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Today's Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments
[2.15.17]


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CONTENTS: Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Guns, Germs, and Steel Jared Diamond on the best way to understand complex problems * author of Seven Brief Lessons on Physics Carlo Rovelli on the mystery of black holes * Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker on the quantification of human progress * TED Talks curator Chris J. Anderson on the growth of the global brain * Harvard cosmologist Lisa Randall on the true measure of breakthrough discoveries * Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek on why the twenty-first century will be shaped by our mastery of the laws of matter * philosopher Rebecca Newberger Goldstein on the underestimation of female genius * music legend Peter Gabriel on tearing down the barriers between imagination and reality * Princeton physicist Freeman Dyson on the surprising ability of small (and cheap) upstarts to compete with billion-dollar projects. Plus Nobel laureate John C. Mather, Sun Microsystems cofounder Bill JoyWired founding editor Kevin Kelly, psychologist Alison GopnikGenome author Matt Ridley, Harvard geneticist George ChurchWhy Does the World Exist? author Jim Holt, anthropologist Helen Fisher, and more. 

Katinka Matson's "Spiders" in "Plant: Exploring the Botanical World" (Phaidon)

[10.25.16]

“Imagine a painter who could, like Vermeer, capture the quality of light that a camera can, but with the color of paints.”  — Kevin Kelly  

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Phaidon has just published Plant: Exploring the Botanical Worlda visually stunning survey celebrating “the most beautiful and pioneering botanical images ever” from around the world across all media—from murals in ancient Greece to a Napoleonic-era rose print and cutting-edge scans. Included are botanical works by Carl Linnaeus, Leonardo da Vinci, Pierre-Joseph Redoute, Charles Darwin, Emily Dickinson, van Gogh, Georgia O’Keeffe, Ellsworth Kelly, Robert Mapplethorpe, and Edge co-founder and resident artist, Katinka Matson.

"Spiders," first exhibited by Edge, is also featured in the first serial excerpt of the book, now appearing in major international news publications...to date, The Guardian and LiFO.com (Athens).

“This huge canvas by New York-based artist Katinka Matson uses magnification to emphasize the spider-like forms of petals of the spider chrysanthemum (Chrysanthemum morifolium). At the start of the 21st century Matson developed a new way of portraying flowers by using a flatbed scanner, Adobe Photoshop and an ink-jet printer. Slowly scanning the flowers captures their exact appearance, without the distortion created by a single-lens photograph.” —The GuardianHer work has been featured on Edge since 2002.

[Further reading: Kevin Kelly, "Introduction to 'Twelve Flowers'"; "On Scanner Photography."]  

 

David Bunnell (1947-2016): A Remembrance

[10.21.16]

DAVID BUNNELL (1947-2016)


PC MEMORIES, HOW I CREATED THE PC
A Conversation with David Bunnell [3.13.00]

My epiphany came while I was looking at microfiched back issues of Scientific American. I came across an article penned by a nerdy Xerox scientist named Alan Kay. The article discussed some experiments for which Kay had built a prototype "personal computer" called the Alto that used a mouselike pointing device and a keyboard to communicate through a connected video screen. The great, unbelievable thing about this was that no one at that point had commercialized the idea because each Alto machine cost a few hundred thousand dollars to build. And Xerox was a bit lame in any case.

My vision started to take shape: As chips got cheaper and faster and could hold more memory, the day would come when we could build a true personal computer—one that was affordable to most people. 

[See John Markoff's New York Times obituary; "Adapting 60's Sensibilities to the Internet" by Steve LohrThe New York Times, 6.19.1995.

Infrastructure As Dialogue

[9.20.16]

One of the things that has been of particular interest to me recently is how you get the connectivity amongst all of these different constituents in a city. We know that we have high-ranking elites, leaders who promote and organize the development of monumental architecture. We also know that we have vast numbers of ordinary immigrants who are coming in to take advantage of all the employment, education, and marketing and entrepreneurial opportunities of urban life. 

Then you have that physical space that becomes the city. What is it that links all of these physical places together? It’s infrastructure. Infrastructure is one of the hottest topics in anthropology right now, in addition to being a hot topic with urban planners. We realize that infrastructure is not just a physical thing; it’s a social thing. You didn’t have infrastructure before cities because you don’t need a superhighway in a village. You don’t need a giant water pipe in a village because everybody just uses a bucket to get their own water. You don’t need to make a road because everyone just walks on whatever pathway they make for themselves. You don’t need a sewer system because everyone just throws their garbage out the door.

