Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
30 Dec. 1999 - 5 Jan. 2000
Issue No. 462
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20th century Special issue  [INDEX]

As the third millennium dawns:

Science, globalisation and the social dimension

Will science liberate, or destroy us in the coming millennium? Mohamed Sid-Ahmed ponders the question
The December 1999 issue of Scientific American, dubbed the end-of-the-millennium special issue, cited eight questions to which science is likely to have found the answers by the year 2050: Can physics be unified? Can aging be postponed? How was the Universe born? How does the mind work? What secrets do genes hold? Can robots be intelligent? Is there life in outer space? How much do we change the climate?

Of course, the list is by no means an exhaustive one. Nor can it be said that the topics selected by the review are necessarily those to which scientific endeavour will be directed in the next fifty years. The former editor of the prestigious magazine, Nature, Sir John Maddox, introduced the debate by questioning whether the most important discoveries of the next fifty years might not occur in areas of which we cannot now even conceive. Contrary to the twentieth century where science developed a rather positivistic and optimistic philosophy and where the future was believed to be predictable, the third millennium is beginning on a pessimistic note, with future developments shrouded in much ambiguity and uncertainty.

True, three fundamentally new fields now hold the forefront of modern science: the ultra-large to which cosmology is devoted; the ultra-small, which is dealt with in the field of quantum mechanics, and, finally, the ultra-complex, a whole new field of scientific endeavour which has grown out of the realisation that the world is not linear and which has given rise to the theory of chaos. The infinitely large now extends to a cosmos which includes billions of galaxies, each comprising billions of stars. The infinitely small extends to elementary particles whose size, in relation to atoms, is similar to the size of an atom in relation to the solar system. This perception of a spectrum that extends from the infinitely small to the infinitely large has developed an understanding of the universe based on the infinitely complex. What makes the situation still more bewildering is that Einstein's theory of general relativity, which deals with the cosmos as a whole, and quantum mechanics, which deals with elementary particles, are apparently incompatible. The central problem of fundamental physics as the new millennium dawns is how to overcome this incompatibility.

Earth viewed from the moon portends a new way of seeing our world, but gives few hints of the paths future discoveries will take
(source: Scientific American)

NO LONGER AT THE CENTRE: Certainly man's ability to grasp the complexity of the laws governing the universe places him ahead of all living creatures. At the same time, however, it has made him aware of his limitations. The irony is that his discovery of his relative position in the general scheme of things has dethroned him from his status as the centre of the Universe. Man inhabits a minor planet revolving around a very ordinary star in one of the billions of galaxies that we now know to exist. And, despite all the talk about the Information Revolution and the unprecedented proliferation of knowledge, man has also been deprived of the ability to eliminate ignorance. The more he knows, the more he becomes aware of what he does not know. Indeed, as the sphere of his knowledge expands in absolute terms, the sphere of what he knows he does not know expands at a still faster rate. In other words, his knowledge grows in absolute terms while it shrinks in relative terms. He will never reach the threshold where his quest for knowledge will be totally and definitively satisfied. There will always be room for uncertainty and doubt.

UNCERTAINTY: Complexity in man's understanding of his relations with the cosmos will have repercussions on his understanding of his relations with his fellow men. His new understanding of cosmic reality is bound to affect man's understanding of social reality. We can no longer talk of social and historical determinism as we once envisioned them. Random elements cannot be ignored. One can predict a mainstream movement; one cannot predict where a particular individual will stand in that movement, exactly as, in the case of quantum reality, we can either know the position of an elementary particle or its momentum, not both together. In other words, we can talk of the probability (not the certainty) that any given individual will be following any specific path. We have introduced a probability approach to historical and social reality, similar to what happens in quantum reality. The uncertainty that now clouds our knowledge of our natural environment is bound to come up against the certainties informing our socio-political behaviour. The two approaches contradict one another, exactly as quantum mechanics and Einstein's theory of gravitation are still understood to be incompatible with each other.

In a way, the uncertainties in the natural sciences have called into question many dogmas in the social sciences and ideological approaches. Assuming that, according to the laws of probability, mainstream developments in a given society produce greater welfare in that society, what are the chances that a given individual will be among the beneficiaries of that welfare? How valid is it, in terms of such a rationale, to talk about social guarantees in that society, about human rights, about the intrinsic rights of the individual citizen? The question is relevant because we cannot equate the rights of the individual with the rights ensured thanks to mainstream societal developments, given that our postulate is that relations between the individual and society are random and non-deterministic. This lack of correspondence between the macro (society) and the micro (the individual) is just as likely to engender new forms of polarisation and ever-wider discrepancies between those who are privileged and those who are not, i.e., new forms of social inequality, as it is to produce a trickle-down effect of well-being bringing about greater social harmony and equality.

MIND AND BRAIN: Why are these uncertainties becoming so pertinent? Is it because of a 'defect' in objective reality, or in the ability of the human mind to fathom reality? This puts forward another critical realm of present-day scientific enquiry, namely, how does the set of processes we call 'mind' emerge from the activity of the organ we call 'brain'?

