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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Monday, January 7, 2019

Why There May Be Few Science Breakthroughs Before 2050

Some have claimed that the pace of technological and scientific progress is accelerating. But while technology is progressing at a brisk pace, there is little evidence that progress in science is accelerating. In fact, there are reasons for thinking that our current scientific progress is occurring at a rather slow rate.  In December 2018 Gizmodo.com published a post entitled “The Biggest Science Stories of 2018.” The post failed to mention any new discoveries that were very noteworthy. The list of top science stories of 2018 included quite a few items that were not breakthroughs, such as the following:

  • Scientists continued to warn about climate change” (important, but nothing new) 
  • Stephen Hawking passed away”
  • Space equipment broke”
  • More fancy space equipment is on the way”
  • Drinking and smoking still bad”
  • More natural disasters”

These are not at all the type of items one would see in a “top science stories of the year” article if science progress was occurring at a very impressive rate.

Below are ten reasons why there may be relatively few big breakthroughs in science during the next 30 years.

Reason #1: The Low-Hanging Fruit Has Already Been Picked

The scientific discoveries of the past 100 years have involved finding out about basic facts about nature, such as: (1) the fact that all life is made of cells; (2) the basic facts about the parts of cells, such as mitochondria and DNA; (3) the basic facts about the sun and how it makes energy; (3) the basic structure of the universe and its expansion. Finding out such things was relatively easy. But finding out more subtle truths about the working of nature may be much, much harder, a job we can compare to picking the high-hanging fruit of a very tall apple tree.

Reason #2: Very Hard Abiogenesis May Limit the Biology Breakthroughs

Biologists hoped that by now there would be two giant headlines from the world of biology, one reading “Life Created in Lab,” and the other reading “Life Found in Space.” The first headline would be one announcing the creation of a microscopic life form from chemicals swirling about in some artificial environment simulating the early Earth. The second headline would be one announcing the discovery of extraterrestrial life. But there is a huge reason for thinking that we will see neither of these headlines in the next 30 years. The reason is that abiogenesis (the appearance of life from non-life) seems to be incredibly hard, requiring a kind of miracle of luck, rather like the luck needed to throw a deck of cards into the wind, with the deck forming into a house of cards. If abiogenesis is so very difficult, the chance of us seeing either the “Life Made in Lab” breakthrough or the “Extraterrestrial Life Found” breakthrough before 2050 may be very slim.

Reason #3: The Breakthroughs Hoped for by Neuroscientists May Be Impossible

If you are a person believing in the dogmatic assumptions of neuroscientists, you may hope for two giant breakthroughs. The first would be for neuroscientists to discover an explanation of how a brain can create consciousness, ideas, and thinking. The second would be for neuroscientists to discover biological workings of memory, such as exactly how a brain stores memories and how a brain retrieves memories so quickly. Given the financial factors that reward exaggeration and hype, we will no doubt continue to see click-bait hype stories with headlines such as “Secret of Memory Found” (articles that do not stand up to critical scrutiny). But there are very good reasons for thinking that there will never be any neuroscience breakthrough that explains how a brain could store memories for 50 years, nor any neuroscience breakthrough explaining how a brain could instantly recall memories, nor any neuroscience breakthrough explaining how a brain could produce consciousness, self-hood, thought or idea. These reasons are all the reasons for thinking that consciousness, thought, self-hood and memory are actually not products of the brain at all.

