Joi Ito's Web

Joi Ito's conversation with the living web.

When we look at a stack of blocks or a stack of Oreos, we intuitively have a sense of how stable it is, whether it might fall over, and in what direction it may fall. That’s a fairly sophisticated calculation involving the mass, texture, size, shape, and orientation of the objects in the stack.

Researchers at MIT led by Josh Tenenbaum hypothesize that our brains have what you might call an intuitive physics engine: The information that we are able to gather through our senses is imprecise and noisy, but we nonetheless make an inference about what we think will probably happen, so we can get out of the way or rush to keep a bag of rice from falling over or cover our ears. Such a “noisy Newtonian” system involves probabilistic understandings and can fail. Consider this image of rocks stacked in precarious formations.

Based on most of your experience, your brain tells you that it's not possible for them to remain standing. Yet there they are. (This is very similar to the physics engines inside videogames like Grand Theft Auto that simulate a player’s interactions with objects in their 3-D worlds.)

For decades, artificial intelligence with common sense has been one of the most difficult research challenges in the field—artificial intelligence that “understands” the function of things in the real world and the relationship between them and is thus able to infer intent, causality, and meaning. AI has made astonishing advances over the years, but the bulk of AI currently deployed is based on statistical machine learning that takes tons of training data, such as images on Google, to build a statistical model. The data are tagged by humans with labels such as “cat” or “dog”, and a machine’s neural network is exposed to all of the images until it is able to guess what the image is as accurately as a human being.

One of the things that such statistical models lack is any understanding of what the objects are—for example that dogs are animals or that they sometimes chase cars. For this reason, these systems require huge amounts of data to build accurate models, because they are doing something more akin to pattern recognition than understanding what’s going on in an image. It’s a brute force approach to “learning” that has become feasible with the faster computers and vast datasets that are now available.

It’s also quite different from how children learn. Tenenbaum often shows a video by Felix Warneken, Frances Chen, and Michael Tomasello, of the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, of a small child watching an adult walk repeatedly into a closet door, clearly wanting to get inside but failing to open it properly. After just a few attempts, the child pulls the door open, allowing the adult to walk through. What seems cute but obvious for humans to do—to see just a few examples and come up with a solution—is in fact very difficult for a computer to do. The child opening the door for the adult instinctively understands the physics of the situation: There is a door, it has hinges, it can be pulled open, the adult trying to get inside the closet cannot simply walk through it. In addition to the physics the child understands, he is able to guess after a few attempts that the adult has an intention to go through the door but is failing.

This requires an understanding that human beings have plans and intentions and might want or need help to accomplish them. The capacity to learn a complex concept and also learn the specific conditions under which that concept is realized is an area where children exhibit natural, unsupervised mastery.

Infants like my own 9-month-old learn through interacting with the real world, which appears to be training various intuitive engines or simulators inside of her brain. One is a physics engine (to use Tenenbaum's term) that learns to understand—through piling up building blocks, knocking over cups, and falling off of chairs—how gravity, friction, and other Newtonian laws manifest in our lives and set parameters on what we can do.

In addition, infants from birth exhibit a social engine that recognizes faces, tracks gazes, and tries to understand how other social objects in the world think, behave, and interact with them and each other. This “social gating hypothesis,” proposed by Patricia Kuhl, professor of speech and hearing sciences at the University of Washington, argues that our ability to speak is fundamentally linked to the development of social understanding through our social interactions as infants. Elizabeth Spelke, a cognitive psychologist at Harvard University, and her collaborators have been working to show how infants develop a “intuitive psychology” to infer people’s goals from as early as 10 months.

In his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman explains that the intuitive part of our brain is not so good at statistics or math. He proposes the following problem. A baseball bat and a ball together cost $1.10. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much is the cost of the ball? Our intuition wants to say, 10 cents, but that’s wrong. If the ball is 10 cents, and the bat is $1 more, the bat would be $1.10, which would make the total $1.20. The correct answer is that the ball is 5 cents and the bat is $1.05, bringing the total to $1.10. Clearly, you can fool our intuition about statistics, just like the stacked rocks existing in the natural world confuse our internal physics engine.

