How To Be a Systems Thinker

Mary Catherine Bateson [4.17.18]

Until fairly recently, artificial intelligence didn’t learn. To create a machine that learns to think more efficiently was a big challenge. In the same sense, one of the things that I wonder about is how we'll be able to teach a machine to know what it doesn’t know that it might need to know in order to address a particular issue productively and insightfully. This is a huge problem for human beings. It takes a while for us to learn to solve problems, and then it takes even longer for us to realize what we don’t know that we would need to know to solve a particular problem. 

How do you deal with ignorance? I don’t mean how do you shut ignorance out. Rather, how do you deal with an awareness of what you don’t know, and you don’t know how to know, in dealing with a particular problem? When Gregory Bateson was arguing about human purposes, that was where he got involved in environmentalism. We were doing all sorts of things to the planet we live on without even asking what the side effects would be and the interactions, although, at that point we were thinking more about side effects than about interactions between multiple processes. Once you begin to understand the nature of side effects, you ask a different set of questions before you make decisions and projections and analyze what’s going to happen.

MARY CATHERINE BATESON is a writer and cultural anthropologist. In 2004 she retired from her position as Clarence J. Robinson Professor in Anthropology and English at George Mason University, and is now Professor Emerita. Mary Catherine Bateson's Edge Bio

Katinka Matson: White Flowers





[EDITOR'S NOTE: Each Saturday, Süddeutsche Zeitung, one of the largest newspapers in Germany, dedicates their last Feuilleton page to a work of art (unknown, unseen, long lost or specially made). The page, called “Grossformat” (large format), has included contributions from artists and estates ranging from Barbara Kruger to August Sander, Sun Ra, and Gerhard Richter. Peony 2016, by Edge co-founder and resident artist Katinka Matson, was the photograph selected to run over the Easter weekend, the edition with by far highest circulation of the year. The work is part of her current Los Angeles show, "White Flowers" at the Eric Buterbaugh Gallery. Her work Peony 2016 is in the "Featured Artists" section of]

True Stem and True Flowering
By Andrian Kreye March 31, 2018

Rarely do flowers shine so strongly as in the photography of the artist Katinka Matson who uses flatbed scanners, avoiding the fuzziness with which cameras map reality.

Coincidences are the key moments in the history of science (the discovery of gravity, penicillin, X-rays, Teflon pans). They are more deliberate in art (Jackson Pollock, Yayoi Kusama, John Cage). Because New Yorker Katinka Matson works on the border between art and science, it seems consistent that her work began with such a lucky mishap. That occurred some 15 years ago, when she put some flowers on a flatbed scanner in her office and pressed the start button. The flowers were crushed. The result was nevertheless startling. Because scanners do not capture points of light through a lens like cameras, but scan them pixel by pixel, the images had a sharpness and luminosity she'd never seen before. The extreme clarity of images was especially unique. Human's visual perception has incorporated the distortions and blurring of camera lenses when looking at printed or filmed reality. In Katinka Matson's work those distortions are mostly absent. The science historian George Dyson described the effect: "Vision evolved to attract insects, and by removing the lens Katinka has taken us back to this direct connection between the flower and the deepest layers of the visual brain. And that makes it so amazing."...

March 10 - April 30
8271 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, California

We Are Here To Create

Kai-Fu Lee [3.26.18]

My original dream of finding who we are and why we exist ended up in a failure. Even though we invented all these wonderful tools that will be great for our future, for our kids, for our society, we have not figured out why humans exist. What is interesting for me is that in understanding that these AI tools are doing repetitive tasks, it certainly comes back to tell us that doing repetitive tasks can’t be what makes us humans. The arrival of AI will at least remove what cannot be our reason for existence on this earth. If that’s half of our job tasks, then that’s half of our time back to thinking about why we exist. One very valid reason for existing is that we are here to create. What AI cannot do is perhaps a potential reason for why we exist. One such direction is that we create. We invent things. We celebrate creation. We’re very creative about scientific process, about curing diseases, about writing books, writing movies, creative about telling stories, doing a brilliant job in marketing. This is our creativity that we should celebrate, and that’s perhaps what makes us human.

KAI-FU LEE, the founder of the Beijing-based Sinovation Ventures, is ranked #1 in technology in China by Forbes. Educated as a computer scientist at Columbia and Carnegie Mellon, his distinguished career includes working as a research scientist at Apple; Vice President of the Web Products Division at Silicon Graphics; Corporate Vice President at Microsoft and founder of Microsoft Research Asia in Beijing, one of the world’s top research labs; and then Google Corporate President and President of Google Greater China. As an Internet celebrity, he has fifty million+ followers on the Chinese micro-blogging website Weibo. As an author, among his seven bestsellers in the Chinese language, two have sold more than one million copies each. His first book in English is AI Superpowers: China, Silicon Valley, and the New World Order (forthcoming, September). Kai-Fu Lee's Edge Bio page 

Thirteen Recommendations

Gianluigi Ricuperati [3.19.18]


“If the creation of contemporary culture had a global hero, his name would coincide with that of John Brockman.”


