Edge in the News: 2008

O'REILLY RADAR [12.31.08]

Regular Radar contributorLinda Stone sent this in to be posted today.
...Venter imagines creating life from synthetic materials and expects that our view of life, itself, will be transformed.
Nobel Laureate, Frank Wilczek, believes everything will continue to become smaller, faster, cooler, and cheaper -- with its implications of an Internet on steroids and exciting new designer materials.

Esquire [12.31.08]


Inspired by them 2009 Edge Annual Question "What Will Change Everything?", EsquireRussia has dedicated their June issue to "the future", more specifically, to ideas about the future and those things that will "change everything." The issue features translations of fifteen essays from Edge.


Contributions included in the magazine are:

David Berreby - Post-Rational Economic Man
Leo Chalupa - Controlling Brain Plasticity
Austin Dacey - Carniculture
Freeman Dyson - "Radiotelepathy";
Brian Eno - The Feeling That Things Are Inevitably Going To Get Worse
Juan Enriquez - Homo Evolutis
Alison Gopnik - Never-Ending Childhood
Sam Harris - True Lie Detection
Robert Shapiro - A Separate Origin For Life
Rupert Sheldrake - The Credit Crunch For Materialism
Kevin Slavin - The Ebb Of Memory
Nassim Nicholas Taleb - The Idea Of Negative And Iatrogenic Science
Sherry Turkle - The Robotic Moment
Frank Wilczek - Homesteading In Hilbert Space
Anton Zeilinger - The Breakdown Of All ComputersThere is no online version, but copies are available at newstands everywhere...in Russia, that is, and at international newsstand as well.

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THE GUARDIAN [12.31.08]

Futurology is notoriously hit-and-miss. According to 2001: A Space Odyssey, we should already be using suspended animation to send humans to Jupiter
"Through science we create technology and in using our new tools we recreate ourselves." So says the intro to edge.org's annual New Year challenge to the world's greatest thinkers.This year it is asking "What will change everything – What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?" And as ever, the great and the good have responded to the call. ...

Full of ideas wild (neurocosmetics, “resizing ourselves,” “intuit[ing] in six dimensions”) and more close-to-home (“Basketball and Science Camps,” solar technology”), this volume offers dozens of ingenious ways to think about progress
Publishers Weekly [12.31.08]


 This Will Change Everything: Ideas That Will Shape the Future
Edited byJohn Brockman. Harper Perennial, $14.99 paper (416p) ISBN 9780061899676
Part of a series stemming from his online science journal Edge (www.edge.org), including What Have You Changed Your Mind About? and What Is Your Dangerous Idea?, author and editor Brockman presents 136 answers to the question, “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?” Milan architect Stefano Boeri responds with a single sentence: “Discovering that someone from the future has already come to visit us.” Most others take the question more seriously; J. Craig Venter believes his laboratory will use “digitized genetic information” to direct organisms in creating biofuels and recycling carbon dioxide. Like biofuels, several topics are recurrent: both Robert Shapiro and Douglas Rushikoff consider discovering a “Separate Origin for Life,” a terrestrial unicellular organism that doesn’t belong to our tree of life; Leo M. Chalupa and Alison Gopnik both consider the possibility resetting the adult brain’s plasticity—its capacity for learning—to childhood levels. Futurologist Juan Enriquez believes that reengineering body parts and the brain will lead to “human speciation” unseen for hundreds of thousands of years, while controversial atheist Richard Dawkins suggests that reverse-engineering evolution could create a highly illuminating “continuum between every species and every other.” Full of ideas wild (neurocosmetics, “resizing ourselves,” “intuit[ing] in six dimensions”) and more close-to-home (“Basketball and Science Camps,” solar technology”), this volume offers dozens of ingenious ways to think about progress. (Jan.)

