The State of Informed Bewilderment

John Naughton [1.3.18]

In relation to the Internet and the changes it has already brought in our society, my feeling is that although we don’t know really where it’s heading because it’s too early in the change, we’ve had one stroke of luck. The stroke of luck was that, as a species, we’ve conducted this experiment once before. We’re living through a transformation of our information environment. This happened once before, and we know quite a lot about it. It was kicked off in 1455 by Johannes Gutenberg and his invention of printing by movable type.

In the centuries that followed, that invention not only transformed humanity’s information environment, it also led to colossal changes in society and the world. You could say that what Gutenberg kicked off was a world in which we were all born. Even now, it’s the world in which most of us were shaped. That’s changing for younger generations, but that’s the case for people like me.

JOHN NAUGHTON is a senior research fellow at Cambridge University's Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences and Humanities. He is an Internet columnist for the London Observer, and author of From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg. John Naughton's Edge Bio page 

Coalitional Instincts

John Tooby [11.22.17]

A daunting new augmented reality was neurally kindled, overlying the older individual one. It is important to realize that this reality is constructed by and runs on our coalitional programs and has no independent existence. You are a member of a coalition only if someone (such as you) interprets you as being one, and you are not if no one does. We project coalitions onto everything, even where they have no place, such as in science. We are identity-crazed....

JOHN TOOBY is the founder of the field of Evolutionary Psychology, co-director of the Center for Evolutionary Psychology, and professor of Anthropology at UC Santa Barbara. John Tooby's Edge Bio Page


One of the joys of Edge, the incredible wealth of important ideas from leading thinkers, also presents a unique challenge. The 2017 Edge Question (What Scientific Term or Concept Ought to Be More Widely Known?), published this past January, consists of essays by 206 contributors comprising a manuscript of 143,000 words. It would be completely understandable for readers to have missed or skimmed over John Tooby’s seminal essay, “Coalitional Instincts.” What Tooby, the father of Evolutionary Psychology, has to say about coalitions, identity, tribalism, could just as well be on the front pages of today's leading newspapers. We are pleased to present "Coalition Instincts" with the hopes that it sparks a wide science-based conversation.

John Brockman
Editor, Edge

"A Difference That Makes a Difference"

Daniel C. Dennett [11.22.17]

Having turned my back on propositions, I thought, what am I going to do about this? The area where it really comes up is when you start looking at the contents of consciousness, which is my number one topic. I like to quote Maynard Keynes on this. He was once asked, “Do you think in words or pictures?” to which he responded, “I think in thoughts.” It was a wonderful answer, but also wonderfully uninformative. What the hell’s a thought then? How does it carry information? Is it like a picture? Is it iconic in some way? Does it resemble what it’s about, or is it like a word that refers to what it’s about without resembling it? Are there third, fourth, fifth alternatives? Looking at information in the brain and then trying to trace it back to information in the genes that must be responsible for providing the design of the brain that can then carry information in other senses, you gradually begin to realize that this does tie in with Shannon's information theory. There’s a way of seeing information as "a difference that makes a difference," to quote Donald MacKay and Bateson.

Ever since then, I’ve been trying to articulate, with the help of Harvard evolutionary biologist David Haig, just what meaning is, what content is, and ultimately, in terms of biological information and physical information, the information presented in A Mathematical Theory of Communication by Shannon and Weaver. There’s a chapter in my latest book called “What is Information?” I stand by it, but it’s under revision. I’m already moving beyond it and realizing there’s a better way of tackling some of these issues.

DANIEL C. DENNETT is the Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He is the author, most recently, of From Bacteria to Bach and Back: The Evolution of Minds. Daniel C. Dennett's Edge Bio page

Where (or What) Is Today's Frontier?

Danny Hillis's 1991 EDGE Special Project, Reprised John Brockman [11.22.17]

Edge originated in 1980 as The Reality Club. Beginning in September 1990, Edge #1, the first of five printed editions, was privately published to a limited audience. This continued through Edge #5, which was published in April 1992. At that point we switched to an email format and, eventually, in 1997, to the web-based Edge of today.

