Edge in the News: 2007

John Markoff, The New York Times [3.8.07]

SAN FRANCISCO, March 8 — A new company founded by a longtime technologist is setting out to create a vast public database intended to be read by computers rather than people, paving the way for a more automated Internet in which machines will routinely share information.

The company, Metaweb Technologies, is led by Danny Hillis, whose background includes a stint at Walt Disney Imagineering and who has long championed the idea of intelligent machines.

He says his latest effort, to be announced Friday, will help develop a realm frequently described as the “semantic Web” — a set of services that will give rise to software agents that automate many functions now performed manually in front of a Web browser.

The idea of a centralized database storing all of the world’s digital information is a fundamental shift away from today’s World Wide Web, which is akin to a library of linked digital documents stored separately on millions of computers where search engines serve as the equivalent of a card catalog.

In contrast, Mr. Hillis envisions a centralized repository that is more like a digital almanac. The new system can be extended freely by those wishing to share their information widely.

On the Web, there are few rules governing how information should be organized. But in the Metaweb database, to be named Freebase, information will be structured to make it possible for software programs to discern relationships and even meaning.

For example, an entry for California’s governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, would be entered as a topic that would include a variety of attributes or “views” describing him as an actor, athlete and politician — listing them in a highly structured way in the database.

That would make it possible for programmers and Web developers to write programs allowing Internet users to pose queries that might produce a simple, useful answer rather than a long list of documents.

Since it could offer an understanding of relationships like geographic location and occupational specialties, Freebase might be able to field a query about a child-friendly dentist within 10 miles of one’s home and yield a single result.

The system will also make it possible to transform the way electronic devices communicate with one another, Mr. Hillis said. An Internet-enabled remote control could reconfigure itself automatically to be compatible with a new television set by tapping into data from Freebase. Or the video recorder of the future might stop blinking and program itself without confounding its owner.

In its ambitions, Freebase has some similarities to Google — which has asserted that its mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful. But its approach sets it apart.

“As wonderful as Google is, there is still much to do,” said Esther Dyson, a computer and Internet industry analyst and investor at EDventure, based in New York.

Most search engines are about algorithms and statistics without structure, while databases have been solely about structure until now, she said.

“In the middle there is something that represents things as they are,” she said. “Something that captures the relationships between things.”

That addition has long been a vision of researchers in artificial intelligence. The Freebase system will offer a set of controls that will allow both programmers and Web designers to extract information easily from the system.

“It’s like a system for building the synapses for the global brain,” said Tim O’Reilly, chief executive of O’Reilly Media, a technology publishing firm based in Sebastopol, Calif.

Mr. Hillis received his Ph.D. in computer science while studying artificial intelligence at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

In 1985 he founded one of the first companies focused on massively parallel computing, Thinking Machines. When the company failed commercially at the end of the cold war, he became vice president for research and development at Walt Disney Imagineering. More recently he was a founder of Applied Minds, a research and consulting firm based in Glendale, Calif. Metaweb, founded in 2005 with venture capital backing, is a spinoff of that company.

Mr. Hillis first described his idea for creating a knowledge web he called Aristotle in a paper in 2000. But he said he did not try to build the system until he had recruited two technical experts as co-founders. Robert Cook, an expert in parallel computing and database design, is Metaweb’s executive vice president for product development. John Giannandrea, formerly chief technologist at Tellme Networks and chief technologist of the Web browser group at Netscape/AOL, is the company’s chief technology officer.

“We’re trying to create the world’s database, with all of the world’s information,” Mr. Hillis said.

All of the information in Freebase will be available under a license that makes it freely shareable, Mr. Hillis said. In the future, he said, the company plans to create a business by organizing proprietary information in a similar fashion.

Contributions already added into the Freebase system include descriptive information about four million songs from Musicbrainz, a user-maintained database; details on 100,000 restaurants supplied by Chemoz; extensive information from Wikipedia; and census data and location information.

A number of private companies, including Encyclopaedia Britannica, have indicated that they are willing to add some of their existing databases to the system, Mr. Hillis said.

skeptical inquirer [2.28.07]

Those who wonder what cutting-edge scientists might ponder outside of their classrooms and laboratories need wonder no more. In What We Believe But Cannot Prove, "intellectuals in action" speculate on the frontiers of science, both hard and soft. Skeptics, however, should not be deceived by the title. An ample majority of the more than 100 teasingly short essays included will sate the intellect's appetite for both facts and reasoned theory. John Brockman's new collection features the world's most celebrated and respected scientists and their musings on everything from human pre-history to cosmology and astrophysics, from evolution to extraterrestrial intelligence, and from genetics to theories of consciousness. ....

...What We Believe But Cannot Prove offers an impressive array of insights and challenges that will surely delight curious readers, generalists and specialists alike. Science is intimidating for the vast majority of us. But John Brockman has grown deservedly famous in recent years for his ability to lure these disciplines and theirleading practitioners back to Earth where terrestrials are afforded all-too-rare opportunities to marvel at the intellectual and creativemagnificence of science in particular, and at our species' immeasurable potential in all pursuits more generally.

[...continue]

Prospect [2.28.07]


Brian Eno
, musician

Interventionists vs laissez-faireists
One of the big divisions of the future will be between those who believe in intervention as a moral duty and those who don't. This issue cuts across the left/right divide, as we saw in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. It asks us to consider whether we believe our way of doing things to be so superior that we must persuade others to follow it, or whether, on the other hand, we are prepared to watch as other countries pursue their own, often apparently flawed, paths. It will be a discussion between pluralists, who are prepared to tolerate the discomfort of diversity, and those who feel they know what the best system is and feel it is their moral duty to encourage it.

Globalists vs nationalists
How prepared are we to allow national governments the freedom to make decisions which may not be in the interests of the rest of the world? With issues such as climate change becoming increasingly urgent, many people will begin arguing for a global system of government with the power to overrule specific national interests.

