... the one formula that rules it all, from unicellular organisms to whales and sequoias and humans. A math formula that governs our life and tells us when to die.
For 15 years, the literary agent John Brockman has been posing open-ended questions on his Web site Edge.org. Last year’s question — “What is your favorite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?” — drew responses from more than 150 scientists and creative thinkers. The geographer Jared Diamond wonders at the 1950s experiments that revealed how plants and animals generate electricity; the anthropologist Helen Fisher thinks we can transcend the old nature-nurture debates by studying how the environment can turn genes on and off. But the meta-award goes to the philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein for answering one question with another: “Where do we get the idea that the beauty of an explanation has anything to do with the likelihood of its being true?
...We are serious fans of his work. And if his recent comments about the potential risks of greater-than-human artificial intelligence—or lack thereof—are any indication, he's itching to start a giant fight among futurists. ... Sterling made his remarks in the current manifestation of the Edge's annual Big Question. This year, editor John Brockman asked his coterie of experts to tell us what we should be most worried about. In response, Sterling penned a four paragraph article saying that we shouldn't fear the onset of super AI because a "Singularity has no business model."
The musician Brian Eno looks with fear to the fact that intelligent people increasingly distance themselves from politics: "The most intelligent people I know do not want anything to do with politics. ... Avoid politics like the plague [...] We expect you handle it when other people and these people make mistakes we complain. We believe that our responsibility to stop at the ballot box and there are people who come to us even the ballot box." ... Kate Jeffrey, a professor of behavioral neuroscience is concerned that more and more people die in the years ahead: "The extension of the duration of human life is often claimed in the media and is never questioned." ... The tax and astronomer Gregory Benford afraid that human beings become like "mice blocked on the spherical surface of our world, where we will be even more trapped."
... Kevin Kelly thinks we should worry about the "underpopulation bomb" - the first time in human history to experience a diminishing number of young people combined with an increasing number of robots. ... Paul Saffo worries about a coming fight between two extreme classes he calls "engineers" and "druids", basically optimists and pessimists respectively who either want to use technology or ban technology. "Druids fear that robot cars are unsafe; Engineers wonder why humans are allowed to drive at all." Andy Clark says we don't need to worry about Super-AIs ruling the world, unless they get culture first. That's just a sampling of the many references to robots, robotics, and machine intelligence. As it has been in past years, the full set of responses is well worth a read for anyone with an interest in the future of the world.
Characteristically thought-provoking and reliably cross-disciplinary, This Explains Everything is a must-read in its entirety.
"The greatest pleasure in science comes from theories that derive the solution to some deep puzzle from a small set of simple principles in a surprising way."
China at home
John Brockman’s Edge question for 2013 asks more than 150 intellectuals, “What should we be worried about?”... more»
The Edge Question again is not any question, but the question asked annually since 1998 by the bustling New York literary agent John Brockman to a circle of the most prestigious researchers and intellectuals in the world (who are mostly from English-speaking countries). A year ago, the Question was: "What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?" ...
...There perhaps seems to be a little too much science fiction in the game and too little politics. It is then, in one of the surprises that make Edge, that the pop star Brian Eno presents a response that is one of the shortest and most elegant, but perhaps the most disturbing: "Most of the smart people I know want nothing to do with politics. We avoid it like the plague—like Edge avoids it, in fact. ...We expect other people to do it for us, and grumble when they get it wrong. We feel that our responsibility stops at the ballot box, if we even get that far. After that we're as laissez-faire as we can get away with. ... What worries me is that while we're laissez-ing, someone else is faire-ing."
This week's question came Annual Edge . The suggested science historian George Dyson: "What should concern us?". The answers make up an interesting catalog of contemporary concerns ...
"Those of us fortunate enough to live in the developed world fret too much about minor hazards of everyday life: improbable air crashes, carcinogens in food, and so forth. But we are less secure than we think. We should worry far more about scenarios that have thankfully not yet happened – but which, if they occurred, could cause such world-wide devastation that even once would be too often.
"Much has been written about possible ecological shocks triggered by the collective impact of a growing and more demanding world population on the biosphere, and about the social and political tensions stemming from scarcity of resources or climate change. But even more worrying are the downsides of powerful new technologies: cyber-, bio-, and nano-. We're entering an era when a few individuals could, via error or terror, trigger a societal breakdown with such extreme suddenness that palliative government actions would be overwhelmed....
From "2013: What should we be worried about?" at edge.org
Largely, we live in narratives that weave ourselves. So why not stay with the most pleasing of all? After we were released from the closed mentality of the past, why not feel free? Explanations can create captivating images of ourselves, of our great country, our great society. We may be fascinated by our own dreams.
But something tells me that we should be concerned. We live in a real world, where not all stories are equally good, and equally effective. ... (Carlo Rovelli, Edge )
"...fun and inspirational collection of brief essays...that present wonderful explanations of the world around us. The result is 150 brief essays that present wonderful explanations of the world around us. The authors include Richard Dawkins, Eric Kandel, Alan Alda, and Brian Eno; all have something worthwhile to contribute. VERDICT This engaging collection can be read from cover to cover or browsed as interest dictates, but all inquisitive readers will enjoy it. Highly recommended."
