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Challenge and Response

Dr. Bainbridge’s address to the JBS Haldane award ceremony dinner June 25, 2003 at Yale University.

The challenge we face today is the possible stagnation of scientific progress.  We can respond with indifference, activism, or rebellion.

Each of us who believes in the transcendence of human limitations must face this challenge in his or her own, personal way.  But we must also join together, in whatever networks or groups history permits us to form, to fight for progress and against stasis.

I am by nature an optimist, but there is much to be pessimistic about.

I was present at the end of the Space Age.  More than thirty years ago, I stood on a Florida beach, late on a dark night, as the horizon flared orange with the launch of Apollo 17, the last trip to the Moon.  The Space Age lasted just four years, from the lunar orbital flight of Apollo 8 in December 1968 through December 1972. 

At exorbitant cost, the space shuttle cannot fly much higher than three hundred miles above our heads, with an average loss of one human life every eight launches.  NASA’s periodic attempts to develop a successor to the shuttle have repeatedly failed.  Clearly, the conquest of space will require a radically new approach.

So, too, with the Atomic Age.  When I was four years old, multi-millionaire and nuclear scientist Alfred Lee Loomis took me into his laboratory and showed me secrets that were too highly classified for an adult who might understand their importance.  He took a cup, poured water into it, and I was astonished to see that the water poured right back out again magically through the solid ceramic material.  Only decades later did I realize that I had seen the fundamental secret of gas diffusion uranium isotope separation, and my first introduction to nanotechnology.

Where is the safe, cheap nuclear fission power we were promised?  Where, indeed, are the nuclear space rockets that were being developed in the 1960s?

Forty-four years ago, here at Yale, where I was majoring in physics, I attended a lecture about the prospects for controlled nuclear fusion. The lecturer predicted a breakthrough within five years. I am still waiting.

Sociology, political science, cultural anthropology, and social psychology have not progressed since I earned a doctorate in the first of these from Harvard in 1975.  I should be merciful to end my critique of social science right here.  Pointing out the many flaws of sociology is like beating a butterfly with a baseball bat - tiring and unlikely to improve its behavior.

In 1914, my medical scientist grandfather published a massive monograph, The Cancer Problem.  He would be dismayed to learn that science had still not solved that problem, eighty-nine years later.

The US Census Bureau apparently believes that medical progress is running into The Law of Diminishing Returns.

The average white American male born in 1900 could expect to live 48 years, but in 2000 this life expectancy had increased to 74 years.  For white females, the average life expectancy increased from 51 to 80.  Projecting these figures forward at the same rate of increase suggests that life expectancy in 2100 might be 114 for males and 125 for females However, using more elaborate assumptions, the US Census Bureau has projected that life expectancy for Americans born in the year 2100 might be only around 88 for males and 92 for females. These Census Bureau estimates are based on the observation that most improvements in longevity came from reducing the risk of death for infants and young adults, and it will be increasingly difficult to gain additional years through extending the lifespan of the elderly.

What about biotechnology, including genetic engineering?  When progress stalls in one science, it often accelerates in another science.  Eventually, breakthroughs in many related fields will resurrect innovation where earlier it had died.  However, genetic engineering has encountered severe opposition, and its political future remains gravely in doubt.

Very recently, advocates of genetically modified food technology have celebrated a victory of sorts, because farmers around the world have been adopting it, despite opposition to these “Frankenfoods.”  However bans against human cloning are spreading, and the larger political battles have not yet been fought. Like nuclear power before it, biotech may become ethically marginalized and thus prevented from making its full contribution.

Information technology has not yet become the target of retrograde political movements, but this could well happen in the near future, especially in reaction to the increasing government ability to conduct intrusive surveillance by means of computer networks.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) is an example of a controversial area that must be developed if humanity is ever to transcend the limitations of our current existence.  Way back in the 1960s, I remember discussing AI with a technician working on a government AI program, and he predicted that soon a computer would be writing the speeches of President Johnson, on the basis of poll data about what the voters wanted to hear.  In 1968, the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, predicted that by now a computer would be able to see better than people do and converse in fully natural English. Over the years, AI has been periodically oversold, leading to crashes in funding when different approaches encountered apparently insurmountable obstacles. 

Despite solid progress in algorithm development, none of these AI promises have been fulfilled.  The sinister truth is that the field is dominated by short-term projects funded by military and security agencies.  Investment is heavy in surveillance AI systems, such as speech processing so computers can listen for treasonable words in our phone calls, face recognition so they can watch us move around our communities, and data fusion with data mining so that they can form a complete dossier of our lives, our social relationships, and our allegiances.  Fundamental advances in AI cannot be achieved by such mission-oriented research, even though it can fundamentally ruin our lives.

