In July, 2013, Edge invited a group of social scientists to participate in an Edge Seminar at Eastover Farm focusing on the state of the art of what the social sciences have to tell us about human nature. The ten speakers were Sendhil Mullainathan, June Gruber, Fiery Cushman, Rob Kurzban, Nicholas Christakis, Joshua Greene, Laurie Santos, Joshua Knobe, David Pizarro, Daniel C. Dennett. Also participating were Daniel Kahneman, Anne Treisman, Jennifer Jacquet.
We asked the participants to consider the following questions:
"What's new in your field of social science in the last year or two, and why should we care?" "Why do we want or need to know about it?" "How does it change our view of human nature?"
And in so doing we also asked them to focus broadly and address the major developments in their field (including but not limited to their own research agenda). The goal: to get new, fresh, and original up-to-date field reports on different areas of social science.
What Big Data Means For Social Science (Sendhil Mullainathan) | The Scientific Study of Positive Emotion (June Gruber) | The Paradox of Automatic Planning (Fiery Cushman) | P-Hacking and the Replication Crisis (Rob Kurzban) | The Science of Social Connections (Nicholas Christakis) | The Role of Brain Imaging in Social Science (Joshua Greene) | What Makes Humans Unique (Laurie Santos) | Experimental Philosophy and the Notion of the Self (Joshua Knobe) | The Failure of Social and Moral Intuitions (David Pizarro) | The De-Darwinizing of Cultural Change (Daniel C. Dennett)
HeadCon '13: WHAT'S NEW IN SOCIAL SCIENCE was also an experiment in online video designed to capture the dynamic of an Edge seminar, focusing on the interaction of ideas, and of people. The documentary film-maker Jason Wishnow, the pioneer of "TED Talks" during his tenure as director of film and video at TED (2006-2012), helped us develop this new iteration of Edge Video, filming the ten sessions in split-screen with five cameras, presenting each speaker and the surrounding participants from multiple simultaneous camera perspectives.
We are now pleased to present the program in its entirety, nearly six hours of Edge Video and a downloadable PDF of the 58,000-word transcript.
The great biologist Ernst Mayr (the "Darwin of the 20th Century") once said to me: "Edge is a conversation." And like any conversation, it is evolving. And what a conversation it is!
We've known big data has had big impacts in business, and in lots of prediction tasks. I want to understand, what does big data mean for what we do for science? Specifically, I want to think about the following context: You have a scientist who has a hypothesis that they would like to test, and I want to think about how the testing of that hypothesis might change as data gets bigger and bigger. So that's going to be the rule of the game. Scientists start with a hypothesis and they want to test it; what's going to happen?
What I'm really interested in is the science of human emotion. In particular, what's captivated my field and my interest the most is trying to understand positive emotions. Not only the ways in which perhaps we think they're beneficial for us or confer some sort of adaptive value, but actually the ways in which they may signal dysfunction and may not actually, in all circumstances and in all intensities, be good for us.
June Gruber is Assistant Professor of Psychology, Director, Positive Emotion & Psychopatology Lab, Yale University.
I want to tell you about a problem that I have because it highlights a deep problem for the field of psychology. The problem is that every time I sit down to try to write a manuscript I end up eating Ben and Jerry's instead. I sit down and then a voice comes into my head and it says, "How about Ben and Jerry's? You deserve it. You've been working hard for almost ten minutes now." Before I know it, I'm on the way out the door.
Fiery Cushman is Assistant Professor, Cognitive, Linguistic, Social Science, Brown University.
The first three talks this morning I think have been optimistic. We've heard about the promise of big data, we've heard about advances in emotions, and we've just heard from Fiery, who very cleverly managed to find a way to leave before I gave my remarks about how we're understanding something deep about human nature. I think there's a risk that my remarks are going to be understood as pessimistic but they're really not. My optimism is embodied in the notion that what we're doing here is important and we can do it better.
Rob Kurzban is an Associate Professor, University of Pennsylvania specializing in evolutionary psychology: Author, Why Everyone (Else) Is A Hypocrite.
If you think about it, humans are extremely unusual as a species in that we form long-term, non-reproductive unions to other members of our species, namely, we have friends. Why do we do this? Why do we have friends? It's not hard to construct an argument as to why we would have sex with other people but it's rather more difficult to construct an argument as to why we would befriend other people. Yet we and very few other species do this thing. So I'd like to problematize that, I'd like to problematize friendship first.
Nicholas Christakis is a Physician and Social Scientist; Director, The Human Nature Lab, Yale University; Coauthor, Connected: The Surprising Power Of Our Social Networks And How They Shape Our Lives.