Communities of geography vs communities of choice
At the same time, some people will feel less and less allegiance to "the nation," which will become an increasingly nebulous act of faith, and more allegiance to "communities of choice" which exist outside national identities and geographical restraints. We see the beginnings of this in transnational pressure groups such as Greenpeace, MoveOn and Amnesty International, but also in the choices that people now make about where they live, bank their money, get their healthcare and go on holiday.

Real life vs virtual life
Some people will spend more and more of their time in virtual communities such as Second Life. They will claim that their communities represent the logical extension of citizen democracy. They will be ridiculed and opposed by "First Lifers," who will insist that reality with all its complications always trumps virtual reality, but the second-lifers in turn will insist that they live in a world of their own design and therefore are by definition more creative and free. This division will deepen and intensify, and will develop from just a cultural preference into a choice about how and where people spend their lives.

Life extension for all vs for some
There will be an increasingly agonised division between those who feel that new life-extension technologies should be either available to those who can afford them or available to everyone. Life itself will be the resource over which wars will be fought: the "have nots" will feel that there is a fundamental injustice in the possibility for some people to enjoy conspicuously longer and healthier lives because they happen to be richer.

Anthony Giddens, sociologist

"The future isn't what it used to be," George Burns once said. And he was right. This century we are peering over a precipice, and it's an awful long way down. We have unleashed forces into the world that it is not certain that we can control. We may have already done so much damage to the planet that by the end of the century people will live in a world ravaged by storms, with large areas flooded and others arid. But you have to add in nuclear proliferation, and new diseases that we might have inadvertently created. Space might become militarised. The emergence of mega-computers, allied to robotics, might at some point also create beings able to escape the clutches of their creators.

Against that, you could say that we haven't much clue what the future will bring, except it's bound to be things that we haven't even suspected. Twenty years ago, Bill Gates thought there was no future in the internet. The current century might turn out much more benign than scary.

As for politics, left and right aren't about to disappear—the metaphor is too strongly entrenched for that. My best guess about where politics will focus would be upon life itself. Life politics concerns the environment, lifestyle change, health, ageing, identity and technology. It may be a politics of survival, it may be a politics of hope, or perhaps a bit of both.

Nicholas Humphrey, scientist

How can anyone doubt that the faultline is going to be religion? On one side there will be those who continue to appeal for their political and moral values to what they understand to be God's will. On the other there will be the atheists, agnostics and scientific materialists, who see human lives as being under human control, subject only to the relatively negotiable constraints of our evolved psychology. What makes the outcome uncertain is that our evolved psychology almost certainly leans us towards religion, as an essential defence against the terror of death and meaninglessness.

Marek Kohn, science writer

The right, of course, is still with us; robust structures remain to uphold individualism and the pursuit of wealth. There is also plenty of room in the current orthodoxy for liberalism and conservatism of all kind of stripes. What's left out? Equality and solidarity—which takes us back to the egalite and fraternite of the French revolution, where the terms "left" and "right" came in. These seem to be fundamental values, intuitively recognised as the basis of fair and healthy social relations, so we may expect that they will reassert themselves. But as dominant ideologies fail to give them their fair dues, they will reappear in marginal and often disagreeable guises. Social solidarity may be advanced within narrow group solidarities; equality may be appropriated by demagogues.

Recent manifestations in central Europe and South America have been overlooked because they are accompanied by tendencies that rightly affront liberals. It is hard to imagine what could restore social solidarity and equality to the heart of political discourse, so we must expect that collectivist tendencies in our kind of polity will likely be largely confined to the bureaucratic management of resources placed under ever-growing pressure by economic growth and its environmental consequences.

Mark Pagel, scientist

Modern humans evolved to live in small co-operative groups with extensive divisions of labour among unrelated people linked only by their common culture. Co-operation is fragile, being the contented face of trust, reciprocity and the perception of a shared fate—when they go, the mask can quickly fall. The psychology of the co-operative group, of how we can maintain it and equally how we can control its dangerous tendencies—parochialism, xenophobia, exclusion and warfare—will often be at the front door of 21st-century politics.

The reasons are clear. The politics of the 20th century were expansive and hopeful, enlivened by growing prosperity. In the 21st century, increasing multiculturalism and widespread movements of people will repeatedly challenge the trust and sense of equity that binds together co-operative groups, unleashing instincts for selfish preservation. For politicians and thinkers, a pressing task at all levels of politics is to seek ways to manage these issues that somehow draw all of the actors into the elaborate and fragile reciprocity loops of the co-operative society. It sounds impossible, it won't be easy and there are no simple recipes. But if we fail, we risk sliding into xenophobic hysteria, clashes of culture, and the frenzied and dangerous grabbing of natural resources.

Lisa Randall, scientist

Debates today have descended into those between the lazy and the slightly less lazy. We are faced with urgent issues, yet the speed with which lawmakers approach them is glacial—actually slower than that: glaciers are melting faster than we are attacking the issues.

Steven Rose, biologist

Last century's alternatives were socialism or barbarism. This century's prospects are starker: social justice or the end of human civilisation—if not our species. To achieve that justice it is imperative that we retain the utopian dream of "from each according to their abilities: to each according to their needs," but needs and abilities are constantly being refashioned by runaway sciences and technologies harnessed ever more closely to global industry and imperial power and embedded within a degraded and degrading environment. This century's "left," just as that of the last century, is constituted by those groups, old or newly constituted, struggling against these hegemonic powers.

[...more]

Juan Enriquez, Reforma [2.18.07]

Las tragedias individuales, dice Anderson, venden muchos más periódicos y atraen muchos más televidentes que las tendencias generales

A menudo, después de abrir el periódico, ver las noticias o vivir algún suceso especialmente triste, acaba uno con la idea de que el mundo era mucho mejor antes y que vamos rumbo a la decadencia, soledad, podredumbre y extrema violencia. En algunas partes y épocas efectivamente es así. Pero no lo es en general...Dos amigos míos me recordaron, en escritos de fin de año, que hay mucho que criticar, afrontar, cambiar, pero también hay mucho que celebrar. Chris Anderson escribió sobre el extremo sobrerreportaje que ocurre cuando hay un incidente terrorista, accidente masivo o desastre natural. Esto ocurre porque, en la mayoría del mundo, este tipo de muertes violentas no son lugar común. Hay grandes reportajes precisamente porque son sucesos excepcionales.Las tragedias individuales, dice Anderson, venden muchos más periódicos y atraen muchos más televidentes que las tendencias generales. "Perro ataca inocente infante" es mucho más poderoso que "la pobreza se redujo en un 1 por ciento". Pero aunque la segunda nota es mucho menos atractiva en términos mediáticos significa salvar y mejorar muchas más vidas.

