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Current Essay Contest

Previous Contests

Wandering Towards a Goal
How can mindless mathematical laws give rise to aims and intention?
December 2, 2016 to March 3, 2017
Contest Partner: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Fund.

Trick or Truth: The Mysterious Connection Between Physics and Mathematics
Contest Partners: Nanotronics Imaging, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, and The John Templeton Foundation
Media Partner: Scientific American

How Should Humanity Steer the Future?
January 9, 2014 - August 31, 2014
Contest Partners: Jaan Tallinn, The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, The John Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American

It From Bit or Bit From It
March 25 - June 28, 2013
Contest Partners: The Gruber Foundation, J. Templeton Foundation, and Scientific American

Questioning the Foundations
Which of Our Basic Physical Assumptions Are Wrong?
May 24 - August 31, 2012
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation, SubMeta, and Scientific American

Is Reality Digital or Analog?
November 2010 - February 2011
Contest Partners: The Peter and Patricia Gruber Foundation and Scientific American

What's Ultimately Possible in Physics?
May - October 2009
Contest Partners: Astrid and Bruce McWilliams

The Nature of Time
August - December 2008

FQXi ESSAY CONTEST
February 22, 2018

2014 How Should Humanity Steer the Future? Winning Essays

First Prize

How to save the world
Sabine Hossenfelder

Essay Abstract
If you knew how humanity should steer the future, what difference would it make? The major challenge that humanity faces today is not that we lack ideas for what to do, as I am sure this essay contest will document. No, the major challenge, the mother of all problems, is to convert these ideas into courses of action. We fail to act in the face of global problems because we do not have an intuitive grasp on the consequences of collective human behavior, are prone to cognitive biases, and easily overwhelmed by data. We are also lazy and if intuition fails us, inertia takes over. How many people will read these brilliant essays? For the individual, evaluating possible courses of action to address interrelated problems in highly connected social, economic and ecological networks is presently too costly. The necessary information may exist, even be accessible, but it is too expensive in terms of time and energy. To steer the future, information about our dynamical and multi-layered networks has to become cheap and almost effortless to use. Only then, when we can make informed decisions by feeling rather than thinking, will we be able to act and respond to the challenges we face.

Author Bio
Sabine is an assistant professor for high energy physics at Nordita in Stockholm, Sweden. She works on quantum gravity and physics beyond the standard model and blogs at backreaction.blogspot.com

Second Prizes

Crucial Phenomena
Daniel Dewey

Essay Abstract
I give a case that, as a public good, societies and their governments should support and invest in scientific research on crucial phenomena, empirical features of the world that figure strongly in how humanity's choices influence the size of its future. In particular, I give reasons for thinking that (1) humanity's vulnerability or robustness to accidents arising from biological engineering, and (2) the future rates of improvement of artificial intelligence and its susceptibility to misuse, are phenomena that call strongly for our systematic attention.

Author Bio
Daniel Dewey is a Research Fellow at the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology and the Future of Humanity Institute. His research centres on high-impact, understudied features of the long-term future of artificial intelligence. Topics of particular interest include intelligence explosion, machine superintelligence, and AI ethics. Daniel was previously a software engineer at Google, Intel Labs Pittsburgh, and Carnegie Mellon University.

How to avoid steering blindly: The case for a robust repository of human knowledge
Jens Niemeyer

Essay Abstract
Steering the future hinges on the availability of scientific and cultural data from the past. As humanity transitions into the digital age, global access to a condensed form of human knowledge becomes a realistic technological possibility and potentially a human right. At the same time, the risk of losing the vast majority of this information after a global disaster has never been greater. I argue that a collaborative effort to create a secure repository of human knowledge would not only protect humanity's cultural heritage for future generations, it could also define a minimum standard for the information that every human being should have a right to access. The basic requirements and challenges for creating the repository are discussed.

Author Bio
I am a faculty member of the Institute for Astrophysics at the University of Goettingen, Germany. My fields of research are theoretical and computational cosmology.