We're here in early September 2013 and the topic that's on everybody's minds, (not just here but everywhere) is Syria. Will the U.S. bomb Syria? Should the U.S. bomb Syria? Why do some people think that the U.S. should? Why do other people think that the U.S. shouldn't? These are the kinds of questions that occupy us every day. This is a big national and global issue, sometimes it's personal issues, and these are the kinds of questions that social science tries to answer.
Joshua Greene is John and Ruth Hazel Associate Professor of the Social Sciences and the director of the Moral Cognition Laboratory in the Department of Psychology, Harvard University. Author, Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, And The Gap Between Us And Them.
Laurie Santos: What Makes Humans Unique (Part VII)
The findings in comparative cognition I'm going to talk about are often different than the ones you hear comparative cognitive researchers typically talking about. Usually when somebody up here is talking about how animals are redefining human nature, it's cases where we're seeing animals being really similar to humans—elephants who do mirror self-recognition; rodents who have empathy; capuchin monkeys who obey prospect theory—all these cases where we see animals doing something really similar.
Laurie Santos is Associate Professor, Department of Psychology; Director, Comparative Cognition Laboratory, Yale University.
What is the field of experimental philosophy? Experimental philosophy is a relatively new field—one that just cropped up around the past ten years or so, and it's an interdisciplinary field, uniting ideas from philosophy and psychology. In particular, what experimental philosophers tend to do is to go after questions that are traditionally associated with philosophy but to go after them using the methods that have been traditionally associated with psychology.
Joshua Knobe is an Experimental Philosopher; Associate Professor of Philosophy and Cognitive Science, Yale University.
We had people interact—strangers interact in the lab—and we filmed them, and we got the cues that seemed to indicate that somebody's going to be either more cooperative or less cooperative. But the fun part of this study was that for the second part we got those cues and we programmed a robot—Nexi the robot, from the lab of Cynthia Breazeal at MIT—to emulate, in one condition, those non-verbal gestures. So what I'm talking about today is not about the results of that study, but rather what was interesting about looking at people interacting with the robot.
David Pizarro is Associate Professor of Psychology, Cornell University, specializing in moral judgement.
Think for a moment about a termite colony or an ant colony—amazingly competent in many ways, we can do all sorts of things, treat the whole entity as a sort of cognitive agent and it accomplishes all sorts of quite impressive behavior. But if I ask you, "What is it like to be a termite colony?" most people would say, "It's not like anything." Well, now let's look at a brain, let's look at a human brain—100 billion neurons, roughly speaking, and each one of them is dumber than a termite and they're all sort of semi-independent. If you stop and think about it, they're all direct descendants of free-swimming unicellular organisms that fended for themselves for a billion years on their own. There's a lot of competence, a lot of can-do in their background, in their ancestry. Now they're trapped in the skull and they may well have agendas of their own; they have competences of their own, no two are alike. Now the question is, how is a brain inside a head any more integrated, any more capable of there being something that it's like to be that than a termite colony? What can we do with our brains that the termite colony couldn't do or maybe that many animals couldn't do?
Daniel C. Dennett is a Philosopher; Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy, Co-Director, Center for Cognitive Studies, Tufts University; Author, Intuition Pumps.
Daniel Kahneman is Recipient, Nobel Prize in Economics, 2002; Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2013; Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology, Princeton University; Author, Thinking Fast And Slow. Anne Treisman is Professor Emeritus of Psychology, Princeton University; Recipient, National Medal of Science, 2013.
Jennifer Jacquet is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU; Researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons.
Out-take from the trailer I made for the 1968 movie "Head" (Columbia Pictures; Directed by Bob Rafelson; Written by Jack Nicholson)
EDGE: LIVE, IN LONDON
COMING SOON: COMPLETE VIDEO COVERAGE OF THE EVENT
This year's collaboration with the Serpentine Gallery in London was part of the "Extinction Marathon: Visions of the Future" event, which will took place in the Serpentine Sackler Gallery's extension, designed by Zaha Hadid, on Oct. 18th. The entire event which was live-streamed, will be presented on Edge.
An EDGE Conversation: "DE-EXTINCTION": Stewart Brand & Richard Prum
with Hans Ulrich Obrist & John Brockman
Does the prospect of "de-extinction" change how we think about extinction? Conservation science is shifting from being species-centric to function-centric, focussing on the overall health of ecosystems. Does the extinction of a species leave a "gap in nature" that can only be filled by returning the species to life and to the wild? Or will a functionally close relative serve? Is a de-extincted species really nothing more than a functionally close relative anyway? If it is too difficult and expensive to revive every extinct species, what are the criteria for deciding which ones to work on? Humans are the ones deciding. What ethics and aesthetics should guide those decisions?