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Linda Stone, Xconomy [12.31.08]

What game-changing ideas can we expect to see in OUR lifetimes?
As each year winds to a close, John Brockman, literary agent representing some of the finest minds in science and technology and the founder of Edge Foundation, poses a provocative question to an international community of physicists, psychologists, futurists, thought leaders, and dreamers. Brockman is a master convener, both online and in real life. This year’s annual Edge question, What will change everything?, generated responses from Freeman Dyson, Danny Hillis, Martin Seligman, Craig Venter, and Juan Enriquez, to name a few. Here are a few highlights.


Who Are We?

Third Culture was born as a podcast in August 2009. Our idea was to spread the extraordinary findings, illuminations and epiphanies that we had throughout this decade in our studies of science of the mind.

Our ideas was to spread the extraordinary findings, illuminations and epiphanies that we had throughout this decade in our studies of science of the mind."Coming from the Faculty of Philosophy and Humanities at the University of Chile, we had the experience of being a somewhat rare beasts: interested in science in a humanistic environment. We found, in the concept of Third Culture (developed in CP Snow in the late fifties and sponsored by John Brockman in the nineties), a space where we could move easily and at the same time, share our experience students and our academic colleagues. ...

...We believe we can build a community around the issues of mind, not only among specialists of the six disciplines founding (if we ignore the hexagon of the Sloan Foundation in the seventies): Artificial Intelligence, Neuroscience, Philosophy, Psychology, Linguistics and Anthropology, but also between those who come from the humanities, which, as you said people like Jonah Lehrer or Ian Richardson, have been turning the problem of the mind since time immemorial.

We know that the others can be seen as a kind of "sensationalism" intellectual, or syncretism, even as accommodationist: we believe that this is one of the greatest dangers. We also know that you can see the third culture as "selling the system" in the humanities, dominated by epistemological pessimism, not relying on scientific research. Finally we know that on that same line of reasoning, the third culture can be seen as an unconditional surrender to the dominant ideas of the traditional right, the market, and so on. We put it bluntly, we are people with leftist values, but we are not the guerrilla left ... we are from the Darwinian left (... that is, at bottom, we are only interested in sex ).

The page / blog terceracultura.cl is our third step in the dissemination of the Third Culture in Chile and Chilean in this space will links to programs, more extensive post blogs, discuss recent articles, open the door to debate and establish links with elsewhere. We expect maximum contact.


[ED. NOTE: A new podcast website from Chile on The Third Culture with entries aboutDanlel GilbertSteven PinkerDaniel DennettLeda CosmidesJohn ToobyGuns Germs and Steel, Darwin in Chile, among others. — JB]

ARTS & LETTER DAILY [12.31.08]

Printing – electricity – radio – antibiotics: after them, nothing was the same. Intellectual impresario John Brockman asks a select group of thinkers, “What will change everything?”... 

THE GUARDIAN [12.31.08]

[Caption: Ian McEwan muses that we will look back and 'wonder why we ever thought we had a problem when we are bathed in such beneficent radiant energy'. Photograph: Getty]
Flying cars, personal jetpacks, holidays on the moon, the paperless office – the predictions of futurologists are, it seems, doomed to fail. The only thing predictable about the future is its unpredictability.
But that has not stopped edge.org – the online intellectual salon – asking which ideas and inventions will provide humanity's next leap forward. In its traditional New Year challenge to the planet's best thinkers it asks, "What will change everything – What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?"


"The planet's overheating, the icecaps are melting, the population is exploding, there's a bird-flu epidemic waiting to get us and even if we avoid a terrorist Armageddon, there's bound to be an asteroid up there with all our names on it. We are, to quote Private Frazer, doomed.

"Nonsense, say the 150 leading scientists assembled by John Brockman in this uplifting anthology.

"Asked the title's question, the world's best brains examined our prospects - and all of them found reasons to be very cheerful indeed. Once again, the scientific community seems to challenge our instinctive, common-sense assumption. First they told us the Earth isn't flat. Then, that solid objects are made up of empty space. ...

"...This is an enthralling book that delivers two very significant truths: we've never had it so good and things can only get better. Global warming — and asteroids — permitting."

