Edge in the News

De Groene Amsterdammer [3.2.06]

Cultural impressario John Brockman publishers at his website Edge.org answers to dangerous questions. Mankind does not come off well.

...You get absorbed in reading answers to the question, publishes as the Edge Annual Question 2006. Though the intellectuals and scientists form no coherent group, there is a general tenor. Philosophizing on free weill has no purpose if you haven'y been buried in neuro-biology for a year or two.

The Financial Express [2.28.06]

A wide cross-section of people from among the intelligentsia responded to this fundamental paradox of life. The cynic and the optimist, the agnostic and the believer, the rationalist and the obscurantist, the scientist and the speculative philosopher, the realist and the idealist-all converge on a critical point in their thought process where reasoning loses its power. Love, existence of God, primacy of the entity called consciousness or life were the issues that came within the purview of the deliberation.

The New York Times [2.11.06]

Edge.org has an article titled "Who Really Won the Super Bowl?" by Marco Iacoboni, a neuroscientist at the U.C.L.A. Ahmanson-Lovelace Brain Mapping Center. Dr. Iacoboni and his colleagues used fast magnetic resonance imaging technology to observe brain responses to commercials shown during the Super Bowl.

The overwhelming winner among the Super Bowl ads is the Disney-NFL "I am going to Disney" ad. The Disney ad elicited strong responses in orbito-frontal cortex and ventral striatum, two brain regions associated with processing of rewards. Also, the Disney ad induced robust responses in mirror neuron areas, indicating identification and empathy. Further, the circuit for cognitive control, encompassing anterior cingulate cortex and dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, was highly active while watching the Disney ad....

The three biggest flops seem to be the Burger King ad, the FedEx ad, and the GoDaddy ad. Three quite interesting features that come out of this instant study are the following: first, people — when interviewed — tend to say what they are expected to say, but their brain seems to say the opposite. For instance, female subjects may give verbally very low "grades" to ads using actresses in sexy roles, but their mirror neuron areas seem to fire up quite a bit, suggesting some form of identification and empathy. Second ... we saw strong habituation effects, such that the second time around the commercial induces much weaker responses. Third — and this is probably interesting to neuroscientists — among brain regions associated with complex social behavior, we observed a mix of activation and de-activation.

Lavanguardia [2.8.06]

Can a person be considered cultured today with only slight knowledge of fields such as molecular biology, artificial intelligence, chaos theory, fractals, biodiversity, nanotechnology or the human genome?  Can we construct a proposal of universal knowledge without such knowledge?  The integration of  "literary culture" and "scientific culture" is the basis for what some call the "third culture":  a source of metaphors that renews not only the language, but also the conceptual tookit of classic humanism
The New Humanists 
SALVADOR PÁNIKER
A polifacética figure
Brockman and the New Intellectuals 
Interview
“Science won the battle”
SALVADOR LLOPART
“¿Qué queda del marxismo? ¿Qué queda de Freud? La neurociencia le ha dejado como una superstición del siglo XVIII, de ideas irrelevantes"

The Times [1.29.06]

FIRST CAME the Beethoven concert, the boat trip on a lake and the fine dinner; then the tearful goodbyes and the barbiturates. On the eve of her 67th birthday, surrounded by her adoring children, Dr Anne Turner finally ended a life that would have been cruelly curtailed by progressive supranuclear palsy, an incurable degenerative disease. “I don’t think death has ever held any fear for me,” she once said.

Suicide is a horribly arresting phenomenon. Remember the photograph of the lawyer teetering on a window ledge in West London before jumping to her death? Remember the footage of the young Indian woman who threw herself and her two young children under the Heathrow Express?

Taking one’s own life goes against one of our strongest urges — the instinct of self-preservation. The deterioration of this instinct, says Thomas Joiner, Bright-Burton Professor of Psychology at Florida State University, should be regarded as a symptom of disease. “There’s an idea that suicide is a mode of death that stands apart from others, but there are clear reasons why people die by suicide,” he says. “Just like heart disease, if you understand it, you can prevent it.”

His theory, outlined in Why People Die By Suicide (Harvard University Press), published this month, is that it happens when severely depressed people acquire fearlessness. How do people become fearless? Through practice and learning, he says. This explains the bouts of self-harm or failed suicide attempts that are not cries for help so much as rehearsals for a deadly finale.

He also points out that certain groups who are exposed repeatedly to pain and suffering — anorexics, doctors, athletes, prostitutes — have higher rates of suicide than other groups. Their acquired immunity to fear and pain is the extra crucial ingredient that, combined with a perception of being a burden and a feeling of not belonging, can have a fatal outcome.

