Wednesday, May 20, 2015

V is for Vision(ary)

This post was originally going to be about William Butler Yeats' strange philosophical stream of consciousness book called A Vision.  However, the more I dug into it, the more I got disillusioned with its rambling and random nature.  Almost an incomprehensible fever dream, in some places.  I still hope to revisit it and understand it better, someday, but it's no fiery manifesto.

So, good luck for me that, right around the end of March, I discovered a completely different kind of Vision.  Nobel-prize winning physicist Frank Wilczek was recently asked to give a talk on his predictions for physics 100 years in the future.  He wrote up a more formal version of that talk and posted it online last month.

I'm no particle physicist, so I didn't really appreciate the most esoteric parts about quantum gauge theory.  I did like that he quotes Heraclitus and Parmenides to contrast the "God's-eye" view of the universe with our own "ant's-eye" view, but I don't think I grokked the physics implications.  However, once he's done giving his opinions of supersymmetry and string theory, the essay gets weirder and better.

Wilczek notes that much of our progress in science has been leading to greater and greater abstraction.  Forces are better understood as aspects of energy conservation.  "Energies" may, in turn, be best understood as symmetries of pure information.  Wilczek has written before about how "its" (physical things) may come ultimately from abstract "bits," but here he notes an interesting irony.  In biology, the trend has been to reduce more and more abstract concepts (like the mind) to an interplay of matter.  However...
"...if physics evolves to describe matter in terms of information, as we discussed earlier, a circle of ideas will have closed.  Mind will have become more matter-like, and matter will have become more mind-like."
He's not done with the physics-biology connection.  Wilczek also predicts that technology will continue to learn lessons from the systems that evolution has honed over millions of years.  Thus, a prediction that our computers will become more brain-like, and our machines will become more body-like.

Again, he brings it full circle.  He predicts the flow will go in the other direction, too -- i.e., that we'll continue to enhance our biology (especially our crude sense of color vision) by using technology.  Two of his briefest predictions are the ones that I'm most fascinated by:
  • We will vastly expand the human sensorium, opening the doors of perception.
  • Artists and scientists will work together, to create new works of extraordinary beauty.
This technological expansion might also help us explore space without actually making the trip in person:
"As people acquire routine access to extremely capable distant sensors and actuators, their sense of identity will expand beyond the limits of their physical bodies.  An immersive experience of "being there" will not necessarily involve being there, physically.  This will be an important element of the expansion of human culture beyond Earth, since human bodies are very poorly suited to extraterrestrial environments.  One can imagine an expanding web of intelligence more easily than an expanding web of settlement, and I expect it will happen much sooner."
Lastly, Wilczek claims that with these expanded senses and powers, we will evolve to greater levels of humility.  Knowing more means having greater perspective about what we still don't understand.  We can only hope.  :-)