Communal Intelligence

Seth Lloyd [10.28.19]

We haven't talked about the socialization of intelligence very much. We talked a lot about intelligence as being individual human things, yet the thing that distinguishes humans from other animals is our possession of human language, which allows us both to think and communicate in ways that other animals don’t appear to be able to. This gives us a cooperative power as a global organism, which is causing lots of trouble. If I were another species, I’d be pretty damn pissed off right now. What makes human beings effective is not their individual intelligences, though there are many very intelligent people in this room, but their communal intelligence.

SETH LLOYD is a theoretical physicist at MIT; Nam P. Suh Professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering; external professor at the Santa Fe Institute; and author of Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes on the Cosmos. Seth Lloyd's Edge Bio Page

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COMMUNAL INTELLIGENCE

SETH LLOYD: I’m a bit embarrassed because I’ve benefited so much by going close to last in this meeting. I’ve heard so many wonderful things and so many great ideas, which I will shamelessly parrot while trying to ascribe them to the people who mentioned them. This has been a fantastic meeting.

When John first talked about doing something like the Macy Conferences, I didn’t know what they were, so I went back and started to look at that. It was remarkable how prescient the ideas seemed to be. I couldn’t understand that, because why was it that all of a sudden we’re now extremely worried and interested in AI and devices that mimic neural networks? People were worried about it back then, and yet for decades it didn’t seem like people were that worried about this.

The Nature of Moral Motivation

Patricia S. Churchland [10.16.19]

Although we have made tremendous progress in understanding many details of the brain, there are huge gaps in our knowledge. What's relevant to me, as somebody who's interested in the nature of moral behavior, is how little we understand about the nature of reasoning, or if I may use a different expression, problem solving. I don't know what reasoning is. For a long time, people seemed to think it was completely separate from emotion, but we know that can't be true.

The nature of problem solving is something that is still very much in the pioneering stages in neuroscience. It's a place where neuroscience and psychology can cooperate to get interesting experimental paradigms so that we can attack the question: How is it that, out of all these constraints and factors, a reasonable decision can be made? That's a tough one. It will require us to find good experimental paradigms and new techniques.

PATRICIA S. CHURCHLAND is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego, and adjunct professor at the Salk Institute. Her research has centered on the interface between neuroscience and philosophy, with a current focus on the association of morality and the social brain. She is the author of Conscience: The Origins of Moral IntuitionPatricia S. Churchland's Edge Bio Page

A Post-Galilean Paradigm

Philip Goff [9.24.19]

We're now going through a phase of history where people are so blown away at the success of physical science and the wonderful technology it's produced that they've forgotten its philosophical underpinnings. They've forgotten its inherent limitations. If we want a science of consciousness, we need to move beyond Galileo. We need to move to what I call a post-Galilean paradigm. We need to rethink what science is. That doesn't mean we stop doing physical science or we do physical science differently—I'm not here to tell physical scientists how to do their jobs. It does, however, mean that it's not the full story. We need physical science to encompass a more expansive conception of the scientific method. We need to adopt a worldview that can accommodate both the quantitative data of physical science and the qualitative reality of consciousness. That's essentially the problem.

Fortunately, there is a way forward. There is a framework that could allow us to make progress on this. It's inspired by certain writings from the 1920s of the philosopher Bertrand Russell and the scientist Arthur Eddington, who is incidentally the first scientist to confirm general relativity after the First World War. I'm inclined to think that these guys did in the 1920s for the science of consciousness what Darwin did in the 19th century for the science of life. It's a tragedy of history that this was completely forgotten about for a long time for various historical reasons we could talk about. But, it's recently been rediscovered in the last five or ten years in academic philosophy, and it's causing a lot of excitement and interest.

PHILIP GOFF is a philosopher and consciousness researcher at Durham University, UK, and author of Galileo's Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness (forthcoming, 2019). Philip Goff's Edge Bio Page

The Universe Is Not in a Box

Julian Barbour [9.11.19]

One of the great books in science was published in 1824 by a young Frenchman called Sadi Carnot. It is one of the most wonderful books, the title of which is Reflections on the Motive Power of Fire. In about six pages, Carnot explains how you would make a steam engine that would work with the absolute maximum efficiency possible. It was almost entirely ignored, and he died before anything much could come out of it. It was rediscovered in 1849 when William Thomson, who later became Lord Kelvin, wrote a paper that publicized this work. Within a couple of years, thermodynamics had been created as a science.

It caused a tremendous lot of excitement from the 1850s onwards. The key thing about this work of Carnot's is that if you have a steam engine, the steam has to remain in a cylinder in a box. You want the steam engine to work continuously, so you keep on having to bring the steam and the cylinder back to the condition it was before. It's remarkable that the development of what's called statistical mechanics—to understand how steam behaves—led to the discovery of entropy, one of the great discoveries in the history of science, and with it the mystery of the arrow of time. And it all followed out of this work of Carnot on how steam engines work. And moreover, it was very anthropocentric thinking about how human beings could exploit coal to drive steam engines and do work for them. At that stage, nobody was thinking about the universe as a whole; they were just thinking about how they could make steam engines work better.

This way of thinking, I believe, has survived more or less unchanged to this day. You still find that people who work on this problem of the arrow of time are still assuming conditions that are appropriate for a steam engine. But in the 1920s and early 1930s, Hubble showed that the universe was expanding, that we live in an expanding universe. Is that going to be well modeled by steam in a box? My belief is that people haven't realized that we have to think out of the box. We have to think in different ways. My collaborators and I keep on finding ways in which the mathematics that was developed before to understand systems confined in a box have to be modified with quite surprising consequences and, above all, possibly to explain why we have an incredibly powerful sense of the passage of time, why the past is so different from the future.

JULIAN BARBOUR is a theoretical physicist specializing in the study of time and motion; emeritus visiting professor in physics at the University of Oxford; and author of The Janus Point (forthcoming, 2020) and The End of TimeJulian Barbour's Edge Bio Page

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