Mucho se ha escrito sobre cómo la red, Google, Yahoo, Skype, You Tube eliminan distancias y reducen el costo de la comunicación, de lograr comunicación y obtener información global a casi cero. El resultado de estar siempre conectados a todas partes a todas horas es que las distancias se reducen y que individuales dramas mundiales entran, cada vez más, a nuestras casas a diario. Podemos enterarnos 24 x 7 sobre incendios, bombas, asaltos, torturas, desapariciones, violaciones y escándalos políticos en cualquiera de los casi 200 países del planeta. Una foto, un testimonial, un videoclip de 15 segundos, nos acercan a más y más dramas individuales. Cada historia nos convence, un poquito más, de que vivimos en mundo cruel, duro y violento...

COLUMNAS [2.18.07]

Las tragedias individuales, dice Anderson, venden muchos más peri"dicos y atraen muchos más televidentes que las tendencias generales

A menudo, después de abrir el peri"dico, ver las noticias o vivir algún suceso especialmente triste, acaba uno con la idea de que el mundo era mucho mejor antes y que vamos rumbo a la decadencia, soledad, podredumbre y extrema violencia. En algunas partes y épocas efectivamente es así. Pero no lo es en general...Dos amigos míos me recordaron, en escritos de fin de año, que hay mucho que criticar, afrontar, cambiar, pero también hay mucho que celebrar. Chris Anderson escribi" sobre el extremo sobrerreportaje que ocurre cuando hay un incidente terrorista, accidente masivo o desastre natural. Esto ocurre porque, en la mayoría del mundo, este tipo de muertes violentas no son lugar común. Hay grandes reportajes precisamente porque son sucesos excepcionales.Las tragedias individuales, dice Anderson, venden muchos más peri"dicos y atraen muchos más televidentes que las tendencias generales. "Perro ataca inocente infante" es mucho más poderoso que "la pobreza se redujo en un 1 por ciento". Pero aunque la segunda nota es mucho menos atractiva en términos mediáticos significa salvar y mejorar muchas más vidas.

Mucho se ha escrito sobre c"mo la red, Google, Yahoo, Skype, You Tube eliminan distancias y reducen el costo de la comunicaci"n, de lograr comunicaci"n y obtener informaci"n global a casi cero. El resultado de estar siempre conectados a todas partes a todas horas es que las distancias se reducen y que individuales dramas mundiales entran, cada vez más, a nuestras casas a diario. Podemos enterarnos 24 x 7 sobre incendios, bombas, asaltos, torturas, desapariciones, violaciones y escándalos políticos en cualquiera de los casi 200 países del planeta. Una foto, un testimonial, un videoclip de 15 segundos, nos acercan a más y más dramas individuales. Cada historia nos convence, un poquito más, de que vivimos en mundo cruel, duro y violento...

...

suddeutsche zeitung [2.16.07]

Ein nüchterner Blick auf die Geschichte zeigt, dass Optimismus grundsätzlich gerechtfertigt ist. Denn heute ist die Gewalt als bestimmendes Moment der Menschheitsgeschichte auf dem Rückzug. Darauf weist der Psychologe Steven Pinker von der Harvard University im Internetforum edge.org hin, in dem er zusammen mit 160 anderen Kollegen und Kolleginnen auf die Frage antwortet, was sie optimistisch mache. Es möge überraschen, so Pinker, aber die Gewalt habe seit Jahrhunderten drastisch abgenommen. Der Völkermord als gängige Form der Konfliktlösung, das Attentat zur Erbfolgeregelung, Exekution und Folter als Strafe, Sklaverei aus Faulheit und Habgier seien heute Seltenheiten und, wo sie aufträten, Gegenstand heftigerKritik. Was lief hier richtig? fragt Pinker, und stellt fest, dass wir wenig zu antworten wissen. Dies läge wohl daran, dass wir immer danach fragten, warum es Krieg gibt, und niemals, wieso der Frieden da ist. ......Fast alle Antworten in der Sammlung, die demnächst als Buch erscheint, sind von solchem Optimismus getragen. Geograph und Biologe Jared Diamond ist optimistisch, weil es in der Wirtschaft manchmal Entscheidungen gibt, die auch für die Menschheit gut sind. Brian Eno ist es, weil die Akzeptanz der Erder-wärmung das größte Versagen des Marktes transparent gemacht habe. J. Craig Venter erwartet eine Revolution der Entscheidungskultur, wenn außerhalb der Wissenschaft ihre jüngsten Methoden übernommen werden. Diese beruhten vor allem auf dem Erkennen irrelevanter Informationen. Die Zukunft ist also kein Überwachungsstaat. Vor allem die Infor ation-stechnologie ist unter den Optimisten im Trend. Auch Afrika, der verlorene Kontinent, erlebt hier einen Boom, der viel verändern wird.

Einzig Nobelpreisträger Frank Wilczek macht Hoffnung, dass es die alles erklärende Theorie, jene Weltformel, die als „Einsteins Traum“ bekannt ist, nie geben wird. Man sollte seine Worte besser wählen, meint der Physiktheoretiker. Er lässt so eine unter seines-gleichen seltene Demut gegenüber der Schöpfung erkennen, deren Gedanke er nicht für die Hoffnung auf ein wissenschaftliches Erlösungsmoment opfern will.

Martin Rees
, dessen Royal Society übrigens einst den Prioritätenstreit zwischen Newton und Leibniz um die Infinitesimalrechnung falsch zu Gunsten des Engländers entschied, äußerte sich auch: Er habe viele Zuschriften bekommen, sein Buch sei noch beschönigend und er selbst ein unverbesserlicher Optimist. Das, schreibt er nun, wolle er bleiben. Dennet gibt zwar zu, an schlechten Tagen den düsteren Szenarien seines Kollegen anhängen zu können. Als größte Gefahr macht er jedoch etwas anderes als der Physiker aus: Die gute alte Überreaktion.

