Edge 2009

This year's Edge question essays offer a wonderful collection of predictions for what game changing scientific and technical advances we expect to see in the coming decades. It's great that so many futurist ideas are entering the mainstream. My contribution is below. (Being able to post an essay to Edge isn't something I would have predicted for myself two years ago. My life still feels surreal.) Thanks to friends on the sifter list for last minute edits. And happy new year!

Changes in the Changers

Human beings have an amazingly flexible sense of self. If we don a pair of high resolution goggles showing the point of view from another body, with feedback and control, we perceive ourselves to be that body. As we use rudimentary or complex tools, these quickly become familiar extensions of our bodies and minds. This flexibility, and our indefatigable drive to learn, invent, have fun, and seek new adventure, will lead us down future paths that will dramatically alter human experience and our very nature.

Because we adapt so quickly, the changes will feel gradual. In the next few years solid state memory will replace hard drives, removing the mechanical barrier to miniaturization of our computational gadgetry. Battery size remains as a barrier to progress, but this will improve, along with increased efficiency of our electronics, and we will live with pervasive computational presence. Privacy will vanish. People will record and share their sensorium feeds with the world, and the world will share experiences. Every physical location will be geo-tagged with an overlay of information. Cities will become more pleasant as the internal combustion engine is replaced with silent electric vehicles that don't belch toxic fumes. We'll be drawn in to the ever evolving and persistently available conversations among our social networks. Primitive EEG's will be replaced by magnetoencephalography and functional MRI backed by the computational power to recognize our active thought patterns and translate them to transmittable words, images, and actions. Our friends and family who wish it, and our entire external and internal world, will be reachable with our thoughts. This augmentation will change what it means to be human. Many people will turn away from their meat existence, to virtual worlds, which they will fill with meaning — spending time working on science, virtual constructions, socializing, or just playing games. And we humans will create others like us, but not.

Synthetic intelligence will arrive, but slowly, and it will be different enough that many won't acknowledge it for what it is. People used to think a computer mastering chess, voice recognition, and automated driving would signal the arrival of artificial intelligence. But these milestones have been achieved, and we now consider them the result of brute force computation and clever coding rather than bellwethers of synthetic intelligence. Similarly, computers are just becoming able to play the game of Go at the dan level, and will soon surpass the best human players. They will pass Turing's test. But this synthetic intelligence, however adaptable, is inhuman and foreign, and many people won't accept it as more than number crunching and good programming. A more interesting sign that synthetic intelligence has arrived will be when captchas and reverse Turing tests appear that exclude humans. The computers will have a good laugh about that. If it doesn't happen earlier, this level of AI will arrive once computers achieve the computational power to run real-time simulations of an entire human brain. Shortly after that, we will no longer be the game changers. But by then, humans may have significantly altered themselves through direct biological manipulation.

The change I expect to see that will most affect human existence will come from biohacking: purposefully altering genomes, tissue engineering, and other advances in biology. Humans are haphazardly assembled biological machines. Our DNA was written by monkeys banging away at... not typewriters, but each other, for millions of years. Imagine how quickly life will transform when DNA and biochemistry are altered with thoughtful intent. Nanotechnology already exists as the machinery within our own biological cells; we're just now learning how these machines work, and how to control them. Pharmaceuticals will be customized to match our personal genome. We're going to be designing and growing organisms to suit our purposes. These organisms will sequester carbon, process raw material, and eventually repair and replace our own bodies.

It may not happen within my lifetime, but the biggest game change will be the ultimate synthesis of computation and biology. Biotech will eventually allow our brains to be scanned at a level sufficient to preserve our memories and reproduce our consciousness when uploaded to a more efficient computational substrate. At this point our mind may be copied, and, if desired, embedded and connected to the somatic helms of designed biological forms. We will become branching selves, following many different paths at once for the adventure, the fun, and the love of it. Life in the real world presents extremely rich experiences, and uploaded intelligences in virtual worlds will come outside where they can fly as a falcon, sprint as a cheetah, love, play, or even just breath — with superhuman consciousness, no lag, and infinite bandwidth. People will dance with nature, in all its possible forms. And we'll kitesurf.

Kitesurfing, you see, is a hell of a lot of fun — and kites are the future of sailing. Even though the sport is only a few years old and kite design is not yet mature, kitesurfers have recently broken the world sailing speed record, reaching over 50 knots. Many in the sailing world are resisting the change, and disputing the record, but kites provide efficient power and lift, and the speed gap will only grow as technology improves. Kitesurfing is a challenging dynamic balance of powerful natural forces. It feels wonderful; and it gets even more fun in waves.

All of these predicted changes are extrapolations from the seeds of present science and technology; the biggest surprises will come from what can't be extrapolated. It is uncertain how many of these changes will happen within our lifetimes, because that timescale is a dependent variable, and life is uncertain. It is both incredibly tragic and fantastically inspiring that our generation may be the last to die of old age. If extending our lives eludes us, cryonics exists as a stopgap gamble — Pascal's wager for singularitarians, with an uncertain future preferable to a certain lack of one. And if I'm wrong about these predictions, death will mean I'll never know.

Summer whirlwind tour

There have been so many things going on... I need to take a deep breath, think about where I am and what I'm doing, and, of course, upload it to my journal before it passes through the sieve of my memory into entropy.

After the wedding reception for C's mom, we kicked off our California tour with a casual sifter dinner in San Diego.

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I spent the last week heli-skiing in the Chugach mountains of Alaska, near Valdez. My friend Mark had called me up a month previously and asked if I wanted to go, offering to pay my way in exchange for talking physics with him. I think I thought it over for about a tenth of a second before saying yes. This was definitely among the more crazy things I've done in my life.

I knew I was in over my head on the first flight. We hopped in the helicopter and were quickly looking out at fifty-degree plus faces and couloirs.