A large body of work, especially in the 1990s, now points to the existence of a correspondence between the structure of an object as taken in by the eye, and the pattern of neuron activity generated within the visual cortex of the organism seeing that object. And whatever mental function we consider, it is now possible to identify distinct parts of the brain that contribute to the development of that function. A close correspondence exists between the appearance of a mental state and the activity of selected brain regions. We can eventually call the 1990s the 'decade of the brain' and it is probably safe to say that by 2050 sufficient knowledge of biological phenomena will have wiped out the traditional dichotomies of body/brain, body/mind and brain/mind (1).

Large-scale structure of the universe can be simulated by running cosmological models on a supercomputer. In this simulation each particle represents a galaxy (source: Scientific American)

ROBOTOLOGY: Moreover, thanks to computer science, the Information Revolution and robotology, human intelligence is extending its capabilities. Robots will outperform humans in a wide range of intellectual and physical areas of endeavour. Inevitably, such a development will lead to a fundamental restructuring of society. It is likely that future generations will cease to 'work' in the now accepted sense of the word, occupying their days, rather, with a variety of social, recreational and artistic pursuits, not unlike today's wealthy leisure classes.

The single best reason for optimism in robot sophistication is the soaring performance in recent years of mass produced computers. Through the 1970s and 1980s, the computers readily available to robotics and artificial-intelligence researchers were capable of executing about one million instructions per second (MIPS). In the 1990s, computer power suitable for controlling a research robot reached 10 MIPS, 100 MIPS and eventually 1000 MIPS.

Of course, computers and robots today fall far short of broad human or even animal competence. Even if we disregard the distinction between life and inanimate matter, and focus only on the degree of complexity which is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the creation of life, today's computers are only powerful enough to function like insect nervous systems. We can expect robots to match and surpass the capacity of various animals and then finally humans as computer-processing rates rise sufficiently high --that is, when computers reach 100 million MIPS and perform as the human mind does. With 'Moore's law' which states that computer power doubles every year, robot "intelligence" will surpass human intelligence well before 2050. Fully educated 'robot scientists' working diligently, cheaply, rapidly and increasingly effectively will ensure that most of what science knows in 2050 will have been discovered by man's artificial progeny! (2)

GENETICS: The assumption is that, with man's ever greater ability to expand his intellect and thus better fathom the world, he will become more capable of mastering both Self and the environment. But to what extent is human behaviour enhanced by man's interactive relationship with his environment, or is the upgrading of his abilities limited and constrained by genetics? Is it nurture or nature that finally determines human performance? Or has the time come to abandon this (other) dichotomy --a topic of great concern to present-day scientists?

Social Darwinism (the idea that in a neo-liberal capitalist economy the strong will outcompete the weak, resulting in a general improvement of the population) is sill inspiring political agendas. According to this view, the poor should not be aided in their struggle for existence so as not to upset the natural order! We are still bedeviled by the most retrograde expressions of racism that even the defeat of Nazism has not eradicated.

How do individuals, families and society respond the growing accumulation of knowledge concerning our genetic heritage, thanks mainly to the project known as the 'genome' which aims to decipher the code of life in the coming few decades? This difficult question cannot be reduced to a yes-or-no answer. Genetic information and technology will afford great opportunities to improve health and alleviate suffering. But any powerful technology comes with its own risks. In the case of genetics, people of ill will can use genetic arguments to justify racist views. How we will finally come to terms with the explosion of genetic information remains an open question.

What is likely to happen in the next millennium is that evolutionary approaches to human behaviour will become more and more sophisticated by explicitly taking cultural flexibility into account. Hence the traditional either/or approach to learning and instinct will be replaced by a more integrated perspective (as the case is in theoretical physics where corpuscular and wave theories of the propagation of light, for instance, have been reconciled). In the meantime, scientists in the field of animal behaviour will become more interested in environmental effects on behaviour, especially the possibility of cultural transmission of information and habits. These developments will weaken the dichotomies popular today to the point of perhaps eliminating them altogether, eventually through a Hegelian-style dialectical synthesis. (3)

A picture taken in 1922 of Albert Einstein who conceived the theory of relativity, surrounded by many of the founding fathers of quantum mechanics
(source: Quantum Mechanics for Beginners)

SCIENCE AND GLOBALISATION: For contemporary science to be consistent, its frame of reference can no longer be the science of the so-called 'developed', 'civilised' or 'western' world alone, but has to become science for all the human inhabitants of our planet, for the human species taken as an indivisible whole, irrespective of race, colour, ethnicity or any other distinction. In the gage of globalisation, it would be an aberration to adopt an Einsteinien approach to cosmology in the Western world, while adopting a pre-Einsteinien (Newtonian/Hegelian) approach in the Communist world (as was the case at a given time under Stalin) and an Aristotelian approach in a variety of cultures outside the developed world. After all, nuclear weapons would not have been fabricated without Einstein's contribution to fundamental science.