But academics and economists often use such examples as reasons to undervalue the role of intuition in science and academic study, and that’s a huge mistake. The intuitive engines that help us quickly assess physical or social situations are doing extremely complex computations that may not even be explainable; it may be impossible to compute them linearly. For example, an expert skier can’t explain what she does, nor can you learn to ski just by reading instructions. Your brain and your whole body learn to move, synchronize, and operate in a very complex way to enter a state of flow where everything works without linear thinking.

Your brain goes through a tremendous transformation in your infancy. Infant brains initially grow twice as many connections between neurons as adults have, and these are pruned back as a child’s brain matures. Their brains develop an intuitive understanding of the complex systems they interact with—stairs, mom, dad, friends, cars, snowy mountains. Some will learn the difference between dozens of types of waves, to help them navigate the seas, or the difference between many types of snow. As the brain develops, it prunes the connections that don’t appear to be important as we mature.

While our ability to explain, argue, and understand each other using words is extremely important, it is also important to understand that words are simplified representations and can mean different things to different people. Many ideas or things that we know cannot be reduced to words; when they are, the words do not transmit more than a summary of the actual idea or understanding.

Just as we should not dismiss the expert skier who cannot explain how they ski, we should not dismiss the intuition of the shamans who hear nature telling them that things are out of balance. It may be that our view of many of the sensibilities of indigenous people and their relationships with nature as “primitive”—because they can’t explain it and we can’t understand—is in fact more about our lack of an environmental intuition engine. Our senses may have pruned those neurons because they weren’t needed in our urban worlds. We spend most of our lives with our noses in books and screens and sitting in cubicles becoming educated so that we understand the world. Does our ability to explain things mathematically or economically really mean that we understand things such as ecological systems better than the brains of those who were immersed in a natural environment from infancy, who understand them intuitively?

Maybe a big dose of humility and an effort to integrate the nonlinear and intuitive understanding of the minds of people we view as less educated—people who have learned through doing and observing instead of through textbooks—would substantially benefit our understanding of how things work and what we can do about the problems currently unsolvable with our modern tools. It’s also yet another argument for diversity. Reductionist mathematical and economic models are useful from an engineering point of view, but we should be mindful to appreciate our limited ability to describe complex adaptive systems using such models, which don’t really allow for intuition and run the risk of neglecting its role in human experience.

If Tenenbaum and his colleagues are successful in developing machines that can learn intuitive models of the world, it’s possible they will suggest things that either they can’t initially explain or that are so complex we are unable to comprehend them with current theories and tools. Whether we are talking about the push for more explainability in machine learning and AI models or we are trying to fathom how indigenous people interact with nature, we will reach the limits of explainability. It is this space, beyond the explainable, that is the exciting cutting edge of science, where we discover and press beyond our current understanding of the world.

Ever since my friends and I set up a Digicash server to sell music and artwork with a digital currency called eCash representing real gold, back in the ’90s, I’ve been waiting for the day when cryptocurrencies—digital currencies that operate independently of central banks by using encryption to generate units and verify transfers of funds—would transform the world. Cryptocurrencies are finally here, but not exactly in the way that I envisioned.

And so since last year, I’ve found myself issuing warnings instead of accolades about the latest trend in the frothy world of cryptocurrencies: ICOs, or initial coin offerings. The initial idea was a pretty good one—blockchain technology could be used to issue new cryptographically secure “tokens” or “coins” that are easy to transmit peer-to-peer. The coins could be sold to fund open-source software projects and other services that people find useful but are hard to finance with traditional structures. They could even function as shares and thus allow startups to finance themselves far more efficiently, from a broader range of people, and without the intermediaries that take fees and require a drawn-out process. Or the “coins” could represent some unit of utility, such as a gigabyte of storage or access to a network.

My concern with today’s ICOs is that they’re being fueled by the gold-rush mentality around cryptocurrencies, and so are deployed in irresponsible ways that are causing harm to individuals and damaging the ecosystem of developers and organizations. We haven’t set up the legal, technical, or normative controls yet, and many people are taking advantage of this.

Thus, ICOs are to cryptocurrencies what Trump is to American democracy: not what the founders of the institution envisioned.

It doesn’t have to be that way.

Think of an ICO as a means of creating digital certificates that have signatures, rules, programs, and other attributes controlled cryptographically. You could create a digital version of a check, a stock certificate, an IOU, or a gift card for a hamburger or a barrel of oil. That makes these certificates equivalent to a security, a commodity, or even just a simple financial transaction.

