The Future? It’s all good….

New Pew survey result here.

Money quote:

  • 81% expect that within the next 50 years, people needing new organs will have them custom grown in a lab.
  • 51% expect that computers will be able to create art that is indistinguishable from that produced by humans.
  • 39% expect that scientists will have developed the technology to teleport objects.
  • 33% expect that humans will have colonized planets other than Earth.
  • 19% expect that humans will be able to control the weather in the foreseeable future.

I’n really dubious about teleportation. And I’ll be happily surprised if we’ll have colonized other planets or fixed the weather issue.

Krasnow growth

As we gathered for the annual holiday party and group photo earlier this week, I was struck by how much the Institute has grown over the past decade–there are so many Institute scientists, students and staff now, one faculty member pointed out that it’s no longer possible to even recognize everyone. That growth has manifested not only in people, but also in a host of other ways ranging from space, shared instrumentation, grants and published peer-review reports. Not to mention programs: it’s a true pleasure to interact with doctoral students from two programs–social complexity and neuroscience–as I walk around the Institute’s spaces.

Yes this growth brings with it real challenges. How do we manage the increased administrative work-load with an already over-worked staff? If budget permits, of course, we add folks, but those new individuals must be trained and that takes time–time that is already in short supply. At the same time, we are faced with the challenges of providing the shared instrumentation that is absolutely crucial to asking the scientific questions relevant to “mind sciences”. Finally, there is the critical task of building upon the critical mass of institute faculty with new faculty lines and (this is crucial) adequately resourcing those lines to be both market competitive and scientifically viable.

All of this brings me to the real challenge: developing an endowment for the Institute’s core activities (as distinct from those supported by research grants). An endowment which can supplement the state funds which we are generously provided by Mason and ultimately the Virginia tax-payer. To build that endowment will require a combination of support from individuals and foundations at least an order of magnitude beyond what we have been able to achieve since Mr. Krasnow’s founding bequest in 1990.

Building that endowment will require a compelling narrative. Part of the purpose of this blog has been to help me frame that narrative (over time) and I have found the comments from loyal readers to be of great usefulness in that process. Certainly our centrality within the new “Decade of the Mind” project should telegraph something about that nascent “elevator speech”. Stay tuned.


Krasnow in 2056: II

My hope is that the Institute will have no more than perhaps 150 scientific staff. That’s just a bit more than twice our current size. The reason is that, at least in my experience, scientific research institutions when they grow larger than that, inevitably gain an intermediate layer of bureaucracy–the dreaded mid-level managers. I’m guessing that 50 years from now, interpersonal interactions between real people will still be crucial to maintaining a productive milieu for doing science. Hence, the current growth path (in terms of staff numbers) will have to slow.

On the other hand, I’m imagining that the scientific productivity of our staff will reach a level qualitatively different from what we do now. Part of that will be due to advances in technology which will allow us to finally ask (and answer) some of the hard questions about human consciousness, and part will be due to a new level of data-sharing between researchers around the world. Krasnow scientists will have access to primary experimental data (and therefore be able to test hypotheses) in an open access manner. My hope is that this data-sharing gives us a much larger bang-for-the research buck.

I am also anticipating that Krasnow scientists will be studying cognition and developing theories of neural and machine computation that are much more unified with the rest of our physical model of the universe around us. It seems to me that new hierarchical levels will be added to the ones we currently study (molecules to brains) that connect us both to the quantum world but also to the galactic scale. Perhaps, we will find new rules that constrain intelligence (or at least our complete understanding of the same). Alternatively, perhaps we will find traces of the emergence of human intelligence in the initial events of The Big Bang. These are some of the mysteries for the future.


What will Krasnow look like in 2056?: I

Over the next several blogposts I’ll imagine a thriving institute for
advanced study in the year 2056, a half-century from now. I’ll be long
gone of course, but my hope is that the Institute will be a world-center
for research, even more-so than it is today–perhaps with science
spanning the fields of astrobiology, anthropology, brain sciences and
new fields that we don’t even have names for today.

Will we be bigger? I imagine yes, but not by that much. Too many PI’s
and management starts to become unwieldy. But our tendrils will be
everywhere: summer school courses at exotic locations, Krasnow PI
authored books translated into many languages and perhaps intelligent
machines (robots) designed at Krasnow exploring the nether reaches of
the solar system.

This will be an optimistic look ahead: one that assumes we’ve got the
world’s current existential problems well in hand. There will be
problems of course–and Institute scientists will be at the forefront of
solving practical problems, but no apocalypse….call me naive.

So let’s look ahead….