[Apologies if this gets sent more than once. Mailer error.]
> I've written en essay for the Economist competition. The dialogue-form is
> probably not what they had in mind, but I'll submit it anyway. Comments or
> suggestions for improvements are welcome! (I'm sending it off on Sunday.)
My apologies for not getting to this until today. I was busy with my
> The essay is at:
And here's the revised version of my essay that I sent in. Given as
there are multiple prizes, may we both win.
A greater understanding of the human brain is but one of the advances likely to be available in 2050. However, the abilities it will grant, both on its own and in conjunction with other technological and social trends, have the ability to reshape society much like computers have. This essay describes one way in which the technology may unfold, from the viewpoint of someone who watched it happen.
UNIVERSITY APPLICATION ESSAY AX-G328904 SUBMITTED: FEB. 15, 2050
"Specialist" is such a dirty word. I prefer "focused", because that is what I am guilty of: focusing on one subject. I believe that, with the help of modern technology, my studies of my chosen field may be the last that any human will ever have to make, so that I may be an unsurpassed master of my field for all time.
Although this may seem unfashionable at the midpoint of the 21st century, I assure you that specialization is a practice that was quite popular up until recently. Indeed, until nearly the end of the 20th century, it was possible for people even in the most technologically advanced nations to learn only a few basic facts about how the world worked, stop learning by their early 20s, and live full and productive lives. Only the elite - scientists, engineers, chief politicians and businessmen, and a few others - needed much more information to do their jobs.
Even then, some people advocated lifelong learning as a path to a fuller life, but this movement never really caught on until recently. When the general public was forced to choose between constantly improving their minds and living in crushing poverty, most chose to keep learning.
One of the factors contributing to this development was the rate of increase of knowledge available to humanity. It is easy to assume that the Information Revolution, fueled by an ever-increasing amount of computational power starting in the latter half of the 20th century, was the only cause. However, this was not the case. Another factor was the rising human population, which meant that more people were creating or discovering new ideas. Computer networks merely allowed these ideas to be communicated easily enough that most people became aware of the amount of knowledge that was out there, where they had formerly assumed that there were no answers to most of their questions, or that the answers were practically impossible to find.
Early attempts to learn significant fractions of this information led to a phenomenon known as "information overload". It was like a perpetually starving band of nomads suddenly arriving at an all-you-can-eat, infinitely stocked buffet. Within that metaphor, it should come as no surprise that most "overfed" and became proverbially sick. A few, either nearing this stage or seeing many of their comrades fall to it, looked for ways to better handle this glut. Various methods of managing this information were tried, most essentially just predigesting the "meal" at the expense of having direct access to some details - or, to further the analogy, at the cost of some nutrients. But these were all limited by the modes of communication to the end destination: the human consciousness.
Which led to the second factor: cybernetics. This term used to refer only to certain types of control systems, but around the early 1980s it acquired a pop culture definition of direct neural interface between biological, especially human, nervous systems and any man-made machine, especially computers and computer-controlled devices. This definition has now forced its way into mainstream academic use as well, although more technically accurate names have been proposed.
Experiments in cybernetics date back to ancient times, depending on how loosely one defines the term, but the field only really got going in the 1990s with the commercial introduction of chips designed to stimulate a neuron depending on signals from some electronic device, or vice versa. These devices were originally intended to restore sensory and control connections to people who had lost one or more limbs and replaced them with prosthetics, to allow them to use these limbs as they might otherwise have used their natural ones.
The application of cybernetics to help people understand and make use of information might seem obvious to us, but evidence of this application is everywhere in our society. At the time, the disastrous results of various historical failures to improve humanity - for instance, the eugenics movement that peaked in the early 20th century - caused an embarrassed silence whenever further attempts at improving humanity was mentioned. Further, the aforementioned information overload, combined with widespread negative sentiment towards those who were handling information well enough to reap huge profits - financial, emotional, spiritual, and otherwise - caused a series of popular backlashes against many new technologies. A backlash usually started with a legitimate complaint about a particular product or service, but took on a life of its own that refused to acknowledge when the original issue was addressed, with participants continuing to complain as if the complaints had never been answered. Before long, these backlashes became indiscriminate and uncompromising, running on instinctive fear of anything unknown, enough to cause a backlash of their own.
Perhaps the best example is that of the ecoterrorists who raided a US government laboratory that was deliberately poisoning trees in order to test possible cures for Anthrax-b. The laboratory was in a race against time to save the 10041st Armored Battalion, who had been exposed to Anthrax-b in the process of preventing the Golden Jihad movement from "purifying" India of their enemies. The 10041st was visiting on the night of the raid, preparing to go into quarantine if the Anthrax-b could not be cured before it became contagious. When the raiders identified themselves, brandished guns, and asked everyone in the lab to leave so as not to be hurt when they burned the lab down, the 10041st killed them in a brief firefight. A show trial absolved the 10041st of murder charges on the grounds that they were protecting their only hope for life, therefore to defend the laboratory was to defend their own lives. The ramifications of this legal precedent, and similar ones in the EU, Japan, Russia, Australia, Chile, South Africa, and other countries, are still being debated by legal scholars.
