Edge in the News: 2015

The New York Times [3.9.15]

ONE of the anxieties haunting the 21st century is a fear that technological change will soon make many human lives seem essentially superfluous.

It’s a fear as old as the Luddites, but the promise of computing, robotics and biotechnology has given it new life. It suddenly seems plausible that a rich, technologically proficient society will no longer offer meaningful occupation to many people of ordinary talents, even as it offers ever-greater wealth, ever-widening powers and, perhaps, ever-longer life to the elite.

That anxiety dominates the most provocative conversation you can eavesdrop on this week, between the Nobel laureate Daniel Kahneman and the Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari on the website Edge.org.

Harari, the author of a recent history of the human species, “Sapiens,”argues that our own era’s breakthroughs will create new classes and class struggles, just as the Industrial Revolution did.

Soon, if not tomorrow, the rich may be able to re-engineer bodies and minds, making human equality seem like a quaint conceit. Meanwhile, the masses will lose their jobs to machines and find themselves choosing between bread and circuses (or drugs and video games) and the pull of revolutionary violence — with the Islamic State’s appeal to bored youths possibly a foretaste of the future.

Harari’s scenario, as he concedes, is only a projection, and one may doubt that technology can go as far as he imagines. But some of the dislocations he envisions are already here: Work is disappearing for the erstwhile working class, the rich are increasingly self-segregating and marrying among themselves, and virtual realities are replacing older forms of intimacy.

What I find most provoking, though, is Harari’s insistence that in dealing with these problems, “nothing that exists at present offers a solution,” and “old answers” are as “irrelevant” now as they were (allegedly) during the Industrial Revolution.

New Scientist [3.9.15]

Brain plasticity, godlessness, Malthusian notions - all should go according to the responses to John Brockman's latest question

THE physicist Max Planck had a bleak view of scientific progress. "A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents..." he wrote, "but rather because its opponents eventually die."

This is the assumption behind This Idea Must Die, the latest collection of replies to the annual question posed by impresario John Brockman on his stimulating and by now venerable online forum, Edge. The question is: which bits of science do we want to bury? Which ideas hold us back, trip us up or send us off in a futile direction?

Some ideas cited in the book are so annoying that we would be better off without them, even though they are true. Take "brain plasticity". This was a real thing once upon a time, but the phrase spread promiscuously into so many corners of neuroscience that no one really knows what it means any more.

Other ideas, especially in the more anthropocentrically inclined sciences of economics and computer science, reflect more our natural bent for binary oppositions and good stories than they reveal real things about the world. This is where things get very interesting indeed, making Brockman's latest book essential, as well as enjoyable, reading.

More than any amount of pontification (and readers wouldn't believe how many new books agonise over what "science" was, is, or could be), Brockman's posse capture the essence of modern enquiry. They show where it falls away into confusion (the use of cause-and-effect thinking in evolution), into religiosity (virtually everything to do with consciousness) and cant (for example, measuring nuclear risks with arbitrary yardsticks).

This is a book to argue with – even to throw against the wall at times. Several answers, cogent in themselves, still hit nerves. When Kurt Gray and Richard Dawkins, for instance, stick their knives into categorisation, I was left wondering whether scholastic hand-waving would really be an improvement. And Malthusian ideas about resources inevitably generate more heat than light when harnessed to the very different agendas of Matt Ridley and Andrian Kreye.

On the other hand, there is pleasure in seeing thinkers forced to express themselves in just a few hundred words. I carry no flag for futurist Douglas Rushkoff or psychologist Susan Blackmore, but how good to be wrong-footed. Their contributions are among the strongest, with Rushkoff discussing godlessness and Blackmore on the relationship between brain and consciousness.

Every reader will have a favourite. Mine is palaeontologist Julia Clarke's plea that people stop asking her where feathered dinosaurs leave off and birds begin. Clarke offers lucid glimpses of the complexities and ambiguities inherent in deciphering the behaviour of long-vanished animals from thin fossil data. The next person to ask about the first bird will probably get a cake fork in their eye.

