Finessing the future
Instead of one podium there were four chairs on the stage of Wednesday’s seminar. In three seats, three Dysons: Esther, George and Freeman. They were appearing together on stage for the first time. The fourth held Stewart Brand who led the three through an evening of queries. The questions came from Stewart himself, from the audience, and from one Dyson to another Dyson — a first for this format in a Long Now seminar.
George introduced his dad with an exquisite slideshow of Freeman’s prime documents. He began with a scan of a first grade school paper Freeman wrote on “Astronimy.” Besides the forgivable misspellings, the essay was full of fantasy. Freeman did not just copy material from an encyclopedia. He imagined what should be and wrote it as fact. George then showed a later blue-book essay of Freeman’s fiction, but it was studded with numbers and calculations. Right there was the pattern for Freeman’s many other publications (first pages shown by George): speculations built upon calculations. We saw one paper inscribed by Freeman with the note: “From one crackpot to another!” His most famous speculation is for a solar system-sized enclosure around a sun now called a Dyson Sphere. George’s presentation on Freeman ended with a video clip of a Star Trek episode where the befuddle Captain Piccard ponders a mysterious hollow solar-sized ball blocking their way and gasps, “Could it be a dyson-sphere?!!”
Freeman followed this with a few minutes of musing on the difficulty of long term predictions. When Von Neumann and others were working on the first computers, none of them could imagine they would be used in toys for 3-year olds. In a theme that he would return to the rest of the evening, Freeman compared that surprise with the coming surprises we’ll see in biotech. He said, “It is unfortunate that Von Neumann used the first computers to build nuclear weapons, because computers became associated with institutional destruction. The same thing is happening now with biotech. It is unfortunate that the first biotech is being used for institutional destruction of weeds, but soon biotech will become smaller scale, user-friendly, and employed by gardeners, naturalists, and kids to make their own creations. People’s feelings about biotech will also change.”
“I misjudged a lot of things. Like nuclear power took much longer than I thought. We also thought we had a wonderful spaceship that was going to take us to Saturn (we were really going to go ourselves). The hardest thing to foresee is how long things take.” Freeman sang the praises of science fiction as hugely important for science. “It’s where the most radical ideas come from first.” He wishes he read more of it, a sentiment echoed by George and Esther.
Esther chimed in with her interpretation of future study. Freeman, she said, tried to understand things now by speculating on their future, while George mined the past to try to understand the future. She, on the contrary, wasn’t interested in understanding the future. She chiefly wanted to affect it. “What good is it to have a conference about future technologies unless you can in some way make things happen?”
What won’t change? That was a question from the audience. George told about spying inhabited islands off the coast of the northwest 30 years ago and expecting that technology would transform them into places full of humans. But they are still deserted; cities are ever more enticing. The early native tribes he studied would have 12 good friends and 30 close acquaintances. He says that if you check people’s cell phones they have on average 12 intimate friends always allowed to ring and 30 names to call out. We haven’t changed much.
Freeman continued that thread saying he is a skeptic of the singularity notion. “My mother saw more change in her life than I have. She went from traveling in a pony cart to flying across the ocean in a jet. I don’t see things going faster. It is an illusion.”
I asked, “What have you changed you mind about?” Esther said she changed her mind about anonymity. She used to think it was hugely important, but now she believes everything works out better when there is transparency, including in people. “We may become more tolerant because everything is visible.”
Freeman admitted he was a skeptic on global warming. His problem was not change in the climate. “In the long view we ARE changing the climate.” He felt that climate was hugely complex, that we understand very little of it and many people are reducing this unknown complexity into one data point — the average temperature somewhere. Until we understand what kind of changes we are making in our “solutions” he says he believes the best action on global climate change right now is inaction.
Of course this is only a sample of the wide-ranging conversation, which lasted 90 minutes. (Like all past talks, this one will be posted for download streaming on the Long Now site.) The agile wit and intelligence of the three Dysons was in full gear by the end of the seminar. This exchange near the end is paraphrased from my rough notes, which I believe captures the tone of the evening:
Stewart: You are 81, Freeman, and pro biotech. What’s your take on bio-engineered longevity?
Freeman: The worst thing that could happen would be if doctors cured death. There would be no room for young people in power. It would be the end of science! For me it is a black cloud on the horizon. But I think it is unavoidable. First we’ll extend life to 100 years, then to 200 years, 300 and so on…
George: Just like copyright!
Freeman: Really. The only solution is to move far far away, to have other worlds, in space or on planets where the young can dominate.
Esther: Even better, send the old guys to Mars!
It was great to have the three Dysons on earth, young and old.