MONICA SMITH is a professor of anthropology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She holds the Navin and Pratima Doshi Chair in Indian Studies and serves as the director of the South Asian Archaeology Laboratory in the Cotsen Institute of Archaeology. Monica Smith's Edge Bio Page

Summer Reading: Highlights From the Edge Archive

Topic/Category: 

Date: 

[7.18.16]

Event Date: 

[ Mon. Jul. 11. 2016 ]

"Deliciously creative, the variety astonishes. Intellectual skyrockets of stunning brilliance. Nobody in the world is doing what Edge is doing...the greatest virtual research university in the world.
— Denis Dutton, Founding Editor, Arts & Letters Daily

[ED NOTE: It’s summer and a good time to reflect on twenty years of Edge. Each week through the rest of the season, we will revisit five highlights from the Edge archives worthy of your time and attention. — JB]


What is the self? How does the activity of neurons give rise to the sense of being a conscious human being? Even this most ancient of philosophical problems, I believe, will yield to the methods of empirical science. It now seems increasingly likely that the self is not a holistic property of the entire brain; it arises from the activity of specific sets of interlinked brain circuits. But we need to know which circuits are critically involved and what their functions might be. It is the "turning inward" aspect of the self—its recursiveness—that gives it its peculiar paradoxical quality.

[Continue...]


I invited a group of cosmologists, experimentalists, theorists, and particle physicists. Stephen Hawking came. We had three Nobel laureates: Gerard 't Hooft, David Gross, Frank Wilczek; well-known cosmologists and physicists such as Jim Peebles at Princeton, Alan Guth at MIT, Kip Thorne at Caltech, Lisa Randall at Harvard; experimentalists, such as Barry Barish of LIGO, the gravitational wave observatory; we had observational cosmologists, people looking at the cosmic microwave background; we had Maria Spiropulu from CERN, who's working on the Large Hadron Collider—which, a decade ago, people wouldn't have thought it was a probe of gravity, but now due to recent work in the possibility of extra dimensions it might be.

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We know there's a law of nature—he second law of thermodynamics—that says that disorderliness grows with time. Is there another law of nature that governs the complexity of what happens? That talks about multiple layers of the structures and how they interact with each other? Embarrassingly enough, we don't even know how to define this problem yet. We don't know the right quantitative description for complexity. This is very early days. This is Copernicus, not even Kepler, much less Galileo or Newton. This is guessing at the ways to think about these problems.

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I'm interested in bending the edges of the spectrum to make the abstract and the concrete hit one another more directly.

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MOUSE MODELS
Azra Raza
[January 1, 2014]

It's time to let go of the mouse models—at least, as surrogates for bringing drugs to the bedside. Remember what Mark Twain said: "What gets us into trouble is not what we don't know; it's what we know for sure that just ain't so."

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Today, what you want is to have resilience and agility, and you want to be able to participate in, and interact with the disruptive things. Everybody loves the word "disruptive innovation." Well, how and where does disruptive innovation happen? It doesn't happen in the big planned R&D labs; it happens on the edges of the network. Most important ideas, especially in the consumer Internet space, but more and more now in other things like hardware and biotech, you're finding it happening around the edges.

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DIGITAL REALITY
Neil Gershenfeld
[January 23, 2015]

Today, you can send a design to a fab lab and you need ten different machines to turn the data into something. Twenty years from now, all of that will be in one machine that fits in your pocket. This is the sense in which it doesn't matter. You can do it today. How it works today isn't how it's going to work in the future but you don't need to wait twenty years for it. Anybody can make almost anything almost anywhere.              

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With Big Data we can now begin to actually look at the details of social interaction and how those play out, and are no longer limited to averages like market indices or election results. This is an astounding change. The ability to see the details of the market, of political revolutions, and to be able to predict and control them is definitely a case of Promethean fire—it could be used for good or for ill, and so Big data brings us to interesting times. We're going to end up reinventing what it means to have a human society.

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One of the fundamental questions here is, is extinction a good thing? Is it "nature's way?" And if it's nature's way, who in the world says anyone should go about changing nature's way? If something was meant to go extinct, then who are we to screw around with it and bring it back? I don't think it's really nature's way. I think that the extinction that we've seen since man is 99.9 percent caused by man.

