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The Stephen Wolfram Podcast

Science & Technology Q&A for Kids (and others) [October 28, 2022]

Fri Jul 21 2023
DomesticationAnimal TrainingEducationHuman LearningSensory SystemsLanguageComputational LanguageOlfactionMicrobiomeBrain FunctionQuantum MechanicsConsciousness


This episode explores the domestication of animals, the limitations of human learning, sensory systems and perception, language and communication, computational language and human understanding, olfaction and intelligence, coherence and computation in the brain, quantum mechanics and consciousness, randomness and quantum effects, speculation on quantum observers, and droplets and eyelids. The topics range from training animals to hacking natural behaviors, the role of education in domestication, the challenges of human learning, the complexity of sensory systems, the power of language in communication, the potential of computational language, the mysteries of olfaction and microbiomes, the functioning of the brain, the relationship between quantum mechanics and consciousness, the nature of randomness, and the possibilities of quantum observers.


Domestication is like technology for animals

The domestication of animals can be seen as the animal version of technology, where raw material is set up to be useful for humans.

Education is a form of domestication

Education can be seen as a form of domestication, teaching people how to operate in society.

Computational language bridges human understanding and computer capabilities

Computational languages aim to bridge the gap between human understanding and computer capabilities.

The limitations of human learning

There are limits to what humans can learn, such as controlling complex systems or using language with a high number of subclauses.

Sensory systems shape perception

Different sensory systems, like compound eyes and ganglia, shape how animals perceive the world.

Language enables knowledge transfer and automation

Language allows humans to build up knowledge and capabilities over generations, and computational language enables automation and tangible building upon ideas.

The role of olfaction and microbiomes in intelligence

The olfaction system and microbiomes play significant roles in human health and intelligence.

The mysteries of the brain

The brain manages to create a coherent thread of experience despite the activity of billions of neurons, but the process is not well understood.

Quantum mechanics and consciousness

The relationship between quantum mechanics and consciousness is still uncertain, but it is the default scientific position that consciousness does not rely on quantum mechanics.

Randomness and quantum effects

Randomness can be created through simple computations, and quantum effects may not play a significant role in generating randomness.


  1. Domestication of Animals
  2. Education and Domestication
  3. Limitations of Human Learning
  4. Sensory Systems and Perception
  5. Language and Communication
  6. Computational Language and Human Understanding
  7. Olfaction, Microbiome, and Intelligence
  8. Coherence and Computation in the Brain
  9. Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness
  10. Randomness and Quantum Effects
  11. Speculation and Quantum Observers
  12. Droplets, Eyelids, and Understanding

Domestication of Animals

00:00 - 07:47

  • Domestication means animals doing things that humans want them to do in a constrained environment.
  • The domestication of animals is like the animal version of technology, where raw material is set up to be useful for humans.
  • The question is when can critters do things that humans want them to do?
  • There are certain processes of learning how to train some animals but not others.
  • It may be more difficult to train animals with bigger brains and more complicated setups.
  • Insects can be instrumented with electrodes in their brain to get them to do different things.
  • The question arises whether training an animal from the outside gives it the intent or if it's just external control.
  • Domesticating a critter depends on the alignment between what humans want and what the critter naturally does.
  • Some creatures naturally want to be lone creatures while others prefer being in packs.
  • Training involves inserting ourselves as pseudo pack members for creatures that prefer packs.
  • Training often involves hacking into what the animal normally does and providing similar signals or cues.

Education and Domestication

07:17 - 15:04

  • Animals can be domesticated by hacking their natural behavioral characteristics.
  • Humans are also domesticated through early life learning and education.
  • Education can be seen as a form of domestication, teaching people how to operate in society.
  • Over-domestication can lead to lack of independent thinking.
  • A coherent society requires some level of common education.
  • Domestication depends on the natural behavior of a species and how it aligns with human needs.
  • Humans have historically wanted different things from animals based on cultural development.
  • Better communication with animals could lead to new forms of domestication.
  • Conditioning plays a role in domestication, but there are limits to what can be conditioned away.

Limitations of Human Learning

14:46 - 22:06

  • There are limits to what humans can learn, such as controlling complex systems like helicopters or using language with a high number of subclauses.
  • Humans struggle to understand and think in terms of complex graphs and networks.
  • Computational languages aim to bridge the gap between human understanding and computer capabilities.
  • Certain tasks, like instantly multiplying six-digit numbers, are not consistent with human brain hardware.
  • The ability to perform certain behaviors may be limited by both choice and capability.
  • Octopuses have ganglia in their legs that allow for some processing without involving the brain.
  • Some dinosaur species were misclassified due to incorrect assembly of skeletons.

Sensory Systems and Perception

21:41 - 29:29

  • Different dinosaur skeletons were mistakenly put together as one species
  • Nerve impulses in dinosaurs and humans have similar speeds
  • Animals can still walk even if the brain is disconnected
  • Octopuses have separate ganglia controlling each tentacle
  • Ganglia in octopus tentacles may have a view of the world based on what happens to the tentacle
  • Insects and trilobites have compound eyes that form multiple low-resolution images of the world
  • Octopuses may or may not synthesize an overall view of space with their separate tentacles
  • Humans, with billions of brains, have a coherent view of the world despite lower communication bandwidth
  • Mini brains within a species can disagree with the main brain's decisions
  • Human-to-human communication can occur at slower timescales than nervous system signals