In their traditional forms, each of these elements have different risks and different regulatory bodies governing them. The Securities and Exchange Commission, the Treasury Department, and so on play a role in reducing financial risks and preventing financial crimes. In other words, some of the rules and regulations—the friction—in the existing system is there to protect investors, customers, and society.

But those regulators haven’t caught up with ICOs quite yet. Issuers are getting rich and unwitting investors are buying tokens of questionable value.

On July 25, 2017, the SEC announced that if a token looks like a security, it will regulate and treat the token as a security. It subsequently set up a task force to go after ICOs that are scamming investors and exploiting gray areas in securities laws. But many of the tokens issued through ICOs today are not shares in a company. Rather, they are “tokenized” versions of some sort of product, service, or asset, or a promise to invest funds in research or infrastructure. Issuers are calling the sale of such tokens a “crowd sale” instead of a “funding” to make it clear that people are buying a product rather than a security—and, intentionally or not, avoiding regulatory scrutiny.

A Swiss platform for posting jobs, for instance, used a crowd sale to sell what it calls Global Jobcoin, which buyers can use to pay for employment services. Meanwhile, someone—it is almost impossible to figure out who—is using a crowd sale to peddle Jesus Coins, which promise to forgive sins and fight corruption in “the church,” among other things.

I’m not saying all ICOs are sketchy. Some have legitimate uses, such as Filecoin, which aims to allow a token holder access to storage online and rewards people for hosting files.

The problem is that many of these tokens are traded on exchanges, and are thus viewed by investors as commodities or currencies to trade in and out of. Most tokens aren’t “pegged” to anything in the real world, and their exchange rates fluctuate. Most tokens are currently going up in value, which has attracted a large number of speculators who aren’t looking for workers or forgiveness of sin. They don't really care about the underlying asset linked to tokens, and are investing on the Greater Fools Theory—the idea that someone dumber than them will buy their tokens for more than they paid. This is a pretty good bet … until it isn’t.

Requiring companies to sell tokens only to accredited investors won’t solve the problem, because those investors will later sell them to speculators or, worse, to people who have seen the ads online promising to provide the secret of making a bundle on cryptocurrencies. And Wall Street has never been willing to end a rip-roaring party once the keg is tapped.

The regulatory intervention that has just begun will need to be much more sophisticated and technically informed, and in the meantime there’s a long line of people who’ve read about the skyrocketing price of Bitcoin (or Jesus Coin) and are waiting for a chance to buy into one of the myriad ICOs coming down the pipeline.

And volatility adds to the burdens of young companies issuing tokens, which will need functions similar to a central bank and corporate-style investor relations in addition to just trying to run their core businesses. If these companies fail, investors will get some benefit in a fire sale or liquidation, but token holders will end up with something akin to the Zimbabwean dollar in my scrapbook.

But a coin without volatility would be of little interest to such speculators, and it would be quite easy to design. We could start by simply pegging the value of tokens to something, say $1 or the price of one hamburger. A pegged token would fluctuate in “value” only to the extent that the underlying asset fluctuated. If the subscription price is fixed or you only eat hamburgers, there would be much less fluctuation or volatility.

For people hoping to make a fast buck, that linkage would remove potential upside value, narrowing the market of the coins to mostly just those people who would use the service. Having said that, even with a value pegged to some underlying asset, it’s possible that the current irrational market would still make prices go crazy. If the issuer didn’t own or have the ability to produce the underlying asset, the owners of its coins might be in peril of holding a valueless proxy. For example, concerns have escalated recently that Tether, a cryptocurrency pegged to the dollar, may or may not have actual dollars to back its tokens. If it doesn’t, then it’s sort of like an uninsured bank printing its own version of dollar bills without anything in its vaults. People have been buying Tether as a proxy for dollars on cryptocurrency exchanges, and so its failure might cause the price of Bitcoin to plummet and, more broadly, do substantial damage to the market.

A lot of otherwise productive developers are devoting their expertise and attention to working on shallow, quick money ICOs rather than working to sort out the underlying infrastructure and protocols in academic and more open deliberative settings not fueled by warped financial interest.

It reminds me of the late-’90s dot-com bubble, when the now-defunct was spending investor money buying Super Bowl ads to sell products at 30 percent of what they cost the company itself to buy. I understand the desire of venture capital to use blockchain and other technologies underpinning ICOs, and for new companies to take this nearly “free money” to build their businesses. But there is, I feel, an ethical issue in such knowing exploitation. I’ve pleaded my case with entrepreneurs, investors, and developers, but it’s like trying to stand in front of a buffalo stampede.