[Continue...]


I'm increasingly thinking that this idea that modernity puts us in a world without meaning—philosophers have banged on about this for a century-and-a-half—may be completely wrong. We may be living in an intellectual building site, where a new story is being constructed. It's vastly more powerful than the previous stories because it's the first one that is global. It's not anchored in a particular culture or a particular society. This is an origin story that works for humans in Beijing as well as in Buenos Aires. 

It's a global origin story, and it sums over vastly more information than any early origin story. This is very, very powerful stuff. It's full of meaning. We're now at the point where, across so many domains, the amount of information, of good, rigorous ideas, is so rich that we can tease out that story. 

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SHAMING AT SCALE
Jennifer Jacquet
[November 18, 2014]

Shaming, in this case, was a fairly low-cost form of punishment that had high reputational impact on the U.S. government, and led to a change in behavior. It worked at scale—one group of people using it against another group of people at the group level. This is the kind of scale that interests me. And the other thing that it points to, which is interesting, is the question of when shaming works. In part, it's when there's an absence of any other option. Shaming is a little bit like antibiotics. We can overuse it and actually dilute its effectiveness, because it's linked to attention, and attention is finite. With punishment, in general, using it sparingly is best. But in the international arena, and in cases in which there is no other option, there is no formalized institution, or no formal legislation, shaming might be the only tool that we have, and that's why it interests me. 

 

[Continue...]

Quantum Hanky-Panky

[8.22.16]

Thinking about the future of quantum computing, I have no idea if we're going to have a quantum computer in every smart phone, or if we're going to have quantum apps or quapps, that would allow us to communicate securely and find funky stuff using our quantum computers; that's a tall order. It's very likely that we're going to have quantum microprocessors in our computers and smart phones that are performing specific tasks.

This is simply for the reason that this is where the actual technology inside our devices is heading anyway. If there are advantages to be had from quantum mechanics, then we'll take advantage of them, just in the same way that energy is moving around in a quantum mechanical kind of way in photosynthesis. If there are advantages to be had from some quantum hanky-panky, then quantum hanky‑panky it is. 

SETH LLOYD, Professor, Quantum Mechanical Engineering, MIT; Principal Investigator, Research Laboratory of Electronics; Author, Programming the UniverseSeth Lloyd's Edge Bio Page

Right now, there's been a resurgence of interest in ideas of applying quantum mechanics and quantum information to ideas of quantum gravity, and what the fundamental theory of the universe actually is. It turns out that quantum information has a lot to offer people who are looking at problems like, for instance, what happens when you fall into a black hole? (By the way, my advice is don't do that if you can help it.) If you fall into a black hole, does any information about you ever escape from the black hole? These are questions that people like Stephen Hawking have been working on for decades. It turns out that quantum information has a lot to give to answer these questions.                                

About Richard Dawkins

On the 40th Anniversary of "The Selfish Gene"
[2.2.16]

Dawkins is a man of ideas…consequential ideas that actually influence and change people's lives—change the way other scientists think, make them think in a different, constructive way. 

Beginning in the 1960s and 1970s, something radically new was in the air: new ways of understanding physical systems, new ways of thinking about thinking that call into question many of our basic assumptions. A realistic biology of the mind, advances in evolutionary biology, physics, information technology, genetics, neurobiology, psychology, engineering, the chemistry of materials: all are questions of critical importance with respect to what it means to be human. For the first time, we had the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature.

No one has been more prominent, influential, and important to this revolution in scientific thinking than evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who, 40 years ago, with the publication of his book, The Selfish Gene, changed our understanding of our place in nature.

Dawkins is a man of ideas…consequential ideas that actually influence and change people's lives—change the way other scientists think, make them think in a different, constructive way.

He epitomizes my idea of the Third Culture, which consists of 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.

In the Third Culture, the role of the intellectual includes communicating. Intellectuals are not just people who know things but people who shape the thoughts of their generation. An intellectual is a synthesizer, a publicist, a communicator and the Third Culture thinkers such as Dawkins are the new public intellectuals.

Remembering Minsky

[1.26.16]


MARVIN MINSKY 1927-2016


    Minsky's First Law
Words should be your servants, not your masters.
    Minsky's Second Law
Don't just do something. Stand there
(From “What’s Your Law?” 2004)


"To say that the universe exists is silly, because it says that the universe is one of the things in the universe. So there's something wrong with questions like, "What caused the Universe to exist?"