Fundamental science does not differ as we move from one society to another, from societies at one stage of development to another. Culture and civilisational values do differ from one community to the next, but not basic science. And what is proven to be scientific in the eyes of scientists at one specific point of the globe is scientific for the rest of the globe, whatever the differences in culture. The conquests of science are conquests for the whole of humankind.

LIFE IN OUTER SPACE: One intriguing issue without any scientific answer so far is whether life exists outside our own planet --moreover, whether intelligent beings exist, with civilisations less or more developed than our own. Generations of stargazers have scanned the heavens with naked eyes and telescopes without ever seeing any proof of astro-engineering, but what if the proof flashed for only a billionth of a second? One must admit that, so far, efforts to unravel this enigma have been less thorough than commonly believed. But that is about to change. Will it be resolved within the next millennium?

A preliminary question concerning this quest is to define what we mean by life. According to the 'Darwinian' definition, life is 'a self-sustained chemical system capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution by natural selection'. Unfortunately, this definition is not helpful from the point of view of space exploration. In practical terms, it must give way to less precise but operationally more effective definitions, such as trying to recognise life on Mars, for instance, or on Europa, a satellite of Jupiter, through its consumption of chemicals (checking for instance whether a soil sample fed with nutrients gives off gaseous carbon), or, more generally, a biochemical definition of life, that would be based, as on Earth, on organic carbon. (4)

A prerequisite for life is the existence of planets, stars being too hot to sustain life. What about other planetary systems? We already know of more planets outside our solar system than within it. Well before 2050, the first truly interstellar missions will be flying out of our solar systems. But they will not reach the nearest stars by 2050, even if science succeeds in drastically postponing aging. With present or even foreseeable technology, the trip would take tens of thousands of years. In theory, it is certainly possible to prolong life expectancy, but no single elixir will do the trick. Anti-aging therapies in the future will undoubtedly come up against a wide range of destructive biochemical processes. From interactive communications at the level of our globalised planet to interactive communications at the level of the solar system and ultimately beyond, enormous leaps forward are to be achieved that defy at the present time not only science, but even the most vivid imaginations.

(source: Quantum Mechanics for Beginners)

UNDERMINING EARTH'S ECOLOGICAL INFRASTRUCTURE: So far, we are not preparing our planet to face these new challenges. Particularly significant in this respect is the exponential growth of man-made pollution. Man-made pollution is compounded by the impact it has on the laws of nature. One graphic illustration of this aberration is the human impact on climate. As recognised by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change of the UN Environmental Programme in 1995, "the balance of evidence suggests a discernible human influence on global climate". But how much of a disruption do we cause? The much awaited comprehensive answer could be ours by 2050, but only if nations of the world commit themselves to long-term climate monitoring now. (5)

To correctly monitor the impact of climate change due to human influence, we must be able to demonstrate that our models stimulate past and present climate change before we can rely on models to predict the future. We will need supercomputers a million times faster than those in use today. Conservative estimates indicate that computer-processing speed will have increased by well over a million times by 2050.

The nineteen nineties have witnessed a warming of the planet that has exceeded anything recorded throughout the 130 years of registered meteorological history. The ozone hole on the South Pole, believed to increase climate warming, exceeded ten million square kilometres during 93 days in 1999 and the ice-cap covering the North Pole has melted throughout the last three decades over a surface of fourteen million square kilometres and its thickness has been reduced by 40 per cent. There are good reasons to believe hat global warming is reaching a critical threshold.

SCIENCE, THE ECOLOGICAL AND THE SOCIAL: On the eve of the third millennium, challenges and opportunities have reached unprecedented dimensions. More than ever before is the human species in need of a collective mind. Internet could be a first step in the right direction. But how to achieve such an inspiring objective while the human race remains divided by all sorts of inner contradictions? No doubt the growing awareness of our vulnerability in face of a universe we now realise is far more complex than we ever knew can bring us closer together, but it also engenders mechanisms that deepen the discrepancies within humankind taken as a whole.

For the privileged of our world, science progresses; for those who are marginalised, science regresses. For the latter, the metaphysical world becomes all the more potent, all the more overwhelming with respect to the physical world; resignation and fatalism replace hope to master one's own destiny; frustration replaces rational reactions in assessing what is happening to them. Such developments deepen the discrepancies between those who uphold the need for a scientific approach and those who see in it a negation of Self and of raison d'ètre. This explains why piety and religiosity are acquiring ever wider dimensions in an age where science is accomplishing unprecedented strides forward. This applies to all religions and not only to Islam.

As we enter the third millennium, the challenge is both ecological and social. Whether the ecological challenge will help overcome the social challenge, or the opposite, is still an open question. But how the two challenges interact will be decisive in determining the survival of the human species.


(1) Scientific American, December 1999, "How the Brain Creates the Mind?"

(2) Scientific American, December 1999, "Rise of the Robots".

(3) Scientific American, December 1999, "The End of Nature versus Nurture".

(4) Scientific American, December 1999, "Is There Life Elsewhere in the Universe?"

(5) Scientific American, December 1999, "The Human Impact on Climate".


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