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TORONTO STAR [12.27.08]

When politicians change their minds, they're often lambasted for flip-flopping by other politicians, the media and the public. When scientists change their minds, their fellow scientists eventually see it as progress, integral to the self-correcting discipline of their vocation.

Unfortunately the public usually notices only a marginal subset of this phenomenon: how the futurists and short-term forecasters so often get it wrong.

After all, where is the paperless office? Or the Jetsons' flying car? And remember how hurricane forecasters used computer models to predict – wrongly – that the last two seasons would be monsters?

For a spectacularly bad computer projection, look at the mid-1970s, when a study from the Club of Rome warned that the world would run out of many essential minerals before the end of the century. Skeptical researchers picked apart the naïve assumptions of "The Limits to Growth," but not before world leaders, including Pierre Elliott Trudeau, had jetted off to an Austrian castle for a summit.

Yet the truly important self-corrections of science often escape public attention because they escape the media's attention. That's mainly because journalism exists on the time scale of mayflies while scientific consensus evolves over elephantine decades.

A personal example: When I was squeaking through university science in the mid-1960s, we were taught that the adult brain does not make new neurons.

But even then, unbeknown to us, a few researchers were arguing that the adult brain did continue to manufacture neurons. But they were dismissed as crackpots, just as Alfred Wegener was in 1915 when he proposed that the continents drifted. Or as Mario Molina and F. Sherwood Rowland were in 1974 when they warned that CFCs were destroying the ozone layer.

Molina and Rowland were vindicated in just a few years and went on to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry. But it wasn't until the 1950s that continental drift was accepted as the consensus theory.

The neuron "crackpots" were finally declared correct by their fellow brain scientists in the 1990s, and today adult neurogenesis – the fancy name for making new neurons – is a burgeoning field of study for people such as Stanford neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky, who originally dismissed the idea.

Sapolsky is one of 130-plus scientists and "thinkers" who have contributed highly personal revelations to What Have You Changed Your Mind About?, due next month.

Book marketing seems to demand sensational subtitles, but Today's Leading Minds Rethink Everything turns out to be an accurate guide to the content. In almost 400 pages, the contributors cover frontier aspects of all three scientific arenas: physical, biomedical and social.

It should come with a warning: "Reading this book may be dangerous to your cherished myths and perceptions." For example:

  • Helena Cronin says it's not primarily bias and barriers that give men the top positions and prizes. After analyzing the statistical evidence, the philosopher at the London School of Economics has come to accept that there will be (as she puts it) more dumbbells and more Nobels among males because there's a much greater variance in ability among men as a group than among women, even though both are similar on average.
  • There is probably no intelligent life elsewhere in the universe because we would have detected a stray electromagnetic signal by now, argues technologist Ray Kurzweil, who wanted to believe in E.T.
  • Until a few years ago, neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux thought that a memory is something stored in the brain into which we could tap again and again. Then a researcher in his lab at New York University did an experiment that convinced LeDoux – and is convincing others – that each time a memory is used, it has to be stored again in the brain as a new memory to be accessible later. This concept of memory "reconsolidation" is now being tested in treating drug addiction and post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Danish science writer Tor Nørretranders changed his mind about his body, which he now considers closer to software than hardware. It's been known for decades that 98 per cent of the atoms in the human body are replaced every year, but only recently was Nørretranders able to come up with the concept of permanent reincarnation, like music moving from vinyl LPs to audio tapes to CDs and now iPods.

Many other contributors challenge conventional wisdom to write about, among other things, a finite universe; the brain creating a soul; and the Internet as a powerful tool for centralized state control.

Nor do all these deep thinkers agree. Computer scientist Rudy Rucker has come around to thinking that a computer program will be able to emulate the human mind so that self-aware robots could even believe in God. But computer scientist Roger Schank, who once said he would see machines as smart as humans within his lifetime, now believes that won't happen within the lifetime of his grandchildren.

The book's most important contribution, however, is to drive home the lesson that in science being wrong occasionally is a good thing, not least because it renews curiosity and reminds the scientists that they don't know everything.

