Murray Gell-mann [6.30.03]


September 15, 1929 – May 24, 2019

Uncharacteristically, I discussed my application to Yale with my father, who asked, "What were you thinking of putting down?" I said, "Whatever would be appropriate for archaeology or linguistics, or both, because those are the things I'm most enthusiastic about. I'm also interested in natural history and exploration."

He said, "You'll starve!"

After all, this was 1944 and his experiences with the Depression were still quite fresh in his mind; we were still living in genteel poverty. He could have quit his job as the vault custodian in a bank and taken a position during the war that would have utilized his talents — his skill in mathematics, for example — but he didn't want to take the risk of changing jobs. He felt that after the war he would regret it, so he stayed where he was. This meant that we really didn't have any spare money at all.

I asked him, "What would you suggest?"

He mentioned engineering, to which I replied, "I'd rather starve. If I designed anything it would fall apart." And sure enough when I took an aptitude test a year later I was advised to take up nearly anything but engineering.

Then my father suggested, "Why don't we compromise — on physics?"

Edge is pleased to bring you a conversation (and video) with Murray Gell-Mann conducted in SantaFe over the Christmas holiday in 2003 — in which he conveyed "something about his life and his attitude toward the world and toward physics."

— JB

MURRAY GELL-MANN (September 15, 1929 – May 24, 2019) was a theoretical physicist and, until his death, Robert Andrews Millikan Professor Emeritus of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology; winner of the 1969 Nobel Prize in physics; a cofounder of the Santa Fe Institute, where he is a Distinguished Fellow; a former director of the J.D. and C.T. MacArthur Foundation; one of the Global Five Hundred honored by the U.N. Environment Program; a former Citizen Regent of the Smithsonian Institution; a former member of the President's Committee of Advisors on Science and Technology; and the author of The Quark and the Jaguar: Adventures in the Simple and the Complex.

Murray Gell-Mann's Edge Bio Page


On Edge

Foreword to "The Last Unknowns" Daniel Kahneman [5.22.19]


On June 4th, HarperCollins is publishing the final book in the Edge Annual Question series entitled The Last Unknowns: Deep, Elegant, Profound Unanswered Questions About the Universe, the Mind, the Future of Civilization, and the Meaning of Life. I am pleased to publish the foreword to the book by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, and a frequent participant in Edge events (presenter of the first Edge Master Class on "Thinking About Thinking" in 2007;  co-presenter, with colleagues Richard Thaler and Sendhil Mullainathan, of the second Master Class, "A Short Course in Behavioral Economics" in 2008. Below, please find Daniel Kahneman's foreword to The Last Unknowns and the table of contents of the 282 contributors. Thanks to all for your support and attention in this interesting and continuing group endeavor.   

John Brockman
Editor, Edge

by Daniel Kahneman

It seems like yesterday, but Edge has been up and running for twenty-two years. Twenty-two years in which it has channeled a fast-flowing river of ideas from the academic world to the intellectually curious public. The range of topics runs from the cosmos to the mind and every piece allows the reader at least a glimpse and often a serious look at the intellectual world of a thought leader in a dynamic field of science. Presenting challenging thoughts and facts in jargon-free language has also globalized the trade of ideas across scientific disciplines. Edge is a site where anyone can learn, and no one can be bored.

The statistics are awesome: The Edge conversation is a "manuscript" of close to 10 million words, with nearly 1,000 contributors whose work and ideas are presented in more than 350 hours of video, 750 transcribed conversations, and thousands of brief essays. And these activities have resulted in the publication of 19 printed volumes of short essays and lectures in English and in foreign language editions throughout the world.

The public response has been equally impressive: Edge's influence is evident in its Google Page Rank of  "8", the same as The Atlantic, The Economist, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, in the enthusiastic reviews in major general-interest outlets, and in the more than 700,000 books sold. 

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the increasingly eager participation of scientists in the Edge enterprise. And a surprise: brilliant scientists can also write brilliantly! Answering the Edge question evidently became part of the annual schedule of many major figures in diverse fields of research, and the steadily growing number of responses is another measure of the growing influence of the Edge phenomenon. Is now the right time to stop? Many readers and writers will miss further installments of the annual Edge question—they should be on the lookout for the next form in which the Edge spirit will manifest itself.

