Conversing with Leading Thinkers

A surprising book for our times comes true

Adolfo Plasencia

Front and back cover of the book, published by MIT Press

Is the Universe a Hologram?

Scientists Answer the Most Provocative Questions

Foreword by Tim O’Reilly
Conversations with
Hal Abelson, Ricardo Baeza-Yates, John Perry Barlow, Javier Benedicto, José Bernabéu, Michail Bletsas, Jose M. Carmena, David Casacuberta, Yung Ho Chang, Ignacio Cirac, Gianluigi Colalucci, Avelino Corma, Bernardo Cuenca Grau, Javier Echeverria, José Hernández-Orallo, Hiroshi Ishii, Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, Henry Jenkins, Anne Margulies, Mario J. Molina, Tim O’Reilly, John Ochsendorf, Paul Osterman, Alvaro Pascual-Leone, Rosalind W. Picard, Howard Rheingold, Alejandro W. Rodriguez, Israel Ruiz, Sara Seager, Richard Stallman, Antonio Torralba, Bebo White, José María Yturralde


Science today is more a process of collaboration than moments of individual “eurekas.” This book recreates that kind of synergy by offering a series of interconnected dialogues with leading scientists who are asked to reflect on key questions and concepts about the physical world, technology, and the mind. These thinkers offer both specific observations and broader comments about the intellectual traditions that inform these questions; doing so, they reveal a rich seam of interacting ideas.
The persistent paradox of our era is that in a world of unprecedented access to information, many of the most important questions remain unsolved. These conversations (conducted by a science writer, Adolfo Plasencia) reflect this, with scientists addressing such issues as intelligence, consciousness, global warming, energy, technology, matter, the possibility of another earth, changing the past, and even the philosophical curveball, “is the universe a hologram?”
The dialogues discuss such fascinating aspects of the physical world as the function of the quantum bit, the primordial cosmology of the universe, and the wisdom of hewn stones. They offer optimistic but reasoned views of technology, considering convergence culture, algorithms, “Beauty ? Truth,” the hacker ethic, AI, and other topics. And they offer perspectives from a range of disciplines on intelligence, discussing subjects that include the neurophysiology of the brain, affective computing, collaborative innovation, and the wisdom of crowds.

Conversing with Leading Thinkers

A surprising book for our times comes true

by: Adolfo Plasencia

The long experience of putting together the contents of this book: “Is the Universe a Hologram? Scientists Answer the Most Provocative Questions”, just published by The MIT Press, has been for me something extraordinary and is perhaps unique in this world of hyperspecialization we now live in. The publishing house itself, conscious of the diversity of its contents, placed it for months high up on the Web list of its section ‘Science’, but also in that of ‘General Interest’. It’s true that it’s a difficult book to place within the conventional classification. And that will also hold true for the “specialist” sections of bookshops.

It’s a book of non-linear contents, something which today is at the very least surprising, but at the same time most welcome. Any observer with curiosity, and whose capacity for amazement is in a good state of health, knows that the development both of basic science and applied science, technological development and new discoveries are being taken over by hybrid disciplines. Exactly where discovery takes place today has become fuzzy. The points of intersection between equally fuzzy disciplines are where the new flashpoints heralding the future are located. These produce the sparks that are transforming both the horizons of thinking and creation, as well as education, which has ceased to be the guarantee of a professional life with a fixed vocation for the rest of one’s life. This book bears witness to that. Everything is shifting. One illustration of this, taken from the book, is that of José M. Carmena who is director of his own laboratory at UC Berkeley where he investigates Brain-Machine Interface Systems (BMI); neuroprosthesis, the ‘neural basis of sensorimotor learning and control’ and ‘neural ensemble computation’. Professor Carmena, before founding his own laboratory in Berkeley undertook Electronic Engineering studies in Spain, then Robotics and Artificial Intelligence in the United Kingdom and then Neuroscience in the United States. He now works in something even more surprising, also mentioned in the book, called “Neural Dust”. Carmena is carrying out research into the intersections between Neuroscience, A.I. and all types of engineering, electronics and nanotechnologies.