ICO mania will no doubt run its course, as all such financial manias do. But in the meantime, people will be hurt and there will be a painful correction. The one upside is this: As in the wake of the dot-com implosion, serious developers and investors will continue to work to build what will be a more robust network and foundation for the future of the blockchain and cryptocurrencies.

My friend Bill Schoenfeld, along with a small number of investors, made a lot of money when the real estate bubble in Japan popped. At some point, the Japanese real estate bubble got going so fast that almost no one was assessing the underlying value, but Bill insisted on pricing real estate doing just that. When the bubble popped and the prices went into free-fall, he bought a lot of property at a rational price. Bubbles make pricing irrational going up as well as going down. Maybe the clever thing to do right now is for people to assess the real underlying value of these tokens and be prepared to buy the ones that are actually valuable when the bubble pops.

Amara’s law famously states that “We tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.” The largest and most successful companies on the internet were built after the first bubble, when the protocols and the technologies became mature. I’m holding my nose, squinting my eyes, and imagining—and running for the mountains beyond the dust storm around the ICO stampede.

Note on conflict of interests: When I helped found the MIT Media Lab Digital Currency Initiative, I sold my shares in all blockchain and bitcoin related companies and have not invested in any companies engaging in cryptocurrencies as their primary activity. I do not hold any material amount of any cryptocurrency. I believe that in the current phase of our work, it is important for me to be clear of any conflicts of interest. You can see a more complete conflict of interest disclosure on my website.


Image by Nick Philip

In November 2017, I wrote with the help of some colleagues, "Reducing Reduction: A Manifesto". We received a number of interesting responses so the Journal of Design and Science decided to use it to create an issue on the theme of Reducing Reduction. MIT Press announced an essay competition for a publication from MIT Press.

Here are the details of the competition:

The MIT Press and the MIT Media Lab announce a call for essays on the topic of resisting reduction, broadly defined, for the Journal of Design and Science. Essays should be in conversation with Joi Ito's manifesto, "Resisting Reduction," and the articles, also on this theme, published in the third issue of JoDS.

In support of open access scholarship and the free exchange of ideas, JoDS will award up to ten authors $10,000 each for chosen essays. Selections will run in JoDS under a Creative Commons license and will be published in an MIT Press volume. Proceeds from the publication of this volume will support open access publishing at MIT.

This is an open competition and everyone is encouraged to submit a proposal.

The submission deadline for essay proposals of no longer than 300 words is 2 March 2018. Semi-finalists will be notified on 2 April 2018 and invited to submit essays of 3,000 to 5,000 words. All selections will be made by the JoDS editorial board and winners will be announced on 16 July 2018.

To submit a proposal, please complete this Google form.


  • Proposals should engage with and expand the conversation started by Joi Ito's manifesto, "Resisting Reduction" and issue 3 of JoDS, which comprises essays on this topic.

  • A proposal of no longer than 300 words that outlines a new perspective relating to resisting reduction.

  • Interdisciplinary essays are encouraged. Proposals can focus on topics in any field of inquiry and are not limited by discipline.

  • Essay proposals must be written in English.

  • Your name, email address, brief bio, and a working title are required.


2 March 2018: Proposal submission deadline (<300 words)

2 April 2018: Semi-finalists notified and invited to proceed to the next round

1 June 2018: Essay submission deadline for semi-finalists (3,000 to 5,000 words)

16 July 2018: Contest winners announced

August 2018: Essays published in JoDS

2019: MIT Press volume published

Six years ago, NHK, the Japanese public broadcaster, approached me and asked me if I wanted to work on a TV show airing TED Talks that I would comment on. I'd do the comments with the camera on my laptop and just upload them from wherever I was. A few months later, NHK had cut a deal with TED, and I was sitting in front of five video cameras and a full crew in my office at the Media Lab, shooting a series called "Super-Presentation" for NHK's educational network. The show featured a TED talk (or two) and involved my making comments about the talk, speaker or the topic in general and some B-Roll and background, plus a conversation in the studio in Tokyo. It has aired weekly in Japan on nationwide TV.

A few years ago we added Sputniko!, then a faculty member at the Media Lab, as a co-host.