The Cul-de-Sac of the Computational Metaphor

Rodney A. Brooks [5.13.19]

Have we gotten into a cul-de-sac in trying to understand animals as machines from the combination of digital thinking and the crack cocaine of computation uber alles that Moore's law has provided us? What revised models of brains might we be looking at to provide new ways of thinking and studying the brain and human behavior? Did the Macy Conferences get it right? Is it time for a reboot?­­­

RODNEY BROOKS is Panasonic Professor of Robotics, emeritus, MIT; former director of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory and the MIT Computer Science & Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL); founder, chairman, and CTO of Rethink Robotics; and author of Flesh and Machines. Rodney Brooks's Edge Bio Page

[ED. NOTE:] As a follow-up to the completion of the book Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI, we are continuing the conversation as the “Possible Minds Project.” The first meeting was at Winvian Farm in Morris, CT. Over the next few months we are rolling out the fifteen talks—videos, EdgeCasts, transcripts.

From left: W. Daniel HillisNeil GershenfeldFrank WilczekDavid ChalmersRobert AxelrodTom GriffithsCaroline JonesPeter GalisonAlison Gopnik, John Brockman, George DysonFreeman DysonSeth LloydRod BrooksStephen WolframIan McEwan. Project participants in absentia: George M. ChurchDaniel KahnemanAlex "Sandy" PentlandVenki Ramakrishnan. (Click to expand photo)


RODNEY BROOKS: I’m going to go over a wide range of things that everyone will likely find something to disagree with. I want to start out by saying that I’m a materialist reductionist. As I talk, some people might get a little worried that I’m going off like Chalmers or something, but I’m not. I’m a materialist reductionist.

I’m worried that the crack cocaine of Moore’s law, which has given us more and more computation, has lulled us into thinking that that’s all there is. When you look at Claus Pias’s introduction to the Macy Conferences book, he writes, "The common precondition of the three foundational concepts of cybernetics—switching (Boolean) algebra, information theory and feedback—is digitality." They go straight into digitality in this conference. He says, "We considered Turing’s universal machine as a 'model' for brains, employing Pitts' and McCulloch’s calculus for activity in neural nets." Anyone who has looked at the Pitts and McCulloch papers knows it's a very primitive view of what is happening in neurons. But they adopted Turing’s universal machine


How to Create an Institution That Lasts 10,000 Years

Alexander Rose [4.24.19]

We’re also looking at the oldest living companies in the world, most of which are service-based. There are some family-run hotels and things like that, but also a huge amount in the food and beverage industry. Probably a third of the organizations or the companies over 500 or 1,000 years old are all in some way in wine, beer, or sake production. I was intrigued by that crossover.

What’s interesting is that humanity figured out how to ferment things about 10,000 years ago, which is exactly the time frame where people started creating cities and agriculture. It’s unclear if civilization started because we could ferment things, or we started fermenting things and therefore civilization started, but there’s clearly this intertwined link with fermenting beer, wine, and then much later spirits, and how that fits in with hospitality and places that people gather.

All of these things are right now just nascent bits and pieces of trying to figure out some of the ways in which organizations live for a very long time. While some of them, like being a family-run hotel, may not be very portable as an idea, some of them, like some of the natural strategies, we're just starting to understand how they can be of service to humanity. If we broaden the idea of service industry to our customer civilization, how can you make an institution whose customer is civilization and can last for a very long time?

ALEXANDER ROSE is the executive director of The Long Now Foundation, manager of the 10,000 Year Clock Project, and curator of the speaking series' at The Interval and The Battery SF. Alexander Rose's Edge Bio Page

On Chalmers and Dennett's "Is Superintelligence Impossible?"

Andy Clark [4.18.19]

Andy Clark responds to "Is Superintelligence Impossible?":

I think we can divide the space of possible AI minds into two reasonably distinct categories. One category comprises the “passive AI minds” that seemed to be the main focus of the Chalmers-Dennett exchange. These are driven by large data sets and optimize their performance relative to some externally imposed choice of “objective function” that specifies what we want them to do—win at GO, or improve paperclip manufacture. And Dennett and Chalmers are right—we do indeed need to be very careful about what we ask them to do, and about how much power they have to implement their own solutions to these pre-set puzzles.

