There exists the potential for the world to be transformed by technology more radically than we can imagine in the next few decades – and yet we are largely unprepared for it. That is the message I came away with at the first ever 2016 Princeton Envision Conference, a weekend gathering of some of the brightest young minds from top undergraduate and graduate programs. With four other InSITE Fellows, I heard from some of the world’s eminent researchers in fields as diverse as neuroscience and plasma physics, and interacted with some of the technologies that will change the world and even what it means to be human.
The first day began with an opening introduction by Luke Nosak, one of the founders of PayPal and the Founders Fund. He was both excited and concerned about the future, specifically the societal impact of AI and the singularity, which is the moment at which we create an artificial superintelligence (should it ever arrive). These conflicting feelings became a prevalent theme amongst most of the conference’s speakers about the promise and the dangers of revolutionary technologies.
This was followed by a tour of the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, which holds the largest experimental fusion reactor of its kind. Nuclear fusion, which is the sun’s energy source, has the potential to solve the world’s energy needs, and yet its feasibility remains elusive. Given the current political climate, we were told that the U.S. could lose its position as a leader in fusion research.
The next day included a discussion of various moonshot initiatives in space, a panel contemplating the safety of artificial intelligence, and an introduction to the practical applications of virtual reality. Highlights include:
- Discussion of a plan, Breakthrough Starshot, to test solar sail technology by sending a postage stamp sized spacecraft powered by a solar sail. For a few seconds, a laser with enough energy to power France could propel the craft to speeds of up to 100 million miles an hour to Alpha Centauri, the nearest star system.
- A philosophical discussion of the timeline and likelihood of artificial intelligence. Most of the panelists agreed that within the next century – even a couple decades – machines will be able to replace most of the work humans currently perform. Panelists were also fascinated and concerned with the question of what the goals of a superintelligence would be and its views of humans. The analogy of homo sapiens’ dominance over its lesser developed rival species was brought up more than once. There was a broad consensus that more needed to be done to develop safeguards and prepare humanity for such an event.
- VR is another technology in its infancy, and my group took a tour of the practical applications that are rapidly developing. We painted in a virtual space, an experienced how painting could become a 3D experience, and learned about how VR could be applied to nuclear arms control. VR allowed weapons inspectors the ability to virtual inspect warheads.
The most insightful event on the third day was a panel discussion of advances in biotechnology and societal implications. Advances in the past decade in genetic editing have grown exponentially thanks to the discovery of CRISPR/Cas9, which if you haven’t heard of yet you likely will over the coming decades. The DNA sequence allows for existing genes to be added and/or new ones added, and has immense potential to revolutionize areas from agriculture to disease control to the human body and mind.
This conference is invaluable for anyone interested not just in the technology of the future but also the societal and policy implications. It was also an amazing way to meet some of the brightest researchers and students across the country. I highly recommend it to all InSITE fellows. More information can be found at http://envision-conference.com
Deed Ziegler is an InSITE Fellow at Columbia Business School, MBA ’18. Prior to grad school, Deed was an Infantry and Intelligence Officer in the US Marine Corps.