On Jan. 12, 2007, world-famous musician Joshua Bell began playing a $3.5 million Stradivarius violin at the underground L’Enfant Plaza subway station in Washington, D.C. More than 1,000 people walked by in the next 45 minutes; only seven stopped to listen, and Bell gathered just $32.17 in tips. Washington Post reporter Gene Weingarten won a Pulitzer Prize for recording the social experiment.
The finding: Humans are bad at noticing unexpected changes in their environment.
Does this matter? If the environment drifts the wrong way, yes. In the Wired April 2000 essay “Why the Future Doesn’t Need Us,” Bill Joy wrote that humans are unwittingly spreading technology around us that may outlive us. Artificially intelligent robots will soon be the byproducts of our self-driving cars, and may not need their creators. Nanotechnology, invisible molecular-level engines, if unleashed without care could turn carbon lifeforms into pulp. And genetic engineering, today used to boost the vitamin A levels in golden rice, could create plants or animals that devastate our food chain. No one is building any of this deliberately, Joy suggests — but we are creating things that will lead to other things we may not wish for.
As robotics researcher Hans Moravec wrote:
“Biological species almost never survive encounters with superior competitors. Ten million years ago, South and North America were separated by a sunken Panama isthmus. South America, like Australia today, was populated by marsupial mammals, including pouched equivalents of rats, deers, and tigers. When the isthmus connecting North and South America rose, it took only a few thousand years for the northern placental species, with slightly more effective metabolisms and reproductive and nervous systems, to displace and eliminate almost all the southern marsupials.”
The world once had tigers with pouches like kangaroos, and they all faded before a new species with slightly better metabolisms. Like violins in the subway, I bet the early intruders from what is now Mexico crept through the woods unnoticed.
Posted by Ben Kunz