FEUILLETON [2.16.07]

Ein nüchterner Blick auf die Geschichte zeigt, dass Optimismus grundsätzlich gerechtfertigt ist. Denn heute ist die Gewalt als bestimmendes Moment der Menschheitsgeschichte auf dem Rückzug. Darauf weist der Psychologe Steven Pinker von der Harvard University im Internetforum edge.org hin, in dem er zusammen mit 160 anderen Kollegen und Kolleginnen auf die Frage antwortet, was sie optimistisch mache. Es möge überraschen, so Pinker, aber die Gewalt habe seit Jahrhunderten drastisch abgenommen. Der Völkermord als gängige Form der Konfliktlösung, das Attentat zur Erbfolgeregelung, Exekution und Folter als Strafe, Sklaverei aus Faulheit und Habgier seien heute Seltenheiten und, wo sie aufträten, Gegenstand heftigerKritik. Was lief hier richtig? fragt Pinker, und stellt fest, dass wir wenig zu antworten wissen. Dies läge wohl daran, dass wir immer danach fragten, warum es Krieg gibt, und niemals, wieso der Frieden da ist. ......Fast alle Antworten in der Sammlung, die demnächst als Buch erscheint, sind von solchem Optimismus getragen. Geograph und Biologe Jared Diamond ist optimistisch, weil es in der Wirtschaft manchmal Entscheidungen gibt, die auch für die Menschheit gut sind. Brian Eno ist es, weil die Akzeptanz der Erder-wärmung das größte Versagen des Marktes transparent gemacht habe. J. Craig Ventererwartet eine Revolution der Entscheidungskultur, wenn außerhalb der Wissenschaft ihre jüngsten Methoden übernommen werden. Diese beruhten vor allem auf dem Erkennen irrelevanter Informationen. Die Zukunft ist also kein Überwachungsstaat. Vor allem die Infor ation-stechnologie ist unter den Optimisten im Trend. Auch Afrika, der verlorene Kontinent, erlebt hier einen Boom, der viel verändern wird.

Einzig Nobelpreisträger Frank Wilczek macht Hoffnung, dass es die alles erklärende Theorie, jene Weltformel, die als „Einsteins Traum" bekannt ist, nie geben wird. Man sollte seine Worte besser wählen, meint der Physiktheoretiker. Er lässt so eine unter seines-gleichen seltene Demut gegenüber der Schöpfung erkennen, deren Gedanke er nicht für die Hoffnung auf ein wissenschaftliches Erlösungsmoment opfern will.

Martin Rees
, dessen Royal Society übrigens einst den Prioritätenstreit zwischen Newton und Leibniz um die Infinitesimalrechnung falsch zu Gunsten des Engländers entschied, äußerte sich auch: Er habe viele Zuschriften bekommen, sein Buch sei noch beschönigend und er selbst ein unverbesserlicher Optimist. Das, schreibt er nun, wolle er bleiben. Dennet gibt zwar zu, an schlechten Tagen den düsteren Szenarien seines Kollegen anhängen zu können. Als größte Gefahr macht er jedoch etwas anderes als der Physiker aus: Die gute alte Überreaktion.

...

Nature [2.11.07]

 

2006 wrapped up
Mary Purton1

It has been a strange year for science books. Some authors have presented new ideas about science — there has been a tussle over string theory, for example, and in Moral Minds Marc Hauser has suggested that morality is as innate as language (see Nature 443, 909–910; 2006).But perhaps the dominant theme running through many of the popular science books published this year has been, surprisingly, religion.

The continuing debate about the teaching of creationism in schools has no doubt fuelled this preoccupation. Many scientists, particularly those in the United States, have been moved to take a stand against proponents of creationism and intelligent design. Intelligent Thought, edited by John Brockman, is a collection of essays from the likes of Jerry Coyne and Tim White who provide elegantly expressed scientific arguments to counter the claims of intelligent design. This book should appeal to "those who already see evolutionary biology as a science", according to John Tyler Bonner (see Nature 442, 355–356; 2006). Michael Shermer's Why Darwin Matters is perhaps more accessible for the public, but neither book is likely to sway creationists from their belief.

Many of the scientists who made it to the top of the bestseller lists focused specifically on religion. Daniel Dennett's book Breaking the Spell provides essentially a natural history of religion but skirts around the cultural reasons why religion has developed and become such a dominant force in politics today, in the view of reviewer Michael Ruse (see Nature 439, 535; 2006).

......But Richard Dawkins isn't interested in reconciling science and religion. In The God Delusion, which has topped the bestseller lists in both the United States and Britain this autumn, Dawkins argues with the fervour of a preacher that religion has no place in the modern world, and that atheism is the 'true path' (see Nature 443, 914–915; 2006).

Dawkins' domination of the genre of popular science books was celebrated earlier in the year with the publication by Oxford University Press of a thirtieth-anniversary edition of his book The Selfish Gene, and Richard Dawkins: How A Scientist Changed the Way We Think, a collection of comments and testimonials edited by Alan Grafen and Mark Ridley (see Nature 441, 151–152; 2006).

Physicists have also been questioning our place in the Universe. Cosmologist Alex Vilenkin's Many Worlds in One takes a look at the multiverse theory — the idea that many different universes exist and explanations for how we came to be in this one (see Nature 443, 145–146; 2006). Paul Davies' The Goldilocks Enigma gives the topic a more popular treatment (see Nature 444, 423–424; 2006). ...

After a spate of books on string theory in 2005, the hottest hope for a 'theory of everything' came in for criticism this year, with the appearance of Lee Smolin's The Trouble with Physics ... (seeNature 443, 482491 ... 2006).

