Compassionate Systems

Daniel Goleman [6.22.17]
One way a systems perspective could help with the environmental crisis is through understanding that we have a very narrow range of affordances, the choices presented to us. For example, I have this jacket, you have this table or the chair I’m sitting on, and they are manufactured with industrial platforms that have more or less been the same for a century. Yet in the last ten or fifteen years, we’ve seen the emergence of industrial ecology, a science that offers a metric for understanding the impacts of the life cycle of any of these objects from beginning to end in terms of how they impact the global systems that support life on our planet—the carbon cycle being the best-known. Now that we have that data and a metric for it, we can better manage the processes that are entailed in the use and manufacture of every object we own. We have a metric for reinventing everything in the material world to be supportive of those life-support systems.
DANIEL GOLEMAN is the New York Times bestselling author of Emotional Intelligence. A psychologist and science journalist, he reported on brain and behavioral research for The New York Times for many years. He is the author of more than a dozen books, including three accounts of meetings he has moderated between the Dalai Lama and scientists, psychotherapists, and social activists. Daniel Goleman's Edge Bio Page

Curtains For Us All?

Martin Rees [5.31.17]
Here on Earth, I suspect that we are going to want to regulate the application of genetic modification and cyborg techniques on grounds of ethics and prudence. This links with another topic I want to come to later about the risks of new technology. If we imagine these people living as pioneers on Mars, they are out of range of any terrestrial regulation. Moreover, they've got a far higher incentive to modify themselves or their descendants to adapt to this very alien and hostile environment.                                 
They will use all the techniques of genetic modification, cyborg techniques, maybe even linking or downloading themselves into machines, which, fifty years from now, will be far more powerful than they are today. The posthuman era is probably not going to start here on Earth; it will be spearheaded by these communities on Mars. 
LORD MARTIN REES is a Fellow of Trinity College and Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. He is the UK's Astronomer Royal and a Past President of the Royal Society. Martin Rees's Edge Bio Page

The Threat

Ross Anderson [5.8.17]
People who are able to live digitally enhanced lives, in the sense that they can use all the available tools to the fullest extent, are very much more productive and capable and powerful than those who are still stuck in meatspace. It’s as if you had a forest where all the animals could see only in black and white and, suddenly, along comes a mutation in one of the predators allowing it to see in color. All of a sudden it gets to eat all the other animals, at least those who can’t see in color, and the other animals have no idea what’s going on. They have no idea why their camouflage doesn’t work anymore. They have no idea where the new threat is coming from. That’s the kind of change that happens once people get access to really powerful online services.
So long as it was the case that everybody who could be bothered to learn had access to AltaVista, or Google, or Facebook, or whatever, then that was okay. The problem we’re facing now is that more and more capable systems are no longer open to all. They’re open to the government, to big business, and to powerful advertising networks.
ROSS ANDERSON is professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, and one of the founders of the field of information security economics. He chairs the Foundation for Information Policy Research, is a fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering, and is a winner of the Lovelace Medal, the UK’s top award in computing. Ross Anderson's Edge Bio Page

Soul of a Molecular Machine

Venki Ramakrishnan [5.1.17]

We're now accumulating data at an incredible rate. I mentioned electron microscopy to study the ribosome—each experiment generates several terabytes of data, which is then massaged, analyzed, and reduced, and finally you get a structure. At least in this data analysis, we believe we know what's happening. We know what the programs are doing, we know what the algorithms are, we know how they come up with the result, and so we feel that intellectually we understand the result. What is now happening in a lot of fields is that you have machine learning, where computers are essentially taught to recognize patterns with deep neural networks. They're formulating rules based on patterns. There are are statistical algorithms that allow them to give weights to various things, and eventually they come up with conclusions.
When they come up with these conclusions, we have no idea how; we just know the general process. If there's a relationship, we don't understand that relationship in the same way that we would if we came up with it ourselves or came up with it based on an intellectual algorithm. So we're in a situation where we're asking, how do we understand results that come from this analysis? This is going to happen more and more as datasets get bigger, as we have genome-wide studies, population studies, and all sorts of things.
We're at the threshold of a new age of structural biology, where these things that everybody thought were too difficult and would take decades and decades, are all cracking. Now we're coming to pieces of the cell. The real advance is that you're going to be able to look at all these machines and large molecular complexes inside the cell. It will tell you detailed molecular organization of the cell. That's going to be a big leap, to go from molecules to cells and how cells work.
In almost every disease, there's a fundamental process that's causing the disease, either a breakdown of a process, or a hijacking of a process, or a deregulation of a process. Understanding these processes in the cell in molecular terms will give us all kinds of ways to treat disease. They'll give us new targets for drugs. They'll give us genetic understanding. The impact on medicine is going to be quite profound over the long-term.
VENKATRAMAN "VENKI" RAMAKRISHNAN is a Nobel Prize-winning biologist whose many scientific contributions include his work on the atomic structure of the ribosome. He is Group Leader and Former Deputy Director of the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, and the current President of the Royal Society. Venki Ramakrishnan's Edge Bio Page

