Lex Fridman Podcast - #142 - Manolis Kellis: Meaning of Life, the Universe, and Everything

The following is a conversation with Manolis Kellis,

his fourth time on the podcast.

He’s a professor at MIT

and head of the MIT Computational Biology Group.

Since this is episode number 142,

and 42, as we all know,

is the answer to the ultimate question of life,

the universe, and everything,

according to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy,

we decided to talk about this unanswerable question

of the meaning of life

in whatever way we two descendants of apes could muster,

from biology, psychology, to metaphysics, and to music.

Quick mention of each sponsor,

followed by some thoughts related to the episode.

Thanks to Grammarly,

which is a service for checking spelling, grammar,

sentence structure, and readability,

Athletic Greens, the all in one drink

that I start every day with

to cover all my nutritional bases,

and Cash App, the app I use to send money to friends.

Please check out these sponsors in the description

to get a discount and to support this podcast.

As a side note,

let me say that the opening 40 minutes of the conversation

are all about the many songs

that formed the soundtrack to the journey

of Manolis’s life.

It was a happy accident for me to discover

yet another dimension of depth

to the fascinating mind of Manolis.

I include links to YouTube versions

of many of the songs we mentioned in the description,

and overlay lyrics on occasion.

But if you’re just listening to this

without listening to the songs or watching the video,

I hope you still might enjoy, as I did,

the passion that Manolis has for music,

his singing of the little excerpts from the songs,

and in general, the meaning we discuss

that we pull from the different songs.

If music is not your thing,

I do give timestamps to the less musical

and more philosophical parts of the conversation.

I hope you enjoy this little experiment

and conversation about music and life.

If you do, please subscribe on YouTube,

review it with five stars on Apple Podcast,

follow on Spotify, support on Patreon,

or connect with me on Twitter at Lex Friedman.

And now, here’s my conversation with Manolis Callas.

You mentioned Leonard Cohen and the song Hallelujah

as a beautiful song.

So what are the three songs

you draw the most meaning from about life?

Don’t get me started.

So there’s really countless songs that have marked me,

that have sort of shaped me in periods of joy

and in periods of sadness.

My son likes to joke that I have a song

for every sentence he will say,

because very often I will break into a song

with a sentence he’ll say.

My wife calls me the radio

because I can sort of recite hundreds of songs

that have really shaped me.

So it’s gonna be very hard to just pick a few.

So I’m just gonna tell you a little bit

about my song transition as I’ve grown up.

In Greece, it was very much about,

as I told you before, the misery, the poverty,

but also overcoming adversity.

So some of the songs that have really shaped me

are Charis Alexiou, for example,

is one of my favorite singers in Greece.

And then there’s also really just old traditional songs

that my parents used to listen to.

Like one of them is Ani Moun Plousios,

which is basically, oh, if I was rich.

And the song is painting this beautiful picture

about all the noises that you hear in the neighborhood,

his poor neighborhood, the train going by,

the priest walking to the church

and the kids crying next door and all of that.

And he says, with all of that,

I’m having trouble falling asleep and dreaming.

If I was rich, and then he was breaking to that.

So it’s this juxtaposition between the spirit

and the sublime and then the physical and the harsh reality.

It’s just not having troubles, not being miserable.

So basically rich to him just means

out of my misery, basically.

And then also being able to travel,

being able to sort of be the captain of a ship

and see the world and stuff like that.

So it’s just such beautiful imagery.

So many of the Greek songs, just like the poetry

we talked about, they acknowledge the cruelty,

the difficulty of life, but are longing for a better life.

That’s exactly right.

And another one is Ftokhologia.

And this is one of those songs that has like a fast

and joyful half and a slow and sad half.

And it goes back and forth between them.

And it’s like,

Ftokhologia, jefse na kathemou dragoouzi.

So poor, you know, basically it’s the state of being poor.

I don’t even know if there’s a word for that in English.

And then fast part is ta kerya sou megalosan

ke ponesan ke matosan.

So, and then it’s like, oh, you know,

basically like the state of being poor and misery,

you know, for you, I write all my songs, et cetera.

And then the fast part is in your arms,

grew up and suffered and, you know, stood up and,

you know, rose, men with clear vision.