(...continue for complete article; subscription required )

Peering dangerously into a future of ageless codgers
THE CANBERRA TIMES [2.9.07]

AN IDEA may be dangerous either to its conceiver or to others, including its proponents. Four hundred years ago, heliocentricity was acutely dangerous to Galileo, whom it led before the Holy Inquisition. Two and a half centuries later, Darwin's notions on natural selection and the evolution of species jeopardised the certainties and imperilled the livelihoods of many professional Christians. To this day, the idea that God does not exist is dangerous enough to get atheists murdered in America.

The editor of this anthology of dangerous ideas, John Brockman, is, among other things, the publisher of Edge, the "Third Culture" website (www.edge.org). He has already published What We Believe but Cannot Prove, to which this volume is a companion. Each year, Brockman asks a question of his contributors. Last year's was: "What is your dangerous idea?" He meant not necessarily a new idea, or even one which they had originated, but one which is dangerous "not because it is assumed to be false but because it might be true". This volume, with an introduction by Steven Pinker and an afterword by Richard Dawkins, publishes the responses given in 2006 by 108 of "Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable".

...There is much in many of these brief essays to astonish, to be appalled at, to mull over or to wish for. Some of them suffer from galloping emailographism, that mannerism of the hasty respondent whose elliptical prose can make even the most pregnant idea indigestible. But most of them, from the three-sentence reminder by Nicholas Humphrey of Bertrand Russell's dangerous idea ("That it is undesirable to believe in a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true") to the five pages of V.S. Ramachandran on Francis Crick's "Astonishing Hypothesis" (that what we think of as our self is merely the activity of 100 billion bits of jelly, the neurons which constitute the brain), are vitally engaging to anyone with an ounce of interest in matters such as being or whatever

...Mind you, there is one glimpse of the future which rings grotesque enough to be plausible, Gerald Holton's"Projection of the Longevity Curve", in which we see a future matriarch, 200 years old, on her death bed, surrounded by her children aged about 180, her grandchildren of about 150, her great-grandchildren of about 120, their offspring aged in their 90s, and so on for several more generations. A touching picture, as the author says, "But what are the costs involved?"

Read the full article →

globeandmail [2.9.07]

Personality, the connection between the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the military, Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, Henry A. Murray and the LSD experiments at Harvard and crazy old Mr. Kaczynksi with his terror of mind control and supercomputers.

Are you lost yet? I've watched the film a few times, and I'm still not quite sure what it all means, or if it means anything at all. Like the Internet itself, the bewildering density of information requires careful sorting.

But one idea does jump out. John Brockman paraphrases a quote from Doubt and Certainty in Science: A Biologist's Reflections on the Brain by J.Z. Young that states: "We create tools and then we mould ourselves through our use of them."

In the brave new world of Google Video, YouTube, MySpace, et al., what does this mean? If we create technology and then become what we have created, have we now succeeded in making Jackass World?...

...So, are you being controlled by an elite group of cyber-hippies and ex-CIA military types without even knowing it? Or, as Theodor Adorno believed, lulled into a state of passivity and pseudo-individualization by pop culture. Or are you part of what Marshall McLuhan heralded as the new dawn in which "we have extended our central nervous system itself in a global embrace, abolishing both space and time as far as our planet is concerned."

[Ed. Note: See the trailer]

[...continue]

The Canberra Times [2.9.07]

AN IDEA may be dangerous either to its conceiver or to others, including its proponents. Four hundred years ago, heliocentricity was acutely dangerous to Galileo, whom it led before the Holy Inquisition. Two and a half centuries later, Darwin's notions on natural selection and the evolution of species jeopardised the certainties and imperilled the livelihoods of many professional Christians. To this day, the idea that God does not exist is dangerous enough to get atheists murdered in America.

The editor of this anthology of dangerous ideas, John Brockman, is, among other things, the publisher of Edge, the "Third Culture" website (www.edge.org). He has already published What We Believe but Cannot Prove, to which this volume is a companion. Each year, Brockman asks a question of his contributors. Last year's was: "What is your dangerous idea?" He meant not necessarily a new idea, or even one which they had originated, but one which is dangerous "not because it is assumed to be false but because it might be true". This volume, with an introduction by Steven Pinker and an afterword by Richard Dawkins, publishes the responses given in 2006 by 108 of "Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable".

...There is much in many of these brief essays to astonish, to be appalled at, to mull over or to wish for. Some of them suffer from galloping emailographism, that mannerism of the hasty respondent whose elliptical prose can make even the most pregnant idea indigestible. But most of them, from the three-sentence reminder by Nicholas Humphrey of Bertrand Russell's dangerous idea ("That it is undesirable to believe in a proposition when there is no ground whatever for supposing it true") to the five pages of V.S. Ramachandran on Francis Crick's "Astonishing Hypothesis" (that what we think of as our self is merely the activity of 100 billion bits of jelly, the neurons which constitute the brain), are vitally engaging to anyone with an ounce of interest in matters such as being or whatever

...Mind you, there is one glimpse of the future which rings grotesque enough to be plausible, Gerald Holton's "Projection of the Longevity Curve", in which we see a future matriarch, 200 years old, on her death bed, surrounded by her children aged about 180, her grandchildren of about 150, her great-grandchildren of about 120, their offspring aged in their 90s, and so on for several more generations. A touching picture, as the author says, "But what are the costs involved?"

The New York Times [2.8.07]

 

SAN FRANCISCO, Sept. 13 — The ambitious founders of Google, the popular search engine company, have set up a philanthropy, giving it seed money of about $1 billion and a mandate to tackle poverty, disease and global warming.

Peter DaSilva for The New York Times

Dr. Larry Brilliant, the executive director of Google.org., used to have concerns about the new foundation’s for-profit status.

Readers’ Opinions

 
Google’s Charity

Share Your ThoughtsWill Google.org’s new form of philanthropy change the way traditional nonprofit charities work?

But unlike most charities, this one will be for-profit, allowing it to fund start-up companies, form partnerships with venture capitalists and even lobby Congress. It will also pay taxes.

One of its maiden projects reflects the philanthropy’s nontraditional approach. According to people briefed on the program, the organization, called Google.org, plans to develop an ultra-fuel-efficient plug-in hybrid car engine that runs on ethanol, electricity and gasoline.