STEWART BRAND is the Founder of the "The Whole Earth Catalog" and Co-founder of The Long Now Foundation and Revive and Restore; Author, Whole Earth Discipline.
RICHARD PRUM is an Evolutionary Ornithologist at Yale University, where he is the Curator of Ornithology and Head Curator of Vertebrate Zoology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History. He is working on a book about duck sex, aesthetic evolution, and the origin of beauty.
"EDGIES ON EXTINCTION": 10 Minute talks by Helena Cronin, Jennifer Jacquet, Steve Jones, and Chiara Marletto, and an EDGE discussion joined by Molly Crockett, Hans Ulrich Obrist, and John Brockman.
"The body of Lonesome George, the last Pinta Island giant tortoise, was unveiled at AMNH ten days ago. I was there. I knew him when he was alive, now I have seen him taxidermied, and with him went an entire species. This extinction is a new kind of existential crisis."
JENNIFER JACQUET is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at NYU researching cooperation and the tragedy of the commons; Author, Is Shame Necessary?
~ ~ ~ ~
"A principle of Constructor Theory, our new fundamental theory of physics, is that whatever is not forbidden by the laws of physics can be achieved, given enough knowledge. And it is the extinction of bad ideas that brings about new knowledge. Extinction of abstractions is thus the fuel of progress in thinking. It is a constructor of future possibilities!"
CHIARA MARLETTO is a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College and Postdoctoral Research Assistnat at the Materials Department at the University of Oxford.
~ ~ ~ ~
"I will talk about the extinction of difference, the fact that people are globally getting more and similar."
STEVE JONES is a Professor of Genetics at the Galton Laboratory of University College London; Author, The Lanugage of the Genes.
~ ~ ~ ~
"Are sex differences just a social construct? Are women victims of pervasive injustice? Yes, according to entrenched orthodoxy. But, by objective standards of truth and falsity, of science and statistics, the answer is indubitably: 'No; the orthodoxy has long been declared extinct’."
HELENA CRONIN is the Co-Director of LSE's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Science; Author, The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today.
~ ~ ~ ~
MOLLY CROCKETT is an Associate Professor in the Department of Experimental Psychology at the University of Oxford; Wellcome Trust Postdoctoral Fellow at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging.
HANS ULRICH OBRIST is the Co-director of the Serpentine Gallery in London; Author, Ways of Curating.
JOHN BROCKMAN is the Editor and Publisher of Edge.org; Chairman of Brockman, Inc.; Author, By the Late John Brockman, The Third Culture
EDGE & SERPENTINE GALLERY
Previous Edge-Serpentine collaborations have included:
SPEAKING OF EXTINCTIONS....
Edge's own contribution to the conversation will be published in February:
Edge @ World Science Festival: REAL SCENARIOS THAT KEEP SCIENTISTS UP AT NIGHT
Panelists: Helen Fisher, Amanda Gefter, Seth Lloyd, Steven Pinker, Max Tegmark; Moderator, John Brockman
Science and Story Cafe: Meet the Authors
Date: Saturday, May 31, 2014
Time: 11:00 AM – 12:30 PM
Venue: NYU Kimmel Center
What should we be worried about? That is the question John Brockman, founding editor of the celebrated science website Edge, posed in 2013 to our planet’s most influential minds. Five leading scientists share their worries and discuss their own recent books.
Biological Anthropologist, Rutgers University; Author, Why Him? Why Her?: How to Find and Keep Lasting Love
Consultant, New Scientist; Founding Editor, "CultureLab"; Author, Trespassing on Einstein’s Lawn: A Father, a Daughter, the Meaning of Nothing, and the Beginning of Everything
Professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering, MIT; Author, Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos
Johnstone Family Professor, Department of Psychology; Harvard University; Author, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined
Physicist, MIT; Researcher, Precision Cosmology; Scientific Director, Foundational Questions Institute; Author, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality
[ED. NOTE: The 2014 World Science Festival takes place May 28-June 2 in New York City. Under the leadership of cofounders Tracy Day and Brian Greene, the Festival, founded in 2008, has evolved into a deep and rich city-wide intellectual feast, available to all. Highly recommended! For information, schedule and tickets, click here. —JB]
“Reads like an atlas of fear.”
—New York Times
“Substantial and engrossing. . . .Brockman and the Edge contributors offer fresh and invaluable perspectives on crucial aspects of our lives.”
—Booklist (starred review)
"The most stimulating English-language reading to be had from anywhere in the world."
—The Canberra Times
“This collection helps us see the myriad possible concerns laid out before us, articulating the various elements of fear that we need to fear.”
"An awakening read in its entirety."