Urban Evolution

How Species Adapt, or Don't, to City Living Jonathan B. Losos [3.31.17]
We realize evolution can occur very rapidly. Yet, despite this realization, very few people have taken the next logical step to consider what's happening around us, where we live. Think about the animals that live just around you. Look out your window in your backyard. . . . All the animals living around us are facing new environments, coping with new food, new structures, new places to hide, and in many cases new temperatures. These are radically different environments. If, as we now believe, natural selection causes populations to adapt to new conditions, why shouldn't it be happening to those species living around us in the very new conditions?
JONATHAN B. LOSOS is the Monique and Philip Lehner Professor for the Study of Latin America and Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University, and Curator in Herpetology at the Museum of Comparative Zoology. He is the author of Improbable Destinies: Fate, Chance, and the Future of EvolutionJonathan B. Losos's Edge Bio Page

Master of Ceremonies in the Cyber Salon

Andrea Köhler [3.11.17]
Master of Ceremonies in the Cyber Salon 
By Andrea Köhler 11.3.2017

For more than half a century John Brockman has been inspiring artists and scientists to ask innovative questions. His website has established itself as a forum for forward-looking ideas. 

What is a "cultural impresario"? The expression is frequently used to describe John Brockman, as is the curious term "intellectual enzyme." The latter was created by a friend of Brockman—probably to signify that he is not quite what he seems to be: a shrewd book agent, feared by publishers for his capacity to negotiate amazingly profitable contracts for his clients. After all, he got acquainted with the trade in the banking sector.
What makes Brockman a "major player" in cultural matters is not, of course, his involvement in the book business—although his bright, minimalist-style offices with a view of the Empire State Building prove without a doubt that his agency gives him financial leeway. He uses it to pursue his passion, the "third culture"; but more on that later.
In Warhol's "Factory"
To understand the term “intellectual enzyme” correctly, one has to go back a couple of decades, to the time when 23-year-old John Brockman pursued his financial business during the day and at night dived into the fermenting New York art scene of the Sixties. Together with Sam Shepard and Charlie Mingus Jr. the banker stacked chairs at the legendary Theatre Genesis at St. Marks in the Bowery. Then he met with Robert Rauschenberg, Claes Oldenburg or Dalí at the "Cedar Tavern," and ended up in Andy Warhol's Factory. "It was a period of incredible creativity," says Brockman. "I practically flew through the streets."

"The world of money, says Brockman,
never really interested him.
'My interests were always strictly cultural.'"

One day when Brockman was in Central Park playing his banjo, the avant-garde director Jonas Mekas followed him around filming him—then he offered the banjo player an attractive job. Brockman was to organize a festival. The “New Cinema I” Festival (aka “Expanded Cinema”) in which artists, composers, dancers and avant-garde filmmakers transcended the borders of traditional genres became a mega-hit. "A kind of event of a lifetime,"—the first of several more Brockman was to call into being.
"The art scene," he says, "was on the cybernetics trip at the time; they were all studying the mathematical theory of communication." He even underwent a special initiation into the subject when the composer John Cage handed a book to him during one of his legendary "Mushroom Dinners.” Brockman eagerly devoured Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics, Control and Communication in Living Beings and Machines. Cage never talked to him again. A mutual friend explained: "Cage is a Zen master. You no longer need him." The book, Brockman says, still has a special place in his living room library.
It was the age of psychedelic counterculture, of Albert Hofmann and Timothy Leary. Brockman himself avoided drugs. Even Cage's mushroom dishes were of a purely culinary and highly intellectual nature; among the ideas explored at length was Marshall McLuhan’s notion of "the collective conscious." The world of money, says Brockman, never really interested him. "My interests were always strictly cultural."

Closing the Loop

Chris Anderson [3.7.17]
Closing the loop is a phrase used in robotics. Open-loop systems are when you take an action and you can't measure the results—there's no feedback. Closed-loop systems are when you take an action, you measure the results, and you change your action accordingly. Systems with closed loops have feedback loops; they self-adjust and quickly stabilize in optimal conditions. Systems with open loops overshoot; they miss it entirely.
CHRIS ANDERSON is the CEO of 3D Robotics and founder of DIY Drones. He is the former editor-in-chief of Wired magazine. Chris Anderson's Edge Bio Page

KNOW THIS - On Sale Now!

Today's Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments John Brockman [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. 

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