book ‘Half-Earth,’ I show how it can be done. With this initiative (and the development of a far better species-level ecosystem science than the one we have now), it will also be necessary to discover and characterize the 10 million or so species estimated to remain; we’ve only found and named two million to date. Overall, an extension of environmental science to include the living world should be, and I believe will be, a major initiative of science during the remainder of this century.”
—Edward O. Wilson, University Research Professor emeritus at Harvard University•