This whole concept of taking on the world

with nothing to lose because you’ve seen the worst of it.

This imagery of psilaki parizopoula harastakorizopoula.

So it’s describing the young men as cypress trees.

And that’s probably one of my earliest exposure

to a metaphor, to sort of, you know,

this very rich imagery.

And I love about the fact that I was reading a story

to my kids the other day and it was dark.

And my daughter who’s six is like,

oh, can I please see the pictures?

And Jonathan, who’s eight, so my daughter Cleo is like,

oh, let’s look at the pictures.

And my son Jonathan, he’s like, but Cleo,

if you look at the pictures, it’s just an image.

If you just close your eyes and listen, it’s a video.

That’s brilliant.

It’s beautiful.

And he’s basically showing just how much more

the human imagination has besides just a few images

that, you know, the book will give you.

And then another one, oh gosh,

this one is really like miserable.

It’s called Sto Perigiali, To Krifo.

And it’s basically describing how vigorously

we took on our life and we pushed hard

towards a direction that we then realized

was the wrong one.

And again, these songs give you so much perspective.

There’s no songs like that in English

that will basically sort of just smack you in the face

about sort of the passion and the force and the drive.

And then it turns out, we just followed the wrong life.

And it’s like, wow.

Okay, so that was you.

All right, so that’s like before 12.

So growing up in sort of this horrendously miserable

sort of view of romanticism, of suffering.

So then my preteen years is like, you know,

learning English through songs.

So basically, you know,

listening to all the American pop songs

and then memorizing them vocally

before I even knew what they meant.

So, you know, Madonna and Michael Jackson

and all of these sort of really popular songs

and, you know, George Michael and just songs

that I would just listen to the radio and repeat vocally.

And eventually as I started learning English,

I was like, oh wow, this thing I’ve been repeating,

I now understand what it means.

Without relistening it to it,

but just with re repeating it, it was like, oh.

Again, Michael Jackson’s Man in the Mirror

is teaching you that it’s your responsibility

to just improve yourself.

You know, if you wanna make the world a better place,

take a look at yourself and make the change.

This whole concept of, again, I mean,

all of these songs, you can listen to them shallowly

or you can just listen to them and say,

oh, there’s deeper meaning here.

And I think there’s a certain philosophy of song

as a way of touching the psyche.

So if you look at regions of the brain,

people have lost their language ability

because they have an accident in that region of the brain

can actually sing because it’s exactly

the symmetric region of the brain.

And that again, teaches you so much

about language evolution and sort of the duality

of musicality and, you know, rhythmic patterns

and eventually language.

Do you have a sense of why songs developed?

You’re kind of suggesting that it’s possible

that there is something important

about our connection with song and with music

on the level of the importance of language.

Is it possible?

It’s not just possible.

In my view, language comes after music.

Language comes after song.

No, seriously.

Like basically, my view of human cognitive evolution

is rituals.

If you look at many early cultures,

there’s rituals around every stage of life.

There’s organized dance performances around mating.

And if you look at mate selection,

I mean, that’s an evolutionary drive right there.

So basically, if you’re not able to string together

a complex dance as a bird, you don’t get a mate.

And that actually forms this development

for many song learning birds.

Not every bird knows how to sing.

And not every bird knows how to learn a complicated song.

So basically, there’s birds that simply have

the same few tunes that they know how to play.

And a lot of that is inherent and genetically encoded.

And others are birds that learn how to sing.

And if you look at a lot of these exotic birds of paradise

and stuff like that,

the mating rituals that they have are enormously amazing.

And I think human mating rituals of ancient tribes

are not very far off from that.

And in my view, the sequential formation of these movements

is a prelude to the cognitive capabilities

that ultimately enable language.

It is fascinating to think that that’s

not just an accidental precursor to intelligence.

Yeah, sexually selected.

Well, it’s sexually selected and it’s a prerequisite.


It’s like, it’s required for intelligence.

And even as language has now developed,

I think the artistic expression is needed,

like badly needed by our brain.

So it’s not just that, oh, our brain can kind of,

you know, take a break and go do that stuff.

No, I mean, you know, I don’t know if you remember

that scene from, oh gosh,

where’s that Jack Nicholson movie in New Hampshire.

