HOW A BANKER-TURNED-LITERARY AGENT GOT HIS START IN THE UNDERGROUND ART SCENE
Best known as a literary agent, Brockman’s career has spanned art, science, film, theater, and digital media. For more than 50 years, he has served as a steady intermediary between disciplines, working with everyone from Stewart Brand, creator of The Whole Earth Catalog, to curator Hans Ulrich Obrist. He specializes in science literature and represents a roster of authors—including Jared Diamond and Steven Pinker—who are more widely known than he is. But Brockman’s preference has always been for the perimeter. He founded edge.org, a foundation with the mission of connecting people “working at the edge” of a wide range of disciplines. In his own writing, he advocates for a “third culture,” a synthesis of science and the humanities, with no smaller a goal than “rendering visible the deeper meanings of our lives and redefining who we are.”
I imagine the reluctance to publish Q&A interviews is one reason that we British readers find so few serious interviews with scientists in our newspapers—compared, say, to interviews with novelists or with retired politicians.
It need not be thus. John Brockman’s Edge publishes (almost) exclusively long verbatim conversations between scientists about science, and every one of them is riveting. Oscar Wilde said something to the effect that he never needed to go out in the evening when he could find such wit and wisdom in the books he had at home, and I feel something similar when I read interviews on Edge. Indeed, it may be as well that Edge limits itself to publishing one main interview per month, since if there were many more of them I would have time for nothing else.
Oscar Wilde said something to the effect that he never needed to go out in the evening when he could find such wit and wisdom in the books he had at home. I feel something similar when I read interviews on Edge.
THE NEW BOOK OF ANNA CURIR
The Emergence of the Third Culture and Lethal Mutation
In Italy there are two cultures, humanities and science: from the union of these two seemingly opposing visions of the world depends on the survival of our own society. Young researchers and scientists can make a difference.
…The emotion unites science and art, humanistic and scientific culture. Are the same poets, playwrights, directors, astronomers, scientists, explorers, architects, artisans and to become excited during the creative process, investigation, discovery, accompanying their work.
In short, the excitement can mend the breach between science and humanism that, at least in Italy, it seems not be solved by Benedetto Croce times. There is a third path to take, or we are faced with a dead end?
To reflect on the contrast between scientific and humanistic culture is Anna Curir, associated INAF Astrophysical Observatory of Turin, just in the bookstore with The Emergence of the Third Culture and Lethal Mutation, published by the Sirente.
This fascinating book contains the thoughts of the world's leading biologists, geneticists and evolutionary theorists. It's all about where we are, and where we're heading—from a comparison between genes and digital information to new findings on how parents individually influence the human genome.
The world of innovation, entrepreneurial and technological singularity is full of parallels with religion: there are prophets, pilgrimage centers (Silicon Valley, Tel Aviv, Seoul, Shenzhen), tribes of believers, heretics and revealed truths. The commonalities could become a simple curiosity, a thesis topic of a humanistic career, if not because there is a group of technologists and experts on this agenda who believe this cogency of religious values acts as a bias that could lead to wrong projections. And the forecasts of vehicles without human drivers, lives of hundreds of years, end of employment, to travel by virtual reality and other phenomena that are as inexorable from the field of innovation could be saying more about our present, with its molded psychological and cultural patterns in thousands of years, about the future. . . .
In the movie 2001 Space Odyssey, filmed in 1969, Stanley Kubrick imagines a future of space travel, but all women of history are hostesses, assistants or secretaries: the director did not foresee the gender revolution of the 70s. Steven Pinker talks about this in his essay in the book This Will Change Everything, published by the director of the website Edge, John Brockman.
This approach leads to the conclusion that the existence of certain technology is a necessary and sufficient condition for a large-scale social change associated with that progress in a short time. . . .
Speculation comes to mind of a reigning "social mood" in recent days, with a local reality in gray tone that combined corruption scandals, economic recession and defeat in the Copa America, and that in turn matches no less daunting international context, between Brexit, the prospect of Donald Trump winning the election in the United States, terrorist attacks and turbulence in the markets. These were the dominant themes in the media and on social networks in recent days. ...
Six years ago, John Brockman, editor of Edge.org, published a book with 125 short essays written by several of the most influential thinkers in the world, who attempted to answer the question: "What is going to change everything?" The texts were authors like Richard Dawkins, Ian McEwan, Nassim Taleb, Steven Pinker, Freeman Dyson and Jared Diamond, among others.
Most responses came from the field of artificial intelligence, synthetic biology, physics and astronomy (the most repeated response will change what all was the discovery of intelligence beyond Earth).
This month’s Insights column was an attempt to use simple puzzles to highlight the consequences of the infinity assumption in the physical world. The idea was sparked by an article by the physicist Max Tegmark that was written for the book, "This Idea Must Die." Tegmark’s article is excerpted in a blog at Discover magazine under the title, "Infinity Is a Beautiful Concept — and It’s Ruining Physics."
In the past week I seized the opportunity to meet two foreign role models who visited the country.