Third Prizes

The Leverage and Centrality of Mind
Preston Estep III and Alexander Hoekstra

Essay Abstract
Many imposing challenges face humanity. Some grow relentlessly in seriousness and complexity: declining quantities and quality of freshwater, topsoil, and energy; climate change and increasingly unpredictable weather patterns; environmental and habitat decline; the growing geographical spread and antibiotic resistance of pathogens; increasing burdens of disease and health care expenditures; and so on. Some of the most serious problems remain intractable, irrespective of national wealth and achievement. Even developed nations suffer from stubbornly stable levels of mental illness, poverty, and homelessness, in otherwise increasingly wealthy economies. A known root cause of such broken lives is broken minds. What isnäó»t widely recognized is that all other extremely serious problems are similarly and equally intertwined with the intrinsic incapacities of human mindsäóîminds evolved to cope with a slower and simpler time - emergent from within a paradigm that favored the relative short-term. Yet minds are simultaneously the most essential resource worth saving, and the only resource capable of planning and executing initial steps of necessary solutions. There is hope for overcoming all serious challenges currently facing us, and on the horizon, and there is only one most-efficient strategy that applies to them all. This strategy focuses not on these individual and disparate challenges äóñ which ultimately are only symptoms äóñ but on fixing and improving minds.

Authors Bio
Preston Estep III, PhD, and Alexander Hoekstra are directors of the Personal Genome Project at Harvard University - the world's first äóìopen sourceäó_ genome project, and aggregator & repository for human Genomic, Environmental & Trait (GET) data. Estep and Hoekstra are also founders of the nonprofit Mind First Foundation, which seeks to expand the understanding and the capacity of the mind, to enhance the human condition.

Improving Science for a Better Future
Mohammed Khalil

Essay Abstract
Science is the reason humanity reached this stage of progress, and science is humanity's guide to the future. However, to enable science to guide us to a better future, we need to improve the way we do science to accelerate the rate of scientific discovery and its applications. This is important to find urgent solutions to humanity's problems, improve humanity's conditions, and enhance our understanding of nature. In this essay, we seek to identify those aspects of science that need improvement, and discuss how to improve them.

Author Bio
Mohammed Khalil is an undergraduate junior student at Alexandria University, Egypt. His main interest is theoretical physics, especially cosmology. Last year, he took the GRE physics test and scored 990. He also published a paper in the journal äóÖAdvances in High Energy Physicsäó»; it is available at http://www.hindawi.com/journals/ahep/2014/619498/.

Back to the Future: Crowdsourcing Innovation by Refocusing Science Education
Travis Norsen

Essay Abstract
Traditional science education has an unfortunately dogmatic character: students are taught scientific conclusions, but they learn very little about the chronological steps by which those conclusions were established. In particular, science education does not give future scientists an adequate understanding of the fact that the fundamental scientific principles which support modern technology began life as controversial hypotheses. But if we want a future in which further liberating innovations are the norm, we must find a way to produce scientists and engineers who are comfortable with controversy and have sound judgment about which controversial issues and hypotheses are fruitful to engage with. A natural way to achieve this goal -- and to help science education better capture the true nature of science in the process -- is to refocus science education around historical scientific controversies and their eventual resolutions.

Author Bio
Travis Norsen has taught physics at Marlboro, Smith, and Mount Holyoke Colleges as well as Bridgewater State University. He has a long-standing interest in alternative, especially history-based, science curricula. He also works on foundational questions in quantum theory and has published widely on, for example, Bell's theorem and Bohmian mechanics.

A Participatory Future of Humanity
Dean Rickles

Essay Abstract
Humans, in general, are greedy. They are often arrogant. And often over-estimate their ability to control. However, in this paper, I argue that in an important sense, they also radically under-estimate their ability to control. To control the future, that is. This disconnect from the future (a temporal myopia) is at the root of the worst irrational and destructive behaviours of humans. As a corrective, I show how participatory' approaches to quantum mechanics, such as Qbism, and aspects of the philosophy of time, might inform a solution to the problems of humanity by establishing a more active, direct link with future events and future selves.