Several hundred episodes and close to 300 TED Talks later, we shot the last episode last week. It's been a lot of work and a lot of fun. I had to research and think about a lot of topics in the course of the show in order to think of something interesting to say. The show was even voted the best educational show by viewers of NHK.

Thanks to NHK, TED, the wonderful staff who've been involved over the years, my co-host Sputniko! and Kazue Fukiishi, Kylee and Takashi Iba who appeared on the Tokyo side.

PS The show is just a wrap from my perspective. They will continue to air through the spring in Japan. :-)

Designing our Complex Future with Machines

While I had long been planning to write a manifesto against the technological singularity and launch it into the conversational sphere for public reaction and comment, an invitation earlier this year from John Brockman to read and discuss The Human Use of Human Beings by Norbert Wiener with him and his illustrious group of thinkers as part of an ongoing collaborative book project contributed to the thoughts contained herein.

The essay below is now phase 1 of an experimental, open publishing project in partnership with the MIT Press. In phase 2, a new version of the essay enriched and informed by input from open commentary will be published online, along with essay length contributions by others inspired by the seed essay, as a new issue of the Journal of Design and Science. In phase 3, a revised and edited selection of these contributions will be published as a print book by the MIT Press.

Version 1.0

Cross-posted from the Journal of Design and Science where a number of essays have been written in response and where competition winning peer-reviewed essays will be compiled into a book to be published by MIT Press.

Nature's ecosystem provides us with an elegant example of a complex adaptive system where myriad "currencies" interact and respond to feedback systems that enable both flourishing and regulation. This collaborative model-rather than a model of exponential financial growth or the Singularity, which promises the transcendence of our current human condition through advances in technology--should provide the paradigm for our approach to artificial intelligence. More than 60 years ago, MIT mathematician and philosopher Norbert Wiener warned us that "when human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood." We should heed Wiener's warning.


As the sun beats down on Earth, photosynthesis converts water, carbon dioxide and the sun's energy into oxygen and glucose. Photosynthesis is one of the many chemical and biological processes that transforms one form of matter and energy into another. These molecules then get metabolized by other biological and chemical processes into yet other molecules. Scientists often call these molecules "currencies" because they represent a form of power that is transferred between cells or processes to mutual benefit--"traded," in effect. The biggest difference between these and financial currencies is that there is no "master currency" or "currency exchange." Rather, each currency can only be used by certain processes, and the "market" of these currencies drives the dynamics that are "life."

As certain currencies became abundant as an output of a successful process or organism, other organisms evolved to take that output and convert it into something else. Over billions of years, this is how the Earth's ecosystem has evolved, creating vast systems of metabolic pathways and forming highly complex self-regulating systems that, for example, stabilize our body temperatures or the temperature of the Earth, despite continuous fluctuations and changes among the individual elements at every scale--from micro to macro. The output of one process becomes the input of another. Ultimately, everything interconnects.

We live in a civilization in which the primary currencies are money and power--where more often than not, the goal is to accumulate both at the expense of society at large. This is a very simple and fragile system compared to the Earth's ecosystems, where myriads of "currencies" are exchanged among processes to create hugely complex systems of inputs and outputs with feedback systems that adapt and regulate stocks, flows, and connections.

Unfortunately, our current human civilization does not have the built-in resilience of our environment, and the paradigms that set our goals and drive the evolution of society today have set us on a dangerous course which the mathematician Norbert Wiener warned us about decades ago. The paradigm of a single master currency has driven many corporations and institutions to lose sight of their original missions. Values and complexity are focused more and more on prioritizing exponential financial growth, led by for-profit corporate entities that have gained autonomy, rights, power, and nearly unregulated societal influence. The behavior of these entities are akin to cancers. Healthy cells regulate their growth and respond to their surroundings, even eliminating themselves if they wander into an organ where they don't belong. Cancerous cells, on the other hand, optimize for unconstrained growth and spread with disregard to their function or context.


The idea that we exist for the sake of progress, and that progress requires unconstrained and exponential growth, is the whip that lashes us. Modern companies are the natural product of this paradigm in a free-market capitalist system. Norbert Wiener called corporations "machines of flesh and blood" and automation "machines of metal." The new species of Silicon Valley mega companies--the machines of bits--are developed and run in great part by people who believe in a new religion, Singularity. This new religion is not a fundamental change in the paradigm, but rather the natural evolution of the worship of exponential growth applied to modern computation and science. The asymptote of the exponential growth of computational power is artificial intelligence.

