Conversations

Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI

Lightning talks by thirteen “Possible Minders” at the Brattle Theatre—a Harvard Bookstore Event
[2.21.19]

Lightning talks (1 hour, 28 minutes) from thirteen experts: Mary Catherine Bateson, Kate Darling, Peter Galison, Neil Gershenfeld, Alison Gopnik, Caroline Jones, David Kaiser, Seth Lloyd, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Alex Pentland, Steven Pinker, Max TegmarkStephen Wolfram Thursday, February 21, 2019  — A Harvard Bookstore EventSubscribe

Possible Minds: 25 Ways of Looking at AI

Chapter 21 - "AIs Versus Four-Year-Olds" - First Serial on Smithsonian
[2.22.19]

Everyone’s heard about the new advances in artificial intelligence, and especially machine learning. You’ve also heard utopian or apocalyptic predictions about what those advances mean. They have been taken to presage either immortality or the end of the world, and a lot has been written about both of those possibilities. But the most sophisticated AIs are still far from being able to solve problems that human four-year-olds accomplish with ease. In spite of the impressive name, artificial intelligence largely consists of techniques to detect statistical patterns in large data sets. There is much more to human learning

Biological and Cultural Evolution

Six Characters in Search of an Author
[2.19.19]

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 is an emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. In addition to fundamental contributions ranging from number theory to quantum electrodynamics, he 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 


BIOLOGICAL AND CULTURAL EVOLUTION: SIX CHARACTERS IN SEARCH OF AN AUTHOR

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.

Judith Rich Harris: 1938 - 2018

[1.9.19]

It was in the 1990s that I received a phone call from Steven Pinker who wanted to make the world aware of the work of Judith Rich Harris, an unheralded psychologist who was advocating a revolutionary idea which she discussed in her 1999 Edge interview, “Children don't do things half way: children don’t compromise,” in which she said “How the parents rear the child has no long-term effects on the child's personality, intelligence, or mental health.”  

From the very early days of Edge, Judith Rich Harris was the gift that kept giving. Beginning in 1998, with her response to “What Questions Are You Asking Yourself” through “The Last Question” in 2016, she exemplified the role of the Third Culture intellectual: “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.”

Her subsequent Edge essays over the years focused on subjects as varied as natural selection, parenting styles, the effect of genes on human behavior, twin studies, the survival of friendship, beauty as truth, among others are evidence of a keen intellect and a fearless thinker determined to advance science-based thinking as well as her own controversial ideas.

In this special 16,000-word edition of Edge, dedicated to the memory of Judith Rich Harris, we take a deep dive into her ideas.

—JB

Collaboration and the Evolution of Disciplines

[7.1.19]

The questions that I’ve been interested in more recently are about collaboration and what can make it succeed, also about the evolution of disciplines themselves. The part of collaboration that is well understood is that if a team has a diversity of tools and backgrounds available to them—they come from different cultures, they come from different knowledge sets—then that allows them to search a space and come up with solutions more effectively. Diversity is very good for teamwork, but the problem is that there are clearly barriers to people from diverse backgrounds working together. That part of it is not well understood. The way people usually talk about it is that they have to learn each other’s language and each other’s terminology. So, if you talk to somebody from a different field, they’re likely to use a different word for the same concept.

ROBERT AXELROD, Walgreen Professor for the Study of Human Understanding at the University of Michigan, is best known for his interdisciplinary work on the evolution of cooperation. He is author of The Evolution of Cooperation. Robert Axelrod's Edge Bio Page

The Brain Is Full of Maps

[6.11.19]

 I was talking about maps and feelings, and whether the brain is analog or digital. I’ll give you a little bit of what I wrote:

Brains use maps to process information. Information from the retina goes to several areas of the brain where the picture seen by the eye is converted into maps of various kinds. Information from sensory nerves in the skin goes to areas where the information is converted into maps of the body. The brain is full of maps. And a big part of the activity is transferring information from one map to another.

As we know from our own use of maps, mapping from one picture to another can be done either by digital or by analog processing. Because digital cameras are now cheap and film cameras are old fashioned and rapidly becoming obsolete, many people assume that the process of mapping in the brain must be digital. But the brain has been evolving over millions of years and does not follow our ephemeral fashions. A map is in its essence an analog device, using a picture to represent another picture. The imaging in the brain must be done by direct comparison of pictures rather than by translations of pictures into digital form.

FREEMAN DYSON, emeritus professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, 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 Directions, and Maker of PatternsFreeman Dyson's Edge Bio Page

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