The book – preceded by a foreword written by the prestigious Tim O’Reilly, formulator of Web 2.0-, includes 33 conversations on different aspects of science, technologies, new fields of the humanities, the Internet, on the effects and ethical criteria concerning the use of technologies, all of which affect both individuals and society as a whole. It is a set of dialogues (not interviews), designed to be interrelated and undertaken using a special method of dialogue, partly based on what we find in the works of Plato, such as Phaedrus or Theaetetus. The book has an interconnected literary structure from which emerges questions and answers, sometimes long and thoughtful, and at other, sudden and unexpected. Questions interweave between the dialogues and their participants in such a way that they led the expert on the Internet, Ricardo Baeza-Yates, to tell me- “Not only do are you trying to find out about our searches and findings in the fields of knowledge and technology, but you are also cross-referencing us with the humanities so that we put ourselves at risk. What you like most is to take us out of our ‘intellectual comfort zone’. But that’s O.K with me, I like it”. Another example of someone who took risks in his conversation in the book is the young MIT physicist Pablo Jarillo-Herrero, pioneer of ‘two dimensional materials’. Pablo, a few months before undertaking the dialogue for the book received an award from President Barak Obama, the Presidential Early Career Awards for Scientists and Engineers, an awards that recognizes young scientists that take on the riskiest of research and confront the greatest challenges. The title of Pablo’s dialogue in the book uses his own words “Graphene is the finest material that has ever existed, exists and will exist”. Although there are many other worthy examples I could mention, space does not permit it here.

Questions are much more important than answers

To get an immediate idea of the diverse contents of this book, the best thing to do is to carefully read the list of questions that form the contents of the book: questions such as “What is intelligence, how does it work, where does it reside, and how is it measured?”; “What will intelligent machines be like? Will there be nonbiological intelligence (not based on Homo Sapiens)?”; “Where does consciousness reside and how does it emerge?”; “Is the universe a hologram?” (discussed by the philosopher Javier Echeverría); “How does the brain really work? Where is the “I”?; “Is it possible to govern uncertainty and live with its stochastic effects? Can we plan the impossible?”; “Are search technologies now allowing us to remember the future?”…. And there are also dialogue titles such as, for example “Quantum Physics Takes Free Will into Account”, a dialogue with Ignacio Cirac, director of the Theoretical Division of the Max-Planck institute for Quantum Optics, who describes the ‘little problem’ of quantum physics called the ‘problem of measurement’ that tries to discover why that discipline describes knowledge of ‘the others’, but is incapable of describing itself. There are other expressive titles such as: “The Emergence of a Nonbiological Intelligence”, with Michail Bletsas, director of computation at MIT Media Lab; or “Remembering Our Future: The Frontier of Search Technologies”, with the information technology scientist Ricardo Baeza-Yates.

In the book I have a dialogue with José Bernabéu about, among other things, whether, having found the Higgs Boson and other fundamental particles at CERN, he can enlighten us on one of the more categorical – in Berbabéu’s own words more mystical- questions of physics: “how mass arises from the properties of the vacuum state”… Or going beyond that question, as he explains, “That arrow of time does not eliminate the question of whether the dynamics of the fundamental laws for elementary particles, for those that we observe to have reversible processes in time, are able to describe both the direct process and the reverse process in time”, things that are not contradictory and something that the Harvard neurophysiologist, Alvaro Pascual-Leone affirms when he says that “causality ceases to exist”, a statement that the quantum physicist Ignacio Cirac is also party to. However what really interests Pascual-Leone is “the deep workings of the mind within the brain; and what is intelligence, that emerging property of the brain and to know where it resides and why some have more and others less”.

But the book’s not only about that. Other important questions are addressed too, for example, the relationship between ethics and the uses of technology. The great Richard Stallman reflects in the book on the ‘hacker ethics’ paradigm and explains the reason “It’s absurd to ask whether ethics is profitable or not; because it is a prior responsibility, an obligation towards others”. And why Choosing ethics as a guide only when it is profitable is really the same as not having any ethics.” David Casacuberta also gives us his strong and wide-ranging reasons on why “Encryption must be considered as a human right.”








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