The notion of Singularity--that AI will supercede humans with its exponential growth, and that everything we have done until now and are currently doing is insignificant--is a religion created by people who have the experience of using computation to solve problems heretofore considered impossibly complex for machines. They have found a perfect partner in digital computation--a knowable, controllable, system of thinking and creating that is rapidly increasing in its ability to harness and process complexity, bestowing wealth and power on those who have mastered it. In Silicon Valley, the combination of groupthink and the financial success of this cult of technology has created a positive feedback system that has very little capacity for regulating through negative feedback. While they would resist having their beliefs compared to a religion and would argue that their ideas are science- and evidence-based, those who embrace Singularity engage in quite a bit of arm waving and make leaps of faith based more on trajectories than ground-truths to achieve their ultimate vision.

Singularitarians believe that the world is "knowable" and computationally simulatable, and that computers will be able to process the messiness of the real world just like they have every other problem that everyone said couldn't be solved by computers. To them, this wonderful tool, the computer, has worked so well for everything so far that it must continue to work for every challenge we throw at it, until we have transcended known limitations and ultimately achieve some sort of reality escape velocity. Artificial intelligence is already displacing humans in driving cars, diagnosing cancers, and researching court documents. The idea is that AI will continue this progress and eventually merge with human brains and become an all-seeing, all-powerful, super-intelligence. For true believers, computers will augment and extend our thoughts into a kind of "amortality." (Part of Singularity is a fight for "amortality," the idea that while one may still die and not be immortal, the death is not the result of the grim reaper of aging.)

But if corporations are a precursor to our transcendance, the Singularitarian view that with more computing and bio-hacking we will somehow solve all of the world's problems or that the Singularity will solve us seems hopelessly naive. As we dream of the day when we have enhanced brains and amortality and can think big, long thoughts, corporations already have a kind of "amortality." They persist as long as they are solvent and they are more than a sum of their parts--arguably an amortal super-intelligence.

More computation does not makes us more "intelligent," only more computationally powerful.

For Singularity to have a positive outcome requires a belief that, given enough power, the system will somehow figure out how to regulate itself. The final outcome would be so complex that while we humans couldn't understand it now, "it" would understand and "solve" itself. Some believe in something that looks a bit like the former Soviet Union's master planning but with full information and unlimited power. Others have a more sophisticated view of a distributed system, but at some level, all Singularitarians believe that with enough power and control, the world is "tamable." Not all who believe in Singularity worship it as a positive transcendence bringing immortality and abundance, but they do believe that a judgment day is coming when all curves go vertical.

Whether you are on an S-curve or a bell curve, the beginning of the slope looks a lot like an exponential curve. An exponential curve to systems dynamics people shows self-reinforcement, i.e., a positive feedback curve without limits. Maybe this is what excites Singularitarians and scares systems people. Most people outside the singularity bubble believe in S-curves, namely that nature adapts and self-regulates and that even pandemics will run their course. Pandemics may cause an extinction event, but growth will slow and things will adapt. They may not be in the same state, and a phase change could occur, but the notion of Singularity--especially as some sort of savior or judgment day that will allow us to transcend the messy, mortal suffering of our human existence--is fundamentally a flawed one.

This sort of reductionist thinking isn't new. When BF Skinner discovered the principle of reinforcement and was able to describe it, we designed education around his theories. Learning scientists know now that behaviorist approaches only work for a narrow range of learning, but many schools continue to rely on drill and practice. Take, as another example, the eugenics movement, which greatly and incorrectly over-simplified the role of genetics in society. This movement helped fuel the Nazi genocide by providing a reductionist scientific view that we could "fix humanity" by manually pushing natural selection. The echoes of the horrors of eugenics exist today, making almost any research trying to link genetics with things like intelligence taboo.

We should learn from our history of applying over-reductionist science to society and try to, as Wiener says, "cease to kiss the whip that lashes us." While it is one of the key drivers of science--to elegantly explain the complex and reduce confusion to understanding--we must also remember what Albert Einstein said, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."1 We need to embrace the unknowability--the irreducibility--of the real world that artists, biologists and those who work in the messy world of liberal arts and humanities are familiar with.