This Idea Must Die is garrulous and argumentative. I expected no less: Brockman's formula is tried and tested. Better still, it shows no sign of getting old.

Freakonomics Radio Podcast [3.9.15]

Are you an idea junkie? Of course you are! It’s exciting to hear about ideas, especially new ones. There’s a progression that happens when you hear a new idea – you run it through your brain, try to envision where it might lead. Who will benefit from this new idea? Who will it hurt? Will it be worth the cost? Is it legal; is it morally defensible? Is it, in fact, a good idea?

In our latest episode of Freakonomics Radio, we run that progression in reverse. Rather than asking if a new idea is a good one, we ask whether it’d be better if some of the ideas we cling to were killed off. The episode is called “This Idea Must Die.” ...

The episode is drawn from a fascinating book of the same name: This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (Edge Question Series). It’s the latest edition in an annual series of books put out by the intellectual salon Edge.org and its ringleader John Brockman. ...

Forbes Magazine [3.8.15]

There’s something ironic about seeing a promotion for John Brockman’s latest collection of science musings, This Idea Must Die, right under his Edge site’s featured conversation, Death is Optional.

Because a lot of ideas don’t die. They recede for a while–like Lamarck’s notion of the inheritance of acquired traits–and then insinuate their way back into scientific consciousness.

But that’s a minor complaint. Brockman’s new anthology, in which he asks a host of leading intellectuals what ideas should be consigned to the dustbin, is engaging.

All the usual suspects are here: Steven Pinker, Ian McEwan, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett. Not to take anything away from their contributions, but as you browse, it’s the lesser known scientists and philosophers who provide the more interesting posts.

For example, philosopher-novelist Rebecca Newberger Goldstein attacks the idea that science makes philosophy obsolete. ...

South China Morning Post [3.21.15]

This Idea Must Die
Edited by John Brockman
(read by David Colacci and Susan Ericksen)
(audiobook)

John Brockman's collection of writings shows that not only do new ideas triumph by replacing old ones, but also that new ideas respond to "new information made possible by new measurements", as Jared Diamond argues in one of 175 mini-essays from many of the world's most eminent brains. Linguist Steven Pinker joins novelist Ian McEwan, ethologist Richard Dawkins, statistician Nassim Nicholas Taleb and scores of others in presenting scientific theories that they believe must die because they are blocking progress. Some of these ideas are clearly dated, including those about IQ, race, nature vs nurture, and altruism. Those listening to narrators David Colacci and Susan Ericksen will probably jump around the book as they look for arguments justifying their own conclusions. Psychologist Adam Waytz will find supporters who feel Aristotle's aphorism that man is a social animal should be retired. Helen Fisher's thoughts on love and addiction will gain her an audience, as will Jane Gruber's ideas about so-called negative emotions such as sadness and fear.

American Conservative [3.6.15]

We think of ISIS as anti-human, and we are right to. But what if the greater threat to humanity is not among the barbaric brigades of the Levant, but among the far more sophisticated barbarians at work in Silicon Valley? This discussion between economist Daniel Kahneman and historian Yuval Noah Harari is … illuminating on that question. ...

...Really and truly, read the whole thing [http://edge.org/conversation/yuval_noah_harari-daniel_kahneman-death-is-optional]. It’s important. Cosimanian Orthodoxy really is the religion of the future. Note well that Harari is not saying he wants these things to happen (though he might). He is saying that current trends are leading in this direction.

Will you people who sneer at the Benedict Option and think that it’s only about trying to get away from the queers finally understand that this stuff Harari is talking about is the kind of thing I say we must prepare to resist? As I wrote here, same-sex marriage is not the heart of the challenge to Christianity, but rather an especially potent manifestation of the essential challenge, which is metaphysical — and which Harari has deftly explained in this interview (though he never once mentions gay marriage).

At issue is what it means to be authentically human. Is our humanity something we discover, or is it something we manufacture? If it’s the latter, and if human nature is malleable, as Harari and many others believe it is, then the future belongs to those elites who, in Harari’s chilling phrase, have learned “to produce bodies and minds.”

