Things to Hang on Your Mental Mug Tree

Rory Sutherland [7.10.17]


I don't think there's any huge amount of intelligence required to look at the world through different lenses. The difficulty lies in that you have to abandon four or five assumptions about the world simultaneously. That's what probably makes it difficult.

RORY SUTHERLAND is Vice-Chairman, Ogilvy London; Columnist, The SpectatorRory Sutherland's Edge Bio page

Where Avant-Garde Thinking Reflects The Present

Tobias Sedlmaier [6.30.17]

20 years: Online platform
Where Avant-Garde Thinking Reflects The Present
By Tobias Sedlmaier 6.30.2017

The online platform Edge has been looking for the big questions for twenty years - and for the even bigger answers of life. A critical appraisal.

Internet Presence of Edge (photo: screenshot)

In the beginning is the question. Born out of restless nights and ingenious inspirations, it is examined in cold daylight, perhaps focused more precisely, and sent out by its ingenious creators into the ignorant world.

What sounds like a diffusely romantic myth of origin is in fact the recurrent practice of finding Edge’s Annual Question. On this online platform, major contemporary (mostly American) scientists and a selection of trendsetters have been formulating answers to more or less urgent questions of our time for twenty years.

How does the world work?

These can be very vague, for example: What Now? Or they can be leading questions: What Scientific Idea Is Ready for Retirement? Almost always the notion of big ideas—either brilliant or dangerous ones—resonates here; and of course, life, the internet, and all the other themes come in.

The answers, which are first published on the website, later in book form, can be long essays with examples and formulas that run five print pages. Or they are as aphoristic as Brian Eno's response about the value of the Internet:  "The great promise of the Internet was that more information would automatically yield better decisions. The great disappointment is that more information actually yields more possibilities to confirm what you already believed anyway.“

Master of Ceremonies of this sophisticated debate forum is John Brockman, author and literary agent, who is called a giant by some. The industrious intellectual impresario has himself written a handful of books, edited around fifty more and performed in an inter-disciplinary  program of avant-garde events with John Cage and Jorge Luis Borges in New York. He was also a Godfather for the think tanks "Reality Club" as well as Edge.

At a moment in history when borders are erected more quickly than torn down, you can imagine the larger than life Brockman with his characteristic wide-brimmed hat as an iconoclastic breaker of barriers. He is equally at home in the role of the business-minded entrepreneur as in the role of the theorist well aware of the sensitive changes in the Zeitgeist, oscillating between Andy Warhol and Norbert Wiener, at the intersection of art and cybernetics.

Compassionate Systems

Daniel Goleman [6.22.17]
One way a systems perspective could help with the environmental crisis is through understanding that we have a very narrow range of affordances, the choices presented to us. For example, I have this jacket, you have this table or the chair I’m sitting on, and they are manufactured with industrial platforms that have more or less been the same for a century. Yet in the last ten or fifteen years, we’ve seen the emergence of industrial ecology, a science that offers a metric for understanding the impacts of the life cycle of any of these objects from beginning to end in terms of how they impact the global systems that support life on our planet—the carbon cycle being the best-known. Now that we have that data and a metric for it, we can better manage the processes that are entailed in the use and manufacture of every object we own. We have a metric for reinventing everything in the material world to be supportive of those life-support systems.
DANIEL GOLEMAN is the New York Times bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence. A psychologist and science journalist, he reported on brain and behavioral research for The New York Times for many years. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including three accounts of meetings he has moderated between the Dalai Lama and scientists, psychotherapists, and social activists. Daniel Goleman's Edge Bio Page

Curtains For Us All?

