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Symposium review: Are we gonna have jobs? -- Science in the next millenium


David Hamby
David Hamby '99 believes that the future of science lies in improved communication, such as this demonstration that Kresge Auditorium was designed as an eighth of a sphere, as he explained to the freshman class yesterday in that same building.

By Joel Rosenberg
Arts Editor

Pack it in, everybody-science is at an end.

At least that's the thesis of John Horgan's 1996 book, The End of Science. After interviewing lots of the big names in science for Scientific American-Dyson, Penrose, Crick, Dawkins, Gell-Mann, Hawking, to name just a few-Horgan began to wonder whether there was much left to explore, now that relativity and quantum mechanics seem to have accounted for the very big and the very small.

Dean Kip Hodges, after reading the book, gave Horgan a call to see if any young people had been asked what they thought about science's future. When Horgan admitted that none had, Hodges posed the question to the MIT community in an essay contest last year. And yesterday, as as a great addition to "O," Horgan, along with theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, director of the artificial intelligence lab Rodney Brooks, and three of the winners of the contest, addressed only the class of 2002, unfortunate considering how interesting the symposium would have been to the entire MIT community.

"If I Only Understood a Brain"

Horgan thinks the basic questions have been answered, and now it's time to start understanding how we ask questions at all. The future of science lies in the mind, which we know almost nothing about. His next book, Why Freud Isn't Dead, investigates what's going on today in mind research, and formed the basis of his speech.

Freud's baby was psychotherapy, which sent millions to the couch and put millions in the pockets of psychiatrists. But Horgan cited a study which found no correlation between the amount of time spent in therapy and the benefits to the patient. Instead, therapy is merely a psychosomatic placebo, depressing to those who have spent an hour a week and a small fortune on a sugar cube. Additionally, Horgan is concerned with the 35 million people who rely on Prozac, the 75% of those who suffer sexual side effects, and the increasing tendency to prescribe it to children under 12, even though the long term studies haven' studies haven't been done yet.

While psychotherapy's imperfect, Horgan informed the audience that we're still performing lobotomies, renamed "cingulotomies," and a million people a year still receive shock therapy, even though 90% relapse within four months. Behavioral genetics, a more "scientific" investigation, believes we're gonna be able to solve all our mental defects with gene therapy. So far, none of our efforts in this area have been successful.

Evolutionary psychology, which views mental problems in terms of Darwinism, has generated some interesting ideas. Horgan explained that one of his favorites is the notion that "human self-deception may be adaptive, because the most effective bullshitters are those who believe their own bullshit." The crowd applauded. "Perhaps this principle explains some of the recent success of evolutionary psychologists." Agreeing with Stephen Jay Gould, which Horgan doesn't like to do, they denounced this field as "pure guesswork in the cocktail party mode." Understandable, considering an example of the field's work is the belief that schizophrenia gives the afflicted an evolutionary important view of the world.

Finally, Horgan doesn't think AI is making the advances it should be, and while neuroscience is the coolest and most promising area of brain research, "like a precocious eight-year-old tinkering with a radio, neuroscientists excel at breaking the brain into pieces, but they are not very good at putting it back together." Still, the human mind remains "science's last great frontier, and probably always will."

Thinking of Q

Michio Kaku, a professor at City College in New York, started out his talk by stating his dream of finding a "theory of everything, a single equation, perhaps no more than an inch long, that will reveal the mind of God.'" Apparently Kaku doesn't think science is over, and he's one of New York's 100 Smartest People-but so is Madonna, he jokingly pointed out.

Kaku's best-selling book, Hyperspace, addresses superstring theory, which I don't understand, but has something to do with the tenth dimension and the absolute basic building blocks of the universe. His newest book, Visions, is a cross between Horgan's End of Science and Media Lab director Nicholas Negroponte's Being Digital-a survey of future technology based on interviews with top scientists. The book formed the basis of his speech as well.

After a joke about how theoretical physicists perhaps know too much, he told a story of British Prime Minister William Gladstone's visit to Michael Faraday's lab, filled with strange, seemingly useless machines.

"What use will these contraptions be to anyone?" asked the politician.

"I know not what use my machines will have," Faraday answered, "but I know you will tax them." Kaku pardoned Faraday's uncertainty about his machines citing Yogi Berra: "Prediction is hard, especially about the future." And while Lincoln warned against opening one's mouth and proving one a fool, Kaku said to hell with Lincoln and proceeded to describe his vision of the future.

We are moving from a phase of being "passive observers of the dance of nature to choreographers of it," he explained. Moore's Law predicts that computer chips will cost a penny by the year 2020, and at that point, instead of 100 people to 1 computer, as existed in the early days of computers (and which IBM thought would last forever), or even the 1 person to 1 computer ratio we have now, it'll be 1 person to 1,000,000 computers. Using books and paper as an analogy, Kaku reminded us that what was once invaluable papyrus is now used to wrap fish. Soon, our watches will communicate globally and call us stupid, and our walls will talk back-apparently Kaku doesn't get along all that well with his machines now. He pointed out that the Media Lab is already going to start putting chips in toys, creating the contradiction in terms "smart Barbie," like "military intelligence" and "Microsoft Works."