As Discover magazine columnist Jaron Lanier writes in the book, "Being aware of being wrong once in a while keeps you young."

And since admitting they've been wrong and changing their minds works well for rational decision-making by scientists, perhaps politicians, the media and others might give it a try.


Several months ago, Christopher Hitchens was sent an article about a young soldier, Mark Jennings Daily, who had been killed in Iraq. Daily was improbably all-American — born on the Fourth of July, an honors graduate from U.C.L.A., strikingly handsome. He’d been a Democrat with reservations about the war. But, “somewhere along the way, he changed his mind,” the article said. “Writings by author and commentator Christopher Hitchens on the moral case for war deeply influenced him.”

“I don’t exaggerate by much when I say I froze,” Hitchens wrote about reading that sentence.

His essay in the November issue of Vanity Fair is a meditation on his own role in Daily’s death, and a description of the family Daily left behind. Hitchens asks painful questions and steps on every opportunity to be maudlin, and yet for all its tightly controlled intellectualism, the essay packs a bigger emotional wallop than any other this year.

Daily took books by Thomas Paine, Tolstoy, John McCain and Orwell to Iraq.

“Anyone who knew me before I joined,” Daily wrote from the front, “knows that I am quite aware and at times sympathetic to the arguments against the war in Iraq. If you think the only way a person could bring themselves to volunteer for this war is through sheer desperation or blind obedience, then consider me the exception (though there are countless like me)... . Consider that there are 19-year-old soldiers from the Midwest who have never touched a college campus or a protest who have done more to uphold the universal legitimacy of representative government and individual rights by placing themselves between Iraqi voting lines and homicidal religious fanatics.”

Hitchens spent a day with the Daily family and then was asked to speak at a memorial service. He read a passage from “Macbeth” and later reflected: “Here we are to perform the last honors for a warrior and hero, and there are no hysterical ululations, no shrieks for revenge, no insults hurled at the enemy, no firing into the air or bogus hysterics. Instead, an honest, brave, modest family is doing its private best.”

Hitchens also wrote “God Is Not Great,” which Ross Douthat reviewed provocatively in The Claremont Review of Books. Douthat noted that Hitchens specializes in picking out crackpot quotations rather than trying to closely observe the nature of spiritual experience: “Like most apologists for atheism, he evinces little interest in the topic of religion as it is actually lived, preferring to stick to the safer ground of putting the godly in the dock and cataloging their crimes against humanity.” Douthat, the believer, comes off as more curious about the world than any skeptic.

One of the best pieces of career advice I ever got is: Interview three people every day. If you try to write about politics without interviewing policy makers, you’ll wind up spewing all sorts of nonsense. John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt wrote an entire book on the Israel Lobby without ever interviewing any of their subjects.

Jeffrey Goldberg dissected their effort in The New Republic. Goldberg usefully describes Judeocentrism, the belief that Jews play a central role in world history. Walt and Mearsheimer have a tendency, Goldberg writes, to bring the vectors of recent world history back to the Jews — the rise of radical Islam, shifts in U.S. foreign policy, Sept. 11. He then offers a piece-by-piece dissection of their historical claims.

Wonks talk about inequality, but voters talk about immigration. Christopher Jencks wrote an essay on immigration in The New York Review of Books that was superb not because he took a polemical stance, but because he clarified a complex issue in an honest way.

He shows how fluid public opinion is. Certain poll questions suggest that 69 percent of Americans want to deport illegal immigrants. Others indicate the true figure is only 14 percent. He ends up at the nub of the current deadlock. Conservatives, having learned from past failures, demand “enforcement first.” Employers, fearing bankruptcy, demand the legalization of the current immigrants first. Neither powerful group will budge.

