Nobel Prize Winner Frank Wilczek: Fundamentals – What Are The 10 Keys To Reality? | Into The Impossible Podcast with Dr. Brian Keating

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Key Takeaways

  • The hypothesis of designing an AI able to “think” seems inevitable to occur at some point
    • Humans are proof that the complexity of the mind is an emergent property of matter
  • The real question is not whether computers can beat humans at chess
    • Will they ever be able to create the game of chess?
      • Dr. Wilczek thinks that it will be possible to design “creative” computers and there already hints of that
  • Dr. Wilczek describes his personal operating system as “Think, Play, Repeat”
  • What allowed Dr. Wilczek to Be So Prolific
    • He loves learning new things, so what he does, doesn’t feel like “work”
    • He allows himself to follow his curiosity and learn about other fields as an amateur
      • When he finds intersections between his work and his other interests he is able to dive deeper and draw connections
  • No amount of thinking about what is can lead to a logical inference about what ought to be, or how we ought to behave” Dr. Wilczek
    • Science can’t help us decide what’s good and what’s bad
    • For a long time, people have thought about these issues and their wisdom is often contained in religions

Key Books Mentioned

Intro

  • Frank Wilczek (@FrankWilczek) is a theoretical physicist, winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics, and an author. His latest book, Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality was released in January 2021
  • Host: Dr. Brian Keating (@DrBrianKeating)
  • In this conversation, Dr. Wilczek shares his thoughts on Artificial Intelligence, Religion, the possibility of a Theory of Everything, and much more

Dr. Wilczek’s Thoughts on AI

  • The hypothesis of designing an AI able to “think” seems inevitable to occur at some point
  • Mind emerges from matter
  • We already learned to “make” minds
    • Designing computers that can do things that were once thought to be unique to humans
  • The real question is not whether computers can beat humans at chess
    • Will they ever be able to create the game of chess?
      • That would be beyond artificial intelligence, it would be artificial wisdom
  • Dr. Wilczek thinks that it will be possible to design “creative” computers and there already are hints of that
    • In reinforcement-learning, computers are designed to “explore” possibilities to see what works and then “exploit” them
      • This is currently used to teach computers how to play games and other simple applications
      • We can foresee AI being able to learn about humans tastes and motivations and “explore” creating games that we might like
    • ThisPersonDoesNotExist.com shows how computers can create realistic photographs of humans that don’t exist
      • This is an example of how computers can be creative

What are the Fundamentals?

  • Dr. Wilczek defines Fundamentals as basic principles that explain a lot but can’t be explained by anything else
    • For example, the 2nd Law of Thermodynamics explains a lot about how the world works, but it is not fundamental
      • It can be explained in terms of atomic structure, probability, and the mechanical view of the World
  • The discovery that there are such things as Fundamental Principles is really profound
  • “The comprehensibility of the world is a miracle” Albert Einstein

How To Decide What To Work On

  • There are three factors that Dr. Wilczek considers when deciding what to work on
    • Importance
      • Problems can be important if they are “Fundamental” or if solving them is useful
    • Addressability
      • His ability to do something about the problem
    • Irritability
      • If he perceives flaws or gaps that irritate him in our understanding of the World, he wants to address it
  • He also tries to incorporate playfulness in his work and in the choice of his projects
    • He describes his personal operating system as “Think, Play, Repeat”

What Allowed Dr. Wilczek to Be So Prolific

  • Dr. Wilczek loves learning new things, so what he does, doesn’t feel like “work”
  • He was fortunate to come across some great minds during his career such as Bertrand Russell
  • He also allows himself to follow his curiosity and learn about other fields as an amateur
    • For many years he has been learning about Machine Learning, Cosmology, and the areas of Physics outside of his expertise
    • When he finds intersections between his work and his other interests he is able to dive deeper and draw connections

On Axions and an Expanded Concept of Symmetry

  • Formulas for axions (hypothetical elementary particles) display a broken symmetry that can be seen as more beautiful than perfect symmetry
    • Axion’s symmetry is broken in a very particular way
  • This can be seen as Nature giving us an opportunity to expand our concept of symmetry
    • Broken symmetry is not the absence of symmetry
      • You can have spontaneously broken symmetry, proximate symmetry, asymptotic symmetry, and more
  • Nature likes broken symmetry
    • There’s a study that took half of Brad Pitt’s face and copied it symmetrically on the other half
      • Surprisingly he looks better with a less symmetrical face
  • Even in music, having variations on the theme enriches the melody

Quantum Chromodynamics (QCD)