The philanthropy is consulting with hybrid-engine scientists and automakers, and has arranged for the purchase of a small fleet of cars with plans to convert the engines so that their gas mileage exceeds 100 miles per gallon. The goal of the project is to reduce dependence on oil while alleviating the effects of global warming.

Google.org is drawing skeptics for both its structure and its ambitions. It is a slingshot compared with the artillery of charities established by older captains of industry. Its financing pales next to the tens of billions that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will have at its disposal, especially with the coming infusion of some $3 billion a year from Warren E. Buffett, the founder of Berkshire Hathaway.

But Google’s philanthropic work is coming early in the company’s lifetime. Microsoft was 25 years old before Bill Gates set up his foundation, which is a tax-exempt organization and separate from Microsoft.

By choosing for-profit status, Google will have to pay taxes if company shares are sold at a profit — or if corporate earnings are used — to finance Google.org. Any resulting venture that shows a profit will also have to pay taxes. Shareholders may not like the fact that the Google.org tax forms will not be made public, but kept private as part of the tax filings of the parent, Google Inc.

Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, believe for-profit status will greatly increase their philanthropy’s range and flexibility. It could, for example, form a company to sell the converted cars, finance that company in partnership with venture capitalists, and even hire a lobbyist to pressure Congress to pass legislation granting a tax credit to consumers who buy the cars.

The executive director whom Mr. Page and Mr. Brin have hired, Dr. Larry Brilliant, is every bit as iconoclastic as Google’s philanthropic arm. Dr. Brilliant, a 61-year-old physician and public health expert, has studied under a Hindu guru in a monastery at the foothills of the Himalayas and worked as a Silicon Valley entrepreneur.

In one project, which Dr. Brilliant brought with him to the job, Google.org will try to develop a system to detect disease outbreaks early.

Dr. Brilliant likens the traditional structure of corporate foundations to a musician confined to playing only the high register on a piano. “Google.org can play on the entire keyboard,” Dr. Brilliant said in an interview. “It can start companies, build industries, pay consultants, lobby, give money to individuals and make a profit.”

While declining to comment on the car project specifically, Dr. Brilliant said he would hope to see such ventures make a profit. “But if they didn’t, we wouldn’t care,” he said. “We’re not doing it for the profit. And if we didn’t get our capital back, so what? The emphasis is on social returns, not economic returns.”

Development of ultra-high-mileage cars is under way at a number of companies, fromToyota to tiny start-ups. Making an engine that uses E85 — a mixture of 85 percent ethanol and 15 percent gasoline — is not difficult, but the lack of availability of the fuel presents a challenge, said Brett Smith, a senior industry analyst at the Center for Automotive Research in Ann Arbor, Mich.

Another barrier, Mr. Smith said, lies in the batteries for so-called plug-in hybrids, which require more powerful batteries that charge more quickly than the current generation of hybrid batteries.

There are skeptics, too, among tax lawyers and other pragmatists familiar with the world of philanthropy. They wonder whether Google’s directors might be tempted to take back some of the largess in an economic downturn.

“The money is at the beck and call of the board of directors and shareholders,” said Marcus S. Owens, a tax lawyer in Washington who spent a decade as director of the exempt organizations division of the Internal Revenue Service. “It’s possible the shareholders of Google might someday object, especially if we go into an economic depression and that money is needed to shore up the company.”

And there is the question of how many of the planet’s problems can truly be addressed by a single corporate entity.

But even while expressing reservations about Google’s approach, Mr. Owens said that the structure of Google.org “eliminates all the constraints that might otherwise apply.”

The only conventional part of Google.org is the Google Foundation, a nonprofit with an endowment of $90 million that is constrained in how it spends by the 501(c)(3) section of the Internal Revenue Service code.

Lisa Randall, SEED [2.7.07]

See what Marc Hauser, Drew Endy, Joshua Greene, and others have to say about where their fields are going in 2007
By Edit Staff

Cosmology and Particle Physics

On the theoretical side, particle phenomenologists will continue to develop physics beyond the Standard Model; string theorists are connecting more strongly to cosmology and astrophysics; and cosmologists are investigating models of dark matter, dark energy, and modified gravity. ...

—Sean Carroll, Caltech

Synthetic Genomics

The goal of synthetic biology is to make possible the engineering of living organisms that behave as expected. Progress in the field is based on three new foundational technologies that go beyond classical genetic engineering: automated DNA synthesis, standardization, and abstraction. Synthesis enables direct construction of genetic material from raw chemicals and information. Standards and abstraction together provide the languages and grammars needed to define the information used by DNA synthesizers. 2007 should witness two important milestones for automated DNA synthesis (which enables direct construction of genetic material from raw chemicals and information). ...

—Drew Endy, MIT

Neuroscience

In the last five years the scientific study of morality has exploded. We're now probing the moral brain like never before, using functional neuroimaging, studies of neurological patients, and sophisticated cognitive testing techniques. As a result of this work, it's now clear (to some of us, at any rate) that moral decision-making is neither a pristine rational enterprise, nor simply a matter of emotional expression. ... 

—Joshua Greene, Harvard University

High Energy Physics

The coming year will see a number of interesting developments as the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) goes online. The enormous amount of data generated by the LHC will force us to refine our methods—and explore new ones—for extracting and interpreting information from high energy collisions. This work should lead to new insights into the masses of elementary particles and the consequences of various models for particle physics and cosmology. ...

Lisa Randall, Harvard University

[...]

The Colbert Report [2.7.07]


[click on image]

... [STEPHEN COLBERT:] Your specialty is the brain and how it works. Right?

[STEVEN PINKER:] Right.

It's a complicated subject. How does the brain work? Five words or less.

Brain cells fire in patterns.

Brain cells fire in patterns. Not bad.  And these patterns establish our behavior and stuff like that,

A pattern corresponds to a thought. One patterns causes another pattern, that's what happen when we think.

OK. Let me ask you something. You're also, you're also, uh, language is very important to you. Umm, uhh, wha wha, what, why is language important?

It's the way we get our thoughts across. It's the way we cooperate, the way we share our knowledge…

How important is volume? I find if I'm trying to get an idea across if I shout it at the person I'm saying it to, it makes it seem more important. Is that common?

