A Dialogue about Dialogues: Adolfo Plasencia on Speaking with Scientists

For his book Is the Universe a Hologram? Scientists Answer the Most Provocative Questions, science writer Adolfo Plasencia spoke to more than thirty scientists, technologists, thinkers, and artists about how they go about their work, and where their various disciplines were heading. The breadth of his project, in turn, got us thinking about the challenges and thrills of speaking with so many great minds. Plasencia graciously took time to answer a few of our questions about what it was like to glimpse into the essence, and the future, of science.

You call this a book of dialogues rather than a book of interviews. Why is that?

Dialogues and interviews are conceptually different, and their purposes are as well. Ever since Plato’s dialogues, we have known that one of the best ways to seek truth—or knowledge, as we would say today—is to do so “dialogically,” i.e., by means of a dialogue where nobody has a prior hypothesis on what is going to be discussed. This involves a joint, question-based investigation in which a moment arrives when one realizes that the knowledge one had of a particular subject is doubtful or, at least, questionable.  The method used in the dialogues of this book is very similar in style to that employed in synusia, which is defined by Plato’s Academy as being “like a free exchange of knowledge,” a method that is also considered an early form of the current hacker ethic. Dialogue is a conceptually different method from an interview or questionnaire, which are more appropriate for dealing with issues within specialist areas.

For this book, I chose this dialogical method in order to explore the places where new ideas are discovered, which nowadays are mostly hybrid spaces at the intersection of or overlapping points among disciplines. This exploration, I believe, must be framed within a transdisciplinary vision, as one of the most basic elements of my purpose in this book was to interconnect the different ways of seeing distinct disciplines, cooperation between them being essential in order to advance further. That interconnection is one of the best ways of tackling the majority of the most complex questions that still remain to be resolved today. As Ricardo Baeza-Yates reminds us in the book, complexity arises from diversity, and to decipher that complexity, we need searches to be undertaken both in science and in the humanities and arts, which follow their own paths to discovery. To make that interconnection effective, I have, for example, interwoven questions from several of the dialogues and parts of the replies from others, knowing that this interconnection will in turn generate new questions that would probably not happen in a monodisciplinary context.

In this way, the reader is faced with the same question, but seen from different angles, all of which offers him or her a much more holistic panorama of that concept. One example is the reflections in the book on “What is intelligence?,” a concept that is tackled from the point of view of neuroscience and neurophysiology, as well as the sciences of computation, artificial intelligence, philosophy, and even quantum mechanics. The exploration starts with an initial list of questions in the book on key issues, then proceeds to the dialogues, making it quite clear that this is a book that has much more to do with questions than answers.

Through these dialogues, your book tackles “the most provocative questions.” Did you know you wanted to explore those specific questions, or did they emerge over the course of your conversations with the scientists?

Right from the beginning, I wanted to achieve an interconnected, balanced, and coherent whole, both with regard to the themes and the participants. The list that precedes the dialogues was made prior to conducting the conversations, although the dynamics of some dialogues meant that it had to be extended.

Since the dialogues were to be undertaken in person, I had to get to the places where I could meet the participants. Then I had to catch their attention and gain their confidence in a few minutes, so that these scientists would agree to participate in a project which was, from the start, rather unusual for the hyper-specialized times we live in, especially in science and technology. So the first questions were crucial in order to get them involved.

One has to bear in mind that at that moment, I couldn’t promise anyone that their words would end up being published by The MIT Press, as they have been. I had to capture their interest with my initial argument about my ‘weird’ proposal. And miraculously, most of the people I tried this with came to participate in the short gaps available in their incredibly tight schedules. The dynamics of the conversations, once started, often led to the time available being extended quite a bit, which in turn led to fascinating new questions being raised within the course of the dialogue.  

As far as I remember, none of the participants refused to tackle any of the questions, no matter how much they were taken out of their intellectual comfort zone. Likewise for the new questions engendered by their replies. That the dialogues lasted longer than I had foreseen is something for which I am immensely grateful, even though, in the end, it was very difficult to radically synthesize them and leave out words and ideas for editorial purposes. It’s almost impossible to reduce a coherently argued dialogue to a fixed number of words to fit neatly onto the pages of a book.