Three other essays are worth your time. In the online magazine Edge, Jonathan Haidt wrote “Moral Psychology and the Misunderstanding of Religion,” an excellent summary of how we make ethical judgments. In the Chronicle of Higher Education, J. Bradford DeLong wrote “Creative Destruction’s Reconstruction” on why Joseph Schumpeter matters to the 21st century. In her essay, “The Abduction of Opera” in The City Journal, Heather MacDonald wonders why European directors now introduce mutilation, rape, masturbation and urination into lighthearted operas like “The Abduction from the Seraglio.” She argues that a resurgent adolescent culture has allowed directors there to wallow in all manner of self-indulgence.

3 QUARKS DAILY [12.21.08]

How ought we, in this historical moment, use science and technology to remake the world?

Americans have been talking about what to do about climate change. Two of the lead voices are, recently, Jeffrey Sachs from Columbia University’s Earth Institute and Joseph Romm from the Center for American Progress Action Fund. Romm recommends a federal cap-and-trade plan that would immediately make carbon emissions more expensive. Sachs, however, believes that the economic costs of cap-and-trade are prohibitive without radically advanced technologies to make a low-carbon economy actually possible. Thus, Sachs proposes large-scale federal investments in development and demonstration of new energy technologies. This is what the climate change debate is now about: whether or not we need new inventions to build a low-carbon economy, or whether our existing tools are good enough to get started right away.

But what is the debate over? The question of whether man will conquer nature occupied Enlightenment philosophers. But today, the best progressive thinkers have moved on to other questions. The new conversation assumes the fact that humans have been remaking the world for millennia.

The first part of the Hebrew Bible expresses this part of human life well, depending on how one reads it. God implicitly invites humankind to be creative: Of this earth you were made, and likewise, you shall remake it. Robert Harrison, in his new book [2], ascribes to the human condition what he calls the vocation of care, of which the act of tending a garden is the best example. In Harrison’s way of reading Genesis, the fall from the Garden of Eden was more of a blessing to be cherished than a loss to be mourned: Adam and Eve were granted the privilege of caring about the world. And what if they were originally created in God’s image? In that case, says theologian Ted Peters, they must participate in the ongoing creation of the world. Peters says we are “created cocreators.”

In any case, Earth’s crust is a dynamic place, and we might as well help it along. Though Sachs and Romm offer different suggestions for climate policy, they are responding to the same question: How ought we, in this historical moment, remake the world again? If one feels alarmed by declining biodiversity, then one understands the importance of this moment. The energy technologies we select, whether they are old, emerging, or not yet developed, will have consequences for the continuing evolution of terrestrial life. The job of democratic citizens, as Walter Truett Anderson has been saying for years, includes governing evolution itself [1]. There is no turning back.


The Left — the party of science, environmentalism, equality, and choice — would do well to understand what this job does and does not include. First, as Oliver Morton explained a couple of years ago on Edge.org, it does not include saving the planet. Earth and its biosphere is resilient enough in the long term to take what we are giving it: fresh water depletion, species losses, a boosted greenhouse effect, and more. Nothing we can do (or at least, are at all likely to do) can stop biological and geological evolution on Earth. But while the planet can adapt, humans, especially the poorest, could be greatly harmed. The strongest arguments for cutting greenhouse gas emissions start by honoring human solidarity, not the intrinsic value of sea ice.

Second, our job does not include protecting the natural from the unnatural. It is too late, except in some of Earth’s remote polar regions, to preserve any “natural” ecosystems that remain unaffected by the conscious vita activa of men and women. The natural–unnatural distinction now serves no useful purpose. Moreover, it distracts us from other distinctions that do matter for our actual lives, like sustainable and unsustainable development.

The irrelevance of the natural–unnatural distinction matters, too, for our health and our ability to control our own bodies. Consider the rhetorical value of the word, “nature.” Some philosophers use the word to mask moral norms. Leon Kass, for instance, goes to great lengths to explain why the assisted reproductive technologies that he finds repugnant are also “unnatural” [3]. One benefit of decisively discarding the language of the natural and the unnatural is that doing so will prevent people like Kass from using the word, “nature,” as a way of inserting private morals into public politics.

