Edge in the News: 2007

itbusiness.ca [1.1.07]

It doesn’t matter whether you’re making a resolution for the new year or a new day. The point is to change who you are. It’s not always a case of completely transforming yourself: you just want to be recognized as something other than one of David Berreby’s zombies.

An online forum conducted by Edge.org recently asked a slew of scientists and intellectuals what they are optimistic about. Berreby, the author Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, said he was hopeful that the idea of a “zombie identity is coming to an end, or at least being put into greater context. I’ll let Berreby explain the notion of a zombie identity himself.

“(It’s) the intuition that people do things because of their membership in a collective identity or affiliation,” he writes. “It's a fundamental confusion that starts with a perhaps statistically valid idea (if you define your terms well, you can speak of ‘American behaviour’ or ‘Muslim behaviour’ or ‘Italian behaviour’)—and then makes the absurd assumption that all Americans or Muslims or Italians are bound to behave as you expect, by virtue of their membership in the category (a category that, often, you created).”

Berreby is primarily concerned with zombie identities in their socio-political context, and with good reason. It’s not hard to see how a fixation on zombie identities could lead to racial profiling, religious bigotry or worse. In the business world, zombie identities are often used as a lazy form of market research, as companies try to aim their products at demographic stereotypes. Advertising based on these identities, in turn, reinforces the way we perceive co-workers in the enterprise, especially in IT.

A zombie identity is more than just a stereotype. It is, if I am interpreting Berreby correctly, the emphasis of a given set of characteristics to the exclusion of others, whereas a stereotype is shorthand for describing a group of individuals. It’s not that stereotypes don’t exist, but we have to examine more than one. “It’s clear that all of us have many overlapping identities (American, middle-aged person, Episcopalian, Republican, soccer mom can be attached to one person in a single morning),” Berreby goes on. “It’s what we're doing, and who we're doing it with, that seems to determine which of these identities comes to the fore at a given time.”

We all know the zombie identities ascribed to IT department personnel. We also know that those same digitally literate, problem-solving technocrats differ wildly in terms of their family background, religious affiliations and range of education. Over the last five years, IT employees have been drilled on soft skills, but the zombie identities have been hard to shake. Maybe another way to transcend them is to pinpoint the zombie identities of their enterprise counterparts in HR, finance, marketing or administration, which are similarly well-known.

Identity management is a term we use to explain how individual users interact in a variety of online transactions and processes. Perhaps it’s time to expand that definition to take in the complex task of reverse-engineering the traits of co-workers that often get buried under a set of preconceptions. This form of identity management could lead to much deeper, more fulfilling relationships among enterprise teams, who would work more cohesively on shared goals.

Zombies tend to walk mindlessly onward no matter what gets in their way. From a distance, that might look like progress. Get a little bit closer and you see why someone among them should show a little leadership.

CORDIS NEWS [1.1.07]

Even in the face of such threats as climate change and avian flu, scientists remain optimistic about the future, as illustrated by responses to the question 'What are you optimistic about?

Every year the discussion website Edge.org asks some of the world's best scientists to answer a single question. This year's question has revealed a high degree of optimism in areas ranging from power by sunlight and transparency to hearing aid functionality, the coalescence of scientific disciplines and the alleviation of poverty. Some 160 scientists have contributed to the discussion.

Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the Mediterranean University in Marseilles, France, believes that 'the divide between rational scientific thinking and the rest of our culture is decreasing'. 'In the small world of the academia, the senseless divide between science and the humanities is slowly evaporating. Intellectuals on both sides realize that the complexity of contemporary knowledge cannot be seen unless we look at it all,' he writes.

According to Chris Dibona, Open Source Programs Manager, Google Inc, 'Widely available, constantly renewing, high resolution images of the Earth will end conflict and ecological devastation as we know it.'

Ernst Pöppel, a neuroscientist at Munich University, is optimistic about fighting 'monocausalitis', the tendency to search for one single explanation for a phenomenon or event. 'Biological phenomena can better be understood, if multicausality is accepted as a guiding principle,' he writes.

An eagerly-awaited collider carries Maria Spiropulu's hopes for 2007. Dr Spiropulu is a physicist at CERN. 'Being built under the Jura on the border of Switzerland and France the Large Hadron Collider is a serious reason of optimism for experimental science. It is the first time that the human exploration and technology will offer reproducible 'hand-made' 14 TeV collisions of protons with protons. The physics of such interactions, the analysis of the data from the debris of these collisions [the highest energy such] are to be seen in the coming year,' she writes.

Colin Blakemore, Chief Executive of the UK's Medical Research Council and Professor of Physiology at the University of Oxford finds cause for optimism in two of the 'big' science issues of 2006: climate change and stem cells.