Scientists have a reputation, perhaps undeserved, for focusing on the narrow core of their research areas. Yet you were able to get thoughts from them that were expansive and cut across disciplines. What was it like speaking with them?

The scientists and creators in the book have a well-deserved reputation for being wise in their disciplines. Without their combination of wisdom and humility, I would not have been able to have these conversations with them. It is today a fact that most, if not all, cutting-edge disciplines where new ideas arise are in fuzzy and hybrid areas. The book is an exploration of those spaces, and the individuals chosen for these dialogues are involved in those areas.

For example, one of the participants is Jose M. Carmena, who has studied electrical engineering, robotics, artificial intelligence, and finally neuroscience, and now has his own laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley. Work at this laboratory involves a combination of neuroscience and various types of engineering and technologies. His research group, as he explains in his dialogue, receives young researchers coming from areas such as neuroscience, electrical engineering, information technology, telecommunications, and bioengineering. Their work is entirely multidisciplinary and hybrid, as are the technologies that the lab produces. Not long ago they launched the prototype of a technology called neural dust which, Carmena explains, combines various electronic microtechnologies and ultrasonic emissions, and is capable of wirelessly sending real-time signals of neural activity in the brain through the cranium or the nervous system. This technology has just been awarded the 2017 McKnight Award for technological innovation in neuroscience.

Another case is that of Pablo Jarillo-Herrero who works in nanophysics, quantum electronic transport, and optoelectronics in novel low-dimensional materials, such as graphene, at MIT. His research, as Pablo explains in his dialogue, combines quantum mechanics with the theory of special relativity in order to mount a theory of “quantum relativist mechanics” which is then applied to the real world in order to arrive at new never-before-seen applications. Another example is that of the dialogue with the quantum physicist Ignacio Cirac, director of the Theoretical Division of the Max Planck Institute of Quantum Optics, entitled “Quantum Physics Takes Free Will into Account”. The latter term has always been a concept of the humanities, but here it is explained with respect to quantum physics. And one final example: Baeza-Yates, a computational scientist who is now investigating big data and machine learning applied to the internet. He refers in his dialogue to precisely what you are asking me about, as his information technology research focuses on predicting human behavior on a grand scale, whereas human behavior has traditionally been a theme for the humanities or health sciences. Ricardo tells me that I am trying to remove him from the theoretical space of computation, which is his natural research discipline. But he likes that, since his scientific work operates at the vanguard, where reality itself obliges him to do the same.

I have only given some illustrative examples, but I’ll end by saying that when individuals like these, who have an enormous wealth of knowledge and wisdom, cross over the divisions between disciplines and ‘think outside the box’, they say some absolutely fascinating and novel things. The book is proof of that.

Is there a dialogue in the book that stands out as being particularly memorable?

For me, all the dialogues were memorable —and I’m not just saying that—because they were all completely different. Particularly memorable is that with the exoplanet astrophysicist Sara Seager, and also those of the great Hal Abelson, of MIT, and Henry Jenkins, co-founder of Comparative Media Studies at MIT. Aside from their wisdom, human contact with individuals like these is always exciting. I could also mention others who, in addition to their great knowledge, possess an incredible empathy, humility, and ability to express something very complex in a simple way, as is the case with Nobel Prize winner Mario J. Molina, or Alvaro Pascual-Leone. Or Rosalind Picard at the MIT Media Lab, when she talks of emotional communication or affective computing. Others I like a lot for the unforeseen twists in their replies: technologists such as Michail Bletsas, Hiroshi Ishii; or the AI scientist José Hernández-Orallo, with whom I was able to converse on the happiness formula, the relationship between intelligence and humor, and whether AI could become a threat or not.

