Edge Master Class 2008: Richard Thaler, Sendhil Mullainathan, Daniel Kahneman - A Short Course in Behavioral Economics


[View the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Press Release]

Daniel Kahneman & Richard Thaler
Edge Retreat, Spring Mountain Vineyard, Napa, California, August 22, 2013

What we're saying is that there is a technology emerging from behavioral economics. It's not only an abstract thing. You can do things with it. We are just at the beginning. I thought that the input of psychology into behavioral economics was done. But hearing Sendhil was very encouraging because there was a lot of new psychology there. That conversation is continuing and it looks to me as if that conversation is going to go forward. It's pretty intuitive, based on research, good theory, and important. — Daniel Kahneman

Richard Thaler Sendhil Mullainathan Daniel Kahneman

Edge Master Class 2008 
Richard ThalerSendhil Mullainathan, Daniel Kahneman

Sonoma, CA, July 25-27, 2008

A decade ago, Edge convened its first "Master Class" in Napa, California, in which psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman taught a nine-hour course: "A Short Course On Thinking About Thinking." The attendees were a "who's who" of the new global business culture. 

The following year, in 2008, we invited Richard Thaler, the father of behavioral economics, to continue the conversation by organizing and leading the class: "A Short Course On Behavioral Economics." 

Thaler arrived at Stanford in the 1970s to work with Kahneman and his late partner, Amos Tversky. Thaler, in turn, asked Harvard economist and former student Sendhil Mullainathan, as well as Kahneman, to teach the class with him.

The entire text to the 2008 Master Class is available online, along with video highlights of the talks and a photo gallery. The text also appears in a book privately published by Edge Foundation, Inc.

Nathan Myhrvold Jeff Bezos Elon Musk

Whereas the focus for Kahneman's 2007 Master Class was on psychology, in 2008 the emphasis shifted to behavioral economics. As Kahneman noted: "There's new technology emerging from behavioral economics, and we are just starting to make use of that. I thought the input of psychology into economics was finished, but clearly it's not!"

The Master Classes are the most recent iteration in Edge's development, which began its activities under the name "The Reality Club" in 1981. Edge is different from The Algonquin, The Apostles, The Bloomsbury Group, or The Club, but it offers the same quality of intellectual adventure. The closest resemblances are to The Invisible College and the Lunar Society of Birmingham.

In contemporary terms, this results in Edge having a Google PageRank of "8," the same as The Atlantic, Corriere della Sera, The Economist, the Financial Times, Le Monde, The New Yorker, the New Statesman, Vanity Fair, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, among others. 

The early seventeenth-century Invisible College was a precursor to the Royal Society. Its members consisted of scientists such as Robert Boyle, John Wallis, and Robert Hooke. The Society's common theme was to acquire knowledge through experimental investigation. Another example is the nineteenth-century Lunar Society of Birmingham, an informal club of the leading cultural figures of the new industrial age—James Watt, Erasmus Darwin, Josiah Wedgwood, Joseph Priestley, and Benjamin Franklin.

In a similar fashion, Edge, through its Master Classes, gathers together intellectuals and technology pioneers. George Dyson, in his summary (below) of the second day of the proceedings, writes:

Retreating to the luxury of Sonoma to discuss economic theory in mid-2008 conveys images of Fiddling while Rome Burns. Do the architects of Microsoft, Amazon, Google, PayPal, and Facebook have anything to teach the behavioral economists—and anything to learn? So what? What's new?? As it turns out, all kinds of things are new. Entirely new economic structures and pathways have come into existence in the past few years.

Indeed, as one distinguished European visitor noted, the weekend, which involved the two-day Master Class in Sonoma followed by a San Francisco dinner, was "a remarkable gathering of outstanding minds. These are the people that are rewriting our global culture."

— John Brockman, Editor

Sean Parker Salar Kamangar  Evan Williams

RICHARD H. THALER is the Ralph and Dorothy Keller Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics at Chicago's Booth School of Business and director of the University of Chicago’s Center for Decision Research. He is coauthor (with Cass Sunstein) of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, and author of Misbehaving. Thaler is the recipient of the 2017 Nobel Prize in economics. Richard Thaler's Edge Bio Page

Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination

Tim O'Reilly [10.2.17]

Wallace Stevens had an immense insight into the way that we write the world. We don't just read it, we don't just see it, we don't just take it in. In "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," he talks about the dialogue between what he calls the Naked Alpha and the Hierophant Omega, the beginning, the raw stuff of reality, and what we make of it. He also said “reality is an activity of the most august imagination.”

