Collaboration and the Evolution of Disciplines

Robert Axelrod [7.1.19]

The questions that I’ve been interested in more recently are about collaboration and what can make it succeed, also about the evolution of disciplines themselves. The part of collaboration that is well understood is that if a team has a diversity of tools and backgrounds available to them—they come from different cultures, they come from different knowledge sets—then that allows them to search a space and come up with solutions more effectively. Diversity is very good for teamwork, but the problem is that there are clearly barriers to people from diverse backgrounds working together. That part of it is not well understood. The way people usually talk about it is that they have to learn each other’s language and each other’s terminology. So, if you talk to somebody from a different field, they’re likely to use a different word for the same concept.

ROBERT AXELROD, Walgreen Professor for the Study of Human Understanding at the University of Michigan, is best known for his interdisciplinary work on the evolution of cooperation. He is author of The Evolution of Cooperation. Robert Axelrod's Edge Bio Page

The Geometry of Thought

Barbara Tversky [6.25.19]

Slowly, the significance of spatial thinking is being recognized, of reasoning with the body acting in space, of reasoning with the world as given, but even more with the things that we create in the world. Babies and other animals have amazing feats of thought, without explicit language. So do we chatterers. Still, spatial thinking is often marginalized, a special interest, like music or smell, not a central one. Yet change seems to be in the zeitgeist, not just in cognitive science, but in philosophy and neuroscience and biology and computer science and mathematics and history and more, boosted by the 2014 Nobel prize awarded to John O’Keefe and Eduard and Britt-May Moser for the remarkable discoveries of place cells, single cells in the hippocampus that code places in the world, and grid cells next door one synapse away in the entorhinal cortex that map the place cells topographically on a neural grid. If it’s in the brain, it must be real. Even more remarkably, it turns out that place cells code events and ideas and that temporal and social and conceptual relations are mapped onto grid cells. Voila: spatial thinking is the foundation of thought. Not the entire edifice, but the foundation.

The mind simplifies and abstracts. We move from place to place along paths just as our thoughts move from idea to idea along relations. We talk about actions on thoughts the way we talk about actions on objects: we place them on the table, turn them upside down, tear them apart, and pull them together. Our gestures convey those actions on thought directly. We build structures to organize ideas in our minds and things in the world, the categories and hierarchies and one-to-one correspondences and symmetries and recursions.

BARBARA TVERSKY is Professor Emerita of Psychology, Stanford University, and Professor of Psychology and Education, Columbia Teachers College. She is the author of Mind in Motion: How Action Shapes Thought. Barbara Tversky's Edge Bio Page

On Edge

Daniel Kahneman [5.22.19]

 

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

A Year of Conversations


[ED NOTE: Everybody’s busy these days. That’s why we have August. So, take the time to check out the EDGE conversations you may have missed that have taken place on these pages over the past 12 months. —JB]

(Conversations): Neil Gershenfeld · Frank Wilczek · Timothy Taylor · Tom Griffiths
Alison Gopnik
 · Robert Axelrod · Barbara Tversky · Caroline Jones · Freeman Dyson
Andy Clark
 · Stephen Wolfram · Daniel Kahneman · Rodney Brooks
Alexander Rose
 · Ian McEwan · David Chalmers & Daniel Dennett · Michele Gelfand
Freeman Dyson
 · Lisa Mosconi · Susan Schneider
Jonathan Rodden
 · George Dyson · Elaine Pagels
Peter Galison
 · Paul Allen/Eddie Currie · Karl Sigmund · J. Doyne Farmer

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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