The Cold War era, when Wiener was writing The Human Use of Human Beings, was a time defined by the rapid expansion of capitalism and consumerism, the beginning of the space race, and the coming of age of computation. It was a time when it was easier to believe that systems could be controlled from the outside, and that many of the world's problems would be solved through science and engineering.

The cybernetics that Wiener primarily described during that period were concerned with feedback systems that can be controlled or regulated from an objective perspective. This so-called first-order cybernetics assumed that the scientist as the observer can understand what is going on, therefore enabling the engineer to design systems based on observation or insight from the scientist.

Today, it is much more obvious that most of our problems--climate change, poverty, obesity and chronic disease, or modern terrorism--cannot be solved simply with more resources and greater control. That is because they are the result of complex adaptive systems that are often the result of the tools used to solve problems in the past, such as endlessly increasing productivity and attempts to control things. This is where second-order cybernetics comes into play--the cybernetics of self-adaptive complex systems, where the observer is also part of the system itself. As Kevin Slavin says in Design as Participation, "You're Not Stuck In Traffic--You Are Traffic."3

In order to effectively respond to the significant scientific challenges of our times, I believe we must view the world as many interconnected, complex, self-adaptive systems across scales and dimensions that are unknowable and largely inseparable from the observer and the designer. In other words, we are participants in multiple evolutionary systems with different fitness landscapes4 at different scales, from our microbes to our individual identities to society and our species. Individuals themselves are systems composed of systems of systems, such as the cells in our bodies that behave more like system-level designers than we do.

While Wiener does discuss biological evolution and the evolution of language, he doesn't explore the idea of harnessing evolutionary dynamics for science. Biological evolution of individual species (genetic evolution) has been driven by reproduction and survival, instilling in us goals and yearnings to procreate and grow. That system continually evolves to regulate growth, increase diversity and complexity, and enhance its own resilience, adaptability, and sustainability.5 As designers with growing awareness of these broader systems, we have goals and methodologies defined by the evolutionary and environmental inputs from our biological and societal contexts. But machines with emergent intelligence have discernibly different goals and methodologies. As we introduce machines into the system, they will not only augment individual humans, but they will also--and more importantly--augment complex systems as a whole.

Here is where the problematic formulation of "artificial intelligence" becomes evident, as it suggests forms, goals and methods that stand outside of interaction with other complex adaptive systems. Instead of thinking about machine intelligence in terms of humans vs. machines, we should consider the system that integrates humans and machines--not artificial intelligence, but extended intelligence. Instead of trying to control or design or even understand systems, it is more important to design systems that participate as responsible, aware and robust elements of even more complex systems. And we must question and adapt our own purpose and sensibilities as designers and components of the system for a much more humble approach: Humility over Control.

We could call it "participant design"--design of systems as and by participants--that is more akin to the increase of a flourishing function, where flourishing is a measure of vigor and health rather than scale or power. We can measure the ability for systems to adapt creatively, as well as their resilience and their ability to use resources in an interesting way.

Better interventions are less about solving or optimizing and more about developing a sensibility appropriate to the environment and the time. In this way they are more like music than an algorithm. Music is about a sensibility or "taste" with many elements coming together into a kind of emergent order. Instrumentation can nudge or cause the system to adapt or move in an unpredictable and unprogrammed manner, while still making sense and holding together. Using music itself as an intervention is not a new idea; in 1707, Andrew Fletcher, a Scottish writer and politician, said, "Let me make the songs of a nation, I care not who makes its laws."

If writing songs instead of laws feels frivolous, remember that songs typically last longer than laws, have played key roles in various hard and soft revolutions and end up being transmitted person-to-person along with the values they carry. It's not about music or code. It's about trying to affect change by operating at the level songs do. This is articulated by Donella Meadows, among others, in her book Thinking in Systems.

Meadows, in her essay Leverage Points: Places to Intervene in a System, describes how we can intervene in a complex, self-adaptive system. For her, interventions that involve changing parameters or even changing the rules are not nearly as powerful or as fundamental as changes in a system's goals and paradigms.

When Wiener discussed our worship of progress, he said:

Those who uphold the idea of progress as an ethical principle regard this unlimited and quasi-spontaneous process of change as a Good Thing, and as the basis on which they guarantee to future generations a Heaven on Earth. It is possible to believe in progress as a fact without believing in progress as an ethical principle; but in the catechism of many Americans, the one goes with the other.6

Instead of discussing "sustainability" as something to be "solved" in the context of a world where bigger is still better and more than enough is NOT too much, perhaps we should examine the values and the currencies of the fitness functions7 and consider whether they are suitable and appropriate for the systems in which we participate.