 (Cover Story, Sunday magazine of La Repubblica, Domenica 11 Marzo 2018)


[EDITOR'S NOTE: On March 11th, the Sunday magazine of La Repubblica (Italy's largest newspaper) featured Edge in its cover story, translating excerpts by Richard Dawkins, Jared Diamond, Alison Gopnik, Ian McEwan, June Gruber, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Richard Thaler and Brian Eno, from This Idea is Brilliant, the recently published Edge Question book, plus a new interview, "Don't Fear Digital: Use It," with the editor of Edge (yours truly) by the Italian writer Gianluigi Ricuperati, who is also active in the Edge community. —JB]


A Common Sense

Caroline A. Jones [3.15.18]

We need to acknowledge our profound ignorance and begin to craft a culture that will be based on some notion of communalism and interspecies symbiosis rather than survival of the fittest. These concepts are available and fully elaborated by, say, a biologist like Lynn Margulis, but they're still not the central paradigm. They’re still not organizing our research or driving our culture and our cultural evolution. That’s what I’m frustrated with. There’s so much good intellectual work, so much good philosophy, so much good biology—how can we make that more central to what we do? 

CAROLINE A. JONES is professor of art history in the History, Theory, Criticism section of the Department of Architecture at MIT. Caroline A. Jones's Edge Bio page 

Church Speaks

George Church [2.14.18]

The biggest energy creators in the world, the ones that take solar energy and turn it into a form that’s useful to humans, are these photosynthetic organisms. The cyanobacteria fix [carbon via] light as well or better than land plants. Under ideal circumstances, they can be maybe seven to ten times more productive per photon. . . .

Cyanobacteria turn carbon dioxide, a global warming gas, into carbohydrates and other carbon-containing polymers, which sequester the carbon so that they're no longer global warming gases. They turn it into their own bodies. They do this on such a big scale that about 15 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is fixed every year by these cyanobacteria, which is roughly the amount that we’re off from the pre-industrial era. If all of the material that they fix didn’t turn back into carbon dioxide, we’d have solved the global warming problem in a year or two. The reality, however, is that almost as soon as they divide and make baby bacteria, phages break them open, spilling their guts, and they start turning into carbon dioxide. Then all the other things around them start chomping on the bits left over from the phages.

GEORGE CHURCH is professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, director of the Personal Genome Project, and co-author (with Ed Regis) of Regenesis. George Church's Edge Bio page 

The EDGE Question—2018

"One of the most exciting reading streams ever." — Sueddeutsche Zeitung


"Another devilishly clever question—the 'question' question." 
Stanislas Dehaene

"Fascinating...Each one a little cluster bomb of possibilities."
Annalena McAfee

"One of the most stimulating pieces of (collective) writing ever."
Andrian Kreye

"Chrysanthemum" [expandby Katinka Matson |


After twenty years, I’ve run out of questions. So, for the finale to a noteworthy Edge project, can you ask "The Last Question"? 

Interrogate Reality

Did I say "twenty years"? My strange obsession with the idea of "Question" goes back to 1968 when I first wrote about the idea of interrogating reality 1

"The final elegance: assuming, asking the question. No answers. No explanations. Why do you demand explanations? If they are given, you will once more be facing a terminus. They cannot get you any further than you are at present. 2 The solution: not an explanation: a description and knowing how to consider it.

"Everything has been explained. There is nothing left to consider. The explanation can no longer be treated as a definition. The question: a description. The answer: not explanation, but a description and knowing how to consider it. Asking or telling: there isn’t any difference.

"No explanation, no solution, but consideration of the question. Every proposition proposing a fact must in its complete analysis propose the general character of the universe required for the fact. 3 

"Our kind of innovation consists not in the answers, but in the true novelty of the questions themselves; in the statement of problems, not in their solutions. 4 What is important is not to illustrate a truth—or even an interrogation—known in advance, but to bring to the world certain interrogations . . . not yet known as such to themselves. 5

"A total synthesis of all human knowledge will not result in huge libraries filled with books, in fantastic amounts of data stored on servers. There's no value any more in amount, in quantity, in explanation. For a total synthesis of human knowledge, use the interrogative." 

The conceptual artist/philosopher James Lee Byars contacted me and suggested a collaboration of sorts which resulted in our taking daily walks in Central Park as Byars and I walked and talked, conversing only in interrogative sentences. Does it sound like fun? Want to try it?

James Lee soon began to develop his ideas which led to "The World Question Center":

To arrive at an axiology 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.”