Information technology progress has largely been the result of Moore’s Law, the historical doubling of computer power at constant cost every 18 months.  Equivalent progress in software has not occurred.  Moore’s law will end in five to ten years, unless industry is willing to shift to computer hardware based on carbon nanotubes or some other form of molecular computing.  That might allow Moore’s Law to continue for twenty years, which would be an improvement by a factor of 8,000.  Whether quantum computing could continue Moore’s Law beyond that point is highly dubious.

A shift to nanoscale computing would require complete replacement of the electronic chip industry, including all the materials suppliers and even the programming methods, at astronomical cost.  At a DARPA-CIA conference about Moore’s Law, in which I participated a year ago, many experts suggested the computer chip industry already suffered from “performance overhang,” that computers were already too good for current needs.  However, I believe that computers are not nearly good enough for the new, radical applications we can achieve - such as enhancing the human mind or uploading the personality.

Progress will not simply happen automatically.  We must take action.  We must take risks.  We must accept the challenge.

The response must be varied but resolute, because it must overcome at first indifference and then overt opposition. 

We can hope to achieve progress for a while working through the existing institutions of society, and we can build upon them by creating a broadly-based social movement for human, technological transcendence.  In the end, I fear, many of us may be forced into rebellion against the power structures of traditional society.

Social movements operating entirely outside the powerful institutions of society seldom succeed.  Successful movements generally operate both inside and outside.

Absolutely essential will be creative communication of new ideas.  I congratulate you and the World Transhumanist Association for already achieving much in that regard.

Today, within the standard institutions that support scientific research and engineering development, there are six ways we can break out of stagnation:

1.  Accept the challenge of new applications.  For example, computer science will need to solve many fundamental problems in order to achieve augmented cognition and augmented reality - enhancing human mental abilities and overlaying the real world with virtual images conveying valuable information.

2.  Invest in fundamental, scientific research.  For example, a sorely neglected area is rigorous research on culture, not replacing the humanities which have their own values and reason for existing, but creating alongside the humanities a new quantitative anthropology, perhaps modeling culture mathematically as a complex, evolving system.

3.  Encourage convergence between scientific disciplines.  Mihail Roco, head of the National Nanotechnology Initiative, and I have been promoting technological convergence.  In the early decades of the twenty-first century, concentrated efforts can unify science based on the nanoscale unity of nature.  This will promote rapid progress in the combination of nanotechnology, biotechnology, information technology and new technologies based in cognitive science.

4.  Take risks with projects uncertain of success.  My own personal example has been a decade of unfunded research in the field I call personality capture, that has now lead to a growing series of scientific publications.  Shortly, Social Science Computer Review will publish my article, “Massive Questionnaires for Personality Capture,” explaining how I used web-based surveys and the open-ended responses of tens of thousands of people to create 40,000 questionnaire items for sketching the personality contours of any single individual.  I, myself, have answered these 40,000 questions, placed 1,000 copies of my data in archives, and am preparing to answer another set of 40,000 questions about the events that elicit 20 different emotions in me. You can imagine your own independent, scientific projects to do.  Whether government agencies and corporations can take scientific risks today is doubtful.

5. The fifth way to break out of stasis while remaining within standard societal institutions is to re-examine traditional assumptions.  This takes us to the limits of those institutions, and it can stimulate hostile reactions from them.  For example, why not launch technological projects actually to achieve the familiar science fiction idea of uploading personalities to a computer, with unconventional goals such as cyerimmortality or infusing artificial intelligence with humanity?  Several technologies are promising, and it is time to stop talking and start doing.  Religions will balk, because after all they are in the death business, and ending death would not be good for religion.  Thus, questioning assumptions threatens the system.

6.  Involve new people in the innovation and decision process.  New people bring fresh perspectives.  Of course, the standard institutions doe not want new kinds of people to have power.  The so-called free society allows any individual to rise from poverty to wealth, powerlessness to power, so long as he or she conforms.  Individual social mobility does not threaten the system.  A circulation of the elites sustains the elite.  Science needs an infusion of fresh ideas, new cultures, unconventional hopes.

Transcendence of the current human condition, by nature and by definition, would demolish the social structures that sustain the elite.  Thus they will fight against it.

Aerospace companies are in the business of selling expensive equipment to the government and to other corporations.  They are not in the business of exploring the universe.  Drug companies are in the business of selling costly treatments for disease.  They are not in the business of ending disease altogether.

In the long term, revival of the scientific imagination will mean the death of many popular illusions, so the public will resist it.

Will we have to go into opposition against the political-economic system?  I believe eventually we must, some of us sooner than others.

I envision what Herbert Blumer called a general movement, a bland term describing something grand.  A general movement is a transformation in consciousness based in multiple groups and overlapping social networks.  Some parts of it will thrive inside standard societal institutions such as government agencies and industrial corporations.  Some parts of it will be private scientific, communication, and educational organizations.  Some parts will even be communities, whether you want to call them experimental, intentional, or utopian.  There will also be many roles for independent individuals to play.