—Maria Popova, Brain Pickings
A new generation of artists, writing genomes as fluently as Blake and Byron wrote verses, might create an abundance of new flowers and fruit and trees and birds to enrich the ecology of our planet. Most of these artists would be amateurs, but they would be in close touch with science, like the poets of the earlier Age of Wonder. The new Age of Wonder might bring together wealthy entrepreneurs ... and a worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders, working together to make the planet beautiful as well as fertile, hospitable to hummingbirds as well as to humans. —Freeman Dyson
In his 2009 talk at the Bristol Festival of Ideas, Freeman Dyson pointed out that we are entering a new Age of Wonder, which is dominated by computational biology. In articulating his vision for the future he noted that Edge is the nexus of this intellectual activity.
This "worldwide community of gardeners and farmers and breeders" has been getting together for an annual dinner since 1998. The dinner has had many names: "The Millionaires Dinner", "The Digerati Dinner", "The Billionaires' Dinner", "The Edge Science Dinner", "The Age of Wonder Dinner".
The industrial age had the nineteenth century Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal dinner club and learned society of leading cultural figures, natural philosophers, and industrialists, whose members included engineer James Watt, manufacturer, and his business partner Matthew Boulton (Boulton & Watt steam engines), physician and natural philosopher Erasmus Darwin, author and abolitionist Thomas Day, arms manufacturer Samuel Galton, Jr., chemist Joseph Priestly (discoverer of oxygen), potter Josiah Wedgewood, clergyman, natural philosopher, clock-maker John Whitehurst, botanist and geologist William Withering, and Benjamin Franklin. (Erasmus Darwin and Wedgewood were the grandfathers of Charles Darwin). The Society met each month near the full moon in each other's homes, and in venues such as Soho House, and Great Barr Hall. They referred to themselves as "lunarticks".
Edge, through its Master Classes, seminars, online activities, dinners, gathers together the third culture intellectuals and technology pioneers of the post-industrial, digital age. This year's dinner, held in Vancouver at the Blue Water Cafe, was no exception. The group, including founders of Microsoft, Google, Amazon, the father of the iPod, the inventor of the WYSIWYG word processor, people in art, photography, music, distinguished journalists and thinkers, was a remarkable gathering of outstanding minds. These are the people that are rewriting our global culture.
Some of the topics of conversation at the dinner included analog computation; neuromorphic computing; Nick Metropolis; when bad people are smart (speculating about Flight 370); the psychological pleasure of touching a historical artifact; gene expression patterns in the mouse brain; neuroscience-based understanding of human cognition; digitizing the human brain; space travel; Afonso Cuaron's movie Gravity; the outdated ISS space station; recovery of the Apollo 11 engines; the Superbowl; the Crimean crisis; brain waves and water; love in a warm place; art and danger; the nature of intuition; the inner workings of newspapers; animal interfaces for accessing internet; the role of luck in success; the design of interior configurations of private jets; the history and features of lighter-than-air ships; business models for broadcasting; love in a workplace; digital controls and state secrecy; research showing what produces happiness; how big a role luck plays in forming our destinies; the plasticity of the brain; how to develop your abs by surfing big waves; the marriage of youth and experience; and all generously lubricated by expensive wine and cheap gossip.
Vancouver, March 17, 2014
March 5, 2014
Daniel Kahneman turns 80 today (March 5, 2014). Edge is using this occasion to launch a Reality Club Discussion about his work. (See: On Kahneman). Also, we are pleased to reprise some of his contributions to our pages below.
DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, 2002 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2013. He is Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and Author of Thinking Fast and Slow. (Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page)
Millions of people have been asked the question, how satisfied are you with your life? That is a question to the remembering self, and there is a fair amount that we know about the happiness or the well-being of the remembering self. But the distinction between the remembering self and the experiencing self suggests immediately that there is another way to ask about well-being, and that's the happiness of the experiencing self.
