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Learning By Thinking


Sometimes you think you understand something, and when you try to explain it to somebody else, you realize that maybe you gained some new insight that you didn't have before. Maybe you realize you didn't understand it as well as you thought you did. What I think is interesting about this process is that it’s a process of learning by thinking. When you're explaining to yourself or to somebody else without them providing feedback, insofar as you gain new insight or understanding, it isn't driven by that new information that they've provided. In some way, you've rearranged what was already in your head in order to get new insight.

The process of trying to explain to yourself is a lot like a thought experiment in science. For the most part, the way that science progresses is by going out, conducting experiments, getting new empirical data, and so on. But occasionally in the history of science, there've been these important episodes—Galileo, Einstein, and so on—where somebody will get some genuinely new insight from engaging in a thought experiment. 

TANIA LOMBROZO is a professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an affiliate of the Department of Philosophy and a member of the Institute for Cognitive and Brain Sciences. She is a contributor to Psychology Today and the NPR blog 13.7: Cosmos & Culture. Tania Lombrozo's Edge Bio page


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Things to Hang on Your Mental Mug Tree


I don't think there's any huge amount of intelligence required to look at the world through different lenses. The difficulty lies in that you have to abandon four or five assumptions about the world simultaneously. That's what probably makes it difficult.

RORY SUTHERLAND is Executive Creative Director and Vice-Chairman, OgilvyOne London; Vice-Chairman, Ogilvy & Mather UK; Columnist, The SpectatorRory Sutherland's Edge Bio page

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Compassionate Systems

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

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Curtains For Us All?


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, which is 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 post-human era is probably not going to start here on Earth; it will be spearheaded by these communities on Mars. That's the vision I would have of Mars. It's people out there who will perhaps lead to these developments, which will then eventually lead to posthumans, maybe electronic rather than organic, spreading far beyond our solar system. If that's happened elsewhere, that's the sort of thing we might detect. 

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


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The Threat


Although a security failure may be due to someone using the wrong type of access control mechanism or weak cypher, the underlying reason for that is very often one of incentives. Fundamentally, the problem is that when Alice guards a system and Bob pays the cost of failure, things break. Put in those terms, it’s simple and straightforward, but it’s often much more complicated when we start looking at how things actually fail in real life.

ROSS ANDERSON is a 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, and is a fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering. Ross Anderson's Edge Bio Page

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Soul of a Molecular Machine


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 an Indian-born American and British structural biologist. He shared the 2009 Nobel Prize in Chemistry with Ada Yonath and Tom Steitz and is the current President of the Royal Society. His many scientific contributions include his work on the atomic structure of the ribosome. Venki Ramakrishnan's Edge Bio Page

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Urban Evolution

How Species Adapt, or Don't, to City Living

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


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Closing the Loop


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


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The Function of Reason


Contrary to the standard view of reason as a capacity that enhances the individual in his or her cognitive capacities—the standard image is of Rodin’s "Thinker," thinking on his own and discovering new ideas—what we say now is that the basic functions of reason are social. They have to do with the fact that we interact with each other’s bodies and with each other’s minds. And to interact with other’s minds is to be able to represent a representation that others have, and to have them represent our representations, and also to act on the representation of others and, in some cases, let others act on our own representations.

The kind of achievements that are often cited as the proof that reason is so superior, like scientific achievements, are not achievements of individual minds, not achievements of individual reason, they are collective achievements—typically a product of social interaction over generations. They are social, cultural products, where many minds had to interact in complex ways and progressively explore a lot of directions on which they hit not because some were more reasonable than others, but because some were luckier than others in what they hit. And then they used their reason to defend what they hit by luck. Reason is a remarkable cognitive capacity, as are so many cognitive capacities in human and animals, but it’s not a superpower.

DAN SPERBER is a Paris-based social and cognitive scientist. He holds an emeritus research professorship at the French Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique (CNRS), Paris, and he is currently at Central European University, Budapest. He is the creator, with Deirdre Wilson, of "Relevance Theory." Dan Sperber's Edge Bio Page

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Defining Intelligence


I worked on coming up with a method of defining intelligence that would necessarily have a solution, as opposed to being necessarily unsolvable. That was this idea of bounded optimality, which, roughly speaking, says that you have a machine and the machine is finite—it has finite speed and finite memory. That means that there is only a finite set of programs that can run on that machine, and out of that finite set one or some small equivalent class of programs does better than all the others; that’s the program that we should aim for.                                 

That’s what we call the bounded optimal program for that machine and also for some class of environments that you’re intending to work in. We can make progress there because we can start with very restricted types of machines and restricted kinds of environments and solve the problem. We can say, "Here is, for that machine and this environment, the best possible program that takes into account the fact that the machine doesn’t run infinitely fast. It can only do a certain amount of computation before the world changes." 

STUART RUSSELL is a professor of computer science at UC Berkeley and coauthor (with Peter Norvig) of Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. Stuart Russell's Edge Bio Page


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