Language and Communication

29:00 - 36:40

  • Different animals have different capabilities and advantages
  • Humans are the most flexible and adaptable species on Earth
  • Humans have the unique ability to communicate abstract thoughts through language
  • Language allows humans to build up knowledge and capabilities over generations
  • Computational language is another stage in the progression of human communication
  • Computational language enables automation and tangible building upon ideas
  • Universal literacy in computational language will lead to significant advancements
  • Literacy in natural language enabled various forms of government and knowledge transfer
  • Computational language is currently limited to a subset of the population

Computational Language and Human Understanding

36:12 - 44:06

  • Computational language is not universally understood and is still a subset of the population.
  • Computers can build up complexity from low-level instructions.
  • Humans have developed a rich, seemingly universal ability to talk about things through layers of structure in language.
  • Our experience of the universe is shaped by our vantage point and description language.
  • We can translate our description of the universe to another language through universal computation.
  • Humans are still domain specific and would find it confusing to understand a completely different description of the universe.
  • Cockatoos lack technology and written/spoken language, making it unclear what they could build if given the same abilities as humans.
  • The range of discourse for humans has likely expanded over time, but would have been limited in early hunter-gatherer societies.
  • Communicating with someone from 200,000 years ago would be challenging due to differences in knowledge and cultural background.
  • Mapping between brain zones differs across species based on sensory systems used.

Olfaction, Microbiome, and Intelligence

43:39 - 51:06

  • There is no clear mapping of smells in our olfaction system, unlike other sensory systems like touch and vision.
  • Companies that make perfume are still unsure about how the shape of a molecule affects its smell.
  • The layout of different molecules in smell space is not well understood.
  • Dogs may have a coarser sense of smell than humans, allowing them to perceive similarities between smells.
  • Humans live within an ecosystem similar to how microbes live inside us.
  • The microbiome, the collection of microbes in our body, plays a significant role in human health.
  • There is interdependence between the microbiome and ecosystems on Earth.
  • It is challenging to determine how much of our intelligence comes from high-level brain functions versus low-level cellular computation.
  • Specialized hardware exists in both computers and biological organisms for tasks that are always being performed.

Coherence and Computation in the Brain

50:45 - 57:49

  • The brain has specialized functions for automatic processes like breathing and heartbeats, while general thinking happens in other parts.
  • Functional MRI imaging provides some insight into which parts of the brain are active during specific tasks, but it's unclear how accurately this reflects overall brain activity.
  • The brain manages to create a coherent thread of experience despite the activity of billions of neurons.
  • The process by which individual neurons contribute to a coherent thought is not well understood.
  • Concentrating cellular level computation into coherent thoughts is a key problem in neuroscience.
  • Artificial neural nets provide some understanding of how individual elements can form a cohesive thought, but the process in human brains is still unknown.
  • Random firings in the brain can be interpreted as meaningful thoughts due to our ability to connect disparate information.
  • The simplest possible object is a single atom of existence, which exists and is unique from all other atoms of existence.
  • Atoms of space are related through connections in a network-like structure.
  • Proving that two atoms of space are distinct requires going outside the universe.

Quantum Mechanics and Consciousness

57:29 - 1:04:41

  • The default scientific position is that consciousness does not rely on quantum mechanics.
  • Quantum mechanics describes how very small things work, while classical physics describes definite things happening.
  • In quantum mechanics, there are multiple possible trajectories and we can only sense the probabilities of those paths.
  • We aggregate different branches of history in branch ill space, similar to how we perceive continuous fluid instead of individual molecules in water.
  • There are special things we can do to notice the presence of quantum mechanics, but for most cases, it doesn't matter as we aggregate things together.
  • It is uncertain whether our brains are disrupted to aggregate everything to classical physics or if they are sensitive to multiple branches at a fundamental level.
  • Artificial neural nets and machine learning suggest that the functional aspects of brains depend on aggregated properties rather than specific details.
  • The precise characteristics of neurons or transistors may not matter as long as they perform their intended functions.
  • Randomness in behavior can be valuable for certain species, but it likely doesn't come from extracting randomness at a quantum level.

Randomness and Quantum Effects

1:04:14 - 1:11:47

  • Randomness can be created through simple computations, so it's unlikely that quantum mechanics is involved in generating randomness.
  • Some animals, like pigeons, can sense the Earth's magnetic field through a quantum mechanical effect involving electron spins and brain amplification.
  • Quantum mechanics may not matter when it comes to our thoughts because we are able to aggregate them into a single thread.
  • Quantum effects are not important for the purpose of creating a definite stream of thoughts.
  • Quantum superpositions are not observed by us because we conflate all the different threads of history together and treat them as the same.
  • Our brains branch and merge just like the universe, allowing us to perceive a single branch of history.
  • If there are black holes in your brain, it may no longer be possible to form a coherent view of the world due to event horizons restricting information flow between different parts of your brain.
  • Causal invariance in our theory of physics allows for certain kinds of conflations, making it consistent to perceive a single branch of history.
  • It is possible to imagine a brain where different branches of history have not been conflated and one part of the brain experiences one thing while another part experiences something else.
  • Quantum computers follow multiple paths simultaneously, but when interfacing with humans, we prefer definite answers.

Speculation and Quantum Observers

1:11:18 - 1:18:57

  • Speculation on whether human experience could have a quantum form
  • Quantum computers require a quantum observer
  • Human language is single-threaded, unlike computer communication
  • Discussion on the dimensions of time and compressing it into a single thread
  • Question about why glasses get foggy but eyeballs do not

Droplets, Eyelids, and Understanding

1:18:28 - 1:20:32

  • Droplets on the surface of a liquid will spread out and become part of the liquid, losing their ability to scatter light.
  • Eyelids act as windshield wipers for the eyes, moving foreign objects around.
  • The podcast host's understanding improved through explaining concepts and receiving stimulating questions.