A SHORT COURSE IN THINKING ABOUT THINKING
Edge Master Class
Daniel Kahneman, Larry Page, Jeff Bezos, Katinka Matson, Nathan Myrhvold, Peter Diamandis, Dean Kamen, W. Daniel Hillis, George Smoot, Karla Taylor, Jimmy Wales, Salar Kamangar, George Dyson, Seth Lloyd, Tim O'Reilly, Sergey Brin
What we're saying is that there is a technology emerging from behavioral economics. It's not only an abstract thing. You can do things with it. We are just at the beginning. I thought that the input of psychology into behavioral economics was done. But hearing Sendhil was very encouraging because there was a lot of new psychology there. That conversation is continuing and it looks to me as if that conversation is going to go forward. It's pretty intuitive, based on research, good theory, and important. — Daniel Kahneman
A SHORT COURSE IN BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS
Edge Master Class
Jeff Bezos, John Brockman, Max Brockman, George Dyson, W. Daniel Hillis, Daniel Kahneman, Salar Kamangar, France LeClerc, Katinka Matson, Sendhil Mullainathan, Elon Musk, Nathan Myhrvold, Sean Parker, Paul Romer, Richard Thaler, Anne Treisman, Evan Williams
TWO BIG THINGS HAPPENING IN PSYCHOLOGY TODAY
A Talk By Daniel Kahneman
PUTTING PSYCHOLOGY INTO BEHAVIORAL ECONOMICS
Richard Thaler, Sendhil Mullainathan, Daniel Kahneman
Sendhil Mullainathan, Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos
The power of settings, the power of priming, and the power of unconscious thinking, all of those are a major change in psychology. I can't think of a bigger change in my lifetime. You were asking what's exciting? That's exciting, to me.
Steven Pinker & Daniel Kahneman
"I'm still not convinced it was a good idea to write the book." — Kahneman on Thinking Fast and Slow
EDGE RETREAT @ SPRING MOUNTAIN VINEYARD
Daniel Kahneman & Richard Thaler
On the road to Munich in January for DLD14, the 10th annual DLD conference (Digital-Life-Day) run by Steffi Czerny and Lukas Kubina for Hubert Burda Media. The theme this year: "Content and Context". It was the fifth time Edge has been asked to participate. (See below for links to our previous DLD co-events.)
This year the Edge conversation was on "information" from the Neandertal DNA sequenced by Svante Pääbo, the founder of the field of ancient DNA, to the multi-particle entanglement states of physicist Anton Zeilinger, which have become essential in fundamental tests of quantum mechanics and in quantum information science, most notably in quantum computation. In addition, Edge's roving editor, Jennifer Jacquet, was present for a session on "Time's Role in the Tragedy of the Commons" in which she developed themes in her work recently presented on Edge.
Information is the foundation of our universe—and life itself. Cultural impresario John Brockman hosts a Third Culture conversation, spanning science and the humanities.
SVANTE PÄÄBO the founder of the field of ancient DNA, is Director, Department of Genetics, Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology, Leipzig. Among his achievements are the first demonstration of DNA survival in an ancient Egyptian mummy, the first amplification of ancient DNA, the first study of the DNA from the Iceman found in the Alps, and the first retrieval of DNA from a Neanderthal in 1997. Four years ago, he initiated and organized an effort to sequence the entire Neanderthal genome. The first scientific overview of the genome was published in 2009 and was front page news word-wide. He is the author of Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. Svante Pääbo's Edge Bio Page
ANTON ZEILINGER, a physicist, is Professor of Physics at the Quantum Optics, Quantum Nanophysics, Quantum Information Institute of University of Vienna. He is President of the Austrian Academy of Sciences and the author of Dance of the Photons: From Einstein to Quantum Teleportation. Zeilinger is a pioneer in the field of quantum information and of the foundations of quantum mechanics. He realized many important quantum information protocols for the first time, including quantum teleportation of an independent qubit, entanglement swapping (i.e. the teleportation of an entangled state), hyper-dense coding (which was the first entanglement-based protocol ever realized in experiment), entanglement-based quantum cryptography, one-way quantum computation and blind quantum computation. His further contributions to the experimental and conceptual foundations of quantum mechanics include multi-particle entanglement and matter wave interference all the way from neutrons via atoms to macromolecules such as fullerenes. Anton Zeilinger's Edge Bio Page
Jennifer Jacquet: Times Role in the Tragedy of the Commons
How do tensions between individuals and groups play out? Between high-consuming people and low? Between the now and the future? Game theory offers answers.
JENNIFER JACQUET is Clinical Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies, NYU, researching shame,cooperation and the tragedy of the commons. She is also Edge's Roving Editor (see interviews with Adam Alter and Joseph Heinrich).