The other category comprises active AIs with broad brush-strokes imperatives. These include Karl Friston’s Active Inference machines. AI’s like these spawn their own goals and sub-goals by environmental immersion and selective action. Such artificial agents will pursue epistemic agendas and have an Umwelt of their own. These are the only kind of AIs that may, I believe, end up being conscious of themselves and their worlds—at least in any way remotely recognizable as such to us humans. They are the AIs who could be our friends, or who could (if that blunt general imperative was played out within certain kinds of environment) become genuine enemies. It is these radicalized embodied AIs I would worry about most. At the same time (and for the same reasons) I’d greatly like to see powerful AIs from that second category emerge. For they would be real explorations within the vast space of possible minds.

ANDY CLARK is professor of philosophy and informatics at the University of Sussex; author, Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind. Andy Clark's Edge Bio Page

Machines Like Me

Ian McEwan [4.16.19]

I would like to set aside the technological constraints in order to imagine how an embodied artificial consciousness might negotiate the open system of human ethics—not how people think they should behave, but how they do behave. For example, we may think the rule of law is preferable to revenge, but matters get blurred when the cause is just and we love the one who exacts the revenge.

A machine incorporating the best angel of our nature might think otherwise. The ancient dream of a plausible artificial human might be scientifically useless but culturally irresistible. At the very least, the quest so far has taught us just how complex we (and all creatures) are in our simplest actions and modes of being. There’s a semi-religious quality to the hope of creating a being less cognitively flawed than we are.

IAN MCEWAN is a novelist whose works have earned him worldwide critical acclaim. He is the recipient of the Man Booker Prize for Amsterdam (1998), the National Book Critics' Circle Fiction Award, and the Los Angeles Times Prize for Fiction for Atonement (2003). His most recent novel is Machines Like Me. Ian McEwan's Edge Bio Page

[ED. NOTE:] As a follow-up to the completion of the book Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI, we are continuing the conversation as the “Possible Minds Project.” The first meeting was at Winvian Farm in Morris, CT (more on this later). Over the next few months we are rolling out the fifteen talks—videos, EdgeCasts, transcripts, beginning with Ian McEwan, whose novel, Machines Like Me, has just been published.

From left: W. Daniel Hillis, Neil Gershenfeld, Frank Wilczek, David Chalmers, Robert Axelrod, Tom Griffiths, Caroline Jones, Peter Galison, Alison Gopnik, John Brockman, George Dyson, Freeman Dyson, Seth Lloyd, Rod Brooks, Stephen Wolfram, Ian McEwan. Project participants in absentia: George M. Church, Daniel Kahneman, Alex "Sandy" Pentland, Venki Ramakrishnan. (Click to expand photo)


IAN MCEWAN: I feel something like an imposter here amongst so much technical expertise. I’m the breakfast equivalent of an after-dinner mint.

What’s been preoccupying me the last two or three years is what it would be like to live with a fully embodied artificial consciousness, which means leaping over every difficulty that we’ve heard described this morning by Rod Brooks. The building of such a thing is probably scientifically useless, much like putting a man on the moon when you could put a machine there, but it has an ancient history.

Is Superintelligence Impossible?

On Possible Minds: Philosophy and AI David Chalmers, Daniel C. Dennett [4.10.19]

[ED. NOTE: On Saturday, March 9th, more than 1200 people jammed into Pioneer Works in Red Hook, Brooklyn, for a conversation between two of our greatest philosophers, David Chalmers and Daniel C. Dennett:  "Is Superintelligence Impossible?" the next event in Edge's ongoing "Possible Minds Project." Watch the video, listen to the EdgeCast, read the transcript. Thanks  to  physicist, artist, author, and Edgie Janna LevinDirector of Sciences at Pioneer Works, who presented the event with the support of Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation initiative. —JB]

Somebody said that the philosopher is the one who says, "We know it’s possible in practice, we’re trying to figure out if it’s possible in principle." Unfortunately, philosophers sometimes spend too much time worrying about logical possibilities that are importantly negligible in every other regard. So, let me go on the record as saying, yes, I think that conscious AI is possible because, after all, what are we? We’re conscious. We’re robots made of robots made of robots. We’re actual. In principle, you could make us out of other materials. Some of your best friends in the future could be robots. Possible in principle, absolutely no secret ingredients, but we’re not going to see it. We’re not going to see it for various reasons. One is, if you want a conscious agent, we’ve got plenty of them around and they’re quite wonderful, whereas the ones that we would make would be not so wonderful. —Daniel C. Dennett

