Crystal-Ball Time

Every December the online intellectual salon called Edge, presided over by literary agent John Brockman, asks a select (virtual) assembly of scientists to ponder a question, such as what they are optimistic about (2007), what “dangerous” ideas they have (2006) and what they believe is true but cannot prove (2005). As the bell tolls on 2008 and rings in 2009, Edge is unveiling this year’s: “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”

As usual, the offerings vary as much in quality as a cheap spumante does from Dom Perignon. Predictably, contributors foresee space colonization and the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. More intriguing, there are predictions that a new human species will evolve from Homo sapiens, and that we will discover how to identify the brain pattern that indicates a person is about to commit a violent act (and will also discover how to suppress that pattern).

Read them yourself, but here are a handful that will give your brain a good workout to start the New Year:

*Harvard psychologist Howard Gardner  foresees a day when it will be possible to “delineate the nature of talent.” Genetics will reveal whether “highly talented individuals have a distinctive, recognizable genetic profile,” while neuroscience will show whether there are “structural or functional neural signatures” of talent. As for the game-changing part (especially in a society where people have the delusion that everyone is equally talented, or can become so), imagine what happens if these signatures can be recognized in infancy.

*Physicist Freeman Dyson of the Institute for Advanced Study imagines the development of “tools to observe and direct the activities of a human brain in detail from the outside,” making possible “observation or control of a brain.” Since microwaves travel through brain tissue, putting a microwave transmitter inside a brain would let its activity be sent to the outside world, making possible what he calls “radiotelepathy, the direct communication of feelings and thoughts from brain to brain.” Change everything? Oh yeah. Radiotelepathy could be used for good or for evil, Dyson writes, “a basis for mutual understanding and peaceful cooperation of humans all over the planet . . . [or] a basis for tyrannical oppression and enforced hatred between one communal society and another. . . . A society bonded together by radiotelepathy would be experiencing human life in a totally new way.”

*Neurobiologist Leo Chalupa of UC Davis looks forward to the day when science can restore the plasticity of the adult brain to what it was in early childhood. If “the high degree of brain plasticity normally evident only during early development can now be made to occur throughout the life span,” he writes, it would be “a game changer in the brain sciences. Imagine being able to restore the plasticity of neurons in the language centers of your brain, enabling you to learn any and all languages effortlessly and at a rapid pace. The restoration of neuronal plasticity would also have important clinical implications since unlike in the mature brain, connections in the developing brain are capable of sprouting (i.e. new growth).”

*Neurologist Marcel Kinsbourne of The New School foresees the dawning of cosmetic neurology (a term I prefer to his “neurocosmetics”), in which healthy people transform their brains much as people now transform their bodies with cosmetic surgery. “In some form, deep brain stimulation will be used to modify personality so as to optimize professional and social opportunity,” he writes. “Ethicists will deplore this, and so they should. But it will happen nonetheless, and it will change how humans experience the world and how they relate to each other in as yet unimagined ways.”