Author Bio
Dean is an ARC Future Fellow at the University of Sydney. His primary research focus is the foundations of quantum gravity. However, he also has strong interests in musicology, econophysics, climate science, neuroscience, psychology, computing and philosophy of religion. He plays the piano as often as he can (and the drums as often as his is allowed).

The Cartography of the Future: Recovering Utopia for the 21st Century
Rick Searle

Essay Abstract
Throughout human history the idea of Utopia has served as a means of expanding the moral imagination and served as a prototype for how societies might be organized to better conform to human values. In the 19th century Utopia became tied the new reality of technological progress and the deterministic philosophy that surrounded it, which had the ultimate consequence of discrediting the Utopian ideal. Progressive technological determinism continues to be influential, but has lately come under increasing scrutiny, its historical horizon and the continued relationship between technological and social progress called into question. This change in our perception of technology might provide the conditions for a recovery of the Utopian ideal, which would also mean a restoration of our lost sense of freedom over the future.

Author Bio
Rick Searle is an Affiliate Scholar with the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technology and co-editor, co-author of the book Rethinking Machine Ethics in the Age of Ubiquitous Technology (IGI Global Press, 2015). He writes for the blog: Utopia or Dystopia: Where Past Meets Future http://utopiaordystopia.com/

Enlightenment is not for the Buddha alone
Tejinder Singh

Essay Abstract
The second law of thermodynamics provides the universe with an arrow of time. Living organisms are metastable states which, through the process of aging, are also subject to the second law. At the top of the living chain is humanity, with the human mind and the creative thought process possessing a tremendous ability to alter its environment. However, the mind is also an inefficient storehouse of redundant, repetitive and unproductive thinking. Combined with the minds acute ability to remember the past, and think about the future, such unproductive thinking can become a source of harmful negative emotions such as anger, hatred, worry, anxiety and fear, amongst others. It is possible to overcome such unpleasant consequences resulting from the ever-thinking mind, by realizing that there is a underlying thoughtless state - Consciousness. An individual who operates from the state of a conscious I, then lives in the Here and Now, and is happier, and at peace with oneself, and more likely to contribute constructively and compassionately to the task at hand. It is this state that humanity should collectively strive to steer towards. If this can be achieved, even to a partial degree, it will become easier for humankind to address and resolve the practical threats and challenges we face on our planet today.

Author Bio
The author is a professor of physics at the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Mumbai, India. His research interests are in quantum gravity, foundations of quantum mechanics, and cosmology. Personal home page: www.tifr.res.in/~tpsingh

Fourth Prizes

Humanity is much more than the sum of humans
Tommaso Bolognesi

Essay Abstract
Consider two roughly spherical and coextensive complex systems: the atmosphere and the upper component of the biosphere - humanity. It is well known that, due to a malicious antipodal butterfly, the possibility to accurately forecast the weather - let alone controlling it - is severely limited. Why should it be easier to predict and steer the future of humanity? In this essay we present both pessimistic and optimistic arguments about the \emph{possibility} to effectively predict and drive our future. On the long time scale, we sketch a software-oriented view at the cosmos in all of its components, from spacetime to the biosphere and human societies, borrowing ideas from various scientific theories or conjectures; the proposal is also motivated by an attempt to provide some formal foundations to Teilhard de Chardinäó»s cosmological/metaphysical visions, that relate the growing complexity of the material universe, and its final fate, to the progressive emergence of consciousness. On a shorter scale, we briefly discuss the possibility of using simple formal models such as Kauffmanäó»s boolean networks, and the growing body of data about social behaviours, for simulating humanity äó»in-silicoäó», with the purpose to anticipate problems and testing solutions.