On November 26, 1968, he launched "The World Question Center" in a one-hour television program produced in Brussels at the studios of the Belgian National Television Network and broadcast live to a national audience.

Click here to watch

During the hour, he called numerous celebrated intellectuals such as composer John Cage, science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke, futurist Herman Kahn, artist Joseph Beuys, novelist Jerzy Kosinski, poet Michael McClure, and asked, in various ways, the following:

"I’m trying to find hypotheses that people are working with that are reduced into some type of very simple single question with no explanation, hopefully, that’s important to them in their own evolution of knowledge. Might you offer one that’s personal?"

For the 50th anniversary of "The World Question Center," and for the finale to the twenty years of Edge Questions, I turned it over to the Edgies:

"Ask 'The Last Question,' your last question, the question for which you will be remembered."

John Brockman
Editor, Edge


1 John Brockman, By The Late John Brockman (New York: Macmillan, 1969)
2 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, eds. G. E. M. Anscombe and G. H. von Wright, trans. G. E. M. Anscombe(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), p. 58e, para. 315.  

Alfred North Whitehead, Process And Reality (New York: Harper & Row, 1960), p.17.
4 Paul Valery, The Outlook For Intelligence (New York: Harper & Row, 1962).
5 Alain Robbe-Grillet, For a New Novel, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Grove Press, 1965).  

Russell Weinberger, Associate Publisher
Nina Stegeman, Associate Editor
Katinka Matson, Co-founder & Resident Artist

Thanks to Stewart Brand, Kevin Kelly, and George Dyson for 20 years of advice and support.


What Is The Last Question?

(start reading here)

