On Edge

Foreword to "The Last Unknowns" Daniel Kahneman [5.22.19]

Introduction

On June 4th, HarperCollins is publishing the final book in the Edge Annual Question series entitled The Last Unknowns: Deep, Elegant, Profound Unanswered Questions About the Universe, the Mind, the Future of Civilization, and the Meaning of Life. I am pleased to publish the foreword to the book by Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman, author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, and a frequent participant in Edge events (presenter of the first Edge Master Class on "Thinking About Thinking" in 2007;  co-presenter, with colleagues Richard Thaler and Sendhil Mullainathan, of the second Master Class, "A Short Course in Behavioral Economics" in 2008. Below, please find Daniel Kahneman's foreword to The Last Unknowns and the table of contents of the 282 contributors. Thanks to all for your support and attention in this interesting and continuing group endeavor.   

John Brockman
Editor, Edge


ON EDGE
by Daniel Kahneman

It seems like yesterday, but Edge has been up and running for twenty-two years. Twenty-two years in which it has channeled a fast-flowing river of ideas from the academic world to the intellectually curious public. The range of topics runs from the cosmos to the mind and every piece allows the reader at least a glimpse and often a serious look at the intellectual world of a thought leader in a dynamic field of science. Presenting challenging thoughts and facts in jargon-free language has also globalized the trade of ideas across scientific disciplines. Edge is a site where anyone can learn, and no one can be bored.

The statistics are awesome: The Edge conversation is a "manuscript" of close to 10 million words, with nearly 1,000 contributors whose work and ideas are presented in more than 350 hours of video, 750 transcribed conversations, and thousands of brief essays. And these activities have resulted in the publication of 19 printed volumes of short essays and lectures in English and in foreign language editions throughout the world.

The public response has been equally impressive: Edge's influence is evident in its Google Page Rank of  "8", the same as The Atlantic, The Economist, The New Yorker, The Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post, in the enthusiastic reviews in major general-interest outlets, and in the more than 700,000 books sold. 

Of course, none of this would have been possible without the increasingly eager participation of scientists in the Edge enterprise. And a surprise: brilliant scientists can also write brilliantly! Answering the Edge question evidently became part of the annual schedule of many major figures in diverse fields of research, and the steadily growing number of responses is another measure of the growing influence of the Edge phenomenon. Is now the right time to stop? Many readers and writers will miss further installments of the annual Edge question—they should be on the lookout for the next form in which the Edge spirit will manifest itself.

Questioning the Cranial Paradigm

Caroline A. Jones [6.19.19]

Part of the definition of intelligence is always this representation model. . . . I’m pushing this idea of distribution—homeostatic surfing on worldly engagements that the body is always not only a part of but enabled by and symbiotic on. Also, the idea of adaptation as not necessarily defined by the consciousness that we like to fetishize. Are there other forms of consciousness? Here’s where the gut-brain axis comes in. Are there forms that we describe as visceral gut feelings that are a form of human consciousness that we’re getting through this immune brain?

CAROLINE A. JONES is a professor of art history in the Department of Architecture at MIT and author, most recently, of The Global Work of Art. Caroline Jones's Edge Bio Page

The Brain Is Full of Maps

Freeman Dyson [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

Perception As Controlled Hallucination

Predictive Processing and the Nature of Conscious Experience Andy Clark [6.6.19]

Perception itself is a kind of controlled hallucination. . . . [T]he sensory information here acts as feedback on your expectations. It allows you to often correct them and to refine them. But the heavy lifting seems to be being done by the expectations. Does that mean that perception is a controlled hallucination? I sometimes think it would be good to flip that and just think that hallucination is a kind of uncontrolled perception. 

ANDY CLARK is professor of Cognitive Philosophy at the University of Sussex and author of Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied MindAndy Clark's Edge Bio Page

Mining the Computational Universe

Stephen Wolfram [5.30.19]

I've spent several decades creating a computational language that aims to give a precise symbolic representation for computational thinking, suitable for use by both humans and machines. I'm interested in figuring out what can happen when a substantial fraction of humans can communicate in computational language as well as human language. It's clear that the introduction of both human spoken language and human written language had important effects on the development of civilization. What will now happen (for both humans and AI) when computational language spreads?

STEPHEN WOLFRAM is a scientist, inventor, and the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research. He is the creator of the symbolic computation program Mathematica and its programming language, Wolfram Language, as well as the knowledge engine Wolfram|Alpha. He is also the author of A New Kind of Science. Stephen Wolfram's Edge Bio Page

Summer Reads

[8.5.19]

[ED NOTE: The late biologist Ernst Mayr once noted that "Edge is a conversation." And the "content" of Edge is the more than 1,000 people who have connected in this way over the last twenty-two years. There is a new set of metaphors to describe ourselves, our minds, the universe, and all of the things we know in it, and it is the intellectuals with these new ideas and images, those scientists and others in the empirical world doing things and writing their own books, who drive our times. We are pleased to present our summer reading edition, consisting of the published books by members of the Edge community in the past year or so. —JB]

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