Summer Reading: Highlights From the Edge Archive

[7.18.16]

"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]


 

The beauty of forecasting tournaments is that they’re pure accuracy games that impose an unusual monastic discipline on how people go about making probability estimates of the possible consequences of policy options. It’s a way of reducing escape clauses for the debaters, as well as reducing motivated reasoning room for the audience.

Tournaments, if they’re given a real shot, have a potential to raise the quality of debates by incentivizing competition to be more accurate and reducing functionalist blurring that makes it so difficult to figure out who is closer to the truth. 

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Something radically new is 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 have the tools and the will to undertake the scientific study of human nature.

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On July 24, 2009, a small group of scientists, entrepreneurs, cultural impresarios and journalists that included architects of some of the leading transformative companies of our time (Microsoft, Google, Facebook, PayPal), arrived at the Andaz Hotel on Sunset Boulevard in West Hollywood, to be offered a glimpse, guided by George Church and Craig Venter, of a future far stranger than Mr. Huxley had been able to imagine in 1948.

In this future—whose underpinnings, as Drs. Church and Venter demonstrated, are here already—life as we know it is transformed not by the error catastrophe of radiation damage to our genetic processes, but by the far greater upheaval caused by discovering how to read genetic sequences directly into computers, where the code can be replicated exactly, manipulated freely, and translated back into living organisms by writing the other way. "We can program these cells as if they were an extension of the computer," George Church announced, and proceeded to explain just how much progress has already been made. 

George Dyson (from the introduction)

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What we're saying is that there is a technology emerging from behavioral economics. It's not only an abstract thing. You can do things with it. We are just at the beginning. I thought that the input of psychology into behavioral economics was done. But hearing Sendhil was very encouraging because there was a lot of new psychology there. That conversation is continuing and it looks to me as if that conversation is going to go forward. It's pretty intuitive, based on research, good theory, and important. 

Daniel Kahneman

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Millions of people have been asked the question, "How satisfied are you with your life?" That is a question to the remembering self, and there is a fair amount that we know about the happiness or the well-being of the remembering self. But the distinction between the remembering self and the experiencing self suggests immediately that there is another way to ask about well-being, and that's the happiness of the experiencing self.

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The more I think about it the more I'm convinced that Life: What A Concept! was one of those memorable events that people in years to come will see as a crucial moment in history. After all, it's where the dawning of the age of biology was officially announced.

— Andrian Kreye, Süddeutsche Zeitung

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Why We're Different

Robert Plomin [6.29.16]

What we're trying to do in behavioral genetics and medical genetics is explain differences. It's important to know that we all share approximately 99 percent of our DNA sequence. If we sequence, as we can now readily do, all of our 3 billion base pairs of DNA, we will be the same at over 99 percent of all those bases. That's what makes us similar to each other. It makes us similar to chimps and most mammals. We're over 90 percent similar to all mammals. There's a lot of genetic similarity that's important from an evolutionary perspective, but it can't explain why we're different. That's what we're up to, trying to explain why some children are reading disabled, or some people become schizophrenic, or why some people suffer from alcoholism, et cetera. We're always talking about differences. The only genetics that makes a difference is that 1 percent of the 3 billion base pairs. But that is over 10 million base pairs of DNA. We're looking at these differences and asking to what extent they cause the differences that we observe. 

ROBERT PLOMIN is a professor of behavioral genetics at King's College London and deputy director of the Social, Genetic and Developmental Psychiatry Centre at the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience. Robert Plomin's Edge Bio Page

Deontology Or Trustworthiness?

Molly Crockett, Daniel Kahneman [6.16.16]

DANIEL KAHNEMAN:  The benefit that people get from taking a deontological position is that they look more trustworthy. Let's look at the other side of this. If I take a consequentialist position, it means that you can't trust me because, under some circumstances, I might decide to break the rule in my interaction with you. I was puzzled when I was looking at this. What is the essence of what is going on here? Is it deontology or trustworthiness? It doesn't seem to be the same to say we are wired to like people who take a deontological position, or we are wired to like people who are trustworthy. Which of these two is it?

MOLLY CROCKETT:  What the work suggests is that we infer how trustworthy someone is going to be by observing the kinds of judgments and decisions that they make. If I'm interacting with you, I can't get inside your head. I don't know what your utility function looks like. But I can infer what that utility function is by the things that you say and do.

This is one of the most important things that we do as humans. I've become increasingly interested in how we build mental models of other people's preferences and beliefs and how we make inferences about what those are, based on observables. We infer how trustworthy someone is going to be based on their condemnation of wrongdoing and their advocating a hard-and-fast morality over one that's more flexible.

