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Greely: Wildcards and potential game changers

We could learn enough to make genetics much more powerful than it looks like it is. Right now there are a few thousand diseases for which genetics is determinative. Happily they’re rare, which is not a coincidence. Natural selection will tend to not encourage genes that cause nasty fatal diseases. For common diseases it looks like there are a bunch of genes that each have a small effect. It’s unclear whether, for the common diseases, we’ll ever see a real powerful genetic effect. We may, we may not, open empirical question. Things like intelligence, personality traits, things like that… There’s clearly some sort of genetic contribution, but we don’t have a clue what it is. It looks really complicated and really bound up with the environment. If we were able, and I don’t think we will be, but it’s an empirical question, what the science will tell us… If we were able to figure out strong genetic connections to intelligence, to intelligences, you know, to various kinds of cognitive abilities, to personalities, parents and governments will care a hell of a lot more about that than they will about your risk of getting diabetes or your risk of getting breast cancer. That could be a game changer in terms of taking technologies that were already developing, have developed and are developing, but now knowing something much more important we could use them for.

I think a potential big game changer in neuroscience, and I hope that we get huge returns here, there’s been some attention paid to it, not as much as I think should be, neuroscience and education. If by learning more about the brain, we can learn how to help people learn better, that’s a big game changer potentially. It may be a situation where… One of the interesting phenomena we see, and you see it in the IT world, is developing countries leapfrogging developed countries. Moving to distributed… to cell phones rather than landlines, avoiding landlines entirely. Moving to distributed solar rather than central power stations. Some of those seem like winners, some of those may not turn out to be winners. Maybe with some of these neuroscience technologies you can do a lot of education without spending all the money for the bricks and mortar on the education infrastructure that we have.

Now, I don’t… I got into science fiction originally from the Oz books, from fantasy. Most people remember ‘The Wizard Of Oz’ and forget that there were something like 40 Oz books written, one for each Christmas, for 40 years. In one of them there’s a guy named professor Wogglebug, a huge cockroach. Who is a pedantic, pompous professor who has invented pills. You take a pill and you know algebra, you take a pill and you know French. I don’t think we’re going to get that far, but who knows. You know, whether we could actually put substantive information in your brain in a better way. We’ve seen other ideas about this. There was a rage of great interest for a while in learning while you’re asleep, hypnopedia. It showed up in ‘Brave New World’, it shows up in some of Heinlein’s work. Turned out not to be meaningful, not to be useful. Learning under hypnosis similarly not nearly what people had expected. Well, there may be some learning technologies coming out of neuroscience that really make a big difference. And that could change the world in some big ways.

So it doesn’t necessarily have to be something directly involving the brain. It could be a way of, say, showing things very rapidly in a way that you learn subliminally without necessarily being conscious of it through different interface designs. Already… This frustrates the hell out of me. I give a fair number of lectures in a medical school. First year medical curriculum is required, the students have to take these classes and they’re supposed to show up for every class. There are 87 first year medical students at the Stanford Medical School, a number tightly regulated. I give a lecture there and I’m told that I attract more than most. Half of them will be there. The others say that they actually watch it, but all the lectures are videotaped. They watch the lectures at night at home on their computers at double or triple speed. And that’s an interface change, that’s a presentation change that may have some implications, so… you know. People have been expecting the revolution with computers in education for a long time and… I think the revolution hasn’t come, but that doesn’t mean that it won’t come. And it might be through devices. It might be through the IT space, it might be through biology or it might be through a combination of the two.

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