'For climate change, the obstacles are short-sighted commercial interests and short-term political interests,' writes Professor Blakemore. He believes that the 'tipping point' will come in 2007, when the realities of climate change become even more evident, and can no longer be ignored. 'Political sceptics will become passionate converts, eager to claim the historical credit for recognising the inevitable. The burners will become preservers,' he believes.

For stem cells, the barriers to progress are moral rather than economic. 'Although the balance of arguments seems quite different from that for climate change, interestingly, the crux of the problem is again the power of intuition over the cold rationality of science,' writes Professor Blakemore.

His reason for optimism is the following: 'Yesterday's moral outrage has a way of becoming today's necessary evil and tomorrow's common good. Just as with climate change, what will cause a swing of attitude is the turning point of a mathematical function; in this case the ratio of perceived benefit to theoretical cost.'

Cordis News [1.1.07]

... Carlo Rovelli, a physicist at the Mediterranean University in Marseilles, France, believes that 'the divide between rational scientific thinking and the rest of our culture is decreasing'. 'In the small world of the academia, the senseless divide between science and the humanities is slowly evaporating. Intellectuals on both sides realize that the complexity of contemporary knowledge cannot be seen unless we look at it all,' he writes.

According to Chris DiBona, Open Source Programs Manager, Google Inc, 'Widely available, constantly renewing, high resolution images of the Earth will end conflict and ecological devastation as we know it.'

Ernst Pöppel, a neuroscientist at Munich University, is optimistic about fighting 'monocausalitis', the tendency to search for one single explanation for a phenomenon or event. 'Biological phenomena can better be understood, if multicausality is accepted as a guiding principle,' he writes.

An eagerly-awaited collider carries Maria Spiropulu's hopes for 2007. Dr Spiropulu is a physicist at CERN. 'Being built under the Jura on the border of Switzerland and France the Large Hadron Collider is a serious reason of optimism for experimental science. It is the first time that the human exploration and technology will offer reproducible 'hand-made' 14 TeV collisions of protons with protons. The physics of such interactions, the analysis of the data from the debris of these collisions [the highest energy such] are to be seen in the coming year,' she writes.

It Business [1.1.07]

...It doesn’t matter whether you’re making a resolution for the new year or a new day. The point is to change who you are. It’s not always a case of completely transforming yourself: you just want to be recognized as something other than one of David Berreby’s zombies.

An online forum conducted by Edge.org recently asked a slew of scientists and intellectuals what they are optimistic about. Berreby, the author Us and Them: Understanding Your Tribal Mind, said he was hopeful that the idea of a “zombie identity is coming to an end, or at least being put into greater context. I’ll let Berreby explain the notion of a zombie identity himself.

“(It’s) the intuition that people do things because of their membership in a collective identity or affiliation,” he writes. “It's a fundamental confusion that starts with a perhaps statistically valid idea (if you define your terms well, you can speak of ‘American behaviour’ or ‘Muslim behaviour’ or ‘Italian behaviour’)—and then makes the absurd assumption that all Americans or Muslims or Italians are bound to behave as you expect, by virtue of their membership in the category (a category that, often, you created).”

Dennis Overbye, The Newyork Times [1.1.07]

Daniel C. Dennett, a philosopher and cognitive scientist at Tufts University who has written extensively about free will, said that “when we consider whether free will is an illusion or reality, we are looking into an abyss. What seems to confront us is a plunge into nihilism and despair.”...

A vote in favor of free will comes from some physicists, who say it is a prerequisite for inventing theories and planning experiments.

That is especially true when it comes to quantum mechanics, the strange paradoxical theory that ascribes a microscopic randomness to the foundation of reality. Anton Zeilinger, a quantum physicist at the University of Vienna, said recently that quantum randomness was “not a proof, just a hint, telling us we have free will.” ...

If by free will we mean the ability to choose, even a simple laptop computer has some kind of free will, said Seth Lloyd, an expert on quantum computing and professor of mechanical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Every time you click on an icon, he explained, the computer’s operating system decides how to allocate memory space, based on some deterministic instructions. But, Dr. Lloyd said, “If I ask how long will it take to boot up five minutes from now, the operating system will say ‘I don’t know, wait and see, and I’ll make decisions and let you know.’ ”

Why can’t computers say what they’re going to do? In 1930, the Austrian philosopher Kurt Gödel proved that in any formal system of logic, which includes mathematics and a kind of idealized computer called a Turing machine, there are statements that cannot be proven either true or false. Among them are self-referential statements like the famous paradox stated by the Cretan philosopher Epimenides, who said that all Cretans are liars: if he is telling the truth, then, as a Cretan, he is lying.

One implication is that no system can contain a complete representation of itself, or as Janna Levin, a cosmologist at Barnard College of Columbia University and author of the 2006 novel about Gödel, “A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines,” said: “Gödel says you can’t program intelligence as complex as yourself. But you can let it evolve. A complex machine would still suffer from the illusion of free will.”

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