I ran into Danny Hillis recently, who asked, "Do you remember the postcards I sent out to the Reality Club list in 1991 asking 'Where (or What) Is Today's Frontier?' You published the answers in Edge #3. Wouldn't it be interesting to ask the same question 27 years later?"

On further discussion, we both quickly realized that the postcard format would be a problem because (a) many people have forgotten how to write, and (b) does anybody today know how or where to buy a stamp?  

So, here again, in its entirety, is a downloadable PDF of the 16-page Edge #3with all kinds of interesting material...

• Stephen Jay Gould on eohippus, Kentucky Derby winners, human history, 18th-century castrati, Ted Williams, and Mozart;

• Howard Gardner on the problems he encounters while studying creativity;

• Howard "always ten years ahead of his time" Rheingold on THE WELL, the Internet, virtual reality, and filters; 

• Danny Hillis's question "Where (or What) Is Today's Frontier?" with dozens of responses from the Edgies;

• "Deep Desert" on Southwestern ecology and bovine imperialism;

• Alan Guth, the father of inflationary theory, on "What's new in the universe"

And, of course, the Edgies' responses to Danny Hillis's question, including his own prescient and optimistic response:

"I finally realized that the frontier had been sitting in my office all along—on the other side of the computer screen. That's basically where the cowboys are today. First, fortunes are being made and lost; second, it's where new law is being made, and third, new territories are up for grabs for anyone with the courage and imagination to take them. I didn't think this way when the project started."

So, here we are 27 years later: Where (or what) is today's frontier?

John Brockman
    Editor, Edge

The Human Strategy

Alex "Sandy" Pentland [10.30.17]

The idea of a credit assignment function, reinforcing “neurons” that work, is the core of current AI. And if you make those little neurons that get reinforced smarter, the AI gets smarter. So, what would happen if the neurons were people? People have lots of capabilities; they know lots of things about the world; they can perceive things in a human way. What would happen if you had a network of people where you could reinforce the ones that were helping and maybe discourage the ones that weren't?

That begins to sound like a society or a company. We all live in a human social network. We're reinforced for things that seem to help everybody and discouraged from things that are not appreciated. Culture is something that comes from a sort of human AI, the function of reinforcing the good and penalizing the bad, but applied to humans and human problems. Once you realize that you can take this general framework of AI and create a human AI, the question becomes, what's the right way to do that? Is it a safe idea? Is it completely crazy?

ALEX "SANDY" PENTLAND is a professor at MIT, and director of the MIT Connection Science and Human Dynamics labs. He is a founding member of advisory boards for Google, AT&T, Nissan, and the UN Secretary General. He is the author of Social Physics, and Honest Signal. Sandy Pentland's Edge Bio page

We Are in the Presence of a Formidable Creature

Andrian Kreye [10.13.17]

We Are in the Presence of a Formidable Creature

Artificial intelligence changes science and technology. Clear. But what does it do with society? Engineers, artists and scientists come to an inescapable realization.

By Andrian Kreye, October 13, 2017

[Editor’s Note: Edge was in London once again to continue its ongoing collaboration with The Serpentine Gallery and its “supercurator” Hans Ulrich Obrist. Longtime Edge contributor Andrian Kreye flew in from Munich for the event, and, wearing his hat as Feuilleton editor of the influential German national newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, wrote the front page lede story in the weekend edition. We are pleased to run the following translated excerpt. —JB]

It is not at all mistaken to look for insight into artificial intelligence by reading the folk tales in 1001 Nights. The writer Adam Thirlwell and the literary scholar Marina Warner, currently the President of the Royal Society of Literature, did just that last week in the great hall of the London City Hall. In the mighty spiral dome overlooking the Thames and Tower Bridge, a few dozen scientists, engineers, artists and writers met to look for coherent images for the artificial intelligence.

