Edge in the News: 2015

New York Times [10.6.15]

In Richard Dawkins’s first memoir, An Appetite for Wonder (2013), he described losing his virginity, at the somewhat advanced age of 22, to a cellist in London.

His writing about this episode was typical of him. First he called upon science. “It isn’t difficult for a biologist to explain why nervous systems evolved in such a way as to make sexual congress one of the consistently greatest experiences life has to offer,” he said. “But explaining it doesn’t make it any less wonderful.”

Then he summoned literature and morality, and wrote: “I’ll say no more on the subject, and will betray no confidences. It isn’t that kind of autobiography.”

Mr. Dawkins’s sequel to his memoir has arrived, and it isn’t that kind of autobiography either. Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science presents a public life more than a private one.

This is autobiography as intellectual victory lap. What it lacks in intimacy it mostly makes up for with wit and bounce and a sense that this deeply learned man is running for mayor of our brains. ...

...Two threads stand out from the many. The first is his longing to bridge the divide between science and literary culture. The second is the author’s emergence, with his best-selling book The God Delusion (2006), as the most famous atheist on Earth.

Mr. Dawkins laments that scientists in fiction, “from Dr. Frankenstein to Dr. Strangelove,” are generally portrayed as “heartless eccentrics, gradgrinds, psychopaths or worse.”

His favorite evenings are those he calls “third culture,” that is, scientists sharing a bottle or two with word people. Living novelists who write well about science, he suggests, include Mr. McEwan, A. S. Byatt, Philip Pullman, Barbara Kingsolver, Martin Amis and William Boyd. …


L'ECO DI BERGAMO [10.2.15]

BergamoScienza is an event much loved and shared, with lectures, workshops and a large involvement of the community, schools and young people. ...

...It is therefore essential that the candidates for the leadership of the twenty-first century possess a vision of things to retrieve the value of critical thinking, the entrepreneurial approach, the gift of creativity and at the same time understanding the tools that scientific progress has made available.

In this regard, John Brockman, a unified vision of knowledge, introduced the idea of Third Culture as the set of scientists and thinkers who through their work and their writings know say new and interesting things about the world and ourselves. And they do it by telling and disseminating their ideas directly to a wide audience, spreading it beyond the narrow confines of the academy or endorsements extreme.

Times Higher Education [9.30.15]

100 Global Minds: The Most Daring Cross-disciplinary Thinkers in the World by Gianluigi Ricuperati (Forthcoming, Roads Publishing, Dublin)

A new book celebrates 100 of the academics, artists and activists who have been boldest in crossing disciplinary boundaries.

So who made the final cut? ...Nigerian novelist and feminist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, human rights activist Ayaan Hirsi Ali and singer Laurie Anderson; film directors Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson; critic and novelist John Berger, computer scientist Sir Tim Berners-Lee, literary agent and science publicist John Brockman...

SETI Institute: Big Picture Science [9.28.15]

We all have worries. But as trained observers, scientists learn things that can affect us all. So what troubles them should also trouble us. From viral pandemics to the limits of empirical knowledge, find out what science scenarios give researchers insomnia.

(Inspiration for this episode comes from the book, What Should We Be Worried About?: Real Scenarios That Keep Scientists Up at Night edited by John Brockman.)

Vox [8.21.15]

The weekend of July 30, a group of intellectual heavyweights met at a beautiful vineyard in California's Napa Valley. Their agenda was modest: learn how to predict the future. ...The "class," organized by Edge, was led by Philip Tetlock, a University of Pennsylvania psychologist who has made the study of prediction his life's work. For the past several years, Tetlock and his colleagues have been running a project supported by the US intelligence community. Their goal is to find ways to accurately predict major events in world affairs, such as whether Vladimir Putin will lose power in Russia.

Now they're sharing what they've found with the world.The results are astonishing: Tetlock's team found out that some people were "superforecasters" who, when placed in teams, can produce a surprisingly good track record at predicting the future of world affairs. And Tetlock thinks he might know why. ...

Arts & Letters Daily [8.19.15]

Tom Friedman vs. Bill Flack. One is a noted columnist, the other an irrigation specialist. One is world-famous, the other a nobody. Yet Flack is better at forecasting the future...

Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung [8.15.15]

Big History, since the nineties in the making, if you do not want to go back to Alexander von Humboldt's "Cosmos", operated a popular interest. The Israeli military historian Yuval Noah Harari was with his lectures on the history of mankind an overnight Youtube star. David Christian, the Grand Master of metadiscipline students running down the door, when he offered his standard work "Maps of Time" at the Australian Macquarie University as a lecture. ...

The History Channel is currently running a ten-part series, which is based on Christian concept. From the Third Culture to the publisher John Brockman of Energizers Christian and ascetic Harari were welcomed with open arms. Christian was allowed to perform his mission to an enthusiastic audience of Californian Ted Talks. Here, the circuit closed to world improvement dreams of the Californian Ideology. Big History transported also an ethical and anthropological message. What is man, in what context it moves? Such questions arise as if by magic, if you put him in the cosmic appearance. ...