For a time, perhaps a decade or a century, progress will still be possible in public, but sooner rather than later we citizens of the future will also have to build a network of clandestine groups, separating from retrograde society in order to survive its destructiveness and its downfall, and to establish the basis of a new civilization.

What will drive some progressive people into rebellion against the society?  I can imagine three factors.

First, they may need to escape information monopoly by powerful institutions through creating a network to distribute industrial and governmental secrets.  Today, I believe, information about scientific research of interest to Transhumanists is not greatly restricted.  For example, it is easy to learn about DARPA’s Augmented Cognition and LifeLog projects on the web.  But at some time in the near future, it may become obvious that vital information is being withheld, and the only remedy may be information liberation.

Second, scientists may be forced into rebellion in order to carry out research prohibited unnecessarily by powerful institutions.  Current examples include research on psychedelics, human cloning, and some aspects of cryptography.

Third, people may be forced to create a scientific counter-culture in reaction to episodes of overt repression.

Forty-two years ago, like millions of other Americans, I watched President Dwight Eisenhower give his farewell address on nationwide television.  I was dumbfounded when he warned that the military-industrial complex represented a grave threat to freedom.  Here was the conqueror of Nazi Germany, supreme commander of Allied forces in Europe, chief executive of the most powerful nation, warning that the axis of business with the military was becoming a severe danger to freedom.  His astonishing warning about the military-industrial complex has been largely ignored, and his second warning, about the scientific-technological elite, has been forgotten.

Eisenhower spoke of “the technological revolution” that had occurred.  He said, “In this revolution, research has become central; it also becomes more formalized, complex and costly.  A steadily increasing share is conducted for, by, or at the direction of the Federal government.

“Today, the solitary inventor, tinkering in his shop, has been overshadowed by task forces of scientists in laboratories and testing fields.  In the same fashion, the free university, historically the fountainhead of free ideas and scientific discovery, has experienced a revolution in the conduct of research.  Partly because of the huge costs involved, a government contract becomes virtually a substitute for intellectual curiosity.”

Thus, Eisenhower warned not only that science had become the handmaiden of government, military, and industrial power, but also that that “public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”

Whether through innovation or revolution, we must liberate science from this institutionalized, reactionary scientific-technological elite.

Transhumanists everywhere, whether they recognize the name, capitalize the “T,” or not, must join together to break the chains that bind science.

The captivity of science, prevented from transcending human physical limitations:  This is the challenge.

Creating a new civilization, both inside and outside standard institutions:  This should be our response.


Bainbridge, William Seaman.  1914.  The Cancer Problem.  New York: Macmillan.

Bainbridge, William Sims.

1976 The Spaceflight Revolution.  New York: Wiley Interscience.

1985 “Beyond Bureaucratic Policy: The Spaceflight Movement,” pp. 153-163 in People in Space, edited by James Everett Katz.  New Brunswick, New Jersey: Transaction

1991 Goals in Space: American Values and the Future of Technology. Albany, New York: State University of New York Press.

2002 “The Spaceflight Revolution Revisited,” pp. 39-64 in Looking Backward, Looking Forward, edited by Stephen J. Garber.  Washington, D.C.: National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

2003 “The Future of Internet: Cultural and Individual Conceptions,” forthcoming in The Internet and American Life, edited by Philip N. Howard and Steve Jones.  Thousand Oaks, California: Sage Publications.

2003 “Massive Questionnaires for Personality Capture,” forthcoming in Social Science Computer Review.

Conant, Jennet.  2002.  Tuxedo Park.  (biography of Alfred Lee Loomis)  New York: Simon and Schuster.

Crevier, Daniel.  1993.  AI: The Tumultuous History of the Search for Artificial Intelligence.  New York: Basic Books.

Directorate of Intelligence, Central Intelligence Agency, “Experts See Risks to US IT Superiority Beyond Moore’s Law,” report OTI IA 2002-151.

Eisenhower, Dwight D.  1961.  “Farewell Radio and Television Address to the American People.”  Public papers of the Presidents of the United States: Dwight D. Eisenhower.  Washington, DC: U. S Government Printing Office.  Web versions:

Hollmann,Frederick W., Tammany J. Mulder, and Jeffrey E. Kallan.  2000.  “Methodology and Assumptions for the Population Projections of the United States: 1999 to 2100,” Population Division Working Paper No. 38, United States Census Bureau.

Roco, Mihail C. and William Sims Bainbridge.  2003. Converging Technologies to Improve Human Performance.  Dordrecht, Netherlands: Kluwer.

Stork, David G.  1997.  HAL’s Legacy: 2001’s Computer ad Dream and Reality.  Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.


William Sims Bainbridge:

DARPA Augmented Cognition


Terrorism Information Awareness (TIA) System:

Knowledge Discovery and Dissemination (KDD):

William Sims Bainbridge Ph.D. is an IEET Senior fellow, and a prolific and influential sociologist of religion, science and popular culture. Dr. Bainbridge serves as co-director of Human-Centered Computing at the NSF.

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