Below are a few (but by no means all) of the many reasons for doubting the “brains produce minds” claim:
  • the fact that there are many dramatic cases (discussed here and here) in the medical literature of people who had more or less normal minds even though large fractions of the brain (or most of their brains) were destroyed due to injury, disease, or hemispherectomy;
  • the fact that there is no scientific understanding at all of how brains or neurons could be producing consciousness, thought, understanding or abstract ideas (mental things that are very hard or impossible to explain as coming from physical things);
  • the fact that there is no plausible account to be told of how brains could possibly be storing memories that last for fifty years, given the high protein turnover in synapses, where the average protein only lasts a few weeks;
  • the fact that there is no understanding of how brains could achieve the instantaneous recall of distant, obscure memories that humans routinely show, given the lack of any coordinate system or indexing in a brain that might allow some exact position of a stored memory to be very quickly found;
  • the fact (discussed here) that there is no understanding of how concepts, visual information, long series of words, and episodic memories could ever be physically stored by a brain in any way that would translate all these diverse types of information into synapse states or neuron states;
  • the fact that for more than 40 years numerous people have reported vivid near-death experiences occurring after their hearts stopped, during times when their brains were inactive, and they should have had no consciousness at all, with many of the medical details they reported during such experiences being independently verified (as described here).

If consciousness, thought, self-hood and ideas are not actually a product of the brain, and memories are not stored in brains, as suggested by the reasons above, then there will probably be in the next few decades very few big and exciting neuroscience breakthroughs, such as scientists reading memories from dead brains, or scientists making people super-smart by giving them brain implants.

Reason #4: There May Be No “Science Singularity,” Because of an Impossibility of Ever Producing Conscious Intelligence by Physical Effects

No one has any idea how to make a human-like intelligence by conventional techniques of accumulating manually coded programming logic. Hopes for a true general-purpose artificial mind rely on the idea of creating an electronic mind that somehow builds upon brain principles. The idea is to borrow some “mind from matter” principles found in a brain, and kind of “ramp up” those principles to a higher degree, making something even smarter than a human.

But the reasons listed above are reasons for thinking that human intelligence and consciousness is a spiritual, psychic or transcendent effect that cannot be explained by brain activity. If such a thing is correct, then probably none of the biggest breakthroughs anticipated for computers and robotics will occur. If there is no “mind from matter” principle employed by the human brain, we absolutely will not be able to make minds as smart or smarter than humans by employing and amplifying such a “mind from matter” principle.

If we are unable to produce super-intelligent robots or computers, then we will probably not have any kind of “science singularity,” in which a host of science breakthroughs occur because super-intelligent robots or super-intelligent computers are working on scientific research or solving scientific problems.

Reason #5: We May Not See Many Big Nanotechnology Breakthroughs

At the turn of the century, people were talking about a new industrial revolution that would be produced by nanotechnology, technology involving engineering incredibly small parts. Between 1990 and 2005 futurists predicted that nanotechnology would be the source of countless breakthroughs. But a 2015 Time magazine article was entitled, “Here's Why Nobody's Talking About Nanotech Anymore.”

Of all the investment fads and manias over the past few decades, none have been as big of a fizzle as the craze for nanotech stocks....Ten years on, precious few of the nanotech stocks and venture-backed startups have delivered on their investment promise ...According to Google Trends, searches on “nanotechnology” have steadily trended downward to between 15% and 20% of the levels of a decade ago. Searches for “nanotech” – the catchy buzzword preferred by investors – have grown even quieter.

Many of the more exotic applications of nanotechnology may not be technically feasible. Futurists have long advanced the idea that tiny nanobots may circulate through your body to repair your cells. But there may be technical reasons why such things are technically unfeasible. Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley argued that the molecular assemblers imagined by nanotechnology enthusiast Eric Drexler were not feasible, because of various scientific reasons such as what he called the “fat fingers” problem.

Reason #6: Physical Factors May Make Cosmology Breakthroughs Unlikely

In the field of cosmology, there is little prospect for further breakthroughs any time soon. The past history of the universe would seem to forbid us from learning much of anything more about the universe's origin. During the first 300,000 of the universe's history, all light was hopelessly scattered by the extreme density of matter and energy. So we can't look back to the very beginning of the universe just by building bigger telescopes. Due to the impossibility of observing other universes, there is no possibility of verifying any speculation about a multiverse. There is always the possibility that some exotic experiment might provide an observation of dark matter or dark energy, but the chance of that seems rather slim.