One of our questions here is, is superintelligence possible or impossible? I’m on the side of possible. I like the possible, which is one reason I like John’s theme, "Possible Minds." That’s a wonderful theme for thinking about intelligence, both natural and artificial, and consciousness, both natural and artificial. … The space of possible minds is absolutely vast—all the minds there ever have been, will be, or could be. Starting with the actual minds, I guess there have been a hundred billion or so humans with minds of their own. Some pretty amazing minds have been in there. Confucius, Isaac Newton, Jane Austen, Pablo Picasso, Martin Luther King, on it goes. But still, those hundred billion minds put together are just the tiniest corner of this space of possible minds. —David Chalmers


David Chalmers is University Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science and co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness at New York University. He is best known for his work on consciousness, including his formulation of the “hard problem” of consciousness;  Daniel C. Dennett is University Professor and Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He is the author of a dozen books, including Consciousness Explained, and, most recently, From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds;  John Brockman, moderator, is a cultural impresario whose career has encompassed the avant-garde art world, science, books, software, and the Internet. He is the author of By The Late John Brockman and The Third Culture; editor of the Edge Annual Question book series, and Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI.

The Overdue Debate

Front Page

DEFGH Nr. 63, Freitag, 15. März 2019. 

Collage: Stefan Dimitrov

The Ghost in the Machine
Artificial intelligence inspires wild fantasies, but remains hard to imagine. A SZ series creates clarity. 




Artificial intelligence:
A new series brings science and culture together to fathom the inexplicable


Cultural Intelligence

Michele Gelfand [3.12.19]

Getting back to culture being invisible and omnipresent, we think about intelligence or emotional intelligence, but we rarely think about cultivating cultural intelligence. In this ever-increasing global world, we need to understand culture. All of this research has been trying to elucidate not just how we understand other people who are different from us, but how we understand ourselves.

MICHELE GELFAND is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is the author of Rule Makers, Rule Breakers: How Tight and Loose Cultures Wire the WorldMichele Gelfand's Edge Bio Page

Biological and Cultural Evolution

Six Characters in Search of an Author Freeman Dyson [2.19.19]


[ ED. NOTE: With the following essay by Freeman Dyson, we're kicking off a regular subscription-based audio feature, EdgeCast. Listen & Subscribe —JB ]

In the near future, we will be in possession of genetic engineering technology which allows us to move genes precisely and massively from one species to another. Careless or commercially driven use of this technology could make the concept of species meaningless, mixing up populations and mating systems so that much of the individuality of species would be lost. Cultural evolution gave us the power to do this. To preserve our wildlife as nature evolved it, the machinery of biological evolution must be protected from the homogenizing effects of cultural evolution.

Unfortunately, the first of our two tasks, the nurture of a brotherhood of man, has been made possible only by the dominant role of cultural evolution in recent centuries. The cultural evolution that damages and endangers natural diversity is the same force that drives human brotherhood through the mutual understanding of diverse societies. Wells's vision of human history as an accumulation of cultures, Dawkins's vision of memes bringing us together by sharing our arts and sciences, Pääbo's vision of our cousins in the cave sharing our language and our genes, show us how cultural evolution has made us what we are. Cultural evolution will be the main force driving our future.

FREEMAN DYSON, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, in addition to fundamental contributions ranging from number theory to quantum electrodynamics, has worked on nuclear reactors, solid-state physics, ferromagnetism, astrophysics, and biology, looking for problems where elegant mathematics could be usefully applied. His books include Disturbing the UniverseWeapons and HopeInfinite in All DirectionsMaker of Patterns, and Origins of LifeFreeman Dyson's Edge Bio Page 


In the Pirandello play, "Six Characters in Search of an Author", the six characters come on stage, one after another, each of them pushing the story in a different unexpected direction. I use Pirandello's title as a metaphor for the pioneers in our understanding of the concept of evolution over the last two centuries. Here are my six characters with their six themes.

1. Charles Darwin (1809-1882): The Diversity Paradox.
2. Motoo Kimura (1924-1994): Smaller Populations Evolve Faster.
3. Ursula Goodenough (1943- ): Nature Plays a High-Risk Game.
4. Herbert Wells (1866-1946): Varieties of Human Experience.
5. Richard Dawkins (1941- ): Genes and Memes.
6. Svante Pääbo (1955- ): Cousins in the Cave.

The story that they are telling is of a grand transition that occurred about fifty thousand years ago, when the driving force of evolution changed from biology to culture, and the direction changed from diversification to unification of species. The understanding of this story can perhaps help us to deal more wisely with our responsibilities as stewards of our planet.


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