Joiner, whose father killed himself, adds that anti-suicide campaigns may be counterproductive because they serve as a reminder of the act. He says that the most effective way of preventing suicide is to improve a person’s sense of belonging and contribution to society. Since killing oneself requires fearlessness, shouldn’t we revise the portrayal of suicide as the ultimate act of cowardice?

  • ON TO cheerier matters. When people turn up to a dinner before the appointed 7pm start, you know it’s going to be fun. And so it was on Tuesday when the literary agent John Brockman hosted a gathering in Soho. I showed up at 7.10pm, depriving myself of ten minutes of serious schmoozing.

    Brian Eno was there, as were Richard Dawkins and Simon Baron-Cohen, the autism researcher. Colin Blakemore, the head of the Medical Research Council, came along, joining the authors Olivia Judson, Matt Ridley, Armand Leroi and David Bodanis (the fastest talker I’ve ever met). Ian McEwan dropped by. The editors ofNature, New Scientist and Prospect mingled amiably.I ended up sharing a pudding plate with Craig Venter, the Celera Genomics entrepreneur who helped to unravel the human genome and in whose honour the dinner was held. Venter feels aggrieved at his portrayal in the British press as a ruthless, money-grabbing maverick (I’d be a bit miffed, too, if my enemies compared me with Hitler, as happened to Venter in a book extract in The Guardian). He points out that he owns fewer patents than Francis Collins, the publicly funded American scientist who was another leading figure in the Human Genome Project.

    But when you’re clever enough to start your own research institute, rich enough to drive an Aston Martin and famous enough to have inspired several unauthorised biographies, surely you can rise above it? “Underneath, it still hurts,” says Venter, with endearing honesty. I await his autobiography, due out next year, with eagerness.

  • TRUST Ken Livingstone to come up with another original political idea. At a debate in City Hall to mark the paperback publication of Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed, by Jared Diamond, the Mayor of London suggested that anyone believing in the afterlife should be barred from public office. If politicians thought they had only this life, he argued, they would make a better fist of it. The audience clapped with delight. I don’t think Ken was joking.

Santiago — Domingo [1.28.06]

La afirmación políticamente más incorrecta, a cuyo autor pueden acusarlo de racista si no de nazi, es que hay grupos humanos cuyas características genéticas los hacen más inteligentes que otros.

Lo malo es que esto lo afirman algunos científicos al contestar a la pregunta que hace cada año The Edge (www.edge.org), órgano de un club de sabios de todo el planeta que se plantean problemas aparentemente simples que son comple- jísimos. La cuestión de 2006, que responderán hasta 2007 miles de investigadores, la presentó Steven Pinker, psicolingüista, profesor de psicología en Harvard. Recuerda Pinker que la historia de la ciencia está repleta de descubrimientos que fueron considerados social, moral y emocionalmente peligrosos; los más obvios, la revolución copernicana y la darwiniana.

El Correo Gallego [1.28.06]

La afirmación políticamente más incorrecta, a cuyo autor pueden acusarlo de racista si no de nazi, es que hay grupos humanos cuyas características genéticas los hacen más inteligentes que otros.

Lo malo es que esto lo afirman algunos científicos al contestar a la pregunta que hace cada año The Edge (www.edge.org), órgano de un club de sabios de todo el planeta que se plantean problemas aparentemente simples que son comple- jísimos. La cuestión de 2006, que responderán hasta 2007 miles de investigadores, la presentó Steven Pinker, psicolingüista, profesor de psicología en Harvard. Recuerda Pinker que la historia de la ciencia está repleta de descubrimientos que fueron considerados social, moral y emocionalmente peligrosos; los más obvios, la revolución copernicana y la darwiniana.

nrc.nl [1.27.06]

Web magazine Edge asked 119 scientists for their dangerous ideas. What if reality is not what we think it is? ...The edge annual Question 2006 was suggested by psychologist Steven Pinker... In general, the 119 intelectuals see 3 kinds of danger: intellectual; social/moral; total destruction.

Rocky Mountain News [1.20.06]

Most of the contributors appear to have interpreted "dangerous" as meaning something like "subversive," challenging to one or another received orthodoxy. ... In that spirit, here is my dangerous idea: Every child in school deserves an individual IQ test. ... And the corollary: Every statistical analysis of school- and district-level data should include individual IQ as one of the variables measured. ...Why is that subversive? Because so many people, especially in education, are terrified to admit that individual IQ has anything to do with academic achievement, because it is not evenly distributed demographically.

http://www.edge.org/q2006/q06_index.html [1.20.06]

Most of the contributors appear to have interpreted "dangerous" as meaning something like "subversive," challenging to one or another received orthodoxy. ... In that spirit, here is my dangerous idea: Every child in school deserves an individual IQ test. ... And the corollary: Every statistical analysis of school- and district-level data should include individual IQ as one of the variables measured. ... Why is that subversive? Because so many people, especially in education, are terrified to admit that individual IQ has anything to do with academic achievement, because it is not evenly distributed demographically.