Marvin Minsky, Stephen Jay Gould, Nicholas Humphrey, John Brockman,
Daniel C. Dennett @ Eastover Farm, August 1998: The birth of The Third Culture


THE REALITY CLUB: George Dyson, Ray Kurzweil, Rodney Brooks, Neil Gershenfeld, Daniel C. Dennett, Kevin Kelly, Jaron Lanier, Lee Smolin, Michael Hawley, Roger Schank, Brian Greene, Nicholas Negroponte, Pattie Maes, Gary Marcus, Sherry Turkle, Tod Machover, W. Daniel Hillis, Ed Boyden, Ken Forbus


From INTRODUCTION TO PART II: "A COLLECTION OF KLUDGES"
in THE THIRD CULTURE: BEYOND THE SCIENTIFIC REVOLUTION 
By John Brockman [5.1.96] 

Introduction

One of the central metaphors of the third culture is computation. The computer does computation and the mind does computation. To understand what makes birds fly, you may look at airplanes, because there are principles of flight and aerodynamics that apply to anything that flies. That is how the idea of computation figures into the new ways in which scientists are thinking about complicated systems.

At first, people who wanted to be scientific about the mind tried to treat it by looking for fundamentals, as in physics. We had waves of so-called mathematical psychology, and before that psychologists were trying to find a simple building block — an "atom" — with which to reconstruct the mind. That approach did not work. It turns out that minds, which are brains, are extremely complicated artifacts of natural selection, and as such they have many emergent properties that can best be understood from an engineering point of view.

We are also discovering that the world itself is very "kludgey"; it is made up of curious Rube Goldberg mechanisms that do cute tricks. This does not sit well with those who want science to be crystalline and precise, like Newton's pure mathematics. The idea that nature might be composed of Rube Goldberg machines is deeply offensive to people who have a strong esthetic drive — those who say that science must be beautiful, that it must be pure, that everything should be symmetrical and deducible from first principles. That esthetic has been a great motivating force in science, since Plato.

Counteracting it is the esthetic that emerges from this book — the esthetic that says the beauties of nature come from the interaction of mind-boggling complexities, and that it is complexity essentially most of the way down. The computational perspective — machines made out of machines made out of machines — is on the ascendant. There is a lot of talk about machines in this book.

Marvin Minsky is the leading light of AI — that is, artificial intelligence. He sees the brain as a myriad of structures. Scientists who, like Minsky, take the strong AI view believe that a computer model of the brain will be able to explain what we know of the brain's cognitive abilities. Minsky identifies consciousness with high-level, abstract thought, and believes that in principle machines can do everything a conscious human being can do. 

"SMART MACHINES' — Marvin Minsky 
Chapter 8 in THE THIRD CULTURE
By John Brockman [5.1.96]

Roger Schank: Marvin Minsky is the smartest person I've ever known. He's absolutely full of ideas, and he hasn't gotten one step slower or one step dumber. One of the things about Marvin that's really fantastic is that he never got too old. He's wonderfully childlike. I think that's a major factor explaining why he's such a good thinker. There are aspects of him I'd like to pattern myself after. Because what happens to some scientists is that they get full of their power and importance, and they lose track of how to think brilliant thoughts. That's never happened to Marvin.

Like everyone else, I think most of the time. But mostly I think about thinking. How do people recognize things? How do we make our decisions? How do we get our new ideas? How do we learn from experience? Of course, I don't think only about psychology. I like solving problems in other fields — engineering, mathematics, physics, and biology. But whenever a problem seems too hard, I start wondering why that problem seems so hard, and we're back again to psychology! Of course, we all use familiar self-help techniques, such as asking, "Am I representing the problem in an unsuitable way?" or "Am I trying to use an unsuitable method?" However, another way is to ask, "How would I make a machine to solve that kind of problem?"

A century ago, there would have been no way even to start thinking about making smart machines. Today, though, there are lots of good ideas about this. The trouble is, almost no one has thought enough about how to put all those ideas together. That's what I think about most of the time.

The technical field of research toward machine intelligence really started with the emergence in the 1940s of what was first called cybernetics. Soon this became a main concern of several different scientific fields, including computer science, neuropsychology, computational linguistics, control theory, cognitive psychology, artificial intelligence — and, more recently, the new fields called connectionism, virtual reality, intelligent agents, and artificial life.