Third, our job does not include transcending the planet or our bodies. This should go without saying, but some writers have acquired some fame by demanding, in the name of the Enlightenment, human enhancement technologies that can deliver immortality and cognitive and emotional bliss.Dale Carrico has explained that these desires ignore both the fact of human vulnerability and the fact that technological progress does not happen without political progress to enable it.

Saving the planet, protecting the natural, and achieving technological transcendence are projects with which many persons of the Left have burdened themselves. Each of these projects is misguided, unnecessary, and counter-productive. By pushing these ideas firmly and permanently aside, we can more easily grasp the challenges we are really confronting.

The climate debate demonstrates the different way of talking about nature. Despite the contrasts between Sachs’s and Romm’s plans, neither of them is a defense of nature. Instead, they are both proposals for how, in essence, to better integrate blind evolution and conscious design, ecology and technology, and nature and art.

Consider the biological history of life. An unknown number of millennia ago, creativity on Earth was blind; intentionality and purposefulness, as we know them, had not yet been invented. Later, genetic evolution gave rise to the modern human. From that time forward, design, technology, and art variously complemented and commandeered the original program of evolution, ecology, and nature. The transition is irrevocable, and now, the challenge is to make it work. Modernity may overflow with excess, but we have little else to build upon. Even if we cannot directly counter Heidegger’s objections to industrial technology, we can still design a humane home on Earth good enough for anyone but the most rabid intellectual opponents of the Gestell. Sadly, we haven’t really started trying.

We must begin with design, which is everything we make and everything else that happens amidst the private and public relationships between human beings. Human consciousness is the key ingredient of design. Sachs and Romm offer different answers to the question: Which specific products of human conscious design should interact with the products of blind evolution, and how, and when, and where, and in what combinations? For the foreseeable future, this is the question that policymakers concerned with science and technology would be wise to ask. The very ability to ask the question suggests that the question itself is urgent. And we shall be better off if philosophers, policymakers, and scientists are not the only ones asking it.

Anyone who lives in a clothed or bejeweled body confronts the question constantly, though most often without realizing it. However, the development of human modification medicine and of nanoscale, biological, information, and cognitive technologies reveals more conspicuously the question’s importance. Here, the politics of choice and self-determination — which the Left played no small part in developing — is indispensable. Again, the question is not how to protect the natural body from unnatural adulteration. Rather, the question is how to enable a new kind of human and extra-human diversity. Carrico calls it “lifeway diversity:” the varieties of ways not of transcending one’s body, but rather of transforming it.

There are right ways and wrong ways to use science and technology for the transformation of our selves and the world. Unintended consequences of science and technology are inevitable. We need to minimize them, respond to them, and learn from them. And while we must not concern ourselves with the categories of natural and unnatural, we also should not forget that many things in the world that came before us — most especially ecosystems — are crucial to a well-functioning technological biosphere. In most cases, public policies should preserve ancient ecological balances that give rise to services we depend on. Technologies will play an ever-expanding role first, in understanding what is actually happening in ecosystems and second, in intervening appropriately.

What is true for ecosystems is also true for the biological and psychological systems of human bodies and minds. This point is most easily understood through the idea (popularized by the authorRichard Ogle) of the “extended mind.” Mental life — cognition, emotion, and creativity — does not happen within the confines of the brain. Instead, it depends on complex interactions between bodies, environments, and culture. Some of these components are evolved; others, designed. Evolution and design interact every time we put our shoes on, read a map, or press the keys on a piano. The better interactions are those that give rise to what the economist Amartya Sen calls human capabilities, such as bodily health, practical reason, and play. Just as technologies should maximize ecosystem services, they should also maximize human capabilities.

The form of economic growth that is implicated in this dual focus on ecosystems and human beings should be the main concern of decision-makers and governments everywhere. Every single one of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals can be understood, at least didactically, as an effort to synchronize design and evolution. Sustainable economic growth comes from technologies that enable ecosystems and humans to do what they have been doing for millions or billions of years — and to do so more abundantly and with more freedom than is currently possible. Imagine everything that is beautiful in the world, and imagine lots more of it, but imagine still being vulnerable. That is the imperfect world that is ready to be slowly forged, whether it is made from tools we have now or tools still uninvented.