MOLLY CROCKETT is an associate professor of experimental psychology, fellow of Jesus College, and distinguished research fellow at the Oxford Centre for Neuroethics, University of Oxford. Molly Crockett's Edge Bio Page

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics (2002), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013). He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page

Misunderstanding Positive Emotion

June Gruber [5.25.16]

We know that in the physical ecosystem biodiversity is healthy and important. People can buy into that. We know that biodiversity fosters resistance to pathogens and invasive species. When you explain to someone that the human mind may not be so different, that it's important to have a diverse array of emotions—joy, sadness, love, admiration, guilt—and that these are all important pieces of our internal human emotional ecosystem, people can understand that. People appreciate that diversity is important, that maybe it's some sort of spice of mental life.

When you frame it that way, people are more readily able to not put such a premium on positive emotions and, in some situations, try to foster other kinds of experiences if they think it's part of a more diverse psychological life and repertoire. Framing it less as pushing positive emotions down, but as letting all emotions grow and thrive. They're all important sources of information for us and we have them for a reason. We have evolutionary goals; people can understand that. That's one way we've been thinking about trying to frame this. You don't just want to grow one kind of plant in your garden, you want to have a diverse array. 

JUNE GRUBER is an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Boulder, and director of the Positive Emotion and Psychopathology LaboratoryJune Gruber's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Robert Provine

The Social Construction of Stories

How Narratives Can Get in the Way of Being Happier Paul Dolan [5.13.16]


I went for dinner with a friend who spent the whole of the evening complaining about her job, her boss, her colleagues, and her commute. Everything about her day-to-day experiences was miserable. Then, at the end of dinner, she said, "I love where I work." That's quite common. She was working for an organization where she'd always wanted to work, her parents were proud, her friends were jealous. How could she not be happy when she thought about the story of how happy she was where she was working? Her experiences—day-to-day and moment-to-moment—were telling her something quite different.

I'm interested in where these narratives come from, particularly those narratives that sometimes get in the way of us being happier. There's been a lot of psychological research on how stories are helpful for us; for example, in the case of experiencing adversity or trauma. If we look for explanation and reason through narrative, it helps us cope with the adverse consequences. There's been a lot of work on that. I'm interested more in the social constructions of the stories, in the things that evolution, society, our parents, or historical accident tell us about the lives that we ought to be leading, and in particular, how they might sometimes get in the way of us experiencing better lives.

PAUL DOLAN is a professor of behavioral science at the London School of Economics and Political Science and author of Happiness by Design. Paul Dolan's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: Elaine Pagels

Is Big Data Taking Us Closer to the Deeper Questions in Artificial Intelligence?

Gary Marcus [5.4.16]

What we need to do in artificial intelligence is turn back to psychology. Brute force is great; we're using it in a lot of ways, like speech recognition, license plate recognition, and for categorization, but there are still some things that people do a lot better. We should be studying human beings to understand how they do it better.

People are still much better at understanding sentences, paragraphs, books, and discourse where there's connected prose. It's one thing to do a keyword search. You can find any sentence you want that's out there on the web by just having the right keywords, but if you want a system that could summarize an article for you in a way that you trust, we're nowhere near that. The closest thing we have to that might be Google Translate, which can translate your news story into another language, but not at a level that you trust. Again, trust is a big part of it. You would never put a legal document into Google Translate and think that the answer is correct.

GARY MARCUS is CEO and founder, Geometric Intelligence; professor of psychology, New York University; author, Guitar Zero: The New Musician and the Science of Learning. Gary Marcus's Edge Bio Page

A Characteristic Difference

When Experimental Philosophy Meets Psychology Joshua Knobe, Daniel Kahneman [4.26.16]

DANIEL KAHNEMAN:  We're at the nub of the question. You come from philosophy, so there are certain things that are of interest to you. You want to convey two things at once: that the question is exciting, and that you have something new to say about it. It is true that I, as a psychologist, would come to the same question and conclude that it's an impossible question. Those are two impossible questions, and I certainly would not expect people to answer them in any way that is coherent.                                  

My first assumption, coming to it as a psychologist, is that there is no coherence. You agree with me that there is no coherence. What makes it exciting from the point of view of philosophy is that there is no coherence. Whereas, as a psychologist, I take it for granted that there is no coherence, so it's less exciting. That could be one of the differences.               

JOSHUA KNOBE:  That's really helpful. The thing we showed is not just that it is incoherent but along which dimension it is incoherent. It seems like there was evidence already that there's something pulling us towards one side and something pulling us to the other side, and we want to know which thing is pulling us towards one side or the other. We suggested that it's this difference between abstract thinking and concrete thinking.... 

JOSHUA KNOBE is an experimental philosopher and professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale University. Joshua Knobe's Edge Bio Page

DANIEL KAHNEMAN is the recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economics (2002), and the Presidential Medal of Freedom (2013). He is the Eugene Higgins Professor of Psychology Emeritus, Princeton, and author of Thinking Fast and Slow. Daniel Kahneman's Edge Bio Page

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