However, the immediate political effect was to spark growing resentment of the anti-technology movements. One of the central theses of these movements was a fear of these technologies being used to alter human beings; thus, resentment of everything the movements stood for gave political support to all kinds of research explicitly designed to improve humanity. This lead directly to the EU commissioning the third enabling factor: the Human Neural Translation Project (HNTP). In the fashion of the earlier Human Genome Project, this was designed to create a generic map of the human brain and which patterns of neural impulses mapped to which thoughts. This map would allow implanted devices to send and read ideas, memories, and sensations to and from the human mind. As with the Human Genome Project, a decent amount of this project's work had already been done. It was known, for instance, that only a generic map could be created, for each brain differed in some details from every other brain. Cybernetic device makers' widespread use of "training scripts", which adapted each individual device to its user over time, meant that only a generic map was needed for these devices to use as a starting point.
Even before the HNTP announced official completion, products were already hitting the market that allowed people to download knowledge, storing information that was not currently in use and prompting the mind with ideas relevant to whatever was currently being contemplated. Practically all versions of these products were made modular, so that only the initial installation needed any surgery; upgrades could be delivered either via signals transmitted by induced current or, once someone figured out how to make plugs that could breach the skin without risk of infection, direct cable link. However, all of these versions had the same module installed by default, which gave users the basics of logic and how to learn new information. It is widely suspected that the vendors all copied the same module, but there are no records of who might have written it, and no one has taken credit. The information modules we take for granted today, with packages of skills and knowledge available on demand, all have the same basic architecture as this default logic module.
The ability to download knowledge was hailed at the time as the start of a new golden era of science. Critics highlighted numerous problems with this idea, most notably the fact that utopia had not yet arrived. However, it should be pointed out that, as has been the case every decade since at least the 1990s, we now live in an era of unprecedented wealth and enlightenment, and all signs are that the next decade will be even better in these respects.
People are living longer, are healthier, and have more productive lives; some figures indicate that the average expected life of a human is growing about one year every year, leading many to ponder whether we are now practically immortal or soon will be. Advances in nanomanufacturing now allow most population centers to generate their own food, water, and power, regardless of any efforts to block shipment by corrupt governments or hostile neighbors. In fact, these advances have directly caused the essential termination of those governments and hostilities, as measured by their reduced tendency to provoke conflicts.
Further contributing to our relative peace is the ability to quickly download someone else's entire chain of reasoning, if that someone else makes it available for download. Most people find it far easier to highlight points of disagreement by exchanging these chains than to convey their arguments in words, since there is almost no miscommunication when exchanging thought itself. This has caused a significant decrease in the type of misunderstandings that lead to violence.
Although money and certain rare physical resources still play a part in our lives, most people work more for fame and credit than for money. The cost of living almost everywhere has dropped to where the old minimum wage laws - which have not been updated since 2023, even to account for inflation - now guarantee the necessities of life to anyone willing to work just 10 hours a week. Unprecedented levels of investment, made possible by the money most people earn by working more than 10 hours a week, ensure that there are enough jobs for everyone.
It is true that we do not live in a utopia. For instance, not everyone has the ability to download thought. Some people have physically damaged brains, which the generic map does not fit, but there are ways to rig the map to fit these individuals. Some people choose not to have the modules installed, and while a few of these have developed alternate ways of coping - which, once understood, tend to be incorporated into the devices and distributed as a module upgrade - most of these find themselves unable to function in today's society. These people are, as a rule, unemployable, ignorant, and occasionally dangerous. For example, the ecoterrorists described above would act much the same, with the same results, if they found themselves in today's world.
One of the current great philosophical debates is whether to force the modules on these people. While it is obvious to us what the benefits to them - and the rest of society - would be, most of them have not actively done any wrong that would warrant coercion. We all benefit when one of them, not having the same set of ideas most of us share, comes up with an improvement on our processes. The only module on which there is no debate is the one that teaches how to learn and adapt to new situations; while this skill can be picked up even without downloading, those who do not, or refuse to, know it are universally worse off. Some countries are considering legislation to compel installation of a module if these skills are not known by the local age of adulthood, though public sentiment against these laws makes it unlikely they will be passed at this time.
Which leads me back to my original point. With the ability to flow more freely from field to field, most people choose to be jacks of all trades, taking whatever career path they feel like, pursuing it for a number of years, and switching when they grow bored. This is certainly a useful way of life, and ensures that we never run too low of any one talent for long. Whenever we do, someone always comes up with a module for that talent if one does not yet exist. However, I feel that I might possibly be able to contribute more by devoting my life - or at least possibly the next several centuries, if the immortalists are correct - to but one pursuit. I will, of course, contribute any modules for ideas and skills I develop on the way, so that others may skip up to my level, but I will not change from my course.
You may find this amusing. With all the changes that we have seen recently, and the ever-increasing rate of changes, how will I know that whatever occupation I choose will not soon become obsolete? I acknowledge this risk, and if it does, then I will switch, just like anyone else. But I want to take one field, one area of expertise, and see if I can refine it until it can be logically proven that no higher level of mastery is possible. Throughout human history, there have been those who were the best at their time, and possibly the best yet, past or present. I want to be the best in something for all time, or at least the first who was the best: anyone else who needs to be good in that area can then copy a module I will create to communicate my experience. Maybe, if I succeed, I can change to another field, or maybe my success will open up some completely new field. I honestly doubt that, even given several times the universe's age, I will be able to master all that can be mastered, nor would all of us combined if we tried. All signs are that there are an infinite number of skills out there that we can learn.
The field I choose first is...
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