2009 : WHAT WILL CHANGE EVERYTHING?

[ print ]

Professor of Physics, Institute for Advanced Study; Author, Many Colored Glass; The Scientist as Rebel

What will change everything?  What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?

Since I am 85, I cannot expect to see any big changes in science during my life-time. I beg permission to change the question to make it more interesting.

What will change everything?  What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect your grandchildren to see?

I assume that some of my grandchildren will be alive for the next 80 years, long enough for neurology to become the dominant game-changing science. I expect that genetics and molecular biology will be dominant for the next fifty years, and after that neurology will have its turn. Neurology will change the game of human life drastically, as soon as we develop the tools to observe and direct the activities of a human brain in detail from the outside.

The essential facts which will make detailed observation or control of a brain possible are the following. Microwave signals travel easily through brain tissue for a few centimeters. The attenuation is small enough, so that signals can be transmitted from the inside and detected on the outside. Small microwave transmitters and receivers have bandwidths of the order of gigahertz, while neurons have bandwidths of the order of kilohertz. A single microwave transmitter inside a brain has enough bandwidth to transmit to the outside the activity of a million neurons. A system of 10^5 tiny transmitters inside a brain with 10^5 receivers outside could observe in detail the activity of an entire human brain with 10^11 neurons. A system of 10^5 transmitters outside with 10^5 receivers inside could control in detail the activity of 10^11 neurons. The microwave signals could be encoded so that each of the 10^11 neurons would be identified by the code of the signal that it transmits or receives.

These physical tools would make possible the practice of "Radiotelepathy", the direct communication of feelings and thoughts from brain to brain. The ancient myth of telepathy, induced by occult and spooky action-at-a-distance, would be replaced by a prosaic kind of telepathy induced by physical tools. To make radiotelepathy possible, we have only to invent two new technologies, first the direct conversion of neural signals into radio signals and vice versa, and second the placement of microscopic radio transmitters and receivers within the tissue of a living brain. I do not have any idea of the way these inventions will be achieved, but I expect them to emerge from the rapid progress of neurology before the twenty-first century is over.

It is easy to imagine radiotelepathy as a powerful instrument of social change, used either for good or for evil purposes. It could be a basis for mutual understanding and peaceful cooperation of humans all over the planet. Or it could be a basis for tyrannical oppression and enforced hatred between one communal society and another. All that we can say for certain is that the opportunities for human experience and understanding would be radically enlarged. A society bonded together by radiotelepathy would be experiencing human life in a totally new way. It will be our grandchildren's task to work out the rules of the game, so that the effects of radiotelepathy remain constructive rather than destructive. It is not too soon for them to begin thinking about the responsibilities that they will inherit. The first rule of the game, which should not be too difficult to translate into law, is that every individual should be guaranteed the ability to switch off radio communication at any time, with or without cause. When the technology of communication becomes more and more intrusive, privacy must be preserved as a basic human right.

Another set of opportunities and responsibilities will arise when radiotelepathy is extended from humans to other animal species. We will then experience directly the joy of a bird flying or a wolf-pack hunting, the pain of a deer hunted or an elephant starved. We will feel in our own flesh the community of life to which we belong.  I cannot help hoping that the sharing of our brains with our fellow-creatures will make us better stewards of our planet.