Her work was recently featured on Edge after Nature Climate Change published a study by Jacquet and her colleagues at two Max Planck Institutes on "Delayed Gratification Hurts Cimate Change Cooperation". Jennifer Jacquet's Edge Bio Page
EDGE @DLD: 2011: AN EDGE CONVERSATION IN MUNICH with Stewart Brand, George Dyson, Kevin Kelly, introduced by Andrian Kreye. A session with three of the original members of Edge who year in and year out provide the core sounding board for the ideas and information we present to the public. I refer to them in private correspondance as "The Council". Every year, beginning late summer, I consult with Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and George Dyson, and together we create the Edge Annual Question which Edge has been asking since 1996. 2010: "INFORMAVORE" with Frank Schirrmacher, Editor of the Feuilleton and Co-Publisher of Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Andrian Kreye, Feuilleton Editor of Sueddeutsche Zeitung, Munich; and Yale computer science visionary David Gelernter, who, in his 1991 book Mirror Worlds presented what's now called "cloud computing". 2009: REFLECTIONS ON A CRISIS: Daniel Kahneman, the greatest living psychologist, and Nassim Nicholas Taleb, the foremost scholar of extreme events discuss hindsight biases, the illusion of patterns, perception of risk, and denial. 2008: LIFE: A GENE-CENTRIC VIEW: Richard Dawkins & J. Craig Venter/ It's not everyday you have Richard Dawkins and Craig Venter on a stage talking for an hour. That it occured in Germany, where the culture had been resistant to open discussion of genetics, and at DLD, the Digital, Life, Design conference organized by Hubert Burda Media in Munich, a high-level event for the digital elite—the movers and shakers of the Internet—made the discussion particularly interesting.
You can answer the question, but are you bright enough to ask it?
by John Brockman
The Edge motto, adopted from the artist James Lee Byars' "World Question Center" is "To arrive at the edge of the world's knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves". As Wallace Stevens wrote in "Notes Toward A Supreme Fiction" (1942): "The final elegance, not to console / Nor sanctify, but plainly to propound."
It's the quality of the questions that defines the scientific endeavor, not the answers encrusted in stories and narratives. This year, at SciFoo 2013, Edge presented the opportunity to several of the nearly 300 participants to respond to the following: "What is your question from SciFoo 2013?" Watch the 8-minute video below for the responses. This is followed by responses to the question "Who and/or what was fresh and new at SciFoo 2013?", and a photo gallery, which extends to San Francisco the following evening.
But first, what is "SciFoo"?
The annual event is run by three sponsors: O'Reilly Media (Tim O'Reilly is responsible for "FOO", or, "friends of O'Reilly"), Nature Magazine (and their spin-off company, Digital Science), and Google. This year 62% of the participants were new. This approach keeps the event new and fresh every year. The ratio of participants to interesting people? 1-to-1.
"SciFoo is a conference like no other. It brings together a mad mix from the worlds of science, technology, and other branches of the ineffable Third Culture at the Google campus in Mountain View. Improvised, loose, massively parallel—it's a happening. If you're not overwhelmed by the rush of ideas then you're not paying attention."
A fascinating weekend, with one lingering regret—that I missed Rory Wilson’s talk on the use of accelerometers in free living animals. I had to piece together the gist of his talk from scraps given me by others and, fortunately, by Rory himself. In his work as an animal behaviourist Rory has been using actigraphy and accelerometers attached to animals in the wild in order to monitor continuously their energy expenditure. Beyond this, though, the data Rory has collected has uncovered subtle changes in background movement that actually reflect the animal’s motivational state. This finding is tremendously interesting. As we learn more about the brain, the more we see that it is built primarily to plan and execute movement, that activities we—under the influence of our Platonic heritage—commonly viewed as pure thought in fact have a somatic echo. Some scientists working with actigraphy have even found predictors, tremors if you will, of impending neuro-degenerative disease. But background activity changes that may reflect motivational states? The very possibility should tantalize any behavioural scientist.
Serendipity was at work this weekend: I met perhaps the only other person at scifoo (on the entire googolplex?) with a dumb phone. I stubbornly hold onto mine for the very purpose of serendipity, to dampen distraction. Ziyad Marar and I had a wonderful conversation about habits and human behavior, and soon discovered we have in common 1999-era telephones, as well as a healthy skepticism of social media. I hadn't heard of Ziyad's books (Happiness Paradox, Deception, Intimacy), but I picked up two at scifoo and couldn't put them down: his writing mulls human nature, weaving in literature and philosophy without succumbing to the tired conventions of contemporary science writing. A breath of fresh air.
PAUL SAFFO: Kröpelin's Mysteries of the Sahara
STEWART BRAND: What if climate change is good for civilization?
STEVE FULLER: How must we re-orient ourselves to make the most out of seasteading?
At Sci Foo Camp 2013, David Ewing Duncan and Linda Avey presented a very persuasive case for an indefinite expansion of 'seasteading', a term that I had learned about from Duncan in an earlier session on cognitive and moral enhancement by neuroscientific means. I had been already familiar with Peter Thiel's support for a ship floating just beyond US territorial waters near San Francisco Bay that enabled innovators lacking US citizenship to conduct research outside the gaze of American regulators. However, the session enabled me to see that seasteading, far from being a strategy for avoiding inconvenient forms of regulation, on the contrary might be something that states themselves encourage—though perhaps indirectly, depending on the political climate. However, this proposal would make policy sense only on the following condition: The outcomes of the research conducted in these 'ethics-free' zones would have to be made public, with the understanding that no one would be prosecuted, no matter how bad the outcomes are perceived to have been. In other words, we would need to become sufficiently mature to accept the admission of error in pursuit of a good cause as adequate punishment in itself.