Contributors: [PAGE 1Scott Aaronson, Anthony Aguirre, Dorsa Amir, Chris Anderson, Ross Anderson, Alun Anderson, Samuel Arbesman, Dan Ariely, Noga Arikha, W. Brian Arthur, Scott Atran, Joscha Bach, Mahzarin Banaji, Simon Baron-Cohen, Lisa Feldman Barrett, Andrew Barron, Thomas A. Bass, Mary Catherine Bateson, Gregory Benford, Laura Betzig, Susan Blackmore, Alan S. Blinder
[PAGE 2Paul Bloom, Giulio Boccaletti, Ian Bogost, Joshua Bongard, Nick Bostrom, Stewart Brand, Rodney A. Brooks, David M. Buss, Philip Campbell, Jimena Canales, Christopher Chabris, David Chalmers, Leo M. Chalupa, Ashvin Chhabra, Jaeweon Cho, Nicholas A. Christakis, David Christian, Brian Christian, George Church, Andy Clark
[PAGE 3] Julia Clarke, Tyler Cowen, Jerry A. Coyne, James Croak, Molly Crockett, Helena Cronin, Oliver Scott Curry, David Dalrymple, Kate Darling, Luca De Biase, Stanislas Dehaene, Daniel C. Dennett, Emanuel Derman, David Deutsch, Keith Devlin, Jared Diamond, Chris DiBona, Rolf Dobelli, P. Murali Doraiswamy, Freeman Dyson, George Dyson
[PAGE 4] David M. Eagleman, David Edelman, Nick Enfield, Brian Eno, Juan Enriquez, Dylan Evans, Daniel L. Everett, Christine Finn, Stuart Firestein, Helen Fisher, Steve Fuller, Howard Gardner, David C. Geary, James Geary, Amanda Gefter, Neil Gershenfeld, Asif A. Ghazanfar, Steve Giddings, Gerd Gigerenzer, Bruno Giussani
[PAGE 5Joel Gold, Nigel Goldenfeld, Rebecca Newberger Goldstein, Daniel Goleman, Alison Gopnik, John Gottman, Jonathan Gottschall, William Grassie, Kurt Gray, A. C. Grayling, Tom Griffiths, June Gruber, Jonathan Haidt, David Haig, Hans Halvorson, Timo Hannay, Judith Rich Harris, Sam Harris, Daniel Haun, Marti Hearst, Dirk Helbing
[PAGE 6] César Hidalgo, Roger Highfield, W. Daniel Hillis, Michael Hochberg, Donald D. Hoffman, Bruce Hood, Daniel Hook, John Horgan, Sabine Hossenfelder, Nicholas Humphrey, Marco Iacoboni, Isabel Behncke Izquierdo, Nina Jablonski, Matthew O. Jackson, Jennifer Jacquet, Dale W Jamieson, Koo Jeong-A, Lorraine Justice, Gordon Kane, Stuart A. Kauffman
[PAGE 7] Brian G. Keating, Paul Kedrosky, Kevin Kelly, Marcel Kinsbourne, Gary Klein, Jon Kleinberg, Brian Knutson, Bart Kosko, Stephen M. Kosslyn, John W. Krakauer, Kai Krause, Lawrence M. Krauss, Andrian Kreye, Coco Krumme, Robert Kurzban, Joseph LeDoux, Cristine H. Legare, Martin Lercher, Margaret Levi, Janna Levin
[PAGE 8Andrei Linde, Tania Lombrozo, Antony Garrett Lisi, Mario Livio, Seth Lloyd, Jonathan B. Losos, Greg Lynn, Ziyad Marar, Gary Marcus, John Markoff, Chiara Marletto, Abigail Marsh, Barnaby Marsh, John C. Mather, Tim Maudlin, Annalena McAfee, Michael McCullough, Ian McEwan, Ryan McKay, Hugo Mercier, Thomas Metzinger
[PAGE 9] Yuri Milner, Read Montague, Dave Morin, Lisa Mosconi, David G. Myers, Priyamvada Natarajan, John Naughton, Randolph Nesse, Richard Nisbett, Tor Nørretranders, Michael I. Norton, Martin Nowak, James J. O'Donnell, Tim O'Reilly, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Steve Omohundro, Toby Ord, Gloria Origgi, Mark Pagel, Elaine Pagels, Bruce Parker
[PAGE 10Josef Penninger, Irene Pepperberg, Clifford Pickover, Steven Pinker, David Pizarro, Robert Plomin, Jordan Pollack, Alex Poots, Carolyn Porco, William Poundstone, William H. Press, Robert Provine, Matthew Putman, David C. Queller, Sheizaf Rafaeli, Vilayanur Ramachandran, Lisa Randall, S. Abbas Raza, Syed Tasnim Raza, Martin Rees, Ed Regis, Diana Reiss
[PAGE 11] Gianluigi Ricuperati, Jennifer Richeson, Siobhan Roberts, Andrés Roemer, Phil Rosenzweig, Carlo Rovelli, Douglas Rushkoff, Karl Sabbagh, Todd C. Sacktor, Paul Saffo, Eduardo Salcedo-Albaran, Buddhini Samarasinghe, Scott Sampson, Laurie R. Santos, Robert Sapolsky, Dimitar D. Sasselov, Roger Schank, Rene Scheu, Maximilian Schich, Simone Schnall
[PAGE 12] Bruce Schneier, Peter Schwartz, Gino Segre, Charles Seife, Terrence J. Sejnowski, Michael Shermer, Olivier Sibony, Laurence C. Smith, Monica L. Smith, Lee Smolin, Dan Sperber, Maria Spiropulu, Nina Stegeman, Paul Steinhardt, Bruce Sterling, Stephen J. Stich, Victoria Stodden, Christopher Stringer, Seirian Sumner, Leonard Susskind, Jaan Tallinn,
[PAGE 13Timothy Taylor, Max Tegmark, Richard H. Thaler, Frank Tipler, Eric Topol, Sherry Turkle, Barbara Tversky, Michael Vassar, J. Craig Venter, Athena Vouloumanos, D.A. Wallach, Adam Waytz, Bret Weinstein, Eric R. Weinstein, Albert Wenger, Geoffrey West, Thalia Wheatley, Tim White, Linda Wilbrecht, Frank Wilczek
[PAGE 14] Jason Wilkes, Evan Williams, Alexander Wissner-Gross, Milford H. Wolpoff, Richard Wrangham, Elizabeth Wrigley-Field, Richard Saul Wurman, Victoria Wyatt, Itai Yanai, Dustin Yellin, Eliezer S. Yudkowsky, Dan Zahavi, Anton Zeilinger, Carl Zimmer

This Idea is Brilliant

On Sale Now! John Brockman [1.16.18]

CONTENTS: author of The God Delusion RICHARD DAWKINS on using animals’ “Genetic Book of the Dead” to reconstruct ecological history; MacArthur Fellow REBECCA NEWBERGER GOLDSTEIN on “scientific realism,” the idea that scientific theories explain phenomena beyond what we can see and touch; author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics CARLO ROVELLI on “relative information,” which governs the physical world around us; theoretical physicist LAWRENCE M. KRAUSS on the hidden blessings of “uncertainty”; cognitive scientist and author of The Language Instinct STEVEN PINKER on “The Second Law of Thermodynamics”; biogerontologist AUBREY DE GREY on why “maladaptive traits” have been conserved evolutionarily; musician BRIAN ENO on “confirmation bias” in the internet age; Man Booker-winning author of Atonement IAN MCEWAN on the “Navier-Stokes Equations,” which govern everything from weather prediction to aircraft design and blood flow; plus pieces from RICHARD THALER, JARED DIAMOND, NICHOLAS CARR, JANNA LEVIN, LISA RANDALL, KEVIN KELLY, DANIEL COLEMAN, FRANK WILCZEK, RORY SUTHERLAND, NINA JABLONSKI, MARTIN REES, ALISON GOPNIK, and many, many others.


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