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Which Breakthrough?

Entry 1085, on 2009-09-08 at 20:58:02 (Rating 2, Science)

A recent Slashdot poll asked users which scientific breakthrough is most likely. The options were: time travel, FTL travel, human-level AI, discovery of aliens, immortality, world peace, and sharks with frickin' lasers.

Obviously the last one was facetious so I will ignore that although I should say that it was the second most voted for option so either Slashdot readers like to take polls a bit less than totally seriously or they genuinely thought that the other options were all very unlikely.

So what did people think were the most likely breakthroughs? In order they were: human-level AI (38%), discovery of aliens (17%), immortality (5%), FTL travel (3%), world peace (1%), and time travel (0%).

There are two items there which are currently considered impossible according to the laws of physics: FTL [faster than light] travel and time travel. Interestingly world peace was rated even lower than one of the impossible options! Maybe the voters are rather cynical about human nature!

Immortality is an interesting one. Its a little bit hard to interpret because literal immortality is probably impossible because eventually the universe will run out of energy and as entropy increases life in any form we currently understand will become impossible. Of course there could be ways to get around this problem without breaking the physical laws: the universe might turn out to be infinite for example, with new areas of space continually appearing resulting in new energy becoming available.

Alternatively immortality might be interpreted as meaning living for an incomprehensibly long time, even if not exactly forever. I think very long life spans will become common in the next hundred years but that isn't really immortality and what about the other options?

Discovery of aliens is a virtual certainty. Many people are puzzled about why we haven't discovered them already and most think its a matter of when rather than if this will happen. As well as being fairly certain to happen this would be a very important discovery which might change many people's understanding of the universe. If humans weren't the only intelligent species in the universe it would alter the perspective of many groups, I think.

So human-level AI (artificial intelligence) was seen as the most likely which is interesting because real AI has been "just around the corner" for many years now and has never really happened. I remember doing a postgrad paper on the subject many years ago when I was a student and artificial intelligence and its practical offshoot, expert systems, were seen as the next big thing. But this didn't happen.

Perfecting AI might be just a matter of throwing lots of computer power and memory at the problem rather than having unusually complex algorithms so the natural progress of technology might ensure this does happen fairly quickly. But one problem will be to define exactly what human-level AI is. Intelligence is an imprecise term itself so defining when an imprecise concept reaches a certain level is sure to be full of controversy.

So the likelihood of progress on each of the technologies is rather difficult to judge. In fact there is only one option which is fairly straightforward (assuming someone sees it as worthwhile): those sharks with the frickin' lasers!

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Comment 1 (2493) by SBFL on 2009-09-09 at 07:48:15:

I was going to answer FTL Travel because I didn't know what FTL stood for...maybe "Frequent Traveller Ltd"? Anway I wisely looked it up on Google before sticking by it, and yes, I am sure it is against multiple fundamental laws of physics.

Of course the answer is immortality. The answer is simply put in John 8:12, but even before thinking of typing the first letter of this paragraph I could hear your mocking protestations!! Okay you know I am winding you up with this so don't even bother refuting me.

On a more physical basis, I agree that discovery of aliens is probably the most likely. I read this last week in Newsweek (which I normally refuse to read but it was free, the only option, and I had time to kill): Our Search for Alien Life

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Comment 2 (2494) by OJB on 2009-09-09 at 08:33:01:

Yes, fair enough. I forget that not everyone is a science/science fiction geek like me! I did explain it in paragraph 4 as well. I recognised you weren't being entirely serious in quoting the Bible verse. Some people would have done that seriously of course!

That Newsweek article isn't bad as a simple introduction to the subject. The fact that aliens haven't been discovered (assuming you ignore the UFO conspiracy theorists) might mean there's something we are overlooking and maybe life isn't as common as we think it should be.

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Comment 3 (2495) by SBFL on 2009-09-09 at 10:31:21:

True you did expain FTL in your paragraph 4 but obviously I was referring to my initial thought to the Slashdot poll question outlined in your paragraph 1 (I even admit to sometimes forming pre-conceived opinions based on your post title, before even clicking on it!!)

Yes I was not serious with the bible reference in the sense of immortality as defined in the Slashdot context (and your post), but you know me emough to know I treat it as serious in the spiritual sense (please don't go there now, it's late where I am!).

Yes the linked Newsweek article wasn't bad (just that I think Newsweek in general is). I guess the odds are thin of finding intelligent life - based on our current technology - but the odds are not too bad that there is something other than rock and gas out there. Time will tell.

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Comment 4 (2496) by OJB on 2009-09-09 at 11:16:56:

Sure, I understand what you're saying. I try to make the post titles weird but relevant. OK, I agree not to discuss spirituality and the afterlife at this point. Another time maybe?

Many people think intelligent life should be easy to find. Its estimated that it would only take about a million to 10 million years for a civilisation only slightly more advanced than ours (say 100 years) to colonise the whole galaxy. If that happened it should be obvious and a few million years isn't much on the cosmic time scale. So the question is: where are they?

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