Wednesday, February 03, 2021

Gerald Feinberg and The Prometheus Project

Gerald Feinberg (1933-1992) was a theoretical physicist at Columbia, perhaps best known for positing the tachyon -- a particle that travels faster than light. He also predicted the existence of the mu neutrino. 

Feinberg attended Bronx Science with Glashow and Weinberg. Interesting stories abound concerning how the three young theorists were regarded by their seniors at the start of their careers. 

I became aware of Feinberg when Pierre Sikivie and I worked out the long range force resulting from two neutrino exchange. Although we came to the idea independently and derived, for the first time, the correct result, we learned later that it had been studied before by Feinberg and Sucher. Sadly, Feinberg died of cancer shortly before Pierre and I wrote our paper. 

Recently I came across Feinberg's 1969 book The Prometheus Project, which is one of the first serious examinations (outside of science fiction) of world-changing technologies such as genetic engineering and AI. See reviews in SciencePhysics Today, and H+ Magazine. A scanned copy of the book can be found at Libgen.

Feinberg had the courage to engage with ideas that were much more speculative in the late 60s than they are today. He foresaw correctly, I believe, that technologies like AI and genetic engineering will alter not just human society but the nature of the human species itself. In the final chapter, he outlines a proposal for the eponymous Prometheus Project -- a global democratic process by which the human species can set long term goals in order to guide our approach to what today would be called the Singularity.


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