The Chronicle Review [1.19.06]

To the Editor:

David Barash provides useful and interesting insights and background information regarding the state of academic discourse in England at the time C.P. Snow presented his Rede Lecture, which became The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution.

That was then. This is now.

Barash writes: "We might also ask whether scientists are doing a better job of communicating with the public, crossing the Snow bridge and thereby constituting a Third Culture, as John Brockman has claimed."...

While I agree with his statement that "there is nothing new in scientists reaching out to hoi polloi," that's not what the Third Culture is about. This position is presented in "The Emerging Third Culture," an essay I wrote in 1991, and in my book The Third Culture(Simon and Schuster, 1995).

What's different between now and Snow's day is that although journalists used to write up while professors wrote down, today scientists are using popular books, accessible to the general public, as a way of developing their best ideas and communicating with their peers. There are no longer two separate activities, serious science and popular science writing; they've come together as a Third Culture i.e., those scientists and other thinkers in the empirical world who, through their work and expository writing, are taking the place of the traditional intellectual in rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives, redefining who and what we are.

The wide appeal of the third-culture thinkers is not due solely to their writing ability; what traditionally has been called science has today become public culture. And since we now live in a world in which the rate of change is the biggest change, science has become a big story....

John Brockman
New York

Syndey — News In Review Into the minds of the believers
The Sunday Telegraph [1.14.06]

With the aim of gathering ideas from the world's leading thinkers on intellectual, philosophical, artistic and literary issues, US writer John Brockman established The Edge Foundation in 1988. Since 1997, Edge has been running on the Internet (www.edge.org), and every year poses a question in its The World Question Centre.

Read the full article →

THE NEWS & OBSERVER [1.13.06]

Peering into their crystal telescopes, the world's leading scientists see a magnificent future:

* "The use of proteins and other markers [will] permit the early detection and identification of cancer, hugely increasing the prospects of survival."

* "Young adults alive today will, on average, live to 120."

* "Eternal life may come within our reach once we understand enough about how our knowledge and mental processes work ... to duplicate that information -- and then [transfer it] into more robust machines."

* "Someone who is already alive will be the first person to make their permanent home off-Earth."

* "Within a generation ... we will be able to make self-replicating machines that ... absorb energy through solar cells, eat rock and use the energy and minerals to make copies of itself ... [as well as] toasters, refrigerators, and Lamborghinis."

Those are just five of the gee-whiz prognostications offered in response to the 10th Annual Edge Question, posed by John Brockman, editor of the science web site www.edge.org. This year, Richard Dawkins, Steven Pinker, Jared Diamond, Freeman Dyson and J. Craig Venter were among the 160 luminaries who in short, clear essays, tackled the question "What are you optimistic about?"

Forcing respondents to set aside the doom-and-gloom mindset that passes for sophistication, Brockman elicited answers that remind us that we are living in a Golden Age of discovery. The biologists, physicists and computer scientists he queried believe that the 20th-century breakthroughs that have enabled us to live longer, healthier and more comfortable lives may be dwarfed by the accomplishments on the near horizon. ...

The overriding hope among Edge respondents is that our increased capacity to gather and analyze information will spark the rise of an "evidence-based" world. We see this already in the field of criminal justice, where people convicted on faulty "eyewitness" testimony have been freed thanks to DNA. In the future, respondents argue, the instincts and perceptions that inform so much of our political, legal and cultural decision-making will be replaced by hard facts.

"We will learn more about the human condition in the next two decades than we did in the last two millennia, and we will then begin to apply what we learn, everywhere," writes Clay Shirky of NYU's Graduate School of Interactive Telecommunications Program. "Evidence-based treaties. Evidence-based teaching. Evidence-based industrial design. Evidence-based parenting."

These are exciting times. Next week I'll write about why I'm optimistic, and I'd love to hear from you. Please phone or e-mail and let me know: What are you optimistic about? ...

Physics World [1.11.06]

My Einstein, edited by John Brockman, the founder of the Edge forum (www.edge.org), brings together essays by 24 leading scientists and science writers in which they discuss how Einstein has influenced their professional and personal lives.... Like other Edge projects, Brockman has brought together an impressive selection of thinkers to produce an accessible and entertaining book.