  • Quantum chromodynamics (QCD) is the theory of the strong interaction between quarks and gluons, the fundamental particles that make up composite hadrons such as the proton and the neutron.
  • Color Confinement
    • The atomic nucleus is held together by a powerful, strong interaction that binds together the protons and neutrons that comprise the nucleus.
    • The strong interaction also holds together the quarks that comprise protons and neutrons.
    • This interaction is so strong that no “free” quarks have ever been observed, meaning we have not been able to experimentally isolate and observe individual quarks.
      • This behavioral property of quarks is referred to as color confinement.
      • Part of the nature of color confinement is that the further you try to force the quarks apart, the greater the force of containment.
    • One way to visualize color confinement is by imagining that the quarks are confined to elastic “bags.”
      • We can imagine that the boundaries of the proton serve as the boundary of the elastic bag.
      • A proton is composed of two up quarks, one down quark, and the gluons that mediate the forces “binding” them together.
      • The color charge of individual quarks is arbitrary, but all three colors must be present.
    • To “stretch” the bag and pull the quarks apart means that energy must be added to the system to overcome the strong force between the quarks.
    • The energy that must be added to overcome the strong force far exceeds the amount of energy needed to produce new mesons (quark and anti-quark pairs) and baryons via pair production.
    • Therefore, instead of separating the quarks, we just produce more hadrons, like protons and neutrons.
  • Asymptotic Freedom
    • Based on experiments, as quarks get very close to one another (like when they’re inside a baryon), they actually experience a decrease in the force strength.
    • This implies that quarks can move about within a baryon rather freely.
    • Qualitatively, this results from the penetration of the gluon cloud surrounding the quarks.
    • Because the gluons carry color charge, this gluon cloud would reduce the effective color charge of the quark, making the force of interaction between quarks weaker as they move closer.

The Most Beautiful Experiments in Physics

  • Dr. Wilczek’s personal favorite experiments
    • Seeing “jets” in QCD (quantum chromodynamics)
    • The anyon discovery
  • According to Dr. Wilczek, the most beautiful experiment that emerged from 20th-century physics is the Josephson effect

A Case for God’s Existence

  • Dr. Wilczek doesn’t subscribe to any religion
  • But he doesn’t see them in a negative way
    • Religion is part of our cultural heritage and part of who we are and it contains many beautiful ideas
    • Getting rid of religion would be like cutting off an arm
  • There are things about how to be and make sense in the World that science doesn’t answer
  • “No amount of thinking about what is can lead to a logical inference about what ought to be, or how we ought to behave” Dr. Wilczek
    • Science can’t help us decide what’s good and what’s bad
    • For a long time, people have thought about these issues and their wisdom is often contained in religions
  • Taking religion seriously also helps us to better relate to people coming from those traditions
  • Dr. Wilczek’s approach is to “understand God through God’s work”

 On the Existence of Extraterrestrial Life

  • We don’t have any evidence of the existence of extraterrestrial life
  • But Dr. Wilczek thinks that there is a high probability of its existence
    • He also doesn’t see the fact that we haven’t seen it as a paradox because of distances and difficulties to communicate
  • It did not take very long for life to emerge once the conditions on Earth became stable
    • The chemistry to get life started is complicated, but not overly so
    • He thinks it’s likely that life would emerge in the many billions of planets in our galaxy and other galaxies
  • The much more difficult step is to move from single cells to multi-cellular organisms
    • It took billions of years on Earth for this to happen
    • Conditions on Earth were seemingly perfect
  • Moving from multi-cellular organisms to Intelligence as we know it might be even more difficult
    • “Extraterrestrial intelligence and extraterrestrial technology might be rare, even though extraterrestrial life is common” Dr. Wilczek
  • The idea of aliens throwing around physical objects to explore the Universe seems very farfetched and inefficient to Dr. Wilczek
    • But he admits that there might be something he doesn’t know that makes him think that
      • “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” Arthur C. Clarke’s third law

Can There Be a Theory of Everything?

  • Dr. Wilczek dislike the phrase Theory of Everything, he prefers calling it a “Final Theory”
  • A Final Theory would be
    • an account of the fundamental laws of Nature
    • Everywhere we check it, it is confirmed
    • No phenomenon is left out from it
    • Doesn’t seem to be open to change
    • It wouldn’t be a description or explanation of many things that we consider to be part of “everything”
  • We have an approximation to a Final Theory in what Dr. Wilczek calls a Core Theory (or Standard Model)
    • Those laws have many of the characteristics of a Final Theory in the fields of biology, engineering, most of physics (except cosmology)
    • Even if we improved this Core Theory, it could not be a theory of everything
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Notes By Giorgio Parlato

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