All work and no play, make Jack a dull boy.

A dull boy.

The Shining.

So there’s this amazing scene where he’s constantly

trying to concentrate and what’s coming out

of the typewriter is just gibberish.

And I have that image as well when I’m working.

And I’m like, no, basically all of these crazy,

you know, huge number of hobbies that I have,

they’re not just tolerated by my work.

They’re required by my work.

This ability of sort of stretching your brain

in all these different directions

is connecting your emotional self and your cognitive self.

And that’s a prerequisite to being able

to be cognitively capable.

At least in my view.

Yeah, I wonder if the world without art and music,

you’re just making me realize that perhaps

that world would be not just devoid of fun things

to look at or listen to, but devoid of all the other stuff.

All the bridges and rockets and science.

Exactly, exactly.

Creativity is not disconnected from art.

And you know, my kids, I mean, you know,

I could be doing the full math treatment to them.

No, they play the piano and they play the violin

and they play sports.

I mean, this whole, you know, sort of movement

and going through mazes and playing tennis

and, you know, playing soccer and avoiding obstacles

and all of that,

that forms your three dimensional view of the world.

Being able to actually move and run and play

in three dimensions is extremely important for math,

for, you know, stringing together complicated concepts.

It’s the same underlying cognitive machinery

that is used for navigating mazes and for navigating theorems

and sort of solving equations.

So I can’t, you know, I can’t have a conversation

with my students without, you know,

sort of either using my hands

or opening the whiteboard in Zoom

and just constantly drawing.

Or, you know, back when we had in person meetings,

just the whiteboard on my own.

The whiteboard, yeah, that’s fascinating to think about.

So that’s Michael Jackson, man,

Mirror, Careless Whisper with George Michael,

which is a song I like.

You can say Careless Whisper.

I mean, I didn’t say that.

I like that one.

That’s too popular for you.

I had recorded, no, no, no,

that it’s an amazing song for me.

I had recorded a small part of it

as it’s played at the tail end of the radio.

And I had a tape where I only had part of that song

and I just played it over and over and over again,

just so beautiful.

It’s so heartbreaking.

That song is almost Greek.

It’s so heartbreaking.

I know, and George Michael is Greek.

Is he Greek?

He’s Greek, of course.

George Michaelides, I mean, he’s Greek.


I did not know this.

Now you know.

I’m so sorry to offend you so deeply not knowing this.

So, okay, so what’s…

So anyway, so we’re moving to France

when I’m 12 years old.

And now I’m getting into the songs of Gainsbourg.

So Gainsbourg is this incredible French composer.

He is always seen on stage,

like not even pretending to try to please,

just like with his cigarette,

just like rrrr mumbling his songs.

But the lyrics are unbelievable.

Like basically entire sentences will rhyme.

He will say the same thing twice and you’re like, whoa.

And in fact, another, speaking of Greek,

a French Greek, George Mustaky,

this song is just magnificent.

Avec ma gueule de métèque, de juif errant, de patre grecque.

So with my face of métèque is actually a Greek word.

A Greek word, it’s a French word for a Greek word.

But met comes from meta,

and then ec from Ikea, from ecology, which means home.

So métèque is someone who has changed homes for a migrant.

So with my face of a migrant, and you’ll love this one.

De juif errant, de patre grecque,

of a meandering Jew, of Greek pastor.

So again, the Russian Greek,

the Jewish Orthodox connection, so.

Aime mes cheveux au quatre vents,

with my hair in the four wings.

Avec mes yeux tous délavés qui me donnent léreux de rêver.

Avec, with my eyes that are all washed out,

who give me the pretense of dreaming,

but who don’t dream that much anymore.

With my hands of thief, of musician,

and who have stolen so many gardens.

With my mouth that has drunk,

that has kissed, and that has bitten,

without ever pleasing its hunger.

With my skin that has been rubbed

in the sun of all the summers,

and anything that was wearing a skirt.

With my heart, and then you have to listen to this verse,

it’s so beautiful.

Avec mon coeur qui a su faire souffrir autant qu il a souffert.

Qui a su faire.

With my heart that knew how to make suffer

as much as it suffered,

but was able to, that knew how to make,

in French it’s actually su faire,

that knew how to make.