This time the Question is: What should concern us? began 2013. It's hot. The economic situation is not easy for most. Is this what disturbs us or ... what may happen to future generations with the world we are creating? Are there concerns concerns? For the unemployed, their situation. For the debtor's account arrives, hungry for what and when is your next course, for some the last iPhone or fashionable shoe. Ultimately, what should concern us? Do you immediately or ... the farthest? Did staff or the collective? What worries the rich, how poor, one country or another?
In his regular weekly column, Hungary's Minister of Economics Gyorgy Matolcsy has put the spotlight on one of the annual questions posed to the best minds of the planet by literary uber-agent and big idea wrangler John Brockman of Edge.org. "What Scientific Concept Would Improve Everybody's Cognitive Toolkit?" was the original question. Matolcsy has made a list of measures by which Hungary could win, including the co-operation between the government and the central bank's foreign currency debtors and rescuing all from their trap. Also He said, "nobody would lose if the state re-gains the domestic monopolies whose privatisation was a mistake."
A spat has broken out between Hungary's Economy Ministry and Roubini Global Economics about who is to blame for the downward spiral of the national currency, the forint, after Roubini's firm Roubini Global Economics (RGE) recommended shorting the currency. ... Hungary's Ministry for National Economy said in a statement that the forint began to depreciate after economist Nouriel Roubini - dubbed Dr Doom for his pessimistic forecasts - said in a newsletter that failure to secure a deal with the International Monetary Fund was bad news for the currency. ... But Roubini economists cited comments made by Economy Minister Gyorgy Matolcsy in a newspaper column [ED. NOTE: A review of This Will Make You Smarter, the 2011 Edge Question book], in which he seemed to favor the country adopting more unorthodox economic policies as the reason for the currency's weakness.
... This year, that query was "What Should We Be Worried About?", and the idea was to identify new problems arising in science, tech, and culture that haven't yet been widely recognized.
This year's respondents include former presidents of the Royal Society, Nobel prize-winners, famous sci-fi authors, Nassem Nicholas Taleb, Brian Eno, and a bunch of top theoretical physicists, psychologists, and biologists. And the list is long. Like, book-length long. There are some 150 different things that worry 151 of the planet's biggest brains. And I read about them all, so you don't have to: here's the Buzzfeedized version, with the money quote, title, or summary of the fear pulled out of each essay. Obviously, go read the rest if any of the below get you fretting too.
What keeps the smartest folks in the world awake at night? Here goes:
1. The proliferation of Chinese eugenics. – Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist.
2. Black swan events, and the fact that we continue to rely on models that have been proven fraudulent. – Nassem Nicholas Taleb
3. That we will be unable to defeat viruses by learning to push them beyond the error catastrophe threshold. – William McEwan, molecular biology researcher
4. That pseudoscience will gain ground. – Helena Cronin, author, philospher
5. That the age of accelerating technology will overwhelm us with opportunities to be worried. – Dan Sperber, social and cognitive scientist ...
Each year, literary über-agent and big idea wrangler John Brockman of Edge.orgposes a new question to an assortment of scientists, writers, and creative minds, and publishes a selection of the responding essays. This year's question, which came fromGeorge Dyson, is "What *Should* We Be Worried About?"
We worry because we are built to anticipate the future. Nothing can stop us from worrying, but science can teach us how to worry better, and when to stop worrying.
Many people more interesting than me responded—here are the 2013 contributors, and the list includes some amazing minds: Brian Eno, Daniel Dennett, Esther Dyson, George Dyson, David Gelernter, Danny Hillis, Arianna Huffington, Kevin Kelly, Tim O'Reilly, Martin Rees, Bruce Schneier, Bruce Sterling, Sherry Turkle, and Craig Venter, to name just some. And here's an index of all the essays this year.
Following is the full text of my contribution, "Science Has Not Brought Us Closer To Understanding Cancer."
...This year, Brockman’s panelists (myself included) agreed to take on the subject of what we should fear. There’s the fiscal cliff, the continued European economic crisis, the perpetual tensions in the Middle East. But what about the things that may happen in twenty, fifty, or a hundred years? The premise, as the science historian George Dyson put it, is that “people tend to worry too much about things that it doesn’t do any good to worry about, and not to worry enough about things we should be worrying about.” A hundred fifty contributors wrote essays for the project. The result is a recently published collection, “What *Should* We Be Worried About?” available without charge at John Brockman’s edge.org. ...\
The discussion is seeded with contributions from dozens of philosophers, futurists, academics, writers, artists and scientists. They don't warn of topical issues of the day — such as gun control or government debt or whatever is in the headlines right now.
They are thinking a little ahead. ... Such as this from biologist and author Colin Tudge: Science, in short, is in danger of losing its integrity and its intellectual independence—of becoming the handmaiden of big business and the most powerful governments. ... And this from journalist and author David Berreby: What worries me is the ongoing "greying" of the world population, which is uneven globally but widespread. It is not "on the radar" (except for occasional gee-whiz news stories and narrow discussions about particular problems for this or that trade).