I think that's common, unfortunately, yes.

Now, uh, your book here, you've got a book called  The Blank Slate, The Human Denial of Nature. What are we denying about human nature, Sir?

A lot of people are upset about the very idea that there is such a thing as human nature. Some people fear that …

Well, that God gave us our nature.

Some people fear that human nature is a product of evolution, rather than a  …

I don’t fear it I deny it. I'm not afraid of evolution because I know it's not really there. I'm not afraid of ghosts either.

Some people are afraid of the idea that if were born with any kind of talent or temperaments,  then different people can be born with different talents and temperaments, and that seems to open the door to discrimination and oppression. Some people are upset that if we have any kind of instincts we may have selfish and nasty instincts and that would seem to get in the way of hopes for social reform. Why try to make the world a better place if people are rotten to the core and we'll just foul it up no matter what you  do.

Well I say some people get it some people just don’t.

Well, that would imply that there are differences among people.

There are.

And there are people that would want to deny that there could be differences among people and if we all start off with nothing then by definition we're all the same.

No, we don't all start off with nothing in my opinion, if I may, and I may because it's my show, I don't think we start off with nothing. I think we can achieve nothing. I think we can become a blank slate. I've worked very hard over the years to stop thinking and now I'm empty inside. What do you think people have, uh, what do you think people have instinctually other than original sin. What do they have when they're born? ...

[...continued]

The Harvard Crimson [2.7.07]

Though Stephen Colbert said he considers Harvard a “rich nerds’ table,” the popular comedy show host appears to have a bit of a crimson fixation. 

Last night, Colbert—who plays a right-wing pundit on his show “The Colbert Report”—welcomed Johnstone Family Professor of Psychology Steven Pinker as a guest on his program. The appearance came just two months after Colbert journeyed to Cambridge himself to record segments for his show at the Institute of Politics. 

In last night’s segment, entitled “Pinker and the Brain,” Colbert and Pinker discussed basic brain function and human nature. Colbert introduced Pinker by saying that because Pinker is a Harvard professor, he “probably thinks I think he’s a pompous know-it-all.” 

Colbert asked Pinker to summarize the brain in five words or less, to which he responded “Brain cells fire in patterns.” 

Pinker said he was surprised by his own ability to describe the brain in so few words under pressure. 

“I never thought I could sum up how the brain works in exactly five words!” he wrote in an e-mail after he taped the show, adding that he was “pretty nervous beforehand.” 

Most of the discussion focused on Pinker’s 2002 book “The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature”—a book on evolutionary psychology—as Pinker struggled to explain his beliefs about brain function while Colbert joked and interrupted him. 

Colbert also poked fun at Pinker’s 2003 move from MIT to Harvard. 

“You were at MIT first then went to Harvard? That’s like going from the nerds’ table to the rich nerds’ table,” Colbert said. 

At the “rich nerds’ table,” Pinker continues to be a professor of some of the College’s most popular classes. 

Pinker, who has in the past led the popular core Science B-62, “The Human Mind,” is co-teaching Psychology 1002, “Morality and Taboo,” with Frankfurter Professor of Law Alan M. Dershowitz this spring. 

There was no specific occasion for Pinker’s appearance on the show, as he has not published any major works in the past year. A Comedy Central representative said she could not comment on why Pinker was chosen as a guest.

THE BOSTON GLOBE [2.4.07]

A Harvard researcher believes that humans have an innate sense of right and wrong, but others say morality is mostly learned

Last week, Harvard professor Marc Hauser dropped in to his daughter Sofia's kindergarten class and presented the children with a moral dilemma. You must all keep your eyes closed for 30 seconds, he told them. If none of you raises your hand during that time, you will each get a sheet of stickers when it's over. But if one of you raises your hand, only that child will get all the stickers.

The task brought immediate cries of protest, Hauser recalled. "But that's not fair!" some children exclaimed, shocked at the idea that one child could hog all the stickers.

Some might say that the kindergartners, in their short lives, had already learned much about the nature of justice. But Hauser goes a step further: Morality, he argues, is influenced by cultural teachings but is also so deep and universal an aspect of human existence that it is effectively "hard-wired" into the brain, much like the instinct for language.

At work, he says, are principles as unconscious and yet powerful as the grammar rules we use when we speak -- and the challenge to scientists is to figure out what those built-in moral rules are and how they work.

To that end, Hauser and other researchers are experimenting with children, monkeys, on-line survey takers, brain-damaged patients, and even psychopaths and remote hunter-gatherers.

His theory that morality is based in biology has plunged Hauser into an intellectual fray that spans from the pages of The New York Times to the rows of students who take his evolution classes at Harvard.

A psychologist, evolutionary biologist, and anthropologist, Hauser has felt students grow restless as he talks about the underpinnings of morality. In one class, he said, a student complained, "I know where you're going: Because it's universal, it's biological, and therefore there's no role for religion."

Hauser recalls responding: "I'm not saying you shouldn't derive meaning from religion. I'm just telling you that at some level, the nature of the moral judgments that you make and I make are the same, even though I don't go to church and you do."

[...]

Michael Shermer, TORONTO STAR [2.2.07]

Why do you believe in God?

I have been asking people this question for most of my adult life. In 1998, Frank Sulloway and I presented the query in a more official format – along with the question "Why do you think other people believe in God?" – in a survey given to 10,000 Americans. Just a few of the answers we received:

  • A 22-year-old male law student with moderate religious convictions (a self-rated five on a nine-point scale), who was raised by very religious parents and who today calls himself a deist, writes, "I believe in a creator because there seems to be no other possible explanation for the existence of the universe," yet other "people believe in God to give their lives purpose and meaning."

  • A 43-year-old male computer scientist and Catholic with very strong religious convictions (a nine on the nine-point scale) "had a personal conversion experience, where I had direct contact with God. This conversion experience, and ongoing contacts in prayer, form the only basis for my faith." Other people believe in God, however "because of (a) their upbringing, (b) the comfort of the church, and (c) a hope for this contact."

