Stephen Hawking is a brilliant man, a theoretical physicist who is well-respected in the scientific community and who has written numerous books about the universe and man's part in it. So when he talks, people tend to listen.
That must have been front and center in the minds of filmmakers Mathieu Roy and Harold Crooks when they penned their documentary, "Surviving Progress", which opens today in New York. The film, which was produced by Martin Scorsese, explores one main topic, a question with perhaps an infinite amount of answers: Can humanity evolve in a way that truly gels with the progress of our technology?
“We’re entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. But I’m an optimist,” says Hawking, who is interviewed in the film along with some of today's most prolific minds, including Margaret Atwood and renowned primatologist Jane Goodall.
The global population is rising, and our natural resources are dwindling just as steadily. As technology progresses, some say, damage is being done to other aspects of human life, such as the economy and environment. Balance needs to be restored, lest our species be wiped out. Environmental pioneer Lester Brown says in the documentary "Plan B: Mobilizing To Save Civilization":
"Environmentalists have been talking for decades about saving the planet, but the planet is going to be around for some time to come. The question is will civilization as we know it be around for some time to come? Can it survive the mounting global stresses of rising pollution, starvation, food prices, water shortages and failed states? These are the real threats to our security now, but we're not responding to them."
Another theme explored in "Surviving Progress" is whether the internet could hold some answers for our society as we move into a future which some say is in danger of becoming dystopian. Robert Wright, who writes about evolutionary biology, says comparisons between the web and the human brain aren't so out there.
“It looks so much like a nervous system that you almost can’t miss the analogy. Now more than ever you can say there is a unified social brain.”
Hawking is no stranger to the use of technology in gaining a better understanding of the human brain. In fact, he recently helped Dr. Philip Low test a device called the iBrain, a portable device which records electrical data in the brain and translates it; the hope is that it will help doctors treat patients with neurological disorders and allow those patients to communicate more easily. Dr. Hawking, who has suffered from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis--or Lou Gehrig's Disease--for years, donned the device to allow Low access to his brain functions.
“The idea is to see if Stephen can use his mind to create a consistent and repeatable pattern that a computer can translate into, say, a word or letter or a command for a computer," Low said about the experiment. Indeed, when asked to imagine squeezing his hand into a ball, Hawking's brain signals changed markedly.
Dr. Ruth O'Hara, associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Stanford University Medical School, says the data Low has collected is "compelling".
"It could be a significant contribution to the field as a window into brain architecture,” she said.