Why are so many people now concerned with making machines that think and learn? It's clear that this is useful to do, because we already have so many machines that solve so many important and interesting problems. But I think we're motivated also by a negative reason: the sense that our traditional concepts about psychology are no longer serving us well enough. Psychology developed rapidly in the early years of this century, and produced many good theories about the periphery of psychology — notably, about certain aspects of perception, learning, and language. But experimental psychology never told us enough about issues of more central concern — about thinking, meaning, consciousness, or feeling. ... [Continue]


CONSCIOUSNESS IS A BIG SUITCASE
A Talk with Marvin Minsky [9.26.98]


Marvin Minsky, Alan Guth, Daniel C. Dennett, Rodney Brooks, Nicholas Humphrey, Lee Smolin

My goal is making machines that can think—by understanding how people think. One reason why we find this hard to do is because our old ideas about psychology are mostly wrong. Most words we use to describe our minds (like "consciousness", "learning", or "memory") are suitcase-like jumbles of different ideas. Those old ideas were formed long ago, before 'computer science' appeared. It was not until the 1950s that we began to develop better ways to help think about complex processes.

Computer science is not really about computers at all, but about ways to describe processes. As soon as those computers appeared, this became an urgent need. Soon after that we recognized that this was also what we'd need to describe the processes that might be involved in human thinking, reasoning, memory, and pattern recognition, etc.

JB: You say 1950, but wouldn't this be preceded by the ideas floating around the Macy Conferences in the '40s?

MM: Yes, indeed. Those new ideas were already starting to grow before computers created a more urgent need. Before programming languages, mathematicians such as Emil Post, Kurt Gödel, Alonzo Church, and Alan Turing already had many related ideas. In the 1940s these ideas began to spread, and the Macy Conference publications were the first to reach more of the technical public. In the same period, there were similar movements in psychology, as Sigmund Freud, Konrad Lorenz, Nikolaas Tinbergen, and Jean Piaget also tried to imagine advanced architectures for 'mental computation.' In the same period, in neurology, there were my own early mentors-Nicholas Rashevsky, Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, Norbert Wiener, and their followers-and all those new ideas began to coalesce under the name 'cybernetics.' Unfortunately, that new domain was mainly dominated by continuous mathematics and feedback theory. This made cybernetics slow to evolve more symbolic computational viewpoints, and the new field of Artificial Intelligence headed off to develop distinctly different kinds of psychological models.

JB: Gregory Bateson once said to me that the cybernetic idea was the most important idea since Jesus Christ.

MM: Well, surely it was extremely important in an evolutionary way. Cybernetics developed many ideas that were powerful enough to challenge the religious and vitalistic traditions that had for so long protected us from changing how we viewed ourselves. These changes were so radical as to undermine cybernetics itself. So much so that the next generation of computational pioneers-the ones who aimed more purposefully toward Artificial Intelligence-set much of cybernetics aside.

Let's get back to those suitcase-words (like intuition or consciousness) that all of us use to encapsulate our jumbled ideas about our minds. We use those words as suitcases in which to contain all sorts of mysteries that we can't yet explain. This in turn leads us to regard these as though they were "things" with no structures to analyze. I think this is what leads so many of us to the dogma of dualism-the idea that 'subjective' matters lie in a realm that experimental science can never reach. Many philosophers, even today, hold the strange idea that there could be a machine that works and behaves just like a brain, yet does not experience consciousness. If that were the case, then this would imply that subjective feelings do not result from the processes that occur inside brains. Therefore (so the argument goes) a feeling must be a nonphysical thing that has no causes or consequences. Surely, no such thing could ever be explained! ...[Continue]


THE EMOTION UNIVERSE
A Talk with Marvin Minsky [9.16.02]


Ray Kurzweil, Seth Lloyd, Alan Guth, Paul Steinhardt, Marvin Minsky

To say that the universe exists is silly, because it says that the universe is one of the things in the universe. So there's something wrong with questions like, "What caused the Universe to exist?