In some cases, where individuals initially seemed cold or distant due to their disciplines, circumstances, or personalities, it was the dynamics of the dialogue itself which made them open up to answer new and unexpected questions, and to do so outside the aforementioned “intellectual comfort zone.” This is what happened with Baeza-Yates when he explained that in some projects, he had been handling the records of the behavior of 700 million people, each one of which has a “long tail.” And the same with Javier Benedicto talking about how to plan the impossible in space with the Galileo Programme. There are also creators in engineering and architecture in the book such as John Ochsendorf and Yung Ho Chang, who delved deep into the apparently contradictory idea that they can arrive at the cutting edge by basing themselves on the forgotten wisdom of tradition.

Worthy of special mention are the participating philosophers and creators who launched courageous arguments in the natural territory of scientists and technologists, such as Javier Echeverria, who likes the idea that the universe that we contemplate could be a representation or giant hologram, or a multidimensional Plato’s Cave. Or David Casacuberta who, without beating around the bush, states that “encryption is a human right.” From the human point of view, it was also very exciting to be able to talk with John Perry Barlow, Richard Stallman, and Tim O’Reilly, poet, hacker, and humanist respectively, three of my digital culture heroes.

Exciting too was the closing dialogue-epilogue with the artist José María Yturralde, a very special person who provides a critical view on general science from the world of art, asking whether it is possible to refute the great poet John Keats and claim that beauty does not equal truth (beauty ≠ truth), and if, in art, one can go back in the past and change it, among many other things.

Any of these conversations is memorable for various reasons, either for the amount of wisdom they have accumulated, or for the amazement caused by the things they are researching, or for what they express in their dialogues and also, I must confess, for the enthusiasm with which they have agreed to participate in a project and book as heterodox as this one.

Having collected these dialogues into the book, what is your view on the future of science? Are we heading toward greater certainty in terms of those fundamental questions, or do the answers seem quite far away?

I’m not a scientist, and that provides me with a certain freedom to express my opinion without other colleagues censuring my response, although someone may criticize me for being somewhat insolent.

I would fuse the two questions together. On the one hand, I believe that the truest and most decisive guide on our path to the future is science, but we always have to bear in mind that present-day science, as can be seen in this book, is a science interconnected or fertilized by the humanities and the effects of digitalization. That path is not and will not be easy because, despite the vast amount of data and evidence to support the diagnoses of true science, there are still important people and bodies that are capable of refuting grand scientific findings. I am also amazed that in the present system of communication that humanity now has, and has never had before, superstitions, pseudosciences, esotericisms, and deliberate falsities are increasingly prospering on a worldwide scale. 

Science’s and the humanities’ love of truth is more necessary today than ever, something to cultivate in all fields of education. Among the new skills that we have to encourage is that of educating to learn to distinguish between the true and the false in the present noosphere. Situating myself in a position like that of Henry Jenkins in the book—that of “critical utopian”—I see the media as part of the social system of education, and I believe that we should apply the same ethical criteria of a love of truth to the media, over and above the customary economic criteria. To this one can apply the perfectly clear criterion that Richard Stallman expresses in the book: “It’s absurd to ask whether ethics is profitable or not; because it is a prior responsibility, an obligation towards others. Choosing ethics as a guide only when it is profitable is really the same as not having any ethics.”

New knowledge about fundamental truths is no longer a specific discipline; rather, it is the combination of the humanities and scientific method which allows us, as the CERN physicist José Bernabeu says in the book, to broaden the beaches of our little island of knowledge and certainties against the huge ocean of our ignorance. I believe that every scientifically proven certainty brings with it new and exciting questions; so, for me, the great responses lie on a horizon toward which our path goes and at which, as is the case with any horizon, we can never arrive. However, to paraphrase Steve Jobs, I would say that our reward is also on that path.

Finally I would like to say that I agree with Tim O’Reilly that some of the certainties that technology provides us with have to be directed to “making the world a better place” (which is not always the case), and to combine this with the maxim of Richard Stallman: “Technology without the influence of ethics is likely to do harm.” There is no guaranteed certainty before us, but we must be aware, as O’Reilly says in the foreword, that “the future is not something that ‘happens.’ It is something we create.” The future being better in terms of fundamental questions depends solely on us. And that is a certainty indeed.