Transforming Reality: The Complexity of Science and its Role in Society
Science has completely transformed the reality we live in, but attempting to define it is a task that proves to be almost impossible. In general, scientists are dedicated to studying aspects of reality that can be measured, though not always, and strive to establish more or less logical relationships between these aspects. This enables the prediction of events that are considered intriguing or useful, such as the precise date of an eclipse, tomorrow’s weather forecast, or the effectiveness of a drug. The various archetypes of scientists – from physicists-theoreticians, biochemists, geologists, to neuroscientists – endeavor to illuminate different aspects of reality through the application of unique techniques and paradigms. For some, the most fitting definition of science is simply “what scientists do.”
Each field of science is characterized by distinct methods and practices. Physicists, for instance, rely on intuition, while mathematicians employ computation and experiments. The process of scientific discovery is born from a blend of prior knowledge, collaboration, competition, chance, brute force, and tenacity – refusing to abandon an idea that everyone else deems pointless. It is essential to recognize that science does not rigidly adhere to the so-called scientific method, which idealizes the untidy nature of our work as an algorithmic process. The widespread notion of the scientific method is predicated upon the formulation of models based on hypotheses, which are later validated or falsified by comparing them with real data. In reality, however, the discovery process is far from orderly; hypotheses are discarded or modified on the fly, and unexpected breakthroughs are often a result of tireless hard work and perseverance.
Sadly, narratives about the scientific method as an intentional process tend to obfuscate the grueling work of those who are at the forefront of scientific research. PhD students, fellows, and postdocs endure precarious working conditions and invest countless hours in their research. Yet, the complexity and difficulty of their work are overshadowed by narratives that extol the rationality of the scientific method. Additionally, determining whether a particular scientific pursuit is considered respectable involves a convoluted process. It requires a dialogue between scientists, society, politics, and history to render judgment on whether a subject warrants recognition as science. Science is inherently conservative, making it an arduous battle for individuals to propose new ideas that deviate from the accepted framework.
It has even become increasingly challenging for disruptive scientists to make an impact. According to a study published in the scientific journal Nature, it is now harder than ever to break through the existing norms. The scientific community’s resistance to progress often impedes the acceptance of new and innovative ideas. This trend sets the stage for the exploitation of young researchers who tirelessly dedicate themselves to the hardest aspects of scientific research.
Determining what constitutes as “respectable science” is an intricate process that demands a multifaceted evaluation. It involves deliberations between scientists, society, politics, and history to determine whether a subject deserved to be recognized as an authentic scientific endeavor. Proposing disruptive ideas has become an uphill battle, as the scientific community continues to resist novel concepts that veer outside the established framework. Additionally, the study of science is largely conducted within a conservative culture, further complicating the path for groundbreaking discoveries and concepts.
Despite the challenges, the field of science has made significant contributions to our understanding of the world around us. This ongoing quest for knowledge and understanding places reason and logic at the forefront. Science continuously seeks to ascertain the extent to which logic describes reality. Key examples of this endeavor include Kurt Gödel’s renowned incompleteness theorems, which revealed the limitations of arithmetic in logic, and the development of the Turing machine, which has provided profound insights into the constraints of algorithmic calculation and led to the emergence of digital computers.
Notably, the arrival of digital computers in the mid-twentieth century facilitated the study and application of logic in a more objective manner. The capabilities of these machines allowed for a deeper comprehension of logic’s ability to decipher various aspects of reality, and even presented opportunities to automate modification processes. This pivotal development led to the intersection of scientific discoveries and artificial intelligence research, with the latter gaining significant momentum in recent years.
A recent seminar by Hiroaki Kitano, a robotics pioneer and the current chief technology officer at Sony, offered a thought-provoking perspective. Kitano shared his vision of creating a robot capable of winning a Nobel Prize through his initiative, the Nobel Turing Challenge. Central to his proposal is the automation of the manual and repetitive tasks in a laboratory setting, enabling a scientific robot to test all conceivable hypotheses and discard those that are incorrect. Kitano suggests that these robots could reduce the reliance on intuition and serendipity in research. Instead, they would undertake the scientific method through brute force, systematically testing all potential hypotheses generated by an AI system.
The proposition presents a compelling philosophical perspective, proclaiming that hypotheses can be explored within a finite time frame. However, it may underestimate the entrenched resistance to progress within most scientific communities. Nevertheless, the proposal is set to be tested, with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in the U.S. announcing a new program named Foundation Models for Scientific Discovery. This program aims to explore, develop, and demonstrate how an AI agent could effectively function as a freelance scientist. The emergence of the robot scientist era is on the horizon.
Reflecting on Kitano’s proposal, Jun’ichirō Tanizaki’s 1933 essay, “In Praise of Shadows,” comes to mind. Tanizaki’s work delves into aesthetics during Japan’s transition to a modern, industrialized society illuminated by electric light. Tanizaki illuminates the Western penchant for eradicating even the most minuscule shadows, noting how the mesmerizing allure of shadows was gradually forgotten by the Japanese people. His musings serve as a reminder to question whether it is sensible to relentlessly illuminate everything and relinquish the enigmatic world of shadows.
In the context of the burgeoning AI technology, it is tempting to draw parallels between Tanizaki’s observations and our current position. Whether in the presence of electric light or advanced robotics, our profound connection with reality is not just founded upon the illumination of objects through reason. It also entails a desire to venture into the mysterious darkness, where countless possibilities await. The darkness bestows upon us the opportunity to uncover the rational treasures hidden within its depths. Soon, we may find ourselves equipped with the means to embark on this treasure hunt with the assistance of robot scientists.
In conclusion, science has undoubtedly reshaped reality and continues to play a pivotal role in our lives. It has made significant strides in unraveling the mysteries of the world, while grappling with complex challenges and ethical considerations. As society embarks on the cusp of the robot scientist era, it is important to continuously ponder the intrinsic essence of science and its profound impact on humanity. By embracing both reason and the allure of the unknown, we can embark on a journey of discovery that transcends the boundaries of traditional scientific methods.
Sonia Contera, Professor of Physics at the University of Oxford and author of Nano Comes to Life, offers a poignant reflection on the evolving landscape of science. Her insightful perspective inspires a deeper contemplation of the intersection between science, technology, and the enduring mysteries of the human experience.