The school Administrator [1.11.06]

The renowned neuroscientist V. S. Ramachandran suggested earlier this year on a website known as The Edge (www. edge.org) that mirror neurons may provide the same powerful unifying framework for our understanding of teaching and learning that the 1953 discovery of DNA did for our understanding of genetics. ...

FT.com [1.10.06]

Please respect FT.com's ts&cs and copyright policy which allow you to: share links; copy content for personal use; & redistribute limited extracts. Email ftsales.support@ft.com to buy additional rights or use this link to reference the article - http://www.ft.com/cms/s/2/1cfc5252-8248-11da-aea0-0000779e2340.html#ixzz1APrJSSJH
 

Every year, the literary agent John Brockman invites 100 or so scientists and other thinkers to answer the "edge question". This year it was: "What is your dangerous idea?" In particular, respondents were asked for an idea that would be dangerous if it were true.

The results (collected at www.edge.org) give an insight into how philosophically minded scientists are thinking: the result is somewhere between a multi-disciplinary seminar and elevated high table talk. The responses to Brockman's question do not directly engage with each other, but they do worry away at a core set of themes. Many agree that neuroscience at the micro level and evolutionary psychology at the macro level have abolished free will. Richard Dawkins is typical: "Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world." Holding people responsible for their behaviour is, in his view, completely irrational.

Some of the most insightful contributions come when the thinkers revolt against the implications of their own work. Jared Diamond, for example, warns against the sentimental anthropological fallacy that premodern cultures can do no wrong. (His own Guns, Germs and Steel, unkindly caricatured, would be one example.) On the contrary, he says, tribal peoples often damage their environment and make war.

Kevin Kelly bravely takes on technologists' received wisdom that ever-increasing anonymity is a positive good. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi thinks the free market as ultimate arbiter of political questions is a dangerous idea. The physicist Haim Harari thinks democracy itself is on the way out.

There are, of course, people who refuse to play. Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist, flatly says the most dangerous idea is the idea that ideas can be dangerous. "Hateful, blasphemous, prejudiced, vulgar, rude or ignorant remarks are the music of a free society, and the relentless patter of idiots is how we know we're in one." But he seems to be confusing the question of whether ideas can be dangerous, with the question of what to do about them. History is littered with ideas that were genuinely damaging when widely adopted. Richard Dawkins, when coining the notion of the meme, explicitly conceded that, unlike genes, they could be maladaptive to their hosts. Religion was his main example; most forms of irrationality are bad ideas.

Where Gilbert may be right is that in a free society bad ideas will be exposed and wither, and any attempt to control ideas is more dangerous. Seth Lloyd, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, says the most dangerous idea is the genetic breakthrough that made people capable of ideas themselves. But "to suppress the power of ideas will hasten catastrophe, not avert it". The computer scientist Danny Hillis says loftily that when he has dangerous ideas he doesn't share them.

There are pessimists. David Bodanis worries that the Islamicist critique of western decadence might be true. Geoffrey Miller, an evolutionary psychologist at the University of New Mexico, paints a picture of mainstream modern society retreating into technologically enhanced solipsism ("MIT graduates apply to do computer game design for Electronic Arts, rather than rocket science for Nasa"), so that the only people prepared to engage with the physical world are religious fundamentalists and environmentalist Luddites. David Gelernter of Yale pours wonderful scorn on the idea of this being an "information age": if that is true, he says, what exactly are we informed about? Certainly not history, literature, philosophy or scholarship. Kai Krause, a software developer and philosopher, worries that the global drive towards individualism will lead to ever more elaborate acts of terrorism.

But Daniel Dennett goes one bigger: his dangerous idea is that the explosion of ideas is accelerating so fast that we will run out of human minds to contain them. If he is right, all the future holds is a series of mutually incomprehensible monologues. If he is right, the most dangerous ideas are trivial ones, which soak up attention that should be put to better use.

Arts & Weekend [1.10.06]

The results (collected at www.edge.org) give an insight into how philosophically minded scientists are thinking: the result is somewhere between a multi-disciplinary seminar and elevated high table talk. The responses to Brockman's question do not directly engage with each other, but they do worry away at a core set of themes. Many agree that neuroscience at the micro level and evolutionary psychology at the macro level have abolished free will. Richard Dawkins is typical: "Assigning blame and responsibility is an aspect of the useful fiction of intentional agents that we construct in our brains as a means of short-cutting a truer analysis of what is going on in the world." Holding people responsible for their behaviour is, in his view, completely irrational.

