Nobel laureate foresees mind-expanding future of physics

core theory

Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek advocates viewing the standard model of particle physics as consisting of two “kingdoms,” one comprising the basic particles of matter and the other consisting of the particles that transmit nature’s fundamental forces. With the addition of Einstein’s general relativity, which describes gravity, Wilczek refers to this extended version of the standard model as the Core Theory of physics. 

J. Hirshfeld

A century from now, when biologists are playing games of clones and engineers are playing games of drones, physicists will still pledge their loyalty to the Kingdoms of Substance and Force.

Physicists know the subjects of these kingdoms as fermions and bosons. Fermions are the fundamental particles of matter; bosons transmit forces that govern the behavior of the matter particles. The math describing these particles and their relationships forms the “standard model” of particle physics. Or as Nobel laureate Frank Wilczek calls it, “The Core Theory.”

Wilczek’s core theory differs from the usual notion of standard model. His core includes gravity, as described by Einstein’s general theory of relativity. General relativity is an exquisite theory of gravity, but it doesn’t fit in with the math for the standard model’s three forces (the strong and weak nuclear forces and electromagnetism). But maybe someday it will. Perhaps even by 100 years from now.

At least, that’s among the many predictions that Wilczek has made for the century ahead. In a recent paper titled “Physics in 100 Years,” he offers a forecast for future discoveries and inventions that science writers of the future will be salivating over. (The paper is based on a talk celebrating the 250th anniversary of Brown University. He was asked to make predictions for 250 years from now, but regarded 100 as more reasonable.)

Wilczek does not claim that his forecast will be accurate. He considers it more an exercise in imagination, anchored in thorough knowledge of today’s major questions and the latest advances in scientific techniques and capabilities. Where those two factors meet, Wilczek sees the potential for premonition. His ruminations result in a vision of the future suitable for a trilogy or two of science fiction films. They would involve the unification of the kingdoms of physics and a more intimate relationship between them and the human mind.

Among Wilczek’s prognostications is the discovery of supersymmetric particles, heavyweight partners to the matter and force particles of the Core Theory. Such partner particles would reveal a deep symmetry underlying matter and force, thereby combining the kingdoms and further promoting the idea of unification as a key path to truth about nature. Wilczek also foresees the discovery of proton decay, even though exhaustive searches for it have so far failed to find it. If protons disintegrate (after, on average, trillions upon trillions of years), matter as we know it has a limited lease on life. On the other hand, lack of finding proton decay has been a barrier to figuring out a theory that successfully unifies the math for all of nature’s particles and forces. And Wilczek predicts that:

The unification of gravity with the other forces will become more intimate, and have observable consequences.

He also anticipates that gravity waves will be observed and used to probe the physics of the distant (and early) universe; that the laws of physics, rather than emphasizing energy, will someday be rewritten in terms of “information and its transformations”; and that “biological memory, cognitive processing, motivation, and emotion will be understood at the molecular level.”

And all that’s just the beginning. He then assesses the implications of future advances in computing. Part of the coming computation revolution, he foresees, will focus on its use for doing science:

Calculation will increasingly replace experimentation in design of useful materials, catalysts, and drugs, leading to much greater efficiency and new opportunities for creativity.

Advanced calculational power will also be applied to understanding the atomic nucleus more precisely, conferring the ability…

to manipulate atomic nuclei dexterously … enabling (for example) ultradense energy storage and ultrahigh energy lasers.

Even more dramatically, computing power will be employed to enhance itself:

Capable three-dimensional, fault-tolerant, self-repairing computers will be developed.… Self-assembling, self-reproducing, and autonomously creative machines will be developed.

And those achievements will imply that:

Bootstrap engineering projects wherein machines, starting from crude raw materials, and with minimal human supervision, build other sophisticated machines (notably including titanic computers) will be underway.

Ultimately, such sophisticated computing machines will enable artificial intelligence that would even impress Harold Finch on Person of Interest (which is probably Edward Snowden’s favorite TV show).       

Imagine, for instance, the ways that superpowerful computing could enhance the human senses. Aided by electronic prosthetics, people could experience the full continuous range of colors in the visible part of the electromagnetic spectrum, not just those accessible to the tricolor-sensitive human eye. Perhaps the beauty that physicists and mathematicians “see” in their equations can be transformed into works of art beamed directly into the brain.

Artificial intelligence endowed with such power would enable many other futuristic fantasies. As Wilczek notes, the “life of mind” could be altered in strange new ways. For one thing, computationally precise knowledge of a state of mind would permit new possibilities for manipulating it. “An entity capable of accurately recording its state could purposefully enter loops, to re-live especially enjoyable episodes,” Wilczek points out.

And if all that doesn’t sound weird enough, we haven’t even invoked quantum mechanics yet. Wilczek forecasts that large-scale quantum computers will be realized, in turn leading to “quantum artificial intelligence.”

“A quantum mind could experience a superposition of ‘mutually contradictory’ states, or allow different parts of its wave function to explore vastly different scenarios in parallel,” Wilczek points out. “Being based on reversible computation, such a mind could revisit the past at will, and could be equipped to superpose past and present.”

And with quantum artificial intelligence at its disposal, the human mind’s sensory tentacles will not merely be enhanced but also dispersed. With quantum communication, humans can be linked by quantum messaging to sensory devices at vast distances from their bodies. “An immersive experience of ‘being there’ will not necessarily involve being there, physically,” Wilczek writes. “This will be an important element of the expansion of human culture beyond Earth.”

In other words, it will be a web of intelligence, rather than a network of physical settlements, that will expand human culture throughout the cosmos. Such “expanded identities” will be able to comprehend the kingdoms of substance and force on their own quantum terms, as the mind itself merges with space and time.

Wilczek’s visions imply a future existence in which nature is viewed from a vastly different perspective, conditioned by a radical reorientation of the human mind to its world. And perhaps messing with the mind so drastically should be worrisome. But let’s not forget that the century gone by has also messed with the mind and its perspectives in profound ways — with television, for instance, talk radio, the Internet, smartphones and blogs. A little quantum computer mind manipulation is unlikely to make things any worse.

Follow me on Twitter: @tom_siegfried

Editor’s note: Frank Wilczek is on the board of trustees of Society for Science & the Public, which publishes Science News.

Tom Siegfried is a contributing correspondent. He was editor in chief of Science News from 2007 to 2012 and managing editor from 2014 to 2017.

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