The most wonderful session I attended—and the most meaningful experience overall—was Michael Chorost talking about his own cochlear implant. It was what science really is—the response to curiosity. He told us how it worked, played recordings so we could get some sense of how things sound to people who have an implant. He passed some samples around the room for us to touch and examine. We talked about learning to hear—and how there's a point in childhood after which it gets harder and harder to learn. We got an understanding of the technology, and also of how the technology changes both individual lives and cultural norms—such as sign language, which may become the language of the poor deaf as the rich deaf start using cochlear implants. In theory they can be covered by Medicare, but somehow the rich seem to get them and the poor don't... Is that right?
Is there something similar coming for vision? (Of course, this comment—and the session itsel —raises questions and doesn't answer them all; that's the point of SciFoo...)
This was SciFoo's seventh year, and, in era where the half-life of a conference is measured in years, not decades, it is holding up well. Tim O'Reilly (O'Reilly), Timo Hannay (Nature/Digital Science )and Chris DiBona (Google) have found a formula that works, and are sticking to it. Big Data, once the all-consuming subject, is now just another scientific instrument, like a space telescope or an electron microscope, and the excitement was back to the details of what you can do with it, now that you have it. And how do you encourage scientific thinking in children (and politicians)? Among the people who showed up from left field and stole the show (a regular occurrence at SciFoo) this year was Carmen Medina, who, in her own introductory words, "spent 32 years at the Central Intelligence Agency and decided early on that how we form opinions is much more interesting than any particular opinion. Passionate about empowering heretics in the workplace and attacking conventional wisdom. Believe we need entirely new construct for the concept of national security, perhaps abandoning it altogether. Convinced there is worldwide conspiracy for preservation of Mediocrity." Amen!
Edge Dinner, 2013
Recently we have published a number of Conversations on related subjects such as "Big Data", "Linked Data", "Data Science", "Web Science", "Semantic Web", "Network Science". Clearly, a new realm is rapidly coming into public consciousness.
In this regard, we have set up this "Special Event" page on "Computational Social Science" to organize and present this material to our readers and to provide access to the ongoing Edge Conversations and related discussions.
Published to date are eight Conversations with: Dirk Helbing, Nicholas A. Christakis, J. Craig Venter, J. Craig Venter, Cesar Hidalgo, Sandy Pentland, Albert-László Barabási and Tim O'Reilly. The presentations include more than five hours of video as well as the texts.
"THE CLOTHESLINE PARADOX"
A Conversation with Tim O'Reilly [10.4.12]
If we're going to get science policy right, it's really important for us to study the economic benefit of open access and not accept the arguments of incumbents. Existing media companies claim that they need ever stronger and longer copyright protection and new, draconian laws to protect them, and meanwhile, new free ecosystems, like the Web, have actually led to enormous wealth creation and enormous new opportunities for social value. And yes, they did in fact lead in some cases to the destruction of incumbents, but that's the kind of creative destruction that we should celebrate in the economy. We have to accept that, particularly in the area of science, there's an incredible opportunity for open access to enable new business models.
TIM O'REILLY is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., a leading computer book publisher. O'Reilly Media also hosts conferences on technology topics, including the O'Reilly Open Source Convention, the Strata series of conferences on big data, and Tools of Change for Publishing. O'Reilly Media's Maker Media unit publishes Make Magazine and operates Maker Faire, the world's largest gathering of DIY hardware enthusiasts and entrepreneurs. O'Reilly AlphaTech Ventures is a leading early stage venture capital firm.
THINKING IN NETWORK TERMS
A Conversation with Albert-lászló Barabási [9.24.12]
One question that fascinated me in the last two years is, can we ever use data to control systems? Could we go as far as, not only describe and quantify and mathematically formulate and perhaps predict the behavior of a system, but could you use this knowledge to be able to control a complex system, to control a social system, to control an economic system?
ALBERT-LÁSZLÓ BARABÁSI is a Distinguished University Professor at Northeastern University, where he directs the Center for Complex Network Research, and holds appointments in the Departments of Physics, Computer Science and Biology, as well as in the Department of Medicine, Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women Hospital, and is a member of the Center for Cancer Systems Biology at Dana Farber Cancer Institute.