When the limits of silicon are reached, quantum computers (in part discovered by Neil Gershenfeld of the Media Lab) will kick in, with almost unfathomable computing power. Entertainment on the web will remain insatiable, and robots will finally start gaining some intelligence, approaching the 500 terabytes per second our brains currently process. "Genalyzers" will spit out a full analysis of our genetic makeup, and we'll get shots to cure the defects. Engineered livers are just around the corner, and eventually, when we achieve immortality, having designer children will be all the more important.

Kaku covered a great theory on the physics of extraterrestrials. A type 1 civilization can control the energy of a planet, including the weather, while type 2 harnesses the power of a star, and type 3 the power of a galaxy. We're approaching type 1, evidenced by the unification that is going on in language (English), politics (democracy), and culture (The Terminator, which perhaps shows James Cameron IS King of the World). But we still get our energy from dead plants-'nuff said. Drawing on Star Trek, the Federation is an emerging type 2, the Borg are type 3, and beyond that, the Q are 4. Kaku added, "If you don't understand what [was just said], get with the program."

A standing ovation followed Kaku's speech, to which Dean Hodges, also Professor of Earth, Atmosphere and Planetary Sciences, remarked, "He's just a theoretical physicist." Professor Hodges was just bitter that nobody mentioned geology in the future of science.

Fast, Cheap, Out of Control UROPs

Professor Rodney Brooks told the story of the Mars Rover and the role his students played in doing (surprise) a much better job than the government ever could have, cutting the cost from $12 billion to $22 million for the entire mission. Makes you think Brooks should be overseeing more government projects.

Arthur C. Clarke has a theory that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Brooks argued that in the last century, we have evolved some magical technology, from flight to email, and the future holds similarly fantastic discoveries. The advances, however, only stop being ridiculous as they start to become possible, comparing widespread space travel to slowing down time. But even computers aren't totally magical yet, as Brooks' slides hadn't printed correctly from the Microsoft program he used to make them.

In 1989 Brooks published a paper which discussed space exploration using robots that are "Fast, Cheap, and Out Of Control." The title of the paper ended up the title of a great documentary that came out last year (and just came out on video) which intertwined Brooks and his robots with a lion tamer, a topiary gardener, and a mole-rat specialist (you have to see it to understand it). Pushing for an invasion of the solar system by autonomous disposable robots, Brooks' idea didn't mesh well with NASA and the Jet Propulsion Lab, who are fond of large, expensive, human-controlled bots-particularly ones with gold foil on them.

Brooks' students went out to JPL and designed a robot using MIT-donated parts, amazingly enough. One model, the Rocky 3, used an old Macintosh computer case for the body, and sported a Sony Handycam on top (covered in gold foil). The idea was to have the mission pay for itself through the Hollywood/Media Lab tradition of product placement-sell replicas of the robot at Radio Shack, spawn a Mission to Mars children's cartoon, and even put Nikes on Rocky's feet. Seeking someone to launch this private venture, Brooks looked to Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, who had been working on Star Wars before the cold war ended, and who were looking to get back on the map by outdoing NASA (apparently easier than you'd think).

And as the story goes, the mission was in fact successful, although before it was completed NASA had it's name back on the project. It was an inspiring talk on how students, even undergrads, can get involved immediately and make a difference in the world of science in a more than reasonable time span.

The End of Undergrads?

The student speakers were compelling in their presentations as well. Senior in electrical engineering and creative writing Anna Dirks spoke after John Horgan. Citing the greed with which industry is currently run, Dirks expressed her concerrn with the exploitation of Malaysian and Indonesian women in computer chip manufacturing. She rightly stated her disappointment with the lack of ethical education at MIT, and urged the incoming class to question their professors about what is being taught, why, and what the implications are-good advice for all students.

David Hamby, a senior in Architecture, followed Professor Kaku, and showed an image of a beached whale to start his speech. The whale was a metaphor for how overwhelming science can get, especially given the ever increasing amount of stuff there is to know. The question is how to keep the whale in water, and Hamby suggested the answer is through better scientific education. Relating the impact of seeing a caterpillar turn into a butterfly while in elementary school, Hamby argued that visual representation of concepts can and should-must, in fact-improve in order for science to be accessible to the general population. A great diagram showed how Kresge Auditorium, the location of the symposium, was designed as an eighth of a sphere, and how simple it would be for an ordinary orange to convey that same conceptualization. Other diagrams were equally insightful, and made Hamby's point that better visualization will enable better understanding, and from there allow more time for companies and universities to "play," and for the public to perhaps take advantage of "public labs," which could become as widespread as libraries.

Sophomore EECS major Amy Strickert completed the list of speakers. She brought up her concern for what questions really remain in science, how those questions might be funded, and how to encourage the next generation of scientists.