Biocurious is a weblog about biology, quantified.

Questions for the Future

by Andre on 24 June 2005

Today, not for the first time, I somehow found myself reading Alan Sokal’s parody article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” and I wanted to read some of the subsequent debate in Physics Today. David Mermin was one of the people responding to the article so I went to his site looking for freely available reprints. I didn’t find anything about the Science Wars, but I did come across this gem in which Mermin discusses questions he would want to ask physicists of the future if he could travel to 2105. Even if you’re not particularly into physics I think you’ll still enjoy the introduction to the article and some of his questions.

It’s the kind of article that gets you thinking, in my case about a similar list for biophysics:

1) The first one that came to mind is consciousness, but Mermin does a pretty good job of discussing it so I won’t bother. Except to say that I don’t know why Mermin is so convinced that a computer will never be conscious. I’m no neuroscientist, but I can’t think of any brain function, other than perhaps consciousness itself, that a really complicated computer couldn’t simulate. Maybe it would need to be a computer that was capable of reconfiguring its hardware as the brain can, but I don’t think anyone knows enough to dismiss it like Mermin does. Also, I haven’t read much about it, but I can’t think of any way to test for consciousness. I’m reminded of Turing Tests and Chinese Rooms. Perhaps that’s a good way to frame the question: Have you discovered an unambiguous test to determine if something is conscious? If the answer is yes, I think its elaboration would tell us a lot about the nature of consciousness.

2) Are there now predictive quantitative laws of biological evolution? I discussed this briefly here.

3) Is there extraterrestrial life in the solar system? In the Milky Way? What about intelligence (discussed by Mermin)?

4) Have we synthesized life from scratch? How about non-DNA-based life?

5) How do complicated things like humans develop from single cells? I’m not convinced that will be an interesting question in a hundred years because I have no idea what we know about it now, but I’ve always found the process fascinating.

I can’t come up with anything else right now, but I would be really interested in what you think, so post your ideas in the comments section!

  1. PhilipJ    4437 days ago    #
    I’m not sure how realistic these two (sort of related) questions are for only 100 years, maybe 3005 would be a better date to ask them, but I think they are interesting nonetheless:

    6) Are any currently (2005) living organisms going to develope a language that humans can understand and subsequently communicate with. Not a taught language like the experiments with chimps, but an independently developed language. I think that would be remarkable.

    7) In a slightly more abstract vein, will there be unequivocal evidence for evolution in higher organisms observed in the coming 100 (or 1000) year timeframe, such that there can be no argument over a non-”designed” evolutionary process?

    I think your #5 is a good question that people are starting to make some rudimentary headway with right now—at least in flies. See this for a neat graphic intro.
  2. Maria Thistle    4437 days ago    #
    wrt Phil’s #6:
    I did a behavioural ecology course this past semester, during which we discussed concepts of communication, language, signalling, conciousness, intent,.. all kinds of great stuff that behaviourists (ecologists and psychologists) have been contemplating for quite some time (much of the 20th century, I’m sure). I’m not sure if this is exactly what you have in mind, Phil… but if humans spend time “decoding” animal communication, and could then simulate that communication (via a computer, for example), I can’t see why there wouldn’t be a way that humans and another species could communicate. What’s more, I don’t think its necessarily that far off. The usefullness of this type of interspecies communication may be less obvious,... I assume your goal is to talk to a bird,.. not act like a bird talking to a bird,... anyways.. this is just some random behavioural babble :)

  3. PhilipJ    4437 days ago    #
    I’m not entirely sure what my intent was when I phrased the question, but acting like a bird to talk to a bird isn’t a bad thing either, as long as there is two-way comprehension, an actual “conversation”.

    I think it would be very interesting to see if other animals developed things like sarcasm. :)
  4. kc lee    4432 days ago    #
    I’m sure this question should be on top of any ask the future person list.

    What are the 10 questions they would ask to the people in the next 100 years and why?

    This question is good enough to set up recursive loop assuming that this question is on the 10 question list again. However, I don’t think it is good enough to collect all future questions beyond 200 years since we are not allowed to ask what are the answers to their questions.
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