Jo Marchant, consultant
New Scientist – 2 August 2010
In the 1970s, Karl Popper came up with a philosophical theory of reality that involved three interacting worlds: the physical world, the mental world, and “world 3”, which comprises all products of the human mind – from ideas, pictures and music to every word ever written.
Something very similar to world 3 is now real and increasingly influencing how we live, says George Djorgovski, co-director of the Center for Advanced Computing Research at Caltech. It’s called the internet.
It’s the first morning of Science Foo camp, and I’ve chosen a session called “virtualisation of science and virtualisation of the world”. In fact – fittingly for a meeting being held at Google headquarters – how we deal with life increasingly lived online turns out to be one of the main themes of the day. Djorgovski reckons that before long, being online will soon mean (among other things) not staring at a computer screen but being immersed in 3D virtual reality.
He thinks this will be key to how we’ll make scientific discoveries in the future. Forget graphs – two dimensions are totally inadequate for dealing with the vast amounts of data pouring out of everything from high-throughput genome sequencing to atom smashers like the Large Hadron Collider. We’ll need machine intelligence capable of analysing these huge data sets, he says, as well as ways to visualise and interact with the results in three dimensions.
Such technologies will surely revolutionise education too, with virtual learning replacing the traditional lecture. Djorgovski wants scientists and researchers to get more involved with this process now, pointing out that so far, advances in 3D technology are all coming from the entertainment industry: “We can’t let the video game industry drive the future in what’s the most important technology on the planet. There has to be more to it than spilling blood and slaying dragons.”
Sitting round the table are experts in everything from psychology and bioethics to space science. Pat Kuhl, an expert in early child learning from the University of Washington, wonders what learning everything online will do to young brains. The consensus around the table is that good or bad, the move into virtual reality environments is inevitable. “So let’s try and offer something more than games,” says Djorgovski.
In a subsequent session on children’s minds, Kuhl tells us about the importance of social cues in early learning. For example, it’s well-known that babies differ in their ability to distinguish sounds, depending on the language they are exposed to, by the time they are 10-12 months old. But Kuhl and her colleagues have recently shown that simply hearing the sounds is not enough. After a few sessions with a Mandarin speaker, American babies could distinguish certain sounds as well as Taiwanese babies, but those given the same exposure via audio or video learned nothing.
So if we don’t want kids’ brains to atrophy in an increasingly virtual world, we must work out how to incorporate the relevant social cues. Kuhl has already found that making the TV screen interactive, so babies can turn it on and off by slapping it, increases – a little bit – how much they learn. She’s now experimenting with web cams.
In the afternoon, UK journalist and commentator Andrew Marr tackles the question of what will happen to journalism in an online world, particularly as e-readers like the iPad – which Marr calls a “great engine of destruction” – become ubiquitous.
The media we consume will no longer be just words, or just pictures, but a collision of text, video, audio and animated graphics. And people will be able to choose individual items to consume, rather than buying a whole newspaper or watching just one channel.
Like most commentators, Marr thinks this will be the end of newspapers – and perhaps of traditional journalists too. But he thinks this can only be a good thing, arguing that journalism, with its short-term focus and trivial level of debate, has been failing us anyway. In the future he thinks news will come from niche, specialist groups, for example people interested in access to clean water, coming together online. These might include bloggers, campaigners and lobbyists. Above them, authoratitive news aggregators will pick out the most important stories of the day and feed them to the rest of us.
Marr says this new model will be good for journalism and for democracy, because the people within each community of interest will be experts, and won’t lose interest in a topic in the way that traditional reporters do.
I’m sure Marr’s right that newspapers as we know them are not going to survive. But I don’t feel so optimistic about his vision. I’m not sure that having aggregators pick from a pool of stories written by specialists with an agenda is necessarily going to give us good journalism. Who is going to write articles in a way that non-specialists can understand? Who will make connections between different fields? Who will have the authority to hold politicans to account? Unfortunately the session ends before we have a chance to get into these questions.
For some historical perspective, I end the day in a session run by Tilly Blyth, curator of computing at the Science Museum in London. Whereas Marr spoke to a packed lecture hall, now just five of us sit cosily around a table. Blyth tells us how the Science Museum is using online technologies to try to bring the history of science and technology into our everyday lives.
One project is an iPhone app that displays stories and pictures from history that are relevant to a user’s location. The other involves asking 200 British scientists to tell their life stories, then linking those oral histories to video clips, searchable transcripts, and perhaps the relevant scientific papers.
Blyth wants to create a “global memory” for science, so that we can learn from changes that have gone before. “We tend to think that we’re living through this amazing period of revolution,” she says.
Then she shows us a satirical illustration from 1880, entitled March of the Intellect, which depicts an array of futuristic contraptions including a steam-powered horse, a flying man, and a pneumatic tube linking London with Bengal. We aren’t the first generation to grapple with the implications of radical technological change. Food for thought as I join the queue for dinner.