I was listening to this group talking about universes, and it seems to me there's one possibility that's so simple that people don't discuss it. Certainly a question that occurs in all religions is, "Who created the universe, and why? And what's it for?" But something is wrong with such questions because they make extra hypotheses that don't make sense. When you say that X exists, you're saying that X is in the Universe. It's all right to say, "this glass of water exists" because that's the same as "This glass is in the Universe." But to say that the universe exists is silly, because it says that the universe is one of the things in the universe. So there's something wrong with questions like, "What caused the Universe to exist?"

The only way I can see to make sense of this is to adopt the famous "many-worlds theory" which says that there are many "possible universes" and that there is nothing distinguished or unique about the one that we are in - except that it is the one we are in. In other words, there's no need to think that our world 'exists'; instead, think of it as like a computer game, and consider the following sequence of 'Theories of It":

(1) Imagine that somewhere there is a computer that simulates a certain World, in which some simulated people evolve. Eventually, when these become smart, one of those persons asks the others, "What caused this particular World to exist, and why are we in it?" But of course that World doesn't 'really exist' because it is only a simulation.

(2) Then it might occur to one of those people that, perhaps, they are part of a simulation. Then that person might go on to ask, "Who wrote the Program that simulates us, and who made the Computer that runs that Program?"

(3) But then someone else could argue that, "Perhaps there is no Computer at all. Only the Program needs to exist - because once that Program is written, then this will determine everything that will happen in that simulation. After all, once the computer and program have been described (along with some set of initial conditions) this will explain the entire World, including all its inhabitants, and everything that will happen to them. So the only real question is what is that program and who wrote it, and why"

(4) Finally another one of those 'people' observes, "No one needs to write it at all! It is just one of 'all possible computations!' No one has to write it down. No one even has to think of it! So long as it is 'possible in principle,' then people in that Universe will think and believe that they exist!'

So we have to conclude that it doesn't make sense to ask about why this world exists. However, there still remain other good questions to ask, about how this particular Universe works. For example, we know a lot about ourselves - in particular, about how we evolved - and we can see that, for this to occur, the 'program' that produced us must have certain kinds of properties. For example, there cannot be structures that evolve (that is, in the Darwinian way) unless there can be some structures that can make mutated copies of themselves; this means that some things must be stable enough to have some persistent properties. Something like molecules that last long enough, etc. ...[Continue]


A Conversation: THE NEW HUMANISTS:
Daniel C. Dennett, Marvin Minsky, and John Brockman

[9.18.03]

Part 1

Part 2


NEW PROSPECTS OF IMMORTALITY 
by Marvin Minsky
From: "What Are You Optimistic About?", 2007 

Benjamin Franklin: I wish it were possible... to invent a method of embalming drowned persons, in such a manner that they might be recalled to life at any period, however distant; for having a very ardent desire to see and observe the state of America a hundred years hence, I should prefer to an ordinary death, being immersed with a few friends in a cask of Madeira, until that time, then to be recalled to life by the solar warmth of my dear country! But... in all probability, we live in a century too little advanced, and too near the infancy of science, to see such an art brought in our time to its perfection.
—Letter to Jacques Dubourg, April 1773

Eternal life may come within our reach once we understand enough about how our knowledge and mental processes are embodied in our brains. For then we should be able to duplicate that information — and then into more robust machinery. This might be possible late in this century, in view of how much we are learning about how human brains work — and the growth of computer capacities.

However, this could have been possible long ago if the progress of science had not succumbed to the spread of monotheistic religions. For as early as 250 BCE, Archimedes was well on the way toward modern physics and calculus. So in an alternate version of history (in which the pursuit of science did not decline) just a few more centuries could have allowed the likes of Newton, Maxwell, Gauss, and Pasteur to anticipate our present state of knowledge about physics, mathematics, and biology. Then perhaps by 300 AD we could have learned so much about the mechanics of minds that citizens could decide on the lengths of their lives.

I'm sure that not all scholars would agree that religion retarded the progress of science. However, the above scenario seems to suggest that Pascal was wrong when he concluded that only faith could offer salvation. For if science had not lost those millennia, we might be already be able to transfer our minds into our machines. If so, then you could rightly complain that religions have deprived you of the option of having an afterlife!

Do we really want to lengthen our lives?

Woody Allen: I don't want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.

In discussing this prospect with various groups, I was surprised to find that the idea of extending one's lifetime to thousands of years was often seen as a dismal suggestion. The response to my several informal polls included such objections as these: "Why would anyone want to live for a thousand hundred years? What if you outlived all your friends? What would you do with all that time? Wouldn't one's life become terribly boring?"