Qui a su faire souffrir autant qu il a souffert.

Verses that span the whole thing.

It’s just beautiful.

Do you know, on a small tangent,

do you know Jacques Brel?

Of course, of course.

And then Ne Me Kite Pas, those songs.

That song gets me every time.

So there’s a cover of that song

by one of my favorite female artists.

Not Nina Simone.

No, no, no, no, no.


Carol Emerald.

She’s from Amsterdam.

And she has a version of Ne Me Kite Pas

where she’s actually added some English lyrics.

And it’s really beautiful.

But again, Ne Me Kite Pas is just so,

I mean it’s, you know, the promises,

the volcanoes that will restart.

It’s just so beautiful.


I love, there’s not many songs

that show such depth of desperation

for another human being.

That’s so powerful.

I apologize.

Je t offrirai des perles de pluie

venant de pays où il ne pleut pas.

And then high school.

Now I’m starting to learn English.

So I moved to New York.

So Sting’s Englishman in New York.


Magnificent song.

And again, there’s if manners maggoth manners someone said

then he’s the hero of the day.

It takes a man to suffer ignorance and smile.

Be yourself no matter what they say.

And then takes more than combat gear to make a man.

Takes more than a license for a gun.

Confront your enemies, avoid them when you can.

A gentleman will walk but never run.

It’s again, you’re talking about songs

that teach you how to live.

I mean, this is one of them.

Basically says, it’s not the combat gear that makes a man.

Where’s the part where he says, there you go.

Gentleness so brighty are rare in this society.

At night a candle’s brighter than the sun.

So beautiful.

He basically says, well, you just might be the only one.

Modesty propriety can lead to notoriety.

You could end up as the only one.

It’s, it basically tells you,

you don’t have to be like the others.

Be yourself, show kindness, show generosity.

Don’t, you know, don’t let that anger get to you.

You know, the song Fragile.

How fragile we are, how fragile we are.

So again, as in Greece, I didn’t even know what that meant.

How fragile we are, but the song was so beautiful.

And then eventually I learned English

and I actually understand the lyrics.

And the song is actually written after the Contras

murdered Ben Linder in 1987.

And the US eventually turned against supporting

these guerrillas.

And it was just a political song,

but so such a realization that you can’t win

with violence basically.

And that song starts with the most beautiful poetry.

So if blood will flow when flesh and steel are one,

drying in the color of the evening sun,

tomorrow’s rain will wash the stains away,

but something in our minds will always stain.

Perhaps this final act was meant

to clinch a lifetime’s argument

that nothing comes through violence

and nothing ever could.

For all those born beneath an angry star,

lest we forget how fragile we are.

Damn, right?

I mean, that’s poetry.

It was beautiful.

And he’s using the English language

is just such a refined way with deep meanings,

but also words that rhyme just so beautifully

and evocations of when flesh and steel are one.

I mean, it’s just mind boggling.

And then of course the refrain that everybody remembers

is on and on the rain will fall, et cetera.

But like this beginning.

Tears from a star, wow.


And again, tears from a star, how fragile we are.

I mean, just these rhymes are just flowing so naturally.

Something, it seems that more meaning comes

when there’s a rhythm that, I don’t know what that is.

That probably connects to exactly what you were saying.

And if you pay close attention,

you will notice that the more obvious words

sometimes are the second verse

and the less obvious are often the first verse

because it makes the second verse flow much more naturally

because otherwise it feels contrived.

Oh, you went and found this like unusual word.

In Dark Moments, the whole album of Pink Floyd

and the movie just marked me enormously

as a teenager, just the wall.

And there’s one song that never actually made it

into the album that’s only there in the movie

about when the tigers broke free

and the tigers are the tanks of the Germans.

And it just describes, again, this vivid imagery.

It was just before dawn, one miserable morning in Black 44

when the forward commander was told to sit tight

when he asked that his men be withdrawn.

And the generals gave thanks

as the other ranks held back the enemy tanks for a while.

And the Anzio bridgehead was held

for the price of a few hundred ordinary lives.

So that’s a theme that keeps coming back in Pink Floyd

with Us Versus Them.

Us and them, God only knows

that’s not what we would choose to do.

For work he cried from the rear

and the front rows died from another song.