Author Bio
Tommaso Bolognesi (Laurea in Physics, Univ. of Pavia, 1976; M.Sc. in CS, Univ. of Illinois at U-C, 1982), is senior researcher at ISTI, CNR, Pisa. His research areas have included stochastic processes in computer music composition, models of concurrency, process algebra and formal methods for software development, discrete and algorithmic models of spacetime. He has published on various international scientific journals several papers in all three areas. His essay äóÖReality is ultimately digital, and its program is still undebuggedäó» has obtained a 4th prize at the 2011 FQXi Essay Contest äóÖIs Reality Digital or Analogäó»?

Recognizing the Value of Play
Jonathan Dickau

Essay Abstract
For humanity to positively shape its own future, we must recognize the value of play as an essential activity for learning and creative expression. Cognitive Science researchers, Neuroscientists, and Educators, have told us this for a while, but lectures by top researchers in Physics stress that playful exploration is also crucial to progress in both experimental and theoretical Physics. Play allows us to learn and innovate. The value of play to research is greatly under-valued äóñ compared to its benefits äóñ by modern society. Given opportunities to playfully explore; anyone including students and scientific researchers will learn more, faster. Thus; encouraging play fuels innovation and progress äóñ the engines of economic prosperity. Experts from all the fields above echo that observation, both in published works and in personal conversations or correspondence. To retain our sense of humanity and survive to shape the future, human beings must realize that play is every bit as essential as hard work is, to our growth as individuals and as a culture. For humans to positively shape our own future, we must exalt that which makes us human, and to do that we must recognize the value of play.

Author Bio
Jonathan Dickau is a multi-faceted individual, with skills that span academic, artistic, and technical endeavors. He has had an inquisitive mind, since an early age, and he has never quite grown up. Since winning a Grammy award for recording Pete Seeger's album "At 89," Jonathan has explored ways he can help the human race to better harmonize with Mother Earth and heal humanity's insults to the planetary biosphere. He lives in upstate New York and works in Audio and Video production, while devoting increasing amounts of time to both writing and academic studies - especially Physics and Mathematics.

The Tip of The Spear
George Gantz

Essay Abstract
The evidence is clear äóñ there is a new emergent phenomenon arising from the global integration of human knowledge and aspirations linked through advanced networks. As in each previous emergence of higher order from lower, the behaviors that evolve from the complex interaction of the individual components cannot be predicted. Can we influence the trajectory of this emergence in ways that benefit the individuals that comprise it and increase the probabilities of continued progress? In addition, can we prepare for the potentially rare but nevertheless real possibility of first contact with an extraterrestrial civilization? Yes, by drawing on evolutionary lessons to identify and promote collectively beneficial behaviors in our global institutions, including the institution of science. As human civilization continues to evolve, progress will be powered by knowledge, but we should arm äóìthe tip of the spearäó_ with the human empathic values of trust, humility, mutual respect and shared commitment: in a word, with love, in its most universal form.

Author Bio
George Gantz is a retired business executive with a life-long passion for mathematics, science, philosophy and theology. He has a Bachelor of Science degree with Honors Humanities from Stanford University and now directs the ISAS Forum on Integrating Science and Spirituality (http://swedenborgcenterconcord.org/welcome-to-the-isas-forum/) and blogs on related topics.

U-turn or u die
Flavio Mercati

Essay Abstract
Humanity is at a turning point in its history: it is rapidly reaching the limits of its development in its current form. The whole of humanity now faces a situation which several human societies encountered in the past: their success depended for a long time on unsustainable exploitation of their ecosystem, which they thereby destroyed. Many of those societies perished, typically at the height of an exponential growth. However, some of them changed their ways, and survived for a long time in equilibrium with their environment. There are many well known reasons for us to do the same and change course as quickly as possible. In this essay I want to stress a further such motivation: we need to save the biodiversity of our planet from the mass extinction we have triggered. The reason to do so is, apart from our immediate survival, the fact that on a very long timescale we will end up valuing this biodiversity more than any other resource present in the Universe. In fact Terrestrial Life is a unique feature of our planet, not to be encountered anywhere else in our Universe, while all the other (energetic and mineral) resources we consider so important are absolutely abundant. We value them only because they are hard to get with present technology. But in the future, if we survive the impending ecological collapse, we will have to colonize and terraform' other planets, and the huge diversity of life forms on Earth will become the most precious thing in the Universe, for it will be necessary to create functioning ecosystems on other planets. Life forms which we have little regard for now, and we are bringing to the edge of extinction while pursuing our immediate needs, might turn out to be essential for our survival in the future.

