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Leviathan
Freeman Dyson,
Physicist

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Freeman Dyson
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One of the worst things I can imagine is finding a cure for death.
 



We don't know whether machines have souls... I mean already you have computer programs that paint pictures and write poems.
 



In a hundred years we'll have pet dodos and pet dinosaurs.
 



In a thousand years we'll be al over the solar system.
 



It might even be feasible in a hundred years be that two people can communicate directly mind to mind.
 
Q: Let's talk about where you think we may have got to by the end of this new century.

A: One thing I would expect is that aeroplanes will be obsolete. I imagine in a hundred years we'll have fast trains going overland and under the ocean or at least 100 feet below sea level or so, pipes of about eight ft in diameter like natural gas pipes. People will travel in little compartments, not really trains, like a telephone exchange so that you just get in and go non-stop to wherever you want to go and you could get anywhere in the world in about three hours.

I think that's likely to be the way it goes in the future. It'll be much cheaper, much more convenient and environmentally of course much more benign than aeroplanes.

Q: You were talking about black trees. What's that about?

A: Another thing is black trees. Black trees are trees with leaves made of silicon rather than just green stuff so that they're 10% efficient in converting sunlight into interesting chemicals rather than 1%. Ordinary trees are about 1% efficient. You could get that up to 10% by using silicon instead of chlorophyll so genetic engineering should allow you to do that.

Trees of course basically are not going to change. They will still be the same kind of trees we have now except that the genetic engineering will enable the leaves to process sunlight much more efficiently so that you could imagine supplying all the fuel needs of the world with quite a small area of forest. I think it will be a tremendous equaliser so that the tropical countries can become rich. That's one of the good things I see coming out of genetics.

Q: And do you see possibilities for us extending our lifespans - maybe even forever?

A: Well one of the worst things I can imagine is finding a cure for death because then the whole world would be overpopulated with aged people who have no longer much capacity to innovate. It'll be, essentially it would bring all progress to a halt, I would say so I'm definitely against that but of course it's probably going to happen anyway.

Q: What kind of developments do you think may take place in space travel? Will we be colonising in space or will we be taking holidays to the moon?

A: What we do in space depends very much also on genetic engineering. The real problem with going off and trying to live somewhere else and not on the earth is life support. You've got to have all kinds of creatures to support you. You have to have a whole ecology so you have to have new forms of life that are adapted to living in remote places so that's a problem of genetic engineering. I think probably a hundred years is too short a time to do that really on a big scale. You never can tell. I would guess that it's more like 200 years we will have life spreading out in a big way from this planet all the way into the solar system and humans going with it of course.

Q: How about developments in artificial intelligence? Where do you see that getting to?

A: Artificial intelligence has been grossly oversold in the last 50 years so it might be going somewhere in a hundred years. It's not very clear. I mean certainly we will have very good computers and we will have all sorts of very competent machines driven by computers. Whether you have anything that's really intelligent I somehow doubt, but I could be wrong.

Q: What about looking to the longer future?

A: Undoubtedly machines and life will evolve more and less in parallel so that you can hardly tell which is which. Certainly, in the long run, that's almost certain to be true, but especially when you move away from the earth, it would be very convenient if you can combine machines with people in an intermittent fashion so that people can have all the capabilities of machines and machines can have the capabilities of people.

Q: And what issue might that raise for people?

A: Well it will be very different from living in the old-fashioned style and of course there again we don't compel anybody to go. It should be a free choice. If you want to live in this strange and weird fashion, you should be free to do so but nobody's pushing you.

Q: What kind of function might the machines be performing?

A: In principle anything people can do presumably machines can also do, but we don't know that for sure. We don't know whether machines have souls. That of course maybe something we shall never know. I mean already you have computer programs that paint pictures and write poems - not terribly good pictures and not terribly good poems but still pretty good. And so there will be a lot more of that. And of course one of the new art forms will be genetic engineering and I'm sure we'll have, in a hundred years, we'll have pet dodos and pet dinosaurs and we shall have all kinds of lovely creatures. One of the joys in life in fact will then be creating new kinds of dogs and cats and roses and orchids.

Our grandchildren are all addicted to computers and probably in a hundred years they will be addicted to genetic engineering. You'll have little kits, do-it-yourself kits for designing your own dogs and cats and so life will be very different. And I can imagine children will take to it fast, just as they've taken to Gameboys and Nintendo.

Q: What is your hypothetical vision of life spreading out through the universe?

A: I believe life will spread out into the universe because it's the nature of life to find all possible niches and fill them.

In a thousand years we'll be all over the solar system. I imagine that every comet and every asteroid will probably be populated with its own species of plants and animals. It'll probably take say a thousand years to populate the solar system and a hundred thousand to populate the galaxy and maybe a few billion years to populate the universe but I don't see any end to it. And, of course if we're lucky we'll find some other alien life forms long before we've got to the end of the universe.

Q: What do you think people in 2100 will find most peculiar looking back at 2000?

A: One thing is clear, that at the present time the world somehow believes that everything will become global, that we'll be a single village all over the earth. Probably in a 100 years time that will turn out to have been a total illusion, that it actually went the other way, instead of becoming all more homogenous we became actually more differentiated. So I think they might see that as one of the big mistakes.

Q: And what is your greatest fear for the developments that might happen?

A: Well obviously the biggest fear is nuclear weapons. We still have 20,000 nuclear bombs lying around and that could be a total disaster. We still haven't got rid of them and we don't know how to get rid of them. People have stopped worrying about them but that doesn't mean they've disappeared. That's I think, that's danger number one. And of course danger number two is a really -- a caste system arising out of genetic engineering. If only rich people are allowed to design their babies and poor people are not, then you get the world rapidly splitting up into two different species of the rich enjoying all the benefits and the poor left behind and that could be a result of genetic engineering.

Q: What excites you most about this ability for the future?

A: I think the thing that excites me most is bringing wealth to the poor and that's, to me that's sort of the number one agenda. When I look at the way that science operates in the world at the moment, it rather tends to favour the rich against the poor, that most of the new technology is sort of toys for the rich rather than necessities for the poor and that has to change. And I think it can change.

Q: What is the most far-fetched possibility that you can imagine for our possible future?

{It might even be feasible in a hundred years be that two people can communicate directly mind to mind.}

A: Well one thing I imagine quite a lot is sort of radical changes in human consciousness, like something I think of called radio telepathy. Old-fashioned telepathy was supposed to be something supernatural: I dream a dream and somebody hundreds of miles away can communicate magically mind to mind. That probably doesn't exist but we can imagine doing that by mechanical means, putting little radio transmitters and receivers into people's heads so that they can actually communicate thoughts directly. I don't think that's impossible. It's a problem of understanding how the brain actually works, how the mental processes work. It might even be feasible in a hundred years be that two people can communicate directly mind to mind and if that's possible of course it'll change the whole nature of life profoundly, much more so than any of the other things I've been talking about.

So you'd have sort of group minds rather than just individual minds. That could be wonderful or it could be terrible, according to how it is done. II can imagine communities of people linked telepathically having a very rich mental life which is completely beyond the reach of the people outside so it might be better if they go to another planet in order to be by themselves.

It would be perhaps much too disruptive to have group minds and individual minds trying to co-exist on the same planet. So that's another reason for maybe sending them off into space at some distance far enough away so that we don't have to confront each other every day. But that kind of mental development is to my mind in the long run more important than anything we do physically.


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Leviathan