These are the new Dark Ages, and their darkness consists in large part of the belief that they are, in fact, an age of enlightenment, of progress.

Jerry Coyne, Why Evolution Is True [3.1.15]

John Brockman has collected his “angels”: all of the many scientists, philosophers, psychologists, techno-geeks, and mathematicians that he either is an agent for or whom he simply knows, and posed to them a provocative question: “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” The results, in the form of 1-4 page mini-essays, are compiled in a new book,This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories that are Blocking Progress. You can buy it for only $11.81 on Amazon.

Although I’m not a fan of “idea anthologies” in general, this one is good, and well worth reading. For one thing, you’ll be surprised at the ideas that people say must be deep-sixed, including “Theories of everything” (Geoffrey West), “Entropy” (Bruce Parker), “Falsifiablity” (Sean Caroll, and I disagree with him), “Humans are by nature social animals” (Adam Waytz), “Mind versus matter” (Frank Wilczek), “Culture” (Pascal Boyer), and “The illusion of scientific progress” (Paul Saffo, whose essay I again disagree with). You can see the entire list of contributors, which number about 150) at the Amazon page, simply by clicking on the bookcover link here. 

...For a mini-education in contrarian thinking in science, this book is essential.

Bloomberg View [2.28.15]

This was quite a week. Settle into to your favorite easy chair, pour yourself some freshly brewed Sumatra coffee and enjoy these longer-form weekend reads:​

  • What Do You Think About Machines That Think? (Edge)

Science Friday [2.27.15]

Whether it’s the four bodily humors, the geocentric universe, or the steady state theory, sometimes an old idea has to die before new science can flourish. (Just ask Copernicus.) A new anthology edited by Edge.org’s John Brockman aims to speed that process along by asking scientists and big thinkers which scientific concepts they’d target for extinction. Ira talks with two contributors to This Idea Must Die—theoretical physicist Sean Carroll and quantum mechanic Seth Lloyd— about the ideas they’d like to give a good shove out the door. Read an excerpt from the book here, and vote for which ideas you think should die.

Entorno Inteligente [2.25.15]

Once again, the online magazine Edge has returned to stimulate an exciting intellectual debate of great height, with the annual question that launches on these dates to some of the brightest minds of our time. On this occasion, its brilliant editor John Brockman has raised the challenge of dissecting the lights and shadows of the artificial intelligence (AI): "Do you think about the machines that think?" The responses reflect a wide range of views among some of the great scientists and thinkers of the world today, showing that there is no consensus clear when assessing to what point should celebrate or fear the emergence of thinking machines.

At one end are the great American philosopher Daniel C. Dennett, who mocks with much scorn of the "urban legend" according to which "the robots we will dominate" in the near future. On the other are scientists of the stature of the astrophysicist's NASA and Nobel prize winner John C. Mather, who is convinced that the artificial intelligence "will become a reality, and quite soon", taking into account the massive amount of money that is already being invested in this field, and the enormous potential benefits awaiting entrepreneurs who built the first computers with human (or superhuman) intelligence.

However, although experts are not based on the time of predict whether much or little time for the era of AI, there is a very broad consensus on the unstoppable advent, sooner or later, this revolution. The reason explains it very well the physicist and Nobel Prize Frank Wilczek, citing the famous "astonishing hypothesis" of the co-discoverer of DNA, Francis Crick: the human mind is nothing more than "an emergent property of matter" and therefore "all intelligence is intelligence produced by a machine" (either a brain formed by neurons or a robot manufactured with silicon chips). 

As I said in a memorable interview the great Spanish neuroscientist Rafael Yuste: "inside the skull there is no magic, the human mind and all our thoughts, our memories and our personality, everything is based on shots of groups of neurons. There is nothing more, there is a spirit in the ether... There is a great lack of knowledge on how to operate this machine. But I am sure that consciousness arises from the physical substrate which we have on the brain."