I didn't think we were actually going to ride these... but, sure enough, the helicopter half-landed, half-hovered into the ridge top, and we crawled out of the ship onto a patch of snow the size of a queen-sized bed, with sheer drops on both sides. I damn near dropped a brick in my ski pants looking down that first run. But I managed to persuade myself over the edge and down the face, and the snow quality was good. This is me kicking up some slough on that first run, with our very experienced guide looking on unconcerned:

The week pretty much continued like this. Every once in a while we'd be riding the kind of steep faces or chutes, near rocky cliffs, where if you fell at the wrong moment and started sliding... you were going to die. Then it would flatten out a bit, and we'd have big, fun, swoopy turns in corn snow for a few thousand feet. A few minutes after you reach the glacier floor, the helicopter comes and lands near your head, to take you to the next peak.

It was also very, very beautiful. Nothing but mountains for hundreds of miles.

There were a few moments of true fear--the kind I haven't encountered in quite a long time. The first was on that first run. The second was when a less experienced guide put us down on the wrong peak, surrounded by cliffs. We rode a few hundred feet down through some of the best snow of the trip before realizing we were fux0r3d, stuck on a hillside with cornices and rocks on all sides. The guide called in the heli to evacuate us, and we had to build an LZ by digging the snow out from higher up and piling it lower to make a landing pad. When the helicopter nosed in to the mountain next to us, the blades where whizzing by inside the hole we had dug for them, beneath the natural slope of the mountain side. The five of us clambered in, but the ship struggled and couldn't take off. I think it was a combination of the dicy aerodynamics of having that blade basically inside a hole, and having the skids stuck in the piled snow. We emptied out the heli one by one, until it was able to take off with just me in the last passenger seat. Sitting there by myself, with the ship wobbling back and forth, struggling, on the side of a hill, with the blades whizzing by in a blur only inches from the snow... I thought there was a good chance things were about to go very, very badly. But it got up, dropped me off with the gear on the next peak over, and went back to pick up the others. I snapped this photo of the pickup:

On the second day I buried the nose of my old powder board, took a short tumble, and buckled the board in half. The helicopter flew me back to the road, and I spent the rest of the afternoon hitchhiking the sixty miles back to Valdez. Guess nobody wanted to pick up a big, burly looking snowboarder dude... but the scenery was beautiful, and I enjoyed walking for a couple hours before I finally caught a lift. Fortunately, Mark had a spare board I was able to ride the rest of the trip.

Overall, it was a hell of a lot of fun. A lot like a surf trip to a spot with heavier waves than you're used to. I don't know if I'd ever pay my own way, because it's absurdly expensive. But, if someone asked me to go again, I'd have to think about it... for about a tenth of a second.


I'm not sure if I'll continue to use it, but I finally got around to trying Twitter. It's an impressively simple yet powerful social connectivity and procrastination tool. Apparently, the next best thing to lunch with friends is tweeting that you're having lunch.

An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything

I'm not sure yet whether all the attention is good, or if all the hype will have a negative impact, but this has certainly been a strange week. The interest in my work among physicists has been building steadily over the past few months. I've been presenting at conferences, getting invited to cool places, and exchanging emails with some of the best people in physics. But things started getting a little out of control last week when I posted my paper to the physics archive:

An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything

Yes, the title is a little much. Technically, a Grand Unified Theory in physics is a theory unifying the electromagnetic, weak, and strong forces as parts of a single Lie group. And if gravity is described in a unified framework like this, it's called a Theory of Everything, because that's all the forces we know of. The paper describes a new theory of how to do this, with all these forces (and all matter) as parts of the largest simple exceptional Lie group, E8 (which is very beautiful). So the title is technically accurate, but I probably should have made it less sensational. Especially since the paper does not include the details of a complete quantum description, which is really necessary for it to qualify as a successful ToE. (I'm counting on combining my work with that of the Loop Quantum Gravity community to build a full quantum E8 theory of everything.)

The physics arxiv has gotten more restrictive on how they accept and classify papers. I originally submitted this article under the general relativity classification, but they immediately moved it to high energy particle theory. Then, a day after it came out, it got unceremoniously booted to the general physics classification -- the cesspool the arxiv uses to collect non-string and/or whacky, overreaching papers. Then, the next day, it got reclassified back to high energy theory! (This never happens, and I was quite amused.)

The paper immediately precipitated a physics blogalanche:
Backreaction This was the first, and probably the best summary of the paper.
Physics Forums
The Reference Frame Can you tell he's a string theorist? I love this guy, almost everything he says is dead wrong, and he just makes me look better.
Hidden Variables
Not Even Wrong
Arcadian Functor
Freedom of Science This one cracks me up. Apparently I'm a media whore, and only doing physics for the money; but at least I'm in good company.
Theoreman Egregium
Science Forums
And at this point I've stopped being able to keep track, which I suppose means this is my fifteen minutes of fame.

Yesterday morning, I presented a talk to the
International Loop Quantum Gravity Seminar
which is a teleconferece among physicists at a consortium of fourteen universities around the world. That went very well. Some of the key players agree that this theory and LQG make a good match. (The (very technical) talk and slides are available from that page, but the first two minutes are cut off.)

Then, a few hours ago, the story hit the popular press:
The Telegraph (Apparently, I'm to be immortalized for the words "Holy crap!")
New Scientist Top story. I haven't been able to read this article yet, because I don't have a subscription.

All the attention has been fun, but a bit overwhelming, and I think I just want to go back to playing with equations for a few months. I hope people can keep in mind that this is just a theory, it has no experimental support, and it might be wrong. I think it's got a shot, which is why I work on it, but it's still just a developing theory. So don't go crazy, people; but yes, it is pretty damn cool.