Digital Reality

Neil Gershenfeld [1.23.15]


...Today, you can send a design to a fab lab and you need ten different machines to turn the data into something. Twenty years from now, all of that will be in one machine that fits in your pocket. This is the sense in which it doesn't matter. You can do it today. How it works today isn't how it's going to work in the future but you don't need to wait twenty years for it. Anybody can make almost anything almost anywhere.              

...Finally, when I could own all these machines I got that the Renaissance was when the liberal arts emerged—liberal for liberation, humanism, the trivium and the quadrivium—and those were a path to liberation, they were the means of expression. That's the moment when art diverged from artisans. And there were the illiberal arts that were for commercial gain. ... We've been living with this notion that making stuff is an illiberal art for commercial gain and it's not part of means of expression. But, in fact, today, 3D printing, micromachining, and microcontroller programming are as expressive as painting paintings or writing sonnets but they're not means of expression from the Renaissance. We can finally fix that boundary between art and artisans.

...I'm happy to take claim for saying computer science is one of the worst things to happen to computers or to science because, unlike physics, it has arbitrarily segregated the notion that computing happens in an alien world.

[57 min]

NEIL GERSHENFELD is a Physicist and the Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. He is the author of FAB. Neil Gershenfeld's Edge Bio Page

Digital Reality


What interests me is how bits and atoms relate—the boundary between digital and physical. Scientifically, it's the most exciting thing I know. It has all sorts of implications that are widely covered almost exactly backwards. Playing it out, what I thought was hard technically is proving to be pretty easy. What I didn't think was hard was the implications for the world, so a bigger piece of what I do now is that. Let's start with digital.

Digital is everywhere; digital is everything. There's a lot of hubbub about what's the next MIT, what's the next Silicon Valley, and those were all the last war. Technology is leading to very different answers. To explain that, let's go back to the science underneath it and then look at what it leads to.

Jesse Dylan's Documentary On The Edge Question — 2014

An Edge World Premier Jesse Dylan [12.17.14]

[Click icon  in video image to expand to full-screen viewing.]

Following January's publication of the Edge Question—2014, "What Scientific Idea Is Ready for Retirement?", the director Jesse Dylan approached Edge with regard putting together a documentary film on the project. 

The result:Edgeis pleased to present the world premiere of Dylan's interesting and engaging four-minute impressionistic montage, featuring appearences by a number of Edgies: Jerry Coyne, Daniel C. Dennett, George Dyson, David Gelernter, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Alison Gopnik, Kevin Kelly, Alex Pentland, Irene Pepperberg, Steven Pinker, Lee Smolin, Paul Steinhardt, and Frank Wilczek.

JESSE DYLAN is a filmmaker and founder, Creative Director and CEO of Wondros, a production company based in LA. He has created media projects for a diverse group of organizations, including George Soros and the Open Society Foundations, Clinton Global Initiative, Council on Foreign Relations, MIT Media Lab, the Columbia Journalism School, and Harvard Medical School. Among his best known works is in the Emmy Award-winning  "Yes We Can—Barack Obama Music Video".  
Jesse Dylan's Edge Bio Page.


Formulating Science in Terms of Possible and Impossible Tasks

Chiara Marletto [12.6.14]

It turns out that in the constructor theoretic view, humans, as knowledge creating systems, are quite central to fundamental physics in an objective, non-anthropocentric, way. This is a very deep change in perspective. One of the ideas that will be dropped if constructor theory turns out to be effective is that the only fundamental entities in physics are laws of motion and initial conditions. In order for physics to accommodate more of physical reality, there needs to be a switch to this new mode of explanation, which accepts that scientific explanation is more than just predictions. Predictions will be supplemented with statements about what tasks are possible, what are impossible and why.


CHIARA MARLETTO is a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College and Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the Materials Department, University of Oxford; Currently working with David Deutsch.

Chiara Marletto's Edge Bio Page



I’ve been thinking about constructor theory a lot in the past few years. Constructor theory is this theory that David Deutsch proposed—a proposal for a new fundamental theory to formulate science in a completely different way from the prevailing conception of fundamental physics. It has the potential to change the way we formulate science because it’s a new mode of explanation.

When you think about physics, you usually describe things in terms of initial conditions and laws of motion; so what you say is, for example, where a comet goes given that it started in a certain place and time. In constructor theory, what you say is what transformations are possible, what are impossible, and why. The idea is that you can formulate the whole of fundamental physics this way; so, not only do you say where the comet goes, you say where it can go. This incorporates a lot more than what it is possible to incorporate now in fundamental physics.

Entwined Fates

Margaret Levi [11.24.14]


We keep coming back to the issue of a community of fate: can it be for good or for bad, right? We can imagine the beer hall in Munich and what happened there that created a community of fate, and we can imagine the left-wing union organizers developing a different kind of community of fate. The real distinction between them is not just the ethical principles that inform them—that's clearly an important distinction—but what kind of community of fate it is. The terminology that I use there, and I keep repeating and want to get that through, is between an inclusive and an expansive community of fate versus an exclusive and narrowing community of fate. That's the difference.


MARGARET LEVI is the Director of the Center For Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences and Professor of Political Science at Stanford University. She is the Jere L. Bacharach Professor Emerita of International Studies at the University of Washington.

