by michael todd
photography by mike ford
Should we trust our machines? Are we alone? Is our universe the only one? Will climate change put our lakes (and fish) in hot water? The York University Magazine looks at these and other questions as we talk to three York researchers – biology Professor Sapna Sharma, science and technology Professor Edward Jones-Imhotep, and physics and astronomy Professor Matthew Johnson – about the frontiers of science and what the future might hold for us 50 years down the road.
Sapna Sharma is interested in predicting the effects of environmental stressors such as climate change, invasive species, land use change and habitat alteration on ecosystems, and improving the quantitative approaches used to generate these predictions. She’s also interested in aquatic community ecology and biological invasions. We spoke to her about the downside of warming lakes and the biological threat now posed by predacious bass whose range may spread because of that warming, threatening other fish species.
THE MAGAZINE: You’ve mentioned we’re currently undergoing our sixth mass extinction of plants and animals. Do you know the cause?
SHARMA: I can’t tell you exactly what triggered previous extinctions – because that isn’t my area of expertise – but I can tell you what’s going on with the present one. Current extinction rates are about 1,000 times higher than the natural background rate. That means approximately 100 extinctions per million species per year.
The primary cause of the sixth extinction is humans. There’s been a lot of habitat destruction and climate change as a result of human expansion. This extinction is primarily a result of human activities: clearing forests, urbanization, use of more natural resources and, of course, spreading invasive species.
THE MAGAZINE: What is your main interest in this?
SHARMA: My research group is interested in looking at how climate change impacts biodiversity. I’ll share two stories: the first illustrates how climate has already changed in the past, and the second what the implications of temperature rises might be for us locally here in Ontario and the impact on our freshwater fish populations.
Since 1442, Shinto priests in Japan have collected data on what dates Lake Suwa freezes – not for scientific, but for religious reasons. From that data, and other data from lakes across North America and the world for which records have been kept, we can get an idea of how climate has changed before and after the Industrial Revolution.
So something as simple as what date did the lake freeze or not freeze tells us many things. For instance, the lake did not freeze three times in the first 250 years of record keeping, whereas in the last 10 years the lake did not freeze five times. This tells us the climate is warming and warming at a faster rate.
THE MAGAZINE: What do rising temperatures mean for freshwater fisheries?
SHARMA: Through the Global Lake Temperature Collaboration [a scientific initiative founded in 2010] we discovered that 90 per cent of lakes are warming worldwide and, for us in Ontario and Canada, lakes that become ice covered in the winter are now found to be warming twice as fast as air temperature. So, in fact, we’re experiencing even more warming than other temperate regions around the world.
One aspect of our research is looking at the invasion of smallmouth bass in Ontario lakes. They thrive in warm water and they’ve been invading Ontario lakes for the last 100 to 125 years at the rate of about 25 kilometres per year. Many years ago, government biologists actually helped this invasion by stocking many lakes, dumping them from trains and planes. Our research is involved with predicting where smallmouth might be by 2070.
THE MAGAZINE: Why is another species of sport fish a problem?
SHARMA: When smallmouth invade a lake, it is often associated with loss of biodiversity. Research indicates that by 2070 up to 20,000 lake trout populations will be lost in Canada due to competition with smallmouth. Lake trout are a huge tourist draw, especially for sports fishers from the U.S. where lake trout have virtually disappeared. Smallmouth also outcompete native predators like walleye and northern pike. Again, both are prized sport fish. The collapse of these top predator species would have a big impact on the economy.
THE MAGAZINE: What do you see 50 years out?
SHARMA: My research is like the canary in the coal mine. The problem is that if we don’t mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, smallmouth bass will be found all across Ontario in the next 50 years, in both northern and southern lakes. If we do mitigate our emissions in the next 15 to 20 years, smallmouth will be restricted to southern Ontario and a small pocket in northern Ontario. But my research isn’t just about warm water species, it’s showing that the biodiversity we are used to in Ontario and Canada may change and we stand a good chance of losing our iconic species and identity, especially since it is tied so closely with the landscape we know as Canadians.
Edward Jones-Imhotep spends lot of time musing on the relationship between people and machines and why, for some reason, they still worry us. He says there is a lingering and also innate distrust about machines like supercomputers and robots – a fear that somehow they could, one day, take over and supersede humans.
THE MAGAZINE: Was there a point when our relationship with technology changed and we began to think of machines more as extensions of ourselves?
JONES-IMHOTEP: If you went back in time and asked da Vinci, for instance, whether he “trusted” the machines that he invented, he would probably have met your question with a blank stare. Machines could be ingenious, terrible or fearful, but they couldn’t be trustworthy. But in the course of the 19th century, that changes.
The change seems to be linked to three developments. First, machines are seen to become autonomous – that is, self-regulating – and they start to mimic organic life in important ways. As early as the 1860s, people speculated that machines would evolve from something like the steam engine into a new race that would one day replace humans on Earth. Second, there is a deep analogy between the way machines work and the way people work. Both are objects that transform energy into work. The third development is that machines start to be seen as the agents of history. We begin to talk about technology determining historical outcomes.
THE MAGAZINE: Is there a danger in personalizing our tools?