The Third Ring: Radio3 Science [1.10.06]

Theories of social nets and their relationship with the contemporary sociology, dangerous ideas of scientists on Radio3 Scienza on Radio3.

The Atlantic [1.9.06]

In one way I know of, the Internet has improved my personality. In the olden days, I would get annoyed (and show it) when I heard a song I knew but couldn’t remember who was singing, or when I channel surfed across an old movie and wondered who a familiar-looking character actor was (who is the creepy guy who tussles with Patrick Swayze on the subway in Ghost?). The question would lodge in my brain and make me cranky until the answer popped up hours or days later, or until I forgot about it. Now, if I’m at a computer, I can scratch the mental itch in seconds (answer: the late Vincent Schiavelli), and even while walking around I can query a search engine from my PDA.

Also see:"From the Tech Toolbox"(January/February 2005) The new Ask.com deserves a look. By James Fallows

In another way I’m all too aware of, the Internet has worsened my disposition, or at least my ability to behave like a grown-up. In principle, time away from a broadband connection should be precious time, because there are fewer distractions. In reality, it makes me nervous, because there’s not a new link to click on or a blog update to check (for other people, being out of e-mail range for even a minute is anxiety provoking). Nearly ten years ago, Linda Stone, then an executive with Microsoft, introduced the term continuous partial attention to describe this modern predicament—and that was before BlackBerries and WiFi. Now, the sign of a serious meeting is whether participants are forced to turn off their PDAs and laptop WiFi receivers.

No doubt technology is also changing our behavior in ways we ourselves may not be aware of but that are obvious to outsiders. For instance, I can guess from two blocks away that a driver is talking on a cell phone, and I’m rarely wrong. And everyone who checks e-mail on a handheld device thinks it can be done discreetly, but no one who is present when this happens is fooled. Certainly not my wife, who will scream the next time I glance at my BlackBerry while “listening” to her.

What I’m leading up to is a consideration less of these immediate personality changes than of the long-term interaction between human and machine intelligence—from the side of the equation that usually gets less attention. Since the first mammoth devices were assembled, during World War II, people have struggled to make computers “smarter,” and have speculated about how smart they might ultimately become. Fifty years ago, the British mathematician Alan Turing said that computers would be considered fully intelligent when they met this test: a person would submit statements in natural language—“Who’s going to win the next election?” “My husband seems distant these days—and wouldn’t be able to tell whether the responses came from another person or a machine. No computer has ever come close to passing this test. Recently, though, the inventor Raymond Kurzweil made a public bet with Mitchell Kapor, the founder of Lotus, that a computer would pass the Turing test by 2029. Kurzweil’s essential argument (derived from his book The Singularity Is Near) was that as computers kept doubling in speed and power, and as programmers continually narrowed the gap between machine “intelligence” and human thought, soon almost anything would be possible. Kapor’s reply was that human beings differed so totally from machines—they were housed in bodies that felt pleasure and pain, they accumulated experience, they felt emotion, much of their knowledge was tacit rather than expressed—that computers would not pass the Turing test by 2029, if ever. (Their back-and-forth exchanges, with views from others, are available at www.kurzweilai.net.)

A recent variant of this argument concerns whether the Internet is already fostering an unanticipated and important form of artificial intelligence. The 2004 book The Wisdom of Crowds, by James Surowiecki of The New Yorker, is the clearest explanation of this development, variously known as “collective intelligence” or “the hive mind.” The logic here is almost identical to that of Adam Smith–style capitalism. Smith argued that millions of buyers and sellers, each pursuing his own interest, would together produce more goods, more efficiently, than any other arrangement could. The Internet has made possible a similar efficient marketplace for ideas, reputations, and information online. Millions of bloggers create links to other sites and thereby cast marketplace votes for the relevance and plausibility of those sites. Thousands of editors refine each other’s entries in Wikipedia (as described last month in these pages by Marshall Poe). Together, these and other suppliers of collective intelligence can create more knowledge, with less bias and over a wider span of disciplines, than any group of experts could.

Lavanguardia [1.8.06]

AUDACIOUS KNOWLEDGE 
What is a dangerous idea? One not assumed to be false, but possibly true?What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?" These are the questions of the last two years that Edge Foundation asked of 120 free thinkers. The audacious and stimulating answers have been reproduced by in hundreds of newspapers such as The New York Times or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. Among the hundreds of ideas are the demonstration of life in other planets, or that life has been a unique chance of existing; concerns over the fact that there are genetic differences relating to intelligence between ethnic groups and between the sexes; the inference that global warming is not so worrisome, the notion that there are alternatives to the free market.

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