Professor John McCarthy
Father of AI

Events of Two Centuries

28 March 2003

[This is an expanded version of a piece that appeared in the San Jose Mercury-News on 1999 June 24. I thank Cher Wollard for inviting it.]

The most important mathematical event was Goedel's incompleteness theorem showing that not everything that is mathematically true is mathematically provable.

The most important scientific events of the 20th century were the theory of relativity, quantum mechanics and the discovery of the genetic code.

The most important engineering events were nuclear energy, which insures adequate energy for a billion years, the computer, micro-electronics, the green revolution, and the beginnings of genetic engineering. The general development of technology permits worldwide high standards of living.

The most important medical events were anti-biotics, innoculations permitting a substantial increase in life expectancy in both rich and poor countries, and effective birth control. In contrast to previous centuries, middle class families do not expect to lose half their children to infection.

The most important poltical events were the rise and fall of the murderous Nazi and communist dictatorships and the end of the colonial system.

I think the most important scientific events of the 21st century are likely to be human level artificial intelligence and control of the genetics of plants animals and humans.

The most important engineering event will be the exploration of the solar system and a beginning of human expansion beyond our planet. Robot servants also have a substantial probability of becoming available in the next century.

The most important medical event is likely to be a substantial increase in the maximum length of life.

The most important political event is likely to be the universality of democratic capitalism and the worldwide achievement of a reasonable standard of living.

The most important danger is that fanatical movements, e.g. religious or green, will cause new big wars. This is not a present danger calling for present action. If it develops, there will be enough advance warning and also motivation to do something. There is a present danger that fanaticism of the left, right and center will increasingly succeed in limiting scientific investigation and useful applications. The left and green ideologies are doing the most harm at present, but the right also has its possibilities. I have in mind the taboos against the study of the genetics of behavior (including intelligence), the partial bans on nuclear energy and genetic engineering, the rise of organic food superstitions, the creationist campaign against teaching evolution as science, and the partial bans on research and treatment with fetal tissue.

A possible form of fanaticism is a green Hitler of international scope. Hitler's rabble rousing talent took over Germany. One can imagine world-wide TV permitting a speech-a-night Hitler to get world-wide influence all at once. Bully-boys all over the world would smash whatever he attacked.

Somehow my mind wasn't much on dangers when I wrote the original version of the piece for the San Jose Mercury News. Here are two more. (1) The new rise of pseudo-science, e.g. holistic medicine. My guess is this is self-limiting. (2) The occurrence of world-wide media panics. The media have always been subject to scares, but they have been limited in their effect by limitations on communication and by language differences. There is now a substantial chance that some anchorman, e.g. on CNN, will be able to cause world-wide panic which will cause something stupid to be done on a world-wide basis.