REINVENTING SOCIETY IN THE WAKE OF BIG DATA
A Conversation with Alex (Sandy) Pentland [8.30.12]
With Big Data we can now begin to actually look at the details of social interaction and how those play out, and are no longer limited to averages like market indices or election results. This is an astounding change. The ability to see the details of the market, of political revolutions, and to be able to predict and control them is definitely a case of Promethean fire --- it could be used for good or for ill, and so Big data brings us to interesting times. We're going to end up reinventing what it means to have a human socie
ALEX 'SANDY' PENTLAND is a pioneer in big data, computational social science, mobile and health systems, and technology for developing countries. He is one of the most-cited computer scientists in the world and was named by Forbes as one of the world's seven most powerful data scientists. He currently directs the
WHAT IS VALUE? WHAT IS MONEY?
A Conversation with Cesar Hidalgo [8.28.12]
We have always had this tension of understanding the world, at small spatial scales or individual scales, and large macro scales. In the past when we looked at macro scales, at least when it comes to many social phenomena, we aggregated everything. Our idea of macro is, by an accident of history, a synonym of aggregate, a mass in which everything is added up and in which individuality is lost. What data at high spatial resolution, temporal resolution and typological resolution is allowing us to do, is to see the big picture without losing the individuality inside it.
CESAR HIDALGO is an assistant professor at the MIT Media Lab, and faculty associate at Harvard University’s Center for International Development. His work focuses on improving the understanding of systems by using and developing concepts of complexity, evolution, and network science. He is also the founder and driving force behind Cambridge Nights, a series of online video interviews with academics who discuss the way in which they view the world.
A NEW KIND OF SOCIAL SCIENCE FOR THE 21st CENTURY
A Conversation with Nicholas A. Christakis [8.21.12]
These three things—a biological hurricane, computational social science, and the rediscovery of experimentation—are going to change the social sciences in the 21st century. With that change will come, in my judgment, a variety of discoveries and opportunities that offer tremendous prospect for improving the human condition.
It's one thing to say that the way in which we study our object of inquiry, namely humans, is undergoing profound change, as I think it is. The social sciences are indeed changing. But the next question is: is the object of inquiry also undergoing profound change? It's not just how we study it that's changing, which it is. The question is: is the thing itself, our humanity, also changing?
NICHOLAS A. CHRISTAKIS is a Physician and Social Scientist, Harvard University; Coauthor (with James Fowler) of Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives.
BIOLOGY AT THE SPEED OF LIGHT
After Dinner Talk by J. Craig Venter [7.10.12]
We can now send biology at the speed of light, and this is one of the implications of our work, which we recorded two years ago making the first synthetic life form. We completely synthesized the genetic code of a cell starting with a digital code in the computer—it's the ultimate interface between computers and biology. The digital code and the genetic code have a lot in common; something Schrodinger pointed out in 1943, saying it could be something as simple as the Morse code. ... Digital code, as you know, is a binary code, and ones and zeroes, and your genetic code is literally four-base code with ACGs and Ts. We can now readily convert in between the two, and we can define life at its most basic level. Things that were a mystery fifty, sixty, seventy years ago, we now understand completely.
Genomics researcher J. CRAIG VENTER is regarded as one of the leading scientists of the 21st century, most notably for the first sequencing and analysis of the human genome published in 2001 and the most recent and most complete sequencing of his diploid human genome in 2007. He is Co-Founder, Chairman, Synthetic Genomics, Inc.; Founder, J. Craig Venter Institute; Author, A Life Decoded.
WHAT IS LIFE? A 21st CENTURY PERSPECTIVE
On the 70th Anniversary of Schroedinger's Lecture at Trinity College by J. Craig Venter [7.12.12]
I view DNA as an analogue coding molecule, and when we sequence the DNA, we are converting that analogue code into digital code; the 1s and 0s in the computer are very similar to the dots and dashes of Schrodinger's metaphor. I call this process "digitizing biology".
Genomics researcher J. CRAIG VENTER is regarded as one of the leading scientists of the 21st century, most notably for the first sequencing and analysis of the human genome published in 2001 and the most recent and most complete sequencing of his diploid human genome in 2007. He is Co-Founder, Chairman, Synthetic Genomics, Inc.; Founder, J. Craig Venter Institute; Author, A Life Decoded.
A NEW KIND OF SOCIO-INSPIRED TECHNOLOGY
Dirk Helbing [6.19.12]
There's a new kind of socio-inspired technology coming up, now. Society has many wonderful self-organization mechanisms that we can learn from, such as trust, reputation, culture. If we can learn how to implement that in our technological system, that is worth a lot of money; billions of dollars, actually. We think this is the next step after bio-inspired technology.
PROFESSOR DIRK HELBING is Chair of Sociology, in particular of Modeling and Simulation, at ETH Zurich – Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, and the Scientific Coordinator of the FuturICT Flagship Proposal.
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