One is the theoretical physicist Lisa Randall. The other is the artist Brian Eno.
Lisa Randall...spoke to Science & Cocktails in Christiania, which I blogged about here. And she is the person who to me has opened the magic of the laws of physics (and our limited senses to understand it) with books like 'Knocking on Heaven's Door' and her totally humble nature.
Then there's Brian Eno.
...[H]is cooperation with Stewart Brand and The Long Now Foundation and involvement in the anthology This Will Make You Smarter (published by Edge and which each year asks experts in their field an ambitious questions - and to the anthology this year was: "WHAT IS THE MOST INTERESTING RECENT SCIENTIFIC NEWS?"), I found out that Eno is actually deeply ambitious about the world's development while he is a great artist.
John Brockman is a colourful character, known to share photos of himself rubbing shoulders with the likes of Andy Warhol, Bob Dylan, or John Cage. That popular culture should include intelligent conversations about science is a given for him.
Edge.org, sometimes dubbed “the world’s smartest website”, was born out of an idea from Brockman’s late friend, performance artist James Lee Byars, who suggested that rather than trying to assimilate the information contained in the six million books housed in the Harvard library it might be more productive and instructive to assemble the hundred most brilliant minds and have them ask each other questions in order to achieve what Brockman has referred to as “a synthesis of all thought”.
Life is the fifth volume in The Best Of Edge series, and as with previous books, most of the featured content has already appeared on the Edge.org website....
...[T]here is an advantage to reading the essays featured in Life as opposed to gleaning information from random articles on the Internet.
On the net knowledge is dispersed, whereas this book has a structured sense of narrative, showing how research from different disciplines, and their disciples, can bolster and inform each other.
Ultimately, the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, perhaps an apt and fitting off-the-cuff metaphor for the subject matter – life.
...[I]f you’ve been paying attention to the news for the past several years, you’ve almost certainly seen articles from a wide range of news outlets about the looming danger of artificial general intelligence, or “AGI.”
The other problem with AGI dystopias is that they project a parochial alpha-male psychology onto the concept of intelligence. Even if we did have superhumanly intelligent robots, why would they want to depose their masters, massacre bystanders, or take over the world? Intelligence is the ability to deploy novel means to attain a goal, but the goals are extraneous to the intelligence itself: being smart is not the same as wanting something. ...
[Mary Lou Jepsen's] vision is broad and sweeping: it runs from a new generation of extremely high-resolution, affordable MRI machines for early detection of cancer, heart disease, and more, to a far-out time (or maybe not so far-out) when machines can read people’s minds and people can communicate—with each other and maybe even with animals—via thoughts.
The idea “leverages the tools of our times,” Jepsen says, citing advances in everything from physics to optoelectronics to consumer electronics to big data and A.I. that can be combined to shrink the size, improve the functionality, and lower the cost of MRI. “I could no longer wait. I’m still writing up the patents. But I am incredibly excited to strike off on this direction,” she says.
The startup, whose name has not previously been released as far as I can tell, is called Open Water (it could also be OpenWater, “not sure yet…either is OK for now,” she says). “Peter Gabriel gave me the name. He is a great advisor,” Jepsen says. In particular, she was inspired by this article he wrote for Edge.org, called Open Water–The Internet of Visible Thought, in which he credited Jepsen for introducing him “to the potential of brain reading devices.”
Mathematician/economist Eric R Weinstein is managing director of Thiel Capital, but that doesn't mean that he thinks capitalism has a future.
In a short, but wide-ranging essay in Edge's Annual Question series (this year's question is "What do you consider the most interesting recent [scientific] news? What makes it important?"), Weinstein talks about the fundamentally transformative nature of software-based societies and the challenges they put to the nature of work and economics. ...
Like many people nowadays, I do not talk on my iPhone as much as talk to it. That’s because it runs a program called Siri (Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface) that works as an intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator. It’s useful, in a way. If I ask it for “weather in London today”, it’ll present an hour-by-hour weather forecast. Tell it to “phone home” and it’ll make a decent effort to find the relevant number. Ask it to “text James” and it will come back with: “What do you want to say to James?” Not exactly Socratic dialogue, but it has its uses.
Ask Siri: “What’s the meaning of life?”, however, and it loses its nerve. “Life,” it replies, “is a principle or force that is considered to underlie the distinctive quality of animate beings. I guess that includes me.” Ten points for that last sentence. But the question: “What should I do with my life?” really stumps it. “Interesting question” is all it can do, which suggests that we haven’t really moved much beyond Joseph Weizenbaum’s famous Eliza program, which was created in the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory between 1964 and 1966. . . .
. . . [O]ften what really matters to us humans is stuff that we have difficulty articulating.
What’s brought this to mind is an extraordinary interview with Stephen Wolfram that’s just appeared on John Brockman’s Edge.org site. The term “genius” is often overused, but I think it’s merited in Wolfram’s case. Those of us who bear the scars from school and university years spent wrestling with advanced maths are forever in his debt, because he invented Mathematica, a computer program that takes much of the pain out of solving equations, graphing complex functions and other arcane tasks. But he’s also worked in computer science and mathematical physics and is the founder of the WolframAlpha “computational knowledge engine”, which is one of the wonders of the online world. . . .