The Browser [8.12.15]

Daniel Kahneman & Philip Tetlock et al | Edge | 12th August 2015

Expert discussion of forecasting. First case study: The raid which killed Osama Bin Laden. “It’s an interesting fact that in very high stakes national security debates people don’t think it’s possible to make very granular probability estimates. They seem to act as though ‘things are going to happen’, and there’s ‘maybe’ and ‘things aren’t going to happen’. They act as though there will be only three levels of uncertainly” 

Deutschlandfunk [7.20.15]

Exactly 20 years ago the American literary agent John Brockman created a stir with a collection of essays by renowned American biologists, astronomers and cognitive scientists. The book had the programmatic title "The third culture". A third culture is necessary, as Brockman explained in a manifesto, because the first intellectual literary culture for the findings of the natural sciences remained blind; Second culture of science, researchers have concentrated solely on their specialties. Now it was time that only scientists who explored the empirical reality, the interpretation of the world would take over and given the deeper meaning of our lives. Brockman's marketing idea for a book undoubtedly stimulating and brilliant contributions went on, and his overbearing thesis: "America is the seedbed for Europe and Asia" was parroted in European media.

A short time later Brockman founded the website Edge, where he invited renowned scientists each year to answer important questions. ...

What Should We Be Worried About?

Last year, appeared the 150 responses to the question: What should we be worried about? The German publisher gave the book the title: What do we have to think what bothers the leaders of our time? ...

It is one of the strengths of Brockman's Edge that there will be flashes of inspiration and witty, but fruitless thoughts place, understand the concerns just as neuropsychological problem. ...

As mythical Brockman's thinking has always been, is occupied by another publication. Recently appeared in German a collection of reflections that came out in 1973 under the title "Afterwords". In these "postscripts" criticized Brockman old philosophical and psychological concepts such as consciousness, feeling, I, Mind, Soul, language. All these ideas are to be replaced by neuropsychological vocabulary.

Kirkus Reviews [7.8.15]

With This Idea Must Die (2015) barely off the presses, Brockman, editor of the online science salon Edge.org, asked the world's intellectuals for another opinion. They deliver in the latest of the editor's thick compendiums.

Occasionally turgid academic prose rarely mars the nearly 200 lively essays (few of which go beyond five pages) on the future of artificial intelligence. Every contributor—scholars, philosophers, artists, scientists, and journalists, including stars such as Freeman Dyson, Stephen Pinker, Brian Eno, and Daniel Dennett—knows that humans can already make a thinking machine in less than a year. Since the process obeys the laws of nature, a thinking computer is possible and, therefore, inevitable. ...

A satisfying experience for readers looking for thoughtful answers to big questions.

Scientias.nl [7.6.15]

We used to think that the sun revolved around the earth and that the earth was flat. These ideas have been thrown into the trash. But who throws outdated ideas like IQ, free will and essentialism in the bin?

Scientific Weed (***) 
The book "Scientific Weed" collects 179 Edge.org persistent ideas that block progress. A book full of interesting observations from top scientists about their field. ...

New York Times [6.20.15]

Jean Pigozzi, the venture capitalist and art collector, was lounging by the pool at his villa in Cap d’Antibes early this month, enjoying a rare break from what he calls “the circuit.”

After attending the World Economic Forum in Davos in January, he flew to the TED ideas conference in Vancouver, mingling with the likes of Yuri Milner, the tech investor, and Larry Page of Google at the “billionaires’ dinner.” Next came the art auctions in New York and the Cannes Film Festival, where he threw a pool party attended by Woody Allen, Uma Thurman and the billionaire Paul Allen. ... 

The new rich have developed their own annual migration pattern. While the wealthy of the past traveled mainly for leisure and climate — the ocean breezes of New England in the summer and the sunny golf greens of Palm Beach in winter — today’s rich crisscross the globe almost monthly in search of access, entertainment and intellectual status. Traveling in flocks of private G5 and Citation jets, they have created a new social calendar of economic conferences, entertainment events, exclusive parties and art auctions. And in the separate nation of the rich, citizens no longer speak in terms of countries. They simply say, “We’ll see you at Art Basel.” ...

In fact, so many rich people have been joining the circuit that Mr. Pigozzi said a new “supercircuit” is emerging, one that has V.I.P. events within the V.I.P. events. At the TED conference, the aptly named “billionaires’ dinner” held nearby has become the most sought-after ticket."

Scott Atran, El Mundo [6.17.15]

Translation: Veronica Puertollano

Machines can imitate perfectly some of the ways humans think all of the time, and can consistently outperform humans on certain thinking tasks all of the time, but computing machines, as usually envisioned, will not get right human thinking all of the time because they actually process information in ways opposite to humans in domains commonly associated with human creativity. ...

