Death Is Optional

Yuval Noah Harari, Daniel Kahneman [3.4.15]

Once you really solve a problem like direct brain-computer interface ... when brains and computers can interact directly, that's it, that's the end of history, that's the end of biology as we know it. Nobody has a clue what will happen once you solve this. If life can break out of the organic realm into the vastness of the inorganic realm, you cannot even begin to imagine what the consequences will be, because your imagination at present is organic. So if there is a point of Singularity, by definition, we have no way of even starting to imagine what's happening beyond that. 

YUVAL NOAH HARARI, Lecturer, Department of History, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, is the author of Sapiens: A Brief History of HumankindYuval Noah Harari's Edge Bio Page

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics, 2002 and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, 2013. He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page

Death Is Optional

DANIEL KAHNEMAN: Before asking you what are the questions you are asking yourself, I want to say that I've now read your book Sapiens twice and in that book you do something that I found pretty extraordinary. You cover the history of mankind. It seems to be like an invitation for people to dismiss it as superficial, so I read it, and I read it again, because in fact, I found so many ideas that were enriching. I want to talk about just one or two of them as examples.

Your chapter on science is one of my favorites and so is the title of that chapter, "The Discovery of Ignorance". It presents the idea that science began when people discovered that there was ignorance, and that they could do something about it, that this was really the beginning of science. I love that phrase.

And in fact, I loved that phrase so much that I went and looked it up. Because I thought, where did he get it? My search of the phrase showed that all the references were to you. And there are many other things like that in the book.

How did you transition from that book to what you're doing now?

YUVAL NOAH HARARI: It came naturally. My big question at present is what is the human agenda for the 21st century. And this is a direct continuation from covering the history of humankind, from the appearance of Homo Sapiens until today, so when you finish that, immediately, you think, okay, what next? I'm not trying to predict the future, which is impossible, now more than ever. Nobody has a clue how the world will look like in, say, 40, 50 years. We may know some of the basic variables but, if you really understand what's going on in the world, you know that it's impossible to have any good prediction for the coming decades. This is the first time in history that we're in this situation.

I'm trying to do something that is the opposite of predicting the future. I'm trying to identify what are the possibilities, what is the horizon of possibilities that we are facing? And what will happen from among these possibilities? We still have a lot of choice in this regard.

Digital Reality

Neil Gershenfeld [1.23.15]


...Today, you can send a design to a fab lab and you need ten different machines to turn the data into something. Twenty years from now, all of that will be in one machine that fits in your pocket. This is the sense in which it doesn't matter. You can do it today. How it works today isn't how it's going to work in the future but you don't need to wait twenty years for it. Anybody can make almost anything almost anywhere.              

...Finally, when I could own all these machines I got that the Renaissance was when the liberal arts emerged—liberal for liberation, humanism, the trivium and the quadrivium—and those were a path to liberation, they were the means of expression. That's the moment when art diverged from artisans. And there were the illiberal arts that were for commercial gain. ... We've been living with this notion that making stuff is an illiberal art for commercial gain and it's not part of means of expression. But, in fact, today, 3D printing, micromachining, and microcontroller programming are as expressive as painting paintings or writing sonnets but they're not means of expression from the Renaissance. We can finally fix that boundary between art and artisans.

...I'm happy to take claim for saying computer science is one of the worst things to happen to computers or to science because, unlike physics, it has arbitrarily segregated the notion that computing happens in an alien world.

NEIL GERSHENFELD is a Physicist and the Director of MIT's Center for Bits and Atoms. He is the author of FAB. Neil Gershenfeld's Edge Bio Page

Digital Reality

What interests me is how bits and atoms relate—the boundary between digital and physical. Scientifically, it's the most exciting thing I know. It has all sorts of implications that are widely covered almost exactly backwards. Playing it out, what I thought was hard technically is proving to be pretty easy. What I didn't think was hard was the implications for the world, so a bigger piece of what I do now is that. Let's start with digital.