And so, as the biologist George Church says in his own answer to the question of Edge, "I am a thinking machine, made of atoms." If this is true, the appearance of another type of machine that can also think is only a matter of time.

Spanish Language Original

Maria Popova, Brain Pickings [2.23.15]

From the self to left brain vs. right brain to romantic love, a catalog of broken theories that hold us back from the conquest of Truth.

“To kill an error is as good a service as, and sometimes even better than, the establishing of a new truth or fact,” asserted Charles Darwin in one of the eleven rules for critical thinking known as Prospero’s Precepts. If science and human knowledge progress in leaps and bounds of ignorance, then the recognition of error and the transcendence of falsehood are the springboard for the leaps of progress. That’s the premise behind This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress (public library) — a compendium of answers Edge founder John Brockman collected by posing his annual question — “What scientific idea is ready for retirement?” — to 175 of the world’s greatest scientists, philosophers, and writers. Among them are Nobel laureates, MacArthur geniuses, and celebrated minds like theoretical physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, psychologist Howard Gardner, social scientist and technology scholar Sherry Turkle, actor and author Alan Alda, futurist and Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly, and novelist, essayist, and screenwriter Ian McEwan.

Brockman paints the backdrop for the inquiry:

Science advances by discovering new things and developing new ideas. Few truly new ideas are developed without abandoning old ones first. As theoretical physicist Max Planck (1858–1947) noted, “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.” In other words, science advances by a series of funerals.

Many of the answers are redundant — but this is a glorious feature rather than a bug of Brockman’s series, for its chief reward is precisely this cumulative effect of discerning the zeitgeist of ideas with which some of our era’s greatest minds are tussling in synchronicity. They point to such retirement-ready ideas as IQ, the self, race, the left brain vs. right brain divide, human nature and essentialism, free will, and even science itself. What emerges is the very thing Carl Sagan deemed vital to truth in his Baloney Detection Kit — a “substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.” ...

Complement This Idea Must Die, the entirety of which weaves a mind-stretching mesh of complementary and contradictory perspectives on our relationship with knowledge, with some stimulating answers to previous editions of Brockman’s annual question, exploring the only thing worth worrying about (2013), the single most elegant theory of how the world works (2012), and the best way to make ourselves smarter (2011).

Svenska Dagbladet SvD - Kultur [2.21.15]

We live in a reformatory whose message is that the future is already determined. It awaits us are robots, artificial life and superior artificial intelligence. No choice, we have not: do not think that any other future is possible. The only thing we can do is to bite the bullet and accept this future technology and the dilemmas that come with it, whether we like it or not. The sooner we accept it, the more able we are: the prepackaged cyber future are sold with so much gloomy moralizing is akin to entering into a marriage in the bad old days. I would like to put a spotlight on the strange, retroactive destiny that characterizes the debate about the future: we are asked to accept the whole package in advance, long before any of this is reality, so that it eventually becomes just as inevitable as it actually is not. ...

On the site Edge.org discussed the dangers of artificial intelligence (AI) in November, led by Stephen Hawking and philosopher Nick Bostrom has recently warned of what superior and possibly malevolent artificial intelligences could get up to. Only two people were worth reading: Jaron Lanier , which is critical to AI, and Rodney Brooks , which is positive. ...

Science News [2.21.15]

"Science advances by a series of funerals," writes John Brockman, founder of the online discussion forum Edge.org. Sometimes, he says, old ideas have to be put to bed before new ones can flourish. With that in mind, he asked researchers, journalists and other science enthusiasts to weigh in on which established theories need to go. From the replies, Brockman compiled This Idea Must Die, a fascinating smorgasbord of 175 short essays about every field and facet of research. ...

A few of the arguments are bound to be controversial. For example, a journalist asserts that the information gleaned from massive particle accelerators isn’t worth their equally massive price tags. And while Brockman’s question inspired some thought-provoking responses, the short essays can provide only a brief overview of complex problems. Readers will want to do some research of their own before deciding which, if any, of these ideas really requires a funeral.