The Guardian [6.9.15]

Dawkins is mostly unconcerned by the possible damage he has inflicted on his reputation, but he has moments of self-doubt. “I genuinely don’t know whether I’m going about it the right way,” he said, in the half-resigned tone of someone who probably couldn’t go about it any other way. Recently, there have been some signs of reputational management – in a video interview on his “Vision of Life” for the Edge website [https://edge.org/conversation/richard_dawkins-this-is-my-vision-of-life], he discussed Darwinian natural selection without once mentioning his anti-religious campaigning. His memoirs, he pointed out, bypassed his various online wrangles entirely. In conversation, Dawkins seemed concerned that an article about him would draw disproportionately on his Twitter feed – in his eyes, an insignificant late chapter in the context of his whole career. “I’m a scientist,” he said, as if this fact might be forgotten. ...

Perhaps a culture needs someone like Dawkins: his unswerving commitment to a cause, his enormous capacity to inflame and offend. Daniel Dennett, a keen sailor, described Dawkins as his “sacrificial anode” – the hunk of zinc you bolt to the propeller shaft on a boat to protect the propeller from being eroded by seawater. The zinc is gradually worn away while the propeller remains unscathed. “In life you always want somebody out to the left of you to take the heat.”

Sam Harris, The Daily Beast [6.7.15]

A response to the 2015 Edge question.

It seems increasingly likely that we will one day build machines that possess superhuman intelligence. We need only continue to produce better computers—which we will, unless we destroy ourselves or meet our end some other way. We already know that it is possible for mere matter to acquire “general intelligence”—the ability to learn new concepts and employ them in unfamiliar contexts—because the 1,200 cc of salty porridge inside our heads has managed it. There is no reason to believe that a suitably advanced digital computer couldn’t do the same. ...

Forbes [5.31.15]

Over at Edge, John Brockman features British historian David Christian on the need to come up with a new origin story that can serve the global community.

Christian, the author of This Fleeting World: A Short History of Humanity, started his career as a professor of Russian history, and over the years as he refined his lectures on the Cold War, he realized…

…I was giving the subliminal message that humans are divided, at a fundamental level, into competing tribes. Having lived through the Cuban Missile Crisis, I remember it vividly. I was a schoolboy in England where this tribalism threatened to blow us all up. That was a very vivid experience for me. I thought, for historians to keep teaching this subliminal message—that we’re divided by tribes—is not a good thing.

So Christian began a program to teach ‘big history’–the story of the whole world, from the Big Bang up to the present day. The goal: to help transcend the tribalisms perpetuated by narrower ethnic and religious histories. ...

Harvard Business Review [5.27.15]

We all know that computers can sometimes automate work, taking jobs away from humans. But it can augment human workers as well, making them more effective. In our ongoing research, we’ve found that so far augmentation is far more common, even in the emerging area of “cognitive computing,” in which machines can sense, comprehend, and even act on their own. In this sense, cognitive computing is more about “Person and Machine” than “Person versus Machine.”

But our view grows out of our observations of organizational applications available today. What about in the future?

For well-informed prognostication, it’s helpful to turn to the brain trust at Edge.org. Each year, Edge.org publishes essays from thinkers, scholars, and researchers on a question related to a hot topic in public and academic discourse. This year’s question was, “What do you think about machines that think?” It prompted 186 respondents to write more than 130,000 words total.

While the essays looked at a range of issues, a number of respondents touched on advances in how thinking machines could augment human intelligence. They discussed carefully-considered forms of human-machine interaction, many of which have implications to various businesses and industries including management, health, and creative fields. These answers help us to imagine what the future of computer-augmented work will look like, and what the challenges are to getting there. ...

The News Journal [5.26.15]

You've read The News Journal, but have you ever been curious as to what people who put out The News Journal read?

Staffers weigh in with their latest reads

Matt Albright, Education Reporter

What I'm reading: "This Idea Must Die," by John Brockman

Why you should read it: What if you could get some of the world's leading scientists and philosophers in a room and ask them what scientific idea is most inhibiting progress for humanity? This is basically that in book form. I'll admit some of the more highly-technical scientific answers have flown over my head, but this book is really making me think.

GQ India [5.21.15]

Alien Attack

Seriously. Writing in the recently published book What Should We Be Worried About?, senior astronomer Dr Seth Shostak admits this "sounds like shabby science fiction, but even if the probability of disaster is low, the stakes are high." ...

ValueWalk [5.15.15]

The great discovery that launched the scientific revolution was the insight that humans do not know the answers to their most important questions. It was the discovery of ignorance.

These musings take me back to Edge (www.edge.org), a website founded by John Brockman, a literary agent specializing in serious nonfiction (mostly scientific). Among other endeavors, Edge every year asks a single question of 150-200 leading scientists and researchers. The 2014 question, which particularly titillated me, is best summarized by the title of its published collection of answers (Harper Perennial, 2015):

This Idea Must Die: Scientific Theories That Are Blocking Progress

I find it exhilarating to have so much of our scientific elite capable of questioning the generally accepted wisdom that they have helped create or sustain. To me, this is a typically American phenomenon.

Some years ago, two different Chinese journalists interviewed me and asked the same question, which was very popular at the time: “Do you think China can innovate?” I responded, “If you ask whether Chinese people are capable of innovating, the answer is that we have hundreds or maybe thousands of them innovating every day in Silicon Valley. But to innovate you need a degree of chaos, so the real question is, How much chaos is China willing to accept?”