It’s like this whole concept of Us Versus Them.

And there’s that theme of Us Versus Them again

where the child is discovering how his father died

when he finds an old and a found it one day

in a drawer of old photographs hidden away.

And my eyes still grow damp to remember

his majesty’s sign with his own rubber stamp.

So it’s so ironic because it seems the way

that he’s writing it that he’s not crying

because his father was lost.

He’s crying because kind old King George

took the time to actually write mother a note

about the fact that his father died.

It’s so ironic because it basically says

we are just ordinary men and of course we’re disposable.

So I don’t know if you know the root of the word pioneers

but you had a chess board here earlier, a pawn.

In French, it’s a pigeon.

They are the ones that you send to the front

to get murdered, slaughtered.

This whole concept of pioneers

having taken this whole disposable ordinary men

to actually be the ones that we’re now treating as heroes.

So anyway, there’s this juxtaposition of that.

And then the part that always just strikes me

is the music and the tonality totally changes.

And now he describes the attack.

It was dark all around.

There was frost in the ground.

When the tigers broke free

and no one survived from the Royal Fusiliers company.

They were all left behind.

Most of them dead.

The rest of them dying.

And that’s how the high command took my daddy from me.

And that song, even though it’s not in the album,

explains the whole movie.

Cause it’s this movie of misery.

It’s this movie of someone being stuck in their head

and not being able to get out of it.

There’s no other movie that I think has captured so well

this prison that is someone’s own mind.

And this wall that you’re stuck inside

and this feeling of loneliness.

And sort of, is there anybody out there?

And you know, sort of, hello, hello.

Is there anybody in there?

Just nod if you can hear me.

Is there anyone home?

Come on, yo.

I hear you’re feeling down.

Just one minute, I hear you nodding in again.

Anyway, so.

Yeah, the prison of your mind.

So those are the darker moments.

Exactly, these are the darker moments.

Yeah, in the darker moments, the mind does feel

like you’re trapped alone in a room with it.

Yeah, and there’s this scene in the movie

which like, where he just breaks out with his guitar

and there’s this prostitute in the room.

She starts throwing stuff and then he like, you know

breaks the window, he throws the chair outside.

And then you see him laying in the pool

with his own blood, like, you know, everywhere.

And then there’s these endless hours spent

fixing every little thing and lining it up.

And it’s this whole sort of mania versus, you know

you can spend hours building up something

and just destroy it in a few seconds.

One of my turns is that song.

And it’s like, I feel cold as a tourniquet

right as a manor.

Dry as a funeral drum.

And then the music also is like, run to the bedroom.

There’s a suitcase on the left.

There you find my favorite acts.

Don’t look so frightened.

This is just a passing phase.

One of my bad days.

It’s just so beautiful.

I need to rewatch it.

That’s so, you’re making me realize.

But imagine watching this as a teenager.

It like ruins your mind.

It’s like so many, it’s such harsh imagery.

And then, you know, anyway, so there’s the dark moment.

And then again, going back to Sting

now it’s the political songs, Russians.

And I think that song should be a new national anthem

for the US, not for Russians, but for red versus blue.

Mr. Khrushchev says we will bury you.

I don’t subscribe to this point of view.

It’d be such an ignorant thing to do

if the Russians love their children too.

What is it doing?

It’s basically saying the Russians

are just as humans as we are.

There’s no way that they’re gonna let their children die.

And then it’s just so beautiful.

How can I save my innocent boy

from Oppenheimer’s deadly toy?

And now that’s the new national anthem, are you reading?

There is no monopoly of common sense

on either side of the political fence.

We share the same biology

regardless of ideology.

Believe me when I say to you,

I hope the Russians love their children too.

There’s no such thing as a winnable war.

It’s a lie we don’t believe anymore.

I mean, it’s beautiful, right?

And for God’s sake, America, wake up.

These are your fellow Americans.

They’re your fellow biology.

There is no monopoly of common sense

on either side of the political fence.

It’s just so beautiful.

There’s no crisper, simpler way to say

Russians love their children too, the common humanity.

And remember what I was telling you,

I think in one of our first podcasts

about the daughter who’s crying for her brother

to come back for more.

And then the Virgin Mary appears and says,

who should I take instead?