Max Tegmark, Discover Magazine [2.20.15]

I was seduced by infinity at an early age. Georg Cantor’s diagonality proof that some infinities are bigger than others mesmerized me, and his infinite hierarchy of infinities blew my mind. The assumption that something truly infinite exists in nature underlies every physics course I’ve ever taught at MIT—and, indeed, all of modern physics. But it’s an untested assumption, which begs the question: Is it actually true? ...

Excerpted from This Idea Must Die, edited by John Brockman. Used with permission.

 

ZDNet Korea [2.16.15]

...[T]he most controversial topics in the field of advanced technologies will be 'artificial intelligence [AI]' of power to be machined...the exponential increase in computing power, represented by Moore's Law, Google, Facebook, Twitter, etc. The emergence of Web services-based (really) big data and machine learning with the Big Data, especially Deep learning techniques environmental changes that seem to apply again sparked a boom in artificial intelligence. ...

What super artificial intelligence will bring the 'existential risk' destruction of the human race? ...[C]omputer scientist Jaron Lanier has an Edge.org comment titled 'The Myth of AI'. Eminent scholars such as Stephen Pinker caused a hot response to the comments. ...[E]dge annual Distinguished members of the cast to one topic comments recipients in 2015 the theme of the event 'What do you think about that machine think?' That decided, and thus the physics In response, psychology, cognitive science, neuroscience, computer science, journalism, art, artificial intelligence, directly or indirectly, related to the field of oneself and others Certified Professional 186...answers have come up. ...

h+ Magazine [2.13.15]

Love is… at root, biology. A host of endocrine-system-regulated hormones relay chemical messages around the body and brain. Complex loops of physiological feedback between endocrine, nervous, and reproductive systems regulate our sexual responses and maintain homeostasis via hormone-producing glands such as the pituitary and thyroid. We feel the effects of ‘love’ throughout our bodies; even with the reproductive system completely excised our hormones would continue their thrilling course. And we feel it in our brains, in our minds. Modulated by hormones such as oxytocin, neurotransmitting chemicals at synapses lead to inhibition or firing of networks of neurons (baby, you flood my synaptic clefts like no other). Firing or inhibition consolidates or weakens these networks – thus do we fall in, or out of, love.

According to Steven Pinker, ‘Love is not all you need, and does not make the world go round.’[1] That is true. However, this fluke of natural selection can come to be our everything. Sometimes, the end of love can be the end of meaningful life (and for an unhappy few, literally the end of life). The neurochemical, neurostructural resonances within close relationships – couples, families, tribes – can gift members a sense of shared purpose. When we draw significance from these bonds, from their apparent strength and continuity, we are often driven to try to shape our environments to uphold and sanctify them. This drive has myriad positive effects, but it can also be perilously narrow. If we are to avoid relationship conservatism – and exclusion of those who do not identify with the love paradigm – we must allow the flourishing of love in the widest possible sense. ...

[1] Steven Pinker, “Evolutionary Genetics and the Conflicts of Human Social Life,” in This Explains Everything: Deep, Beautiful, and Elegant Theories of How the World Works, ed. John Brockman, 1st ed (New York: Harper Perennial, 2013), 45.

Helen Fisher, Discover Magazine [2.13.15]

"If at first the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it," Albert Einstein reportedly said. I’d like to broaden the definition of addiction—and also retire the scientific idea that all addictions are pathological and harmful.

...Scientists have now shown that food, sex, and gambling compulsions employ many of the same brain pathways activated by substance abuse. Indeed, the 2013 edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (the DSM) has finally acknowledged that at least one form of non-substance abuse—gambling—can be regarded as an addiction. The abuse of sex and food have not yet been included. Neither has romantic love.

I shall propose that love addiction is just as real as any other addiction, in terms of its behavior patterns and brain mechanisms. Moreover, it’s often a positive addiction. ...

Excerpted from This Idea Must Die, edited by John Brockman. Used with permission.

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