  • A 36-year-old male journalist and evangelical Christian with a self-rated eight in religious conviction writes: "I believe in God because to me there is ample evidence for the existence of an intelligent designer of the universe." Yet, "others accept God out of a purely emotional need for comfort throughout their life and use little of their intellectual capacity to examine the faith to which they adhere."

  • A 40-year-old female Catholic nurse with very strong religious convictions (a nine on the nine-point scale) says that "I believe in God because of the example of my spiritual teacher who believes in God and has unconditional love for people and gives so completely of himself for the good of others. And since I have followed this path, I now treat others so much better." On the other hand, she writes that "I think people initially believe in God because of their parents and unless they start on their own path– where they put a lot of effort into their spiritual part of their life–they continue to believe out of fear."

    When Sulloway and I noticed the difference between why people believe in God and why they think other people believe in God, we decided to undertake an extensive analysis of all the written answers people provided in our survey. In addition, we inquired about family demographics, religious background, personality characteristics, and other factors that contribute to religious belief and skepticism. We discovered that the seven strongest predictors of belief in God are:

    1. being raised in a religious manner

    2. parents' religiosity

    3. lower levels of education

    4. being female

    5. a large family

    6. lack of conflict with parents

    7. being younger

    In sum, being female and raised by religious parents in a large family appears to make one more religious, whereas being male, educated, in conflict with one's parents, and older appears to make one less religious. As people become older and more educated, they encounter other belief systems that lead them to see the connection between various personal and social influences and religious beliefs. This helps explain the differences we observed in reasons people give for their own beliefs versus the reasons they attribute to other people's beliefs. From the responses we received in a preliminary survey, we created a taxonomy of eleven categories of reasons people give for their own and others' beliefs. The five most common answers given to the question Why do you believe in God?:

    1. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (28.6 per cent)

    2. The experience of God in everyday life (20.6 per cent)

    3. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (10.3 per cent)

    4. The Bible says so (9.8 per cent) 5. Just because / faith / the need to believe in something (8.2 per cent)

    And the six most common answers given to the question Why do you think other people believe in God?:

    1. Belief in God is comforting, relieving, consoling, and gives meaning and purpose to life (26.3 per cent)

    2. Religious people have been raised to believe in God (22.4 per cent)

    3. The experience of God in everyday life (16.2 per cent)

    4. Just because / faith / the need to believe in something (13.0 per cent)

    5. Fear death and the unknown (9.1 per cent)

    6. The good design / natural beauty / perfection / complexity of the world or universe (6.0 per cent)

    Notice that the intellectually based reasons offered for belief in God – "the good design of the universe" and "the experience of God in everyday life" – which occupied first and second place when people were describing their own beliefs dropped to sixth and third place, respectively, when they were describing the beliefs of others. Indeed, when reflecting on others' beliefs, the two most common reasons cited were emotion-based (and fear-averse!): personal comfort ("comforting, relieving, consoling") and social comfort ("raised to believe").

    Sulloway and I believe that these results are evidence of an intellectual attribution bias, in which people consider their own beliefs as being rationally motivated, whereas they see the beliefs of others as being emotionally driven. By analogy, one's commitment to a political belief is generally attributed to a rational decision ("I am for gun control because statistics show that crime decreases when gun ownership decreases"), whereas another person's opinion on the same subject is attributed to need or emotional reasons ("he is for gun control because he is a bleeding-heart liberal"). This intellectual attribution bias appears to be equal opportunity on the subject of God. The apparent good design of the universe, and the perceived action of a higher intelligence in daily activities, are powerful intellectual justifications for belief. But we readily attribute other people's belief in God to their emotional needs and how they were raised

Les Affaires.com [2.1.07]

Le marché boursier se distingue à bien des égards. Ainsi, dans la vie de tous les jours, l'enthousiasme, l'optimisme et la confiance sont des valeurs importantes. Mais à la Bourse, ces belles qualités peuvent devenir des pièges coûteux.

Le paradoxe, c'est que notre monde en général est en manque d'optimisme, alors même qu'il y en a probablement trop dans les marchés financiers.

Le site Web Edge.org offre un lieu d'échange à un grand nombre de scientifiques, philosophes, penseurs et intellectuels de tous genres. Le consulter est fascinant. La quantité et la qualité des interventions qu'on y trouve sont vraiment exceptionnelles.

Au début de chaque année, John Brockman, éditeur d'Edge.org, pose une question fondamentale à ses participants. En 2006, la question était "Quelle est votre idée dangereuse?"

Cette année, sa question est "À propos de quoi êtes-vous optimiste?" Et des personnalités comme le psychologue Steven Pinker, le philosophe Daniel Dennett, le biologiste Richard Dawkins, le psychologue Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, le biologiste et géographe Jared Diamond, le physicienFreeman Dyson, le psychologue Daniel Goleman et des dizaines d'autres y ont répondu.


[...]

Les Affaires [2.1.07]

Le marché boursier se distingue à bien des égards. Ainsi, dans la vie de tous les jours, l'enthousiasme, l'optimisme et la confiance sont des valeurs importantes. Mais à la Bourse, ces belles qualités peuvent devenir des pièges coûteux.

Le paradoxe, c'est que notre monde en général est en manque d'optimisme, alors même qu'il y en a probablement trop dans les marchés financiers.

Le site Web Edge.org offre un lieu d'échange à un grand nombre de scientifiques, philosophes, penseurs et intellectuels de tous genres. Le consulter est fascinant. La quantité et la qualité des interventions qu'on y trouve sont vraiment exceptionnelles.

Au début de chaque année, John Brockman, éditeur d'Edge.org, pose une question fondamentale à ses participants. En 2006, la question était "Quelle est votre idée dangereuse?"

Cette année, sa question est "À propos de quoi êtes-vous optimiste?" Et des personnalités comme le psychologue Steven Pinker, le philosophe Daniel Dennett, le biologiste Richard Dawkins, le psychologue Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi, le biologiste et géographe Jared Diamond, le physicien Freeman Dyson, le psychologue Daniel Goleman et des dizaines d'autres y ont répondu.

[...]

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