Developing a sensibility and a culture of flourishing, and embracing a diverse array of measures of "success" depend less on the accumulation of power and resources and more on diversity and the richness of experience. This is the paradigm shift that we need. This will provide us with a wealth of technological and cultural patterns to draw from to create a highly adaptable society. This diversity also allows the elements of the system to feed each other without the exploitation and extraction ethos created by a monoculture with a single currency. It is likely that this new culture will spread as music, fashion, spirituality or other forms of art.

As a native Japanese, I am heartened by a group of junior high school students I spoke to there recently who, when I challenged them about what they thought we should do about the environment, asked questions about the meaning of happiness and the role of humans in nature. I am likewise heartened to see many of my students at the MIT Media Lab and in the Principles of Awareness class that I co-teach with the Venerable Tenzin Priyadarshi using a variety of metrics (currencies) to measure their success and meaning and grappling directly with the complexity of finding one's place in our complex world.

This is brilliant, sophisticated, timely. Question, what do you want to do with this manifesto? Socio-economic political cultural movement? To begin with, who do you want to read this? In what spaces?I know people who are working on this on the political side. I am interested in the arts and sciences ie buildable memory cultural side.

Don't know if people would agree with my conclusions here, but I've been working on developing my music in relation to housing issues around the Bay Area recently.I believe that it's important for us to develop a sensibility for diversity not just as an abstract exercise, but in ways that reflect our day to day lives. We're in need of new visions of how we plan to co-exist with one another, and I do think that artists have the ability to pave the way here in very real ways.

I'm also heartened by organizations such as the IEEE, which is initiating design guidelines for the development of artificial intelligence around human wellbeing instead of around economic impact. The work by Peter Seligman, Christopher Filardi, and Margarita Mora from Conservation International is creative and exciting because it approaches conservation by supporting the flourishing of indigenous people--not undermining it. Another heartening example is that of the Shinto priests at Ise Shrine, who have been planting and rebuilding the shrine every twenty years for the last 1300 years in celebration of the renewal and the cyclical quality of nature.

In the 1960s and 70s, the hippie movement tried to pull together a "whole earth" movement, but then the world swung back toward the consumer and consumption culture of today. I hope and believe that a new awakening will happen and that a new sensibility will cause a nonlinear change in our behavior through a cultural transformation. While we can and should continue to work at every layer of the system to create a more resilient world, I believe the cultural layer is the layer with the most potential for a fundamental correction away from the self-destructive path that we are currently on. I think that it will yet again be about the music and the arts of the young people reflecting and amplifying a new sensibility: a turn away from greed to a world where "more than enough is too much," and we can flourish in harmony with Nature rather than through the control of it.

1. An asymptote is a line that continually approaches a given curve but does not meet it at any finite distance. In singularity, this is the vertical line that occurs when the exponential growth curve a vertical line. There are more arguments about where this asymptote is among believers than about whether it is actually coming.

2. This is a common paraphrase. What Einstein actually said was, "It can scarcely be denied that the supreme goal of all theory is to make the irreducible basic elements as simple and as few as possible without having to surrender the adequate representation of a single datum of experience."

3. Western philosophy and science is "dualistic" as opposed to the more "Eastern" non-dualistic approach. A whole essay could be written about this but the idea of a subject/object or a designer/designee is partially linked to the notion of self in Western philosophy and religion.

4. Fitness landscapes arise when you assign a fitness value for every genotype. The genotypes are arranged in a high dimensional sequence space. The fitness landscape is a function on that sequence space. In evolutionary dynamics, a biological population moves over a fitness landscape driven by mutation, selection and random drift. (Nowak, M. A. Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Harvard University Press, 2006.)

5. Nowak, M. A. Evolutionary Dynamics: Exploring the Equations of Life. Harvard University Press, 2006.

6. Norbert Wiener, The Human Use of Human Beings (1954 edition), p.42.

7. A fitness function is a function that is used to summarize, as a measure of merit, how close a solution is to a particular aim. It is used to describe and design evolutionary systems.


Review, research and editing team: Catherine Ahearn, Chia Evers, Natalie Saltiel, Andre Uhl