Margaret Levi's Edge Bio Page


The thing that interests me has to do with how we evoke, from people, the ethical commitments that they have, or can be encouraged to have, that make it possible to have better government, that make it possible to produce collective goods, that make it possible to have a better society. 

I'm a political scientist, political economist, so I think about this not so much from the perspective of moral reasoning, or philosophy, or psychology for that matter—though all those disciplines come into play in my thinking—but I think about it in terms of the institutional arrangements and contextual arrangements in which people find themselves. It is about those that evoke certain behaviors as opposed to other kinds of behaviors, and certain attitudes as opposed to other kinds of attitudes, that ultimately lead to actions. I'm ultimately interested not just in how the individual's mind works, but how individual minds work together to create an aggregate outcome.


Georg Diez [11.17.14]

As a New York agent, John Brockman manages the star authors of science, as a visionary behind the scenes, he creates a new image of man for the 21st century. By Georg Diez   

Who is John Brockman? Even in New York, the world capital of people who know just about everybody, they are uncertain.

"Brockman, Brockman?" Shake of the head. "I don't know", says the reporter from the New Yorker. Says the colleague of the New York Review of Books. Says the young writer who cofounded the magazine n + 1.

In the literary milieu where he is ignored more than despised, John Brockman is about as well known as the first three digits of the number Pi.

"This crowd sees everything through the lenses of culture and politics," he says. "But an understanding of life, of the world, can only come through biology, through science."

Ebola, stem cells, brain research—Who needs the new David Foster Wallace, the new Philip Roth?

"The great questions of the world concern scientific news," says Brockman. "We are at the beginning of a revolution. And what we hear from the mainstream is: "Please make it go away."

"He is a key figure of the late 20th and early 21st century, the éminence grise and major source of inspiration for the globally dominant culture, which he himself named as the 'third culture'."

And there you are—this is how it goes with John Brockman who doesn’t like to waste time in the midst of the contradictions of the present. "Come, let's start," he says in a good mood and puts a recording device on his desk. "I'm turning it on, you don't mind?"

He is charming, without hiding his own interests. He is proud of his life, his intelligence, without that he would have to apologize for it. He is a key figure of the late 20th and early 21st century, the éminence grise and major source of inspiration for the globally dominant culture, which he himself named as the "third culture".

It is not Brockman, but his authors, who are well-known: Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Daniel C. Dennett, Jared Diamond, Daniel Kahneman. Physicists, neuroscientists, geneticists, evolutionary biologists, fixed stars of the science age, superstars of nonfiction bestseller lists, the reason for Brockman's financial success and good mood.

By the Late John Brockman - NEW E-BOOK EDITION ON SALE NOW!

John Brockman [9.16.14]


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Also availble from HarperCollins in the UK at and in Germany (in translation as Nachworte) from S. Fischer Verlag at

Articles of  Note

John Brockman, literary über agent and intellectual arbiter, wrote a trilogy of experimental, divisive books. Then, at age 32, he retired from writing ...more»



"Dahlia" by Katinka Matson |  Click to Expand

"Another year, and some of the most important thinkers and scientists of the world have accepted the intellectual challenge." —El Mundo, 2015

"Deliciously creative, the variety astonishes. Intellectual skyrockets of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge is doing...the greatest virtual research university in the world. —Denis Dutton, Founding Editor, Arts & Letters Daily

Dedicated to the memory of Frank Schirrmacher (1959-2014).

In recent years, the 1980s-era philosophical discussions about artificial intelligence (AI)—whether computers can "really" think, refer, be conscious, and so on—have led to new conversations about how we should deal with the forms that many argue actually are implemented. These "AIs", if they achieve "Superintelligence" (Nick Bostrom), could pose "existential risks" that lead to "Our Final Hour" (Martin Rees). And Stephen Hawking recently made international headlines when he noted "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."   


But wait! Should we also ask what machines that think, or, "AIs", might be thinking about? Do they want, do they expect civil rights? Do they have feelings? What kind of government (for us) would an AI choose? What kind of society would they want to structure for themselves? Or is "their" society "our" society? Will we, and the AIs, include each other within our respective circles of empathy?

Numerous Edgies have been at the forefront of the science behind the various flavors of AI, either in their research or writings. AI was front and center in conversations between charter members Pamela McCorduck (Machines Who Think) and Isaac Asimov (Machines That Think) at our initial meetings in 1980. And the conversation has continued unabated, as is evident in the recent Edge feature "The Myth of AI", a conversation with Jaron Lanier, that evoked rich and provocative commentaries.

Is AI becoming increasingly real? Are we now in a new era of the "AIs"? To consider this issue, it's time to grow up. Enough already with the science fiction and the movies, Star MakerBlade Runner2001HerThe Matrix, "The Borg".  Also, 80 years after Turing's invention of his Universal Machine, it's time to honor Turing, and other AI pioneers, by giving them a well-deserved rest. We know the history. (See George Dyson's 2004 Edge feature "Turing's Cathedral".) So, once again, this time with rigor, the Edge Question—2015:


John Brockman
Publisher & Editor, Edge

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