Where (or What) Is Today's Frontier?

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

"WHERE (OR WHAT) IS TODAY'S FRONTIER?" A creature of habit, I am back at Tapas in Cambridge having dinner with Mary Catherine BatesonSidney ColemanStephen Jay Gould, and Danny Hillis, an eclectically genial mix of anthropology, cosmology, zoology, and computer science, with a dash of radical epistemology (me). It's a casual meal, but Danny, looking earnest, has an agenda. "I'm looking for today's frontier," he says to me, leaning over the small platters of delicious tapas.

Danny Hillis, 34 years old, is a computer scientist and artificial intelligence researcher. He never carries a briefcase, or even papers. He sits at the table wearing his signature plain white t-shirt, not exactly the traditional outfit for a multi-millionaire mogul. Danny founded Thinking Machines Corporation (sales last year of $60 million), which sells the "Connection Machine," the first commercially produced computer using massive parallelism architecture (thousands of small processors working together in parallel—as opposed to the Cray supercomputer, which has one processor that processes everything very quickly). He's recently received a DARPA grant to begin work on a computer capable of reaching a trillion floating point operations per second—the "teraflop machine." It will be one thousand times faster than today's fastest supercomputer. The teraflop machine will be developed by the latter half of this decade. This race will, I believe, define the economic and scientific environment of the 90s and beyond.

Unlike many computer scientists, Danny's intellectual horizons exceed the binary discourse of bits and bytes. The part of dinner I enjoy the most is a back and forth between Danny and Steve Gould about computer science and evolutionary theory, i.e. applying massive parallelism to problems in punctuated equilibrium.

"You have the best mailing list," Danny says to me a few weeks later on the phone. He's ready to move ahead with the "frontier project," and asks for labels for the Reality Club mailing list. A week later I receive a postcard in the mail with the following query: "Where (or what) is today's frontier?" 

Here is a sampling of responses below, or click on this link for Edge #3 to view all responses.

• Isaac Asimov: "In cis-Lunar space and on the Moon, at this moment."

• Stewart Brand: "Nano. Adaptive complex systems. Ecology / economics—both theory and practice. Partially hierarchical global government."

• John Brockman: "Technology as culture."

• Ellen Burstyn: "World Unity. 1 World—1 People. Earthians living in peace."

• Dan Dennett: "Outer space has been stormed and (largely) understood. Today's frontier is inner space: the mind of the conscious observer. The space in the brain is becoming much better mapped and understood—thanks to MRI and PET and the other new technologies for high­resolution non-invasive data-gathering—but that space is only indirectly related to the inner space I am talking about, which is the logical space of mental representation supported by the brain's machinery. The confusion about the relations between these spaces is almost universal, but it is now beginning to dissolve. I expect the breakthroughs in this area to reconceptualize the observer of quantum mechanics, and to provide testable models of how human consciousness is realized in the operations of the brain."

• Annie Dillard: "What is today's frontier? Feeding and housing the world's people, starting with our own."

• Esther Dyson: "The frontier is finding structure in data." function with confidence and lucidity within a world so re-constituted."

•  George Dyson: "The nature of consciousness itself, specifically, if or when does the great, unfathomably complex electron / neural network we are now part of become conscious on some level that may or may not be understandable to us?"

• Richard Foreman: "Therapeutically assisting people (through art, science, education) in two great tasks. First, learning to see both their inner and outer worlds as constructs of absolute contingency and flux. Second, learning to function with confidence and lucidity within a world so re-constituted."

• Betty Friedan: "—a new politics of social responsibility and individual freedom;—a vision of power of the restructuring of life for women, men and children beyond the polarized male model;—a paradigm of personhood transcending mind­body, male-female, and age polarities."

• Howard Gardner: "We're doing fine in science, technology, saving thousands of live s, or wasting millions. The real frontiers haven't changed for millennia: enough food to the needy, the need for selfless leaders, civility, kindness to children, eradication of racism. What's changed is the distance between what we're doing and what we could do."

• Mitch Kapor: (Sent paper by John Perry Barlow and himself, entitled "Across the Electronic Frontier") "Over the last 50 years, the people of the developed world have begun to cross into a landscape unlike any that humanity has experienced before. It is a region without physical shape or form. It exists, like a standing wave, in the vast web of our electronic communication systems. It consists of electron states, microwaves, magnetic fields, light pulses and thought itself."

• Kevin Kelly: "1. The nature of control.  2. Whose culture is this, anyway? 3. Are the laws of the universe eternal, like God, or mutable, like species? 4. Is evolution based on contingencies? 5. The clone revolution—how do we treat copies of things, from DNA to floppy disks to ideas to styles of singing to twins?"

• Art Kleiner: "The most constant frontier is always the next five minutes. But for me, personally, I think there is a frontier in maturity. It has to do with accepting a certain amount of personal responsibility for people and events. That may simply be a life passage, but I see it echoed in institutions, maybe in machine design, maybe in countries—without conscious awareness. There's something that isn't 'work' and isn't 'play.' When sincere, it's a frontier."

• Paul Krassner:
—"Food, clothing and shelter.
—Transforming insane priorities.
—Survival of the planet. Demilitarization.—Saving the young. Then education.
—Limiting the population. Eliminating censorship.
—Revolutionizing energy sources.
—Legalization of drugs. Free health insurance.
—Exploration of natural healing medicines.
—Exposing secret governments."

• Chris Langton: "One frontier is certainly studying the natural dynamics of distributed systems, especially emergent properties. I think that what we learn from the study of such systems will shed much new light on life, intelligence, and the universe."

• Rollo May: "The frontier today is man-woman kind. I do not mean their relationships (that is established, whether practical or not). I mean rather the nature of what it means to be human, the worth and value of life."

• Dorion Sagan: "Today's frontier is the eighth rank, where pawns are reborn as queens."

• Roger Schank: "Software (especially for kids to learn from)."

• Carolee Schneemann: "The critical frontier is the psychic and erotic penetration of systems of masculinist abstraction—self-righteous, competitive, identified with unexamined traditions of power and dominance."

• John Searle: "Today's frontier is consciousness."

• Gerd Stern: "Frontierologies: Pushing the line between human life / death up the age scale. Cum maintenance via youthification. Since real time is non expandable on the level of, try to fit more than (one day= x hours) x of those hours into one day. A frontierology of options (personal choices) expanding time by automating tasking needs."

• Cliff Stoll: "Today's frontier is under the asphalt: learning and exploring the underside of civilization."

• Joe Traub: "What do the noncomputability and intractability results of theoretical computer science really imply for what is knowable in science?"

• Sherry Turkle: "The cell (unlocking its final mysteries will allow us to cure cancer, AIDS ... ) The environment (finding the ways to make peace with it will allow us to continue to live here)."

• Francisco Varela: "The mind-mind problem: What's the relation (bridge, nexus) between a mind-event as process (we are getting closer and closer to a good answer) and a mind event as experience (elusive, essential remainder)."