Author Bio
F. Mercati is a postdoctoral researcher at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics. He got his PhD from the University of Rome Sapienza' in 2010. After that, he held postdoctoral positions in Zaragoza, Spain and Nottingham, UK. Mercati works on Quantum Gravity, and is one of the proponents of a new theory of gravity called `Shape Dynamics'.

Smooth seas do not make good sailors
Georgina Parry

Essay Abstract
This essay is a vision of the unwritten future, where mankind has had to adapt to the changes brought about by overpopulation and climate change. A highly sustainable, versatile, technological way of life, employing bio-mimicry has been developed, allowing a large proportion of the human race to survive despite the various challenges. Also the health and quality of life of the people has been improved through various health measures and social expectations. It takes a look at a typical day for an inhabitant of one sanctuary and looks back at the attitudes of the past and also to the future. Having achieved a truly sustainable, self sufficient, symbiotic lifestyle migration to other worlds can now be contemplated. The big issues of the exponential function, chaos in the climate and weather system, and possible outcomes are considered.

Author Bio
Long time participant on FQXi blogs and in FQXi competitions Graduate in Biological sciences. Former teacher of the Sciences and human biology. Unaffiliated inquiring mind and problem solver.

Special Commendation Prizes

Look Hard, Then Steer Slightly
Robin Hanson

Essay Abstract
Humanity can best steer its future by working hard to clearly see the future it will have if we do nothing. Because most likely we will do almost nothing. I illustrate this idea with a parable of riding a vast fast river, and I apply it in the context of my current book project, where I offer an unprecedented quantity of credible detail on the social implications of a particular future tech: brain emulations. I describe small feasible changes which might improve this future.

Author Bio
Robin Hanson is an associate professor of economics at George Mason University, a research associate at the Future of Humanity Institute of Oxford University, and chief scientist at Consensus Point. After receiving his Ph.D. in social science from Caltech in 1997, Robin was a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation health policy scholar at the University of California at Berkeley. In 1984, Robin received a masters in physics and a masters in the philosophy of science from the University of Chicago, and afterward spent nine years researching artificial intelligence, Bayesian statistics, and hypertext publishing at Lockheed, NASA, and independently.

A Rope over an Abyss
Laurence Hitterdale

Essay Abstract
Recently scientists, philosophers, and others have presented divergent views about the possibilities for human life in this century. Some point to potentialities for transcending age-old limitations and afflictions, including even death at the end of what we have come to consider a normal human life span. Other writers, however, warn of catastrophes which could threaten the continuance of civilization and perhaps the existence of humanity. Some thinkers from each group, and other thinkers also, emphasize that the next few decades appear to be a critical turning point. Humanity seems poised between an extraordinarily fulfilling future and a future of extraordinary calamity or non-existence. Although the initial reaction might be to dismiss all three of these scenarios as exaggerated speculations, both contemporary circumstances and the contrasts between the present and the historical past indicate the likely correctness of the severe opposition between extreme possibilities. If that vision is correct, then an ascent to a better future looks to be more difficult to bring about than a descent into disasters. At this juncture for global civilization, the overriding obligation on both individuals and institutions is to work to avoid disaster. If that effort succeeds, humanity will buy time for the development of a better future.

Author Bio
Laurence Hitterdale holds a Ph.D. in philosophy from Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, Maryland. Having worked for both business firms and academic institutions, he is currently a professor of information systems at Glendale College in California. His philosophical work is focused on ontology, philosophy of cosmology, and philosophy of mind.