Sitting in the architecturally high-quality glistening autumn light, they publicly thought about whether the Oriental fairy-tale genie Djinn, this serviceable wish filler of smokeless fire, was not the perfect symbol for those digital forces, which are currently being unleashed everywhere. Not only could you see the digital flare as a contemporary image for the smoke-free fire, but it also poses the question of the controllability of this rebellious spirit of the bottle. Whoever frees him from his divine imprisonment has no idea of what Djinn's magical powers could do.

Shut Up and Measure

Brian G. Keating [10.20.17]

What is fascinating to me is that we are now hoping, with modern measurements, to probe the early Universe. In doing so, we’re encountering deep questions about the scientific method and questions about what is fundamental to physics. When we look out on the Universe, we’re looking through this dirty window, literally a dusty window. We look out through dust in our galaxy. And what is that dust? I like to call it nanoplanets, tiny grains of iron and carbon and silicon—all these things that are the matter of our solar system. They’re the very matter that Galileo was looking through when he first glimpsed the Pleiades and the stars beyond the solar system for the first time.

When we look out our telescopes, we never see just what we're looking for. We have to contend with everything in the foreground. And thank goodness for that dust in the foreground, for without it, we would not be here.

Professor BRIAN KEATING is an astrophysicist with the University of California San Diego’s Department of Physics. He and his team develop instrumentation to study the early universe at radio, microwave, and infrared wavelengths. He is the author of over 100 scientific publications and holds two U.S. patents.  Brian Keating's Edge Bio page

Edge Master Class 2008: Richard Thaler, Sendhil Mullainathan, Daniel Kahneman - A Short Course in Behavioral Economics


[View the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences Press Release]

Daniel Kahneman & Richard Thaler
Edge Retreat, Spring Mountain Vineyard, Napa, California, August 22, 2013

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

Richard Thaler Sendhil Mullainathan Daniel Kahneman

Edge Master Class 2008 
Richard ThalerSendhil Mullainathan, Daniel Kahneman

Sonoma, CA, July 25-27, 2008

A decade ago, Edge convened its first "Master Class" in Napa, California, in which psychologist and Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahneman taught a nine-hour course: "A Short Course On Thinking About Thinking." The attendees were a "who's who" of the new global business culture. 

The following year, in 2008, we invited Richard Thaler, the father of behavioral economics, to continue the conversation by organizing and leading the class: "A Short Course On Behavioral Economics." 

Thaler arrived at Stanford in the 1970s to work with Kahneman and his late partner, Amos Tversky. Thaler, in turn, asked Harvard economist and former student Sendhil Mullainathan, as well as Kahneman, to teach the class with him.

The entire text to the 2008 Master Class is available online, along with video highlights of the talks and a photo gallery. The text also appears in a book privately published by Edge Foundation, Inc.

Nathan Myhrvold Jeff Bezos Elon Musk

Reality is an Activity of the Most August Imagination

Tim O'Reilly [10.2.17]

Wallace Stevens had an immense insight into the way that we write the world. We don't just read it, we don't just see it, we don't just take it in. In "An Ordinary Evening in New Haven," he talks about the dialogue between what he calls the Naked Alpha and the Hierophant Omega, the beginning, the raw stuff of reality, and what we make of it. He also said “reality is an activity of the most august imagination.”

Our job is to imagine a better future, because if we can imagine it, we can create it. But it starts with that imagination. The future that we can imagine shouldn't be a dystopian vision of robots that are wiping us out, of climate change that is going to destroy our society. It should be a vision of how we will rise to the challenges that we face in the next century, that we will build an enduring civilization, and that we will build a world that is better for our children and grandchildren and great-grandchildren. It should be a vision that we will become one of those long-lasting species rather than a flash in the pan that wipes itself out because of its lack of foresight.

We are at a critical moment in human history. In the small, we are at a critical moment in our economy, where we have to make it work better for everyone, not just for a select few. But in the large, we have to make it better in the way that we deal with long-term challenges and long-term problems.

TIM O'REILLY is the founder and CEO of O'Reilly Media, Inc., and the author of WTF?: What’s the Future and Why It’s Up to Us. Tim O'Reilly's Edge Bio page

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