Letras Libres [12.15.08]

Humanism today limps as Andalusia ostensibly despises science. Gonzalez and Salazar Férriz indicate a new and commendable effort to remedy that Soanish ignorance: Culture 3.0.

In the preface to the recent reissue of The betrayal of the intellectuals, 1927 Julien Benda (Galaxia Gutenberg), Fernando Savater stated that "perhaps the greatest paradox of the paradoxes of the twentieth century is this: there has never been a time in human history in which more developed the ability to produce tools and knowledge the inner structure of reality in all fields. So, never was more scientific and technical brilliance. But neither had ever so many ideological movements based (or better, desfondados) as irrational, dogmatic or unverifiable, above all, never was such a wealth of supporters of rapture or intuitive certainty blood among the elite of servers for high spiritual functions. "In the words of Benda," men whose function is to defend and selfless eternal values such as justice and reason, and I call intellectuals have betrayed that role for practical interests, which often result in the conversion of a mere intellectual ideologue who aspires to a space power...

...Following the wake of Snow and probably trying to repair the betrayal of Benda-speaking, John Brockman in 1988 founded the Edge Foundation(www.edge.org), an organization that seeks to reintegrate, under the idea of a "Third Culture "scientific and humanistic discourse and contribute to that science has a key role in the discussion of public affairs. ...



Just because you’re smart doesn’t mean you get things right the first time. That’s the premise behind What Have You Changed Your Mind About? (Harper Perennial), a new anthology. In it, 150 “big thinkers” describe what they now think they were wrong about earlier in their lives. Much of this has to do with technology and education. Among the highlights:

Ray Kurzweil no longer thinks that intelligent aliens exist. The oft-cited futurist and inventor, a pioneer in artificial intelligence and in making reading machines for the blind, says that conventional thinking holds there should be billions of such civilizations and a number of them should be ahead of us, “capable of vast, galaxy-wide technologies. So how can it be that we haven’t noticed” all of the signals they should be creating? “My own conclusion is that they don’t exist.”

Roger C. Schank used to say “we would have machines as smart as we are within my lifetime.” Now Mr. Schank, a former Yale University professor and director of Yale’s artificial-intelligence project, says: “I no longer believe that will happen… I still believe we can create very intelligent machines. But I no longer believe that those machines will be like us.” Chess-playing computers that beat people are not good examples, he says. Playing chess is not representative of typical human intelligence. “Chess players are methodical planners. Human beings are not.” We tend, Mr. Schank says, “to not know what we know.”

Randolph M. Nesse “used to believe that truth had a special home at universities.” Mr. Nesse, professor of psychiatry at the University of Michigan and an expert on evolution and medicine, now thinks “universities may be the best show in town for truth pursuers, but most of them stifle innovation and constructive engagement of real controversies — not just sometimes but most of the time, systematically.” Faculty committees, he complains, make sure that most positions “go to people just about like themselves.” Deans ask how much external financing new hires will bring in. “No one with new ideas … can hope to get through this fine sieve.” —Josh Fischman


Yesterday I listed a few flip-flops by leading thinkers chronicled in a new anthology, What Have You Changed Your Mind About? (Harper Perennial). Whether universities were really that great was one of them. But there are more.

One of the major things that bright minds have rethought is that the Internet will be a boon to humanity. Here is why:

It does not fight authority. Nicholas Carr, who wrote the recent best sellerThe Big Switch: Rewiring the World, From Edison to Google, used to believe the Internet would shift the bulk of power to the little people, away from big companies and governments. But "its technical and commercial working actually promote the centralization of power and control," he says. Although the overall number of Web sites has increased from 2002 through 2006, the concentration of traffic at the 10 most popular sites has grown from 31 percent to 40 percent of all page views. Further, "look at how Google continues to expand its hegemony over Web searching," Mr. Carr says. "To what end will the Web giants deploy their power? They will, of course, seek to further their own commercial or political interests."