In the 1960s he was a performance artist, he is now a literary agent in New York, his specialty: bringing ideas of renowned scientists to the people. John Brockman...put out a new book, and writes the question..."What scientific idea is ready for retirement?"
"Only a few really new ideas are developed, without giving up first older. In other words, science progresses through a series of funerals ahead. [But] why wait so long? What established scientific idea is mature enough to be pushed aside, so science can move forward?" ...
[E]nlightening and very entertaining.
...[W]ith the culmination of decades of progress in building advanced computing devices and machine learning putting the world on the cusp of true AI, the ground is finally fertile for philosophers, scientists and all manner of other experts and thinkers to jump into the discussion with their own vision of the future of the thinking machine.
What to Think About Machines That Think is a compilation of incredibly short essays on AI, edited by John Brockman ... literary agent to some of the finest minds of our times. ...
Brockman currently runs the ‘online science salon’ edge.org (which The Guardian once called “the world’s smartest website”). The Edge Question, which he poses every year to his extended network of exceedingly intelligent friends and clients, is a simple, direct question that seeks to push the boundaries of understanding on a burning scientific issue.
Year 2015’s question prompts respondents to ruminate on the potential technological, ethical and even emotional issues that will arise when the first machines start to think independently. ...
Every year, the site Edge.org a question to about 200 people at the research frontiers. Among those surveyed are geneticists, physicists, philosophers, people who work with artificial intelligence, plus the odd wild card, as Kai Krause (maybe someone will remember the wayward landscape modeling program Bryce; it was his work). The questions of the type "What have you changed your opinion about?" Or "What a scientific idea, it is time to retire?" The aim is to provoke thoughtful responses. This year was the question "What is the most interesting scientific news?"
The answers are not always intellectually dope, but together they provide a snapshot of what is going on in the various research fields. What will we learn about in the next few years? Bacteria. The realization that man is dependent on the interaction with bacteria and parasites are breaking through.The bacteria on us and in us control gene activity in our bodies, writes bioantropologen Nina Jablonski. A poorer bacterial flora can lead to obesity, allergies, possibly autism. Perhaps we will soon see ads for bacterial smoothies to everything from obesity to depression.
Theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking is on record about the rising class of technology that can perform almost any conceivable task, from driving us to work to babysitting our children. His dour outlook, expressed to the BBC in 2014: “I think the development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.”
Hawking says the primitive AI we’ve known to date — the kind that switches on the air-conditioning before you get home from work — is useful enough. But he fears the next stage, when intelligent, thinking machines can independently improve themselves and begin to determine their own destinies. Will that ability exceed humans’ ability to contain it? What then? Where will humans fit into an AI world? Will the robots have any use for us?
These questions are not so farfetched to the nearly 200 scientists, scholars, artists and public intellectuals who contributed essays for the recently released book What to Think About Machines That Think, edited by John Brockman. Few are as pessimistic as Hawking, but most agree humans should be busy thinking through our future coexistence with the new class of being now under construction. Will they serve us? Will we serve them? Or will we somehow merge into a single, super-being? ...
In 1959 a physicist and English novelist named Charles Percy Snow published a book ... entitled "The Two Cultures"... where humanity itself was crushed between two worlds, on one hand science and on the other humanities.
Several years later, in 1995, an American named John Brockman, interested in the approach of Snow, published the book "The Third Culture" and it raised a new way to understand reality from a holistic approach... to merge the human potential to cleave the truth through scientific culture and humanistic culture. ...
Here’s a question for you:
“What is information and where does it ultimately originate?”
“Is the universe a great mechanism, a great computation, a great symmetry, a great accident or a great thought?”
The first question was posed by the physicist and writer Paul Davies, the second by John Barrow, a cosmologist, theoretical physicist and mathematician. Both were posted online nearly two decades ago at Edge.org, then a fledgling website created by John Brockman, an author and literary agent for science writers.
Writing back then about Edge and its World Question Center, I concluded: “If a few of those questions don’t get the wheels in the brain spinning, sending some thoughts flying out of the box, nothing will.”
Not long ago I returned to Edge after a few years’ absence and was happy to find it alive and well. The site’s mission remains unchanged: “To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.”
One of the site’s top recurring features is the Annual Question. Over the years, scientists and thinkers in a range of disciplines have responded to queries such as these: “What is the most important invention of the last 2,000 years?” (1999); “What questions have disappeared?” (2001); “What do you believe is true even though you cannot prove it?” (2005); “What should we be worried about?” (2013); and “What do you think about machines that think?” (2015).
The question for 2016—“What do you consider the most interesting recent (scientific) news? What makes it important?”—already has drawn nearly 200 responses from contributors ranging from 2004 Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek to musician Peter Gabriel. ...