The last question

Ella Rhodes on the latest from the Edge.

What is the optimal algorithm for discovering truth? How does a single human brain architecture create many kinds of human minds? Is technology changing the nature of moral emotions? These were just some of the fascinating answers to the final annual question from The Edge after 20 years, this year’s question – What is the last question?

More than 280 academics, journalists and thought leaders responded, with much input from psychologists and neuroscientists. Certain themes could be traced across the replies – immortality, truth, humans as algorithm and algorithm as human, and the potential collapse of civilisation in our lifetime.

Gerd Gigerenzer, a psychologist and Director of the Harding Center for Risk Literacy (Max Planck Institute for Human Development) asked ‘Can human intuition ever be reduced to an algorithm?’. Psychologist Alison Gopnik (University of California, Berkeley) posed the question ‘How can the few pounds of grey goo between our ears let us make utterly surprising, completely unprecedented, and remarkably true discoveries about the world around us, in every domain and at every scale, from quarks to quasars?’.

‘Why is it so hard to find the truth?’ was suggested by social psychologist Jonathan Haidt (New York University Stern School of Business), and psychology graduate student Jason Wilkes (University of California, Santa Barbara) asked ‘Why are the errors that our best machine-learning algorithms make so different from the errors we humans make?’

The fascinating questions aren’t, of course, limited to the psychologists among the responses; Lorraine Justice, Dean Emerita and Professor of Industrial Design (Rochester Institute of Technology) asked ‘What might the last fully biological human’s statement be at their last supper?’. Noga Arikha, a historian and author of Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours suggested ‘Will it ever be possible for us to transcend our limited experience of time as linear?’. Some of us may relate to the question posed by Dylan Evans, the Founder and CEO of the risk intelligence training company Projection Point, who asked ‘Will civilization collapse before I die?’. 

To read the full list of responses see

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