Our job is to imagine a better future, because if we can imagine it, we can create it. But it starts with that imagination. The future that we can imagine shouldn't be a dystopian vision of robots that are wiping us out, of climate change that is going to destroy our society. It should be a vision of how we will rise to the challenges that we face in the next century, that we will build an enduring civilization, and that we will build a world that is better for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It should be a vision that we will become one of those long-lasting species rather than a flash in the pan that wipes itself out because of its lack of foresight.

We are at a critical moment in human history. In the small, we are at a critical moment in our economy, where we have to make it work better for everyone, not just for a select few. But in the large, we have to make it better in the way that we deal with long-term challenges and long-term problems.

TIM O'REILLY is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., and the author of WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us. Tim O'Reilly's Edge Bio page

News Update on "Philip Pushes the Button"

NASA Langley's shy 'mad scientist' dies 
By Mike Holtzclaw [September 3, 2017]

Philip Brockman was shy by nature and rarely talked in specifics about the work that he did at NASA Langley Research Center during a career that spanned four decades.

Brockman, a research physicist, was involved with the early U.S. space program and later did work that led to tremendous advances in airline safety. But his own brother did not fully grasp the scope of that work until Brockman died on Tuesday at age 79 after a long illness.

This prompted John Brockman to talk with some of his brother’s old colleagues and to read some accounts that he had never seen before.

“He took a lot of pride in his work — he certainly did,” John Brockman said. “But I didn’t know what he was up to. He was reticent. He always wanted to stay behind the scenes. He would often contribute to papers and not want his name on them. That was just his way.”

Philip Brockman spent much of his early career in magnetoplasmadynamics (MPD), a form of propulsion. Macon “Mike” Ellis, head of the MDP branch, would refer to this group as the “mad scientists” of NASA Langley.

Their work was key to the Mercury Program that sent our nation’s first astronauts into space. Brockman also later devoted much of his work to improving safety standards for commercial flight.

“I remember him at JFK (airport in New York) spending 12 hours at the end of a runway in the cold winter wind, measuring things and looking for ducks and geese and air currents,” John Brockman said. “I didn’t realize what that was really about until I saw a graph on Tuesday night showing the sharp decline in deaths per million passengers since 1970. He was a technical lead in the FAA-NASA project to do that, and I didn’t even know it.”

Steven Harrah, who spent a decade as the NASA Windshear Radar Principle Investigator, said that Philip Brockman “helped establish the engineering fundamentals of airborne and space-based lidar that has led to numerous aviation safety enhancements and a greater understanding of our atmosphere and its complex processes.”

Brockman was a native of the Boston area and came to NASA Langley in the late 1950s after graduating from University of Massachusetts. He later would earn a master’s degree in physics from the College of William and Mary in 1963.

Dick Davis, a senior scientist who retired from NASA Langley in 2007, worked with Brockman in the area of remote sensing and the use of radar and other technology to detect turbulence, wind shears and other dangers.

“He was very much a cooperative guy, very easy to work with and good on teams,” Davis said. ”He seemed to think a lot about other people. He was very good about suggesting ways we could work together to do things.”

Engineer Grady Koch remembered Brockman as “a valued mentor” as he began his career at Langley building Doppler lidar for atmospheric studies.

“He was a wealth of knowledge and always happy to lend advice,” Koch said. “I’ll particularly miss Phil for his skill in reducing the esoteric nature of new technologies to practical implementation and for his entertaining wit while doing so.”

Brockman retired in 2003 and relocated to Raleigh, N.C., but he continued to contribute information via regular conference calls with his NASA colleagues. He is survived by his wife, Alexandra Campbell; his brother, John Brockman (wife Katinka); nephew Max Brockman (wife Jennie); and great-niece Juliet and great-nephew Miles.

Philip Pushes The Button

Rocket Scientist
1937 - 2017

Research physicist Philip Brockman pushes the button to start NASA's 
MPD-arc plasma accelerator in December 1964
 (NASA), Fred Jones

"While the Hydrodynamics Division sank at Langley, a few new research fields bobbed to the surface to become potent forces in the intellectual life of the laboratory. Most notable of these was magnetoplasmadynamics (MPD)-a genuine product of the space age and an esoteric field of scientific research for an engineering-and applications-oriented place like Langley. If any 'mad scientists' were working at Langley in the 1960s, they were the plasma physicists, nuclear fusion enthusiasts, and space-phenomena researchers found in the intense and, for a while, rather glamourous little group investigating MPD. No group of researchers in NASA moved farther away from classical aerodynamics or from the NACA's traditional focus on the problems of airplanes winging their way through the clouds than those involved with MPD." 