Martin Rees [5.31.17]
Here on Earth, I suspect that we are going to want to regulate the application of genetic modification and cyborg techniques on grounds of ethics and prudence. This links with another topic I want to come to later about the risks of new technology. If we imagine these people living as pioneers on Mars, they are out of range of any terrestrial regulation. Moreover, they've got a far higher incentive to modify themselves or their descendants to adapt to this very alien and hostile environment.                                 
They will use all the techniques of genetic modification, cyborg techniques, maybe even linking or downloading themselves into machines, which, fifty years from now, will be far more powerful than they are today. The posthuman era is probably not going to start here on Earth; it will be spearheaded by these communities on Mars. 
LORD MARTIN REES is a Fellow of Trinity College and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He is the UK's Astronomer Royal and a Past President of the Royal Society. Martin Rees's Edge Bio Page

The Threat

Ross Anderson [5.8.17]
People who are able to live digitally enhanced lives, in the sense that they can use all the available tools to the fullest extent, are very much more productive and capable and powerful than those who are still stuck in meatspace. It’s as if you had a forest where all the animals could see only in black and white and, suddenly, along comes a mutation in one of the predators allowing it to see in color. All of a sudden it gets to eat all the other animals, at least those who can’t see in color, and the other animals have no idea what’s going on. They have no idea why their camouflage doesn’t work anymore. They have no idea where the new threat is coming from. That’s the kind of change that happens once people get access to really powerful online services.
So long as it was the case that everybody who could be bothered to learn had access to AltaVista, or Google, or Facebook, or whatever, then that was okay. The problem we’re facing now is that more and more capable systems are no longer open to all. They’re open to the government, to big business, and to powerful advertising networks.
ROSS ANDERSON is professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, and one of the founders of the field of information security economics. He chairs the Foundation for Information Policy Research, is a fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and is a winner of the Lovelace Medal, the UK’s top award in computing. Ross Anderson's Edge Bio Page

Soul of a Molecular Machine

Venki Ramakrishnan [5.1.17]

We're now accumulating data at an incredible rate. I mentioned electron microscopy to study the ribosome—each experiment generates several terabytes of data, which is then massaged, analyzed, and reduced, and finally you get a structure. At least in this data analysis, we believe we know what's happening. We know what the programs are doing, we know what the algorithms are, we know how they come up with the result, and so we feel that intellectually we understand the result. What is now happening in a lot of fields is that you have machine learning, where computers are essentially taught to recognize patterns with deep neural networks. They're formulating rules based on patterns. There are are statistical algorithms that allow them to give weights to various things, and eventually they come up with conclusions.
When they come up with these conclusions, we have no idea how; we just know the general process. If there's a relationship, we don't understand that relationship in the same way that we would if we came up with it ourselves or came up with it based on an intellectual algorithm. So we're in a situation where we're asking, how do we understand results that come from this analysis? This is going to happen more and more as datasets get bigger, as we have genome-wide studies, population studies, and all sorts of things.
We're at the threshold of a new age of structural biology, where these things that everybody thought were too difficult and would take decades and decades, are all cracking. Now we're coming to pieces of the cell. The real advance is that you're going to be able to look at all these machines and large molecular complexes inside the cell. It will tell you detailed molecular organization of the cell. That's going to be a big leap, to go from molecules to cells and how cells work.
In almost every disease, there's a fundamental process that's causing the disease, either a breakdown of a process, or a hijacking of a process, or a deregulation of a process. Understanding these processes in the cell in molecular terms will give us all kinds of ways to treat disease. They'll give us new targets for drugs. They'll give us genetic understanding. The impact on medicine is going to be quite profound over the long-term.
VENKATRAMAN "VENKI" RAMAKRISHNAN is a Nobel Prize-winning biologist whose many scientific contributions include his work on the atomic structure of the ribosome. He is Group Leader and Former Deputy Director of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, and the current President of the Royal Society. Venki Ramakrishnan's Edge Bio Page

Urban Evolution

How Species Adapt, or Don't, to City Living Jonathan B. Losos [3.31.17]
We realize evolution can occur very rapidly. Yet, despite this realization, very few people have taken the next logical step to consider what's happening around us, where we live. Think about the animals that live just around you. Look out your window in your backyard. . . . All the animals living around us are facing new environments, coping with new food, new structures, new places to hide, and in many cases new temperatures. These are radically different environments. If, as we now believe, natural selection causes populations to adapt to new conditions, why shouldn't it be happening to those species living around us in the very new conditions?
JONATHAN B. LOSOS is the Monique and Philip Lehner Professor for the Study of Latin America and Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, and Curator in Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He is the author of Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos's Edge Bio Page
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