Reason #7: Immensely Complex Biology and the Limits of DNA May Limit Genetic Engineering Breakthroughs

Before the Human Genome Project was completed in 2003, it was predicted that once this project was completed, the door would be open to a thousand breakthroughs. We were told that once we had mapped human genes, we could then start achieving all kinds of medical progress by gene manipulation. But the medical progress that has followed the completion of the Human Genome Project has been relatively small. Part of the reason is that the role of genes is incredibly complex. A single effect in the body may be the product of hundreds of genes interacting, just as a symphony is the product of 60 or more instruments; and there are countless effects and structures in the body that seem impossible to explain by genes (which are basically just lists of amino acids, not agents). Very much that is going on in the body cannot be explained only by genes, such as protein folding, embryonic development and morphogenesis. Because of the gigantically complex workings of the human body, and the limited causal power of genes and DNA, there may be relatively few breakthroughs produced by genetic engineering.

Reason #8: The “Collector's Curve” Will Limit Progress in Paleontology

One way in which scientific progress might occur is by research in paleontology that clarifies natural history. But the prospects of progress in this area are slim, because of something called “the collector's curve.” The collector's curve is a law of diminishing returns that means the longer scientists have looked for something like fossils, the smaller the results will be. The most numerous and easy-to-find fossils have already been found, and it will be harder and harder to find fossils still undiscovered.

Reason #9: Science Research Dollars Will Continue to Be Poorly Allocated, As Researchers Try to Shore Up Dogmas, Failing to Pursue Countless Promising Leads

Modern academic science is massively infected by dogma, and a substantial fraction of scientific activity involves trying to shore up existing dogmas.  So, for example, neuroscientists spend endless hours experimenting with rodents, trying to get some result that will shore up existing dogmas about brains and minds; and biologists spend endless hours trying various arrangements of genomic data, trying to get some hypothetical ancestry diagram that will be compatible with existing natural history dogmas.  Meanwhile, a thousand more profitable lines of research go largely unexplored, often because pursuing such lines of research would lead to results conflicting with existing dogmas.  So, for example, there is relatively little follow-up on a hundred previous research findings indicating the reality of paranormal phenomena (such as the phenomena described in these 43 posts). 

The result is that scientists spend huge amount of time on relatively fruitless research, and very little time on the type of research that might be really productive in the sense of leading to breakthroughs that overturn existing paradigms.  Probably speaking about psychic phenomena, the great technologist  Nikola Tesla once said, "The day science begins to study non-physical phenomena, it will make more progress in one decade than in all the previous centuries of its existence.” But our scientists haven't taken Tesla's advice, and continue to spend very little time doing research that might produce "disruptive" results, which is the type of research that really leads to breakthroughs. 


Reason #10: The Essential Mysteries of Nature May Take Thousands of Years to Unravel

At the core of the dubious triumphalist narratives told by many scientists is the underlying assumption that some of nature's central problems are fairly easy puzzles, that there are central aspects of nature that are fairly simple, simple enough for a single clever human scientist to figure out. An example of this is the idea that biological complexity arises because of a reason so simple that a nineteenth century naturalist was able to figure out this simple reason. Another example is the assumption that the human mind can be figured out by merely doing enough research on one little blob of matter inside the human body.

But what if nature's deepest workings actually involve unfathomable complexities and profound subtleties far beyond the ken of current humans? What if our chance of figuring out nature's key secrets in the next 30 years is like the chance of some Eskimo who has never seen technology understanding the electronics of Times Square if he is suddenly placed in it? What if the universe isn't so conveniently structured so that we can make titanic breakthroughs by coming up with simple explanatory principles or researching just one human organ? Then it may either take humans thousands of additional years of effort to figure out the deepest mysteries of nature, or perhaps such mysteries will never be understood by humans. In such a case, any progress we make in the next 30 years may be relatively tiny, and will probably not result in many dramatic breakthroughs in understanding.

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