A few bad people counteract many good people, and machines can't fix that. Xeni Jardin, co-editor of the tech blog Boing Boing, says comments on the blog were useful and fun, originally. But as the blog grew more popular, so did antisocial posts by "trolls," or "people for whom dialogue wasn't the point." Things got so nasty that Boing Boing editors finally removed the ability for readers to comment. Now she has reinstated comments, because "we hired a community manager. … If someone is misbehaving, she can remove all the vowels from their screed with one click." There is no automated way to do this, Ms. Jardin says, and "the solution isn't easy, cheap, or hands-free. Few things of value are."


With little notice from the outside world, the community-written encyclopedia Wikipedia has redefined the commonly accepted use of the word "truth."

Why should we care? Because ­Wikipedia's articles are the first- or second-ranked results for most Internet searches. Type "iron" into Google, and Wikipedia's article on the element is the top-ranked result; likewise, its article on the Iron Cross is first when the search words are "iron cross." Google's search algorithms rank a story in part by how many times it has been linked to; people are linking to Wikipedia articles a lot.

This means that the content of these articles really matters. Wikipedia's standards of inclusion--what's in and what's not--affect the work of journalists, who routinely read Wikipedia articles and then repeat the wikiclaims as "background" without bothering to cite them. These standards affect students, whose research on many topics starts (and often ends) with Wikipedia. And since I used Wikipedia to research large parts of this article, these standards are affecting you, dear reader, at this very moment.

Essays and Opinion

Witch hunters in Africa lynch “thieves” who rob men of their masculinity. Many people’s grasp of economics is at the same level. The Edge economics course is an curative... more» ... Class no. 1 ...

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Es war einer jener traumhaften Momente der Wissenschaft, bei dem man gerne dabei gewesen wäre. Im vergangenen Sommer trafen sich im kalifornischen Sonoma drei Generationen der Verhaltensökonomie zu einer Meisterklasse der Edge Foundation, jener Forschungsrichtung also, die versucht, den Mechanismen des Marktes aus dem Blickwinkel der Menschen zu begegnen. Daniel Kahnemann war der Älteste der drei prominenten Gäste, eigentlich Professor der Psychologie in Princeton, aber eben auch Wirtschaftsnobelpreisträger für seine ...


In this wide-ranging assortment of 150 brief essays, well-known figures from every conceivable field demonstrate why it's a prerogative of all thoughtful people to change their mind once in a while. TechnologistRay Kurzweil says he now shares Enrico Fermi's question: if other intelligent civilizations exist, then where are they? Nassim Nicholas Taleb (The Black Swan) reveals that he has lost faith in probability as a guiding light for making decisions. Oliver Morton (Mapping Mars) confesses that he has lost his childlike faith in the value of manned space flight to distant worlds. J. Craig Venter, celebrated for his work on the human genome, has ceased to believe that nature can absorb any abuses that we subject it to, and that world governments must move quickly to prevent global disaster. Alan Alda says, “So far, I've changed my mind twice about God,” going from believer to atheist to agnostic. Brockman, editor of Edge.org and numerous anthologies, has pulled together a thought-provoking collection of focused and tightly argued pieces demonstrating the courage to change strongly held convictions. (Jan.)


...Jaron Lanier takes on the debate about the role and power of computers in shaping human finances, behavior and prospects from a radically different vantage point faulting -- in an article published on theEdge web site -- "cybernetic totalists" who, absolve from responsibility for "whatever happens" the individual people who do specific things. I think that treating technology as if it were autonomous is the ultimate self-fulfilling prophecy. There is no difference between machine autonomy and the abdication of human responsibility. . . .There is a real chance that evolutionary psychology, artificial intelligence, Moore's law fetishizing, and the rest of the package will catch on in a big way, as big as Freud or Marx did in their times.

[Also: Nathan MyhrvoldGeorge Dyson, Ray Kurzweil]