JONES-IMHOTEP: I don’t think there’s any great danger in that. I think the bigger danger is depersonalizing our technology. The technical term is “technological determinism,” meaning you give technology, or attribute to it, powers it doesn’t have. We built the machines; we designed them. The temptation is to give technology historical power and a power over human affairs and the future of human affairs that it obviously doesn’t have. That’s the greater danger because you then run the risk of abdicating responsibility for what we create and the choices we make in how to use our machines.
THE MAGAZINE: Isn’t there also the issue of whether we can trust machines not to fail – times when we can’t afford to have them fail? I’m thinking here of nuclear near-misses, the Cold War and novels like Fail-Safe.
Jones-Imhotep: The history of making machines more trustworthy is intertwined with the history of making people more reliable. It’s about the integration of humans and machines to get machines to work the way they’re supposed to. We need to know machines will work under any circumstances. The recent self-driving car debate is an example, or whether drones should target people using face-recognizing technology – apart from the serious moral questions, can they be trusted to get the right people?
THE MAGAZINE: What’s our greatest anxiety about machines?
JONES-IMHOTEP: Our last and greatest anxiety is around machines’ evolution. Will machines remain servile and do our bidding or evolve into something else? Will they go, for instance, from the relatively clunky, code-breaking machines that decrypted Nazi messages during World War II to these superintelligences that are almost too much like us … will they be super competitive? That anxiety is at the heart of recent comments from people like Stephen Hawking, who suggests super-intelligent machines could self-replicate at a much faster rate than human beings and wipe us out. But it’s also an anxiety that’s almost two centuries old. THE
MAGAZINE: Where do you see machine-human relations in 50 years?
JONES-IMHOTEP: I’m worried and a little excited. Looking forward, we have to make choices about the kinds of machines we want to build. We want to be sure machines will do what we want them to rather than accidentally performing our histories for us. I think being both hopeful and wary about that possibility is the best way to ensure it.
When Matthew Johnson isn’t busy pondering the nature of the “multiverse,” he likes to spend time trying to understand the fundamental laws of nature through their impact on cosmology. Johnson describes himself primarily as a theorist, dabbling in cosmology, field theory, string theory and gravitation. He also designs data analysis algorithms to confront fundamental theory with observation of cosmic microwave background radiation – the thermal radiation left over from the time of the Big Bang.
THE MAGAZINE: Is our universe the only one?
JOHNSON: I have a hunch the answer to this question might be no.
When cosmologists refer to the “universe,” they usually mean the observable universe – that is, everything we can see to the edge of our universe. To do that, we use observations of what is known as the “CMB” (cosmic microwave background) made, for example, by the Planck satellite.
The theory is that the universe in the larger sense started out very hot and dense. It was opaque, as opposed to clear as it is today. And through expansion it cooled.
THE MAGAZINE: What is the CMB exactly and what can we learn from it?
JOHNSON: It’s light from very early on and is thermal radiation left over from the time of recombination in Big Bang cosmology. And so when I look at that I wonder how big is it and what lies beyond the horizon of our observable universe. Inflation, we think, is a prequel to the observable universe – something that came before. It was a dramatic expansion of the universe where you went from something the size of an atom to something the size of a galaxy all in an infinitesimally small amount of time, around 10 to the minus 36 seconds.
Inflation tends to make universes a lot bigger than the part we normally see, far bigger than our observable universe. So we now believe we inhabit a multiverse, and it turns out that “empty space” is not empty and is in fact filled with what’s known as the Higgs field – an energy field. And in theoretical physics we think that Higgs field comes in many colours, so to speak, and exists everywhere in the universe.
THE MAGAZINE: What do we know or not know about the regions beyond our own universe?
JOHNSON: The simplest version of the multiverse is that it’s just a collection of observable universes that are distinct. The closest analogy might be the idea of horizons. My horizon would be different from someone’s in India, but it could be that the universe is just a little bit bigger than the part we can see. The Earth doesn’t just end at your horizon or mine. We’re not special, so why should our universe end at the boundary of what we can see? Just because here on Earth we have different horizons, we don’t assume that the Earth then ends there, that it is flat.
THE MAGAZINE: What might it be like, then, beyond what we can see?
JOHNSON: What it might look like is if you imagine a fog that permeates the universe and causes it to undergo a really dramatic expansion, and from that fog emerge bubbles and each of these bubbles contain regions that possibly have different laws of physics. This soup of bubbles just keeps on going and that’s what we call eternal inflation. Inside one of these bubbles you will find our universe, and there are others.
THE MAGAZINE: Is that something people are going to be trying to figure out?
JOHNSON: Right now it’s like the Wild West. This is the most interesting part of the story. By looking for the “bruises” in the CMB left over from when bubbles collide, we can test the idea of eternal inflation. We haven’t seen anything yet, but even that is interesting because it allows us to rule out some possible theories of the early universe. If we see some traces of these collisions, then we would know for sure that our universe is inside a bubble.
THE MAGAZINE: What will the big issues be for cosmologists and astronomers in the next 50 years?
JOHNSON: Honestly, I have no idea. I suspect the things I think are important now won’t be in the future and there will be new information that comes to light to tell me I need to think about the world in a completely different way. It would be great to be a part of that. So, of the many predictions I could make about what might happen in the next 50 years, my hope is that I’ll be proven wrong about all of it. l