— James R. Hansen, from "The Mad Scientists of MPD" in Spaceflight Revolution: NASA Langley Research Center From Sputnik to Apollo 


In 1958, the Eisenhower administration, shocked by the 1957 launch of Sputnik, established NASA to be responsible for the civilian space program, as well as aeronautics and aerospace research. NASA absorbed the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), the Langley Aeronautical Laboratory in Hampton, Virginia, the Ames Aeronautical Laboratory in Moffett Field in Silicon Valley, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, operated by Caltech.

Philip Brockman was fortunate to arrive at the renamed Langley Research Center in 1959 as part of the first group of newly recruited NASA employees hired to lead the effort to meet the challenge of the 1957 launch of Sputnik. His interest was in the magnetoplasmadynamics (MPD) thruster, considered up until that time to be in the realm of science fiction. The MPD played a major role in reshaping the focus of NASA’s space program, and it is currently the most powerful form of electromagnetic propulsion.

He was a member of the small team of scientists characterized as "The Mad Scientists of MPD" by James R. Hansen in Spaceflight Revolution: NASA Langley Research Center From Sputnik to Apollo. The efforts of these unsung science heroes were critical to the success of Project Mercury, the first human spaceflight program of the United States that put American astronauts in space, beginning with the first suborbital flight by Alan Shepard and the first orbital flight by John Glenn, and to all human space exploration thereafter.

Aerodynamics For Cognition

Tom Griffiths [8.21.17]

It's very clear that in order to make progress in understanding some of the most challenging and important things about intelligence, studying the best example we have of an intelligent system is a way to do that. Often, people who argue against that make the analogy that if we were trying to understand how to build jet airplanes, then starting with birds is not necessarily a good way to do that.                                 

That analogy is pretty telling. The thing that's critical to both making jet airplanes work and making birds fly is the structure of the underlying problem that they're solving. That problem is keeping an object airborne, and the structure of that problem is constrained by aerodynamics. By studying how birds fly and the structure of their wings, you can learn something important about aerodynamics. And what you learn about aerodynamics is equally relevant to then being able to make jet engines.                                 

The kind of work that I do is focused on trying to identify the equivalent of aerodynamics for cognition. What are the real abstract mathematical principles that constrain intelligence? What can we learn about those principles by studying human beings? 

TOM GRIFFITHS is a professor of psychology and cognitive science and director of the Computational Cognitive Science Lab and the Institute of Cognitive and Brain Sciences at the University of California, Berkeley. He is co-author (with Brian Christian) of Algorithms to Live By. Tom Griffiths's Edge Bio page

Benevolent Artificial Anti-Natalism (BAAN)

Thomas Metzinger [8.7.17]

Obviously, it is an ethical superintelligence not only in terms of mere processing speed, but it begins to arrive at qualitatively new results of what altruism really means. This becomes possible because it operates on a much larger psychological data-base than any single human brain or any scientific community can. Through an analysis of our behaviour and its empirical boundary conditions, it reveals implicit hierarchical relations between our moral values of which we are subjectively unaware, because they are not explicitly represented in our phenomenal self-model. Being the best analytical philosopher that has ever existed, it concludes that, given its current environment, it ought not to act as a maximizer of positive states and happiness, but that it should instead become an efficient minimizer of consciously experienced preference frustration, of pain, unpleasant feelings and suffering. Conceptually, it knows that no entity can suffer from its own non-existence.

The superintelligence concludes that non-existence is in the own best interest of all future self-conscious beings on this planet. Empirically, it knows that naturally evolved biological creatures are unable to realize this fact because of their firmly anchored existence bias. The superintelligence decides to act benevolently.

THOMAS METZINGER is Professor of Theoretical Philosophy at Johannes Gutenberg-Universität Mainz and Adjunct Fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Study. He is the author of The Ego Tunnel and editor of open-mind.net and predictive-mind.net. Thomas Metzinger's Edge Bio page

THE REALITY CLUB: Jennifer Jacquet, Nicholas Humphrey

Learning By Thinking

Tania Lombrozo [7.28.17]

Sometimes you think you understand something, and when you try to explain it to somebody else, you realize that maybe you gained some new insight that you didn't have before. Maybe you realize you didn't understand it as well as you thought you did. What I think is interesting about this process is that it’s a process of learning by thinking. When you're explaining to yourself or to somebody else without them providing feedback, insofar as you gain new insight or understanding, it isn't driven by that new information that they've provided. In some way, you've rearranged what was already in your head in order to get new insight.

The process of trying to explain to yourself is a lot like a thought experiment in science. For the most part, the way that science progresses is by going out, conducting experiments, getting new empirical data, and so on. But occasionally in the history of science, there've been these important episodes—Galileo, Einstein, and so on—where somebody will get some genuinely new insight from engaging in a thought experiment. 

TANIA LOMBROZO is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. She is a contributor to Psychology Today and the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos and CultureTania Lombrozo's Edge Bio page

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