This Turk, here’s his family, here’s his children.

This other one, he just got married, et cetera.

And that basically says, no.

I mean, if you look at the Lord of the Rings,

the enemies are these monsters, they’re not human.

And that’s what we always do.

We always say, they’re not like us, they’re different.

They’re not humans, et cetera.

So there’s this dehumanization that has to happen

for people to go to war.

If you realize just how close we are genetically,

one with the other, this whole 99.9% identical,

you can’t bear weapons against someone who’s like that.

And the things that are the most meaningful to us

in our lives at every level is the same on all sides,

on both sides.


So it’s not just that we’re genetically the same.

Yeah, we’re ideologically the same.

We love our children, we love our country.

We will fight for our family.

So, and the last one I mentioned last time we spoke,

which is Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now.

So she has three rounds, one on clouds, one on love,

and one on life.

And on clouds she says,

Rows and flows of angel hair

And ice cream castles in the air

And feather canyons everywhere

I’ve looked at clouds that way

But now they only block the sun

They rain and snow on everyone

So many things I would have done

But clouds got in my way

And then I’ve looked at clouds from both sides now

From up and down

And still somehow it’s

Clouds illusions I recall

I really don’t know clouds at all

And then she goes on about love,

how it’s super, super happy,

or it’s about misery and loss and about life,

how it’s about winning and losing and so on and so forth.

But now old friends are acting strange

They shake their heads, they say I’ve changed

Well, something’s lost and something’s gained

In living every day

So again, that’s growing up and realizing that,

well, the view that you had as a kid

is not necessarily that you have as an adult.

Remember my poem from when I was 16 years old

of this whole, you know,

children dance now all in row and then in the end,

even though the snow seems bright,

without you have lost their light,

sun that sang and moon that smiled.

So this whole concept of, if you have love

and if you have passion,

you see the exact same thing from a different way.

You can go out running in the rain

or you could just stay in and say,

ah, sucks, I won’t be able to go outside now.

Those sides.

Anyway, and the last one is,

last, last one I promise, Leonard Cohen.

This is amazing by the way.

I’m so glad we stumbled on how much joy you have

in so many avenues of life and music is just one of them.

That’s amazing.

But yes, Leonard Cohen.

Going back to Leonard Cohen,

since that’s where you started.

So Leonard Cohen’s Dance Me to the End of Love.

That was our opening song in our wedding with my wife.

Oh no, that’s good.

As we came out to greet the guests,

it was Dance Me to the End of Love.

And then another one, which is just so passionate always

and we always keep referring back to it is I’m Your Man.

And it goes on and on about sort of,

I can be every type of lover for you.

And what’s really beautiful in marriage

is that we live that with my wife every day.

You can have the passion, you can have the anger,

you can have the love, you can have the tenderness.

There’s just so many gems in that song.

If you want a partner, take my hand.

Or if you want to strike me down in anger,

here I stand, I’m your man.

Then if you want a boxer, I will step into the ring for you.

If you want a driver, climb inside.

Or if you want to take me for a ride, you know you can.

So this whole concept of you want to drive, I’ll follow.

You want me to drive, I’ll drive.

And the difference I would say between like that

and Nemaki Tapa is this song, he’s got an attitude.

He’s like, he’s proud of his ability

to basically be any kind of man for as long as opposed

to the Jacques Brel like desperation of what do I have to be

for you to love me, that kind of desperation.

But notice there’s a parallel here.

There’s a verse that is perhaps not paid attention

to as much which says, ah, but a man never got a woman back,

not by begging on his knees.

So it seems that the I’m your man

is actually an apology song in the same way

that Nemaki Tapa is an apology song.

Nemaki Tapa basically says I’ve screwed up.

I’m sorry, baby.

And in the same way that the Careless Whisper

is I’m screwed up.

Yes, that’s right.

I’m never gonna dance again.

Guilty feet have got no rhythm.

So this is an apology song, not by begging on his knees

or I’d crawl to you, baby, and I’d fall at your feet

and I’d howl at your beauty like a dog in heat

and I’d claw at your heart and I’d tear at your sheet.

I’d say please.

And then the last one is so beautiful.

If you want a father for your child

or only want to walk with me a while across the sand,

I’m your man.