Digital is everywhere; digital is everything. There's a lot of hubbub about what's the next MIT, what's the next Silicon Valley, and those were all the last war. Technology is leading to very different answers. To explain that, let's go back to the science underneath it and then look at what it leads to.

Formulating Science in Terms of Possible and Impossible Tasks

Chiara Marletto [12.6.14]

It turns out that in the constructor theoretic view, humans, as knowledge creating systems, are quite central to fundamental physics in an objective, non-anthropocentric, way. This is a very deep change in perspective. One of the ideas that will be dropped if constructor theory turns out to be effective is that the only fundamental entities in physics are laws of motion and initial conditions. In order for physics to accommodate more of physical reality, there needs to be a switch to this new mode of explanation, which accepts that scientific explanation is more than just predictions. Predictions will be supplemented with statements about what tasks are possible, what are impossible and why.

CHIARA MARLETTO is a Junior Research Fellow at Wolfson College and Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the Materials Department, University of Oxford; Currently working with David Deutsch.

Chiara Marletto's Edge Bio Page



I’ve been thinking about constructor theory a lot in the past few years. Constructor theory is this theory that David Deutsch proposed—a proposal for a new fundamental theory to formulate science in a completely different way from the prevailing conception of fundamental physics. It has the potential to change the way we formulate science because it’s a new mode of explanation.

When you think about physics, you usually describe things in terms of initial conditions and laws of motion; so what you say is, for example, where a comet goes given that it started in a certain place and time. In constructor theory, what you say is what transformations are possible, what are impossible, and why. The idea is that you can formulate the whole of fundamental physics this way; so, not only do you say where the comet goes, you say where it can go. This incorporates a lot more than what it is possible to incorporate now in fundamental physics.


"Dahlia" by Katinka Matson |  Click to Expand

"Another year, and some of the most important thinkers and scientists of the world have accepted the intellectual challenge." —El Mundo, 2015

"Deliciously creative, the variety astonishes. Intellectual skyrockets of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge is doing...the greatest virtual research university in the world. —Denis Dutton, Founding Editor, Arts & Letters Daily

Dedicated to the memory of Frank Schirrmacher (1959-2014).

In recent years, the 1980s-era philosophical discussions about artificial intelligence (AI)—whether computers can "really" think, refer, be conscious, and so on—have led to new conversations about how we should deal with the forms that many argue actually are implemented. These "AIs", if they achieve "Superintelligence" (Nick Bostrom), could pose "existential risks" that lead to "Our Final Hour" (Martin Rees). And Stephen Hawking recently made international headlines when he noted "The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race."   


But wait! Should we also ask what machines that think, or, "AIs", might be thinking about? Do they want, do they expect civil rights? Do they have feelings? What kind of government (for us) would an AI choose? What kind of society would they want to structure for themselves? Or is "their" society "our" society? Will we, and the AIs, include each other within our respective circles of empathy?

Numerous Edgies have been at the forefront of the science behind the various flavors of AI, either in their research or writings. AI was front and center in conversations between charter members Pamela McCorduck (Machines Who Think) and Isaac Asimov (Machines That Think) at our initial meetings in 1980. And the conversation has continued unabated, as is evident in the recent Edge feature "The Myth of AI", a conversation with Jaron Lanier, that evoked rich and provocative commentaries.

Is AI becoming increasingly real? Are we now in a new era of the "AIs"? To consider this issue, it's time to grow up. Enough already with the science fiction and the movies, Star MakerBlade Runner2001HerThe Matrix, "The Borg".  Also, 80 years after Turing's invention of his Universal Machine, it's time to honor Turing, and other AI pioneers, by giving them a well-deserved rest. We know the history. (See George Dyson's 2004 Edge feature "Turing's Cathedral".) So, once again, this time with rigor, the Edge Question—2015:


John Brockman
Publisher & Editor, Edge

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