What can one conclude from this? Perhaps some of those persons lived with a sense that they did not deserve to live so long. Perhaps others did not regard themselves as having worthy long term goals. In any case, I find it worrisome that so many of our citizens are resigned to die. A planetful of people who feel that they do not have much to lose: surely this could be dangerous. (I neglected to ask the religious ones why perpetual heaven would be less boring.)

However, my scientist friends showed few such concerns: "There are countless things that I want to find out, and so many problems I want to solve, that I could use many centuries." I'll grant that religious beliefs can bring mental relief and emotional peace—but I question whether these, alone, should be seen as commendable long-term goals.

The quality of extended lives

Anatole France: The average man, who does not know what to do with his life, wants another one which will last forever.

Certainly, immortality would seem unattractive if it meant endless infirmity, debility, and dependency upon others—but here we'll assume a state of perfect health. A somewhat sounder concern might be that the old ones should die to make room for young ones with newer ideas. However, this leaves out the likelihood that are many important ideas that no human person could reach in, say, less than a few hundred well focused years. If so, then a limited lifespan might deprive us of great oceans of wisdom that no one can grasp.

In any case, such objections are shortsighted because, once we embody our minds in machines, we'll find ways to expand their capacities. You'll be able to edit your former mind, or merge it with parts of other minds — or develop completely new ways to think. Furthermore, our future technologies will no longer constrain us to think at the crawling pace of "real time." The events in our computers already proceed a millions times faster than those in our brain. To such beings, a minute might seem as long as a human year.

How could we download a human mind?

Today we are only beginning to understand the machinery of our human brains, but we already have many different theories about how those organs embody the processes that we call our minds. We often hear arguments about which of those different theories are right — but those often are the wrong questions to ask, because we know that every brain has hundreds of different specialized regions that work in different ways. I have suggested a dozen different ways in which our brains might represent our skill and memories. It could be many years before we know which structures and functions we'll need to reproduce.

(No such copies can yet be made today, so if you want immortality, your only present option is to have your brain preserved by a Cryonics company. However, improving this field still needs further research — but there is not enough funding for this today — although the same research is also needed for advancing the field of transplanting organs.)

Some writers have even suggested that, to make a working copy of a mind, one might have to include many small details about the connections among all the cells of a brain; if so, it would require an immense amount of machinery to simulate all those cells' chemistry. However, I suspect we'll need far less than that, because our nervous systems must have evolved to be insensitive to lower-level details; otherwise, our brains would rarely work.

Fortunately, we won't need to solve all those problems at once. For long before we are able to make complete "backups" of our personalities, this field of research will produce a great flood of ideas for adding new features and accessories to our existing brains. Then this may lead, through smaller steps, to replacing all parts of our bodies and brains — and thus repairing all the defects and flaws that make presently our lives so brief. And the more we learn about how our brains work, the more ways we will find to provide them with new abilities that never evolved in biology.

Nineteen reasons why marriages succeed

[Neunzehn Gründe, warum Ehen glücken]
[1.21.16]

From Gene-knives and autistic neurons: The Scholars Association "Edge Foundation" asked well-known researchers, what is revolutionizing the sciences.The result is a fascinating kaleidoscope of new knowledge and methods.


[click for German original]

The big bang may not have been such a huge thud, as we imagine. Drones revolutionize not only the war, but also the research on wild animals. Two-thirds of all cancers are due to random mutations. And three principles are sufficient to define rationality. All answers to the question placed before the scientists of the "Third Culture" of American literary agent John Brockman: "What is the most interesting scientific news? And what makes them so important?"

For almost twenty years Brockman puts on his online forum edge.org regularly such a question: "What do you think is right, even if you can not prove it?" (2005), "What do you ask yourself?" (1998), "What is the scientific idea is ready for retirement?" (2014). For "Third Culture" is one of Brockman researchers from natural sciences and humanities, discuss their findings in a larger, multi-disciplinary and social context.

In his this year's question Brockman got 198 very different answers. They range from knowledge about the importance of microbes in the digestive tract of new, resource-saving battery technologies and 3D printers in the medical technology to intelligently networked "green cities". The crisis of psychology, triggered by too many non-reproducible results, just missing a little like a study for vaccination against Ebola and one of the testing, "autistic neurons" to grow in the petri dish.

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