That’s the last verses which basically says

you want me for a day?

I’ll be there.

Do you want me to just walk?

I’ll be there.

You want me for life?

Do you want a father for your child?

I’ll be there too.

It’s just so beautiful.

Oh, sorry.

Remember how I told you I was gonna finish

with a lighthearted song?


Last one.

You ready?

So Alison Krauss and Union Station,

country song, believe it or not, the lucky one.

So I’ve never identified as much

with the lyrics of a song as this one.

And it’s hilarious.

My friend, Serafim Batoglou,

is the guy who got me to genomics in the first place.

I owe enormously to him.

And he’s another Greek.

We actually met dancing, believe it or not.

So we used to perform Greek dances.

I was the president of the International Students Association.

So we put on these big performances

for 500 people at MIT.

And there’s a picture on the MIT Tech

where Serafim, who’s like a bodybuilder,

was holding me on his shoulder.

And I was like doing maneuvers in the air, basically.

So anyway, this guy, Serafim,

we were driving back from a conference.

And there’s this Russian girl

who was describing how every member of her family

had been either killed by the communists

or killed by the Germans or killed by the,

like, she had just like, you know, misery,

like death and, you know, sickness and everything.

Everyone was decimated in her family.

She was the last standing member.

And we stopped at a, Serafim was driving

and we stopped at a rest area.

And he takes me aside and he’s like,

Manolis, we’re gonna crash.

Get her out of my car.

And then he basically says,

but I’m only reassured because you’re here with me.

And I’m like, what do you mean?

He’s like, you know, he’s like, from your smile,

I know you’re the luckiest man on the planet.

So there’s this really funny thing

where I just feel freaking lucky all the time.

And it’s a question of attitude.

Of course, I’m not any luckier than any other person,

but every time something horrible happens to me,

I’m like, and in fact, even in that song,

the song about sort of, you know,

walking on the beach and this, you know,

sort of taking our life the wrong way

and then, you know, having to turn around.

At some point he’s like, you know,

in the fresh sand, we wrote her name.

So how nicely that the wind blew and the writing was erased.

So again, it’s this whole sort of,

not just saying, oh, bummer, but, oh, great.

I just lost this.

This must mean something, right?

This horrible thing happened,

it must open the door to a beautiful chapter.

So, so Allison Krauss is talking about the lucky one.

So I was like, oh my God, she wrote a song for me.

And she goes, you’re the lucky one, I know that now,

as free as the wind blowing down the road,

loved by many, hated by none, I’d say,

you were lucky because you know what you’ve done,

not the care in the world, not the worry inside.

Everything’s going to be all right

because you’re the lucky one.

And then she goes, you’re the lucky one,

always having fun, a jack of all trades,

a master of none.

You look at the world with the smiling eyes

and laugh at the devil as his train rolls by.

I’ll give you a song and a one night stand.

You’ll be looking at a happy man

because you’re the lucky one.

It basically says, if you just don’t worry too much,

if you don’t try to be a one trick pony,

if you just embrace the fact

that you might suck at a bunch of things,

but you’re just gonna try a lot of things.

And then there’s another verse that says,

well, you’re blessed I guess,

but never knowing which road you’re choosing,

to you the next best thing

to playing and winning is playing and losing.

It’s just so beautiful

because he basically says,

if you try your best,

but it’s still playing,

if you lose, it’s okay.

You had an awesome game.

And again, superficially,

it sounds like a super happy song.

But then there’s the last verse basically says,

no matter where you are, that’s where you’ll be.

You can bet your luck won’t follow me.

Just give you a song and then one night stand,

you’ll be looking at a happy man.

And then in the video of the song,

she just walks away or he just walks away

or something like that.

And it basically tells you

that freedom comes at a price.

Freedom comes at the price of non commitment.

This whole sort of birds who love

or birds who cry,

you can’t really love unless you cry.

You can’t just be the lucky one,

the happy boy, la la la,

and yet have a long term relationship.

So it’s, on one hand,

I identify with the shallowness of this song,

of you know, you’re the lucky one,

jack of all trades, a master or none.

But at the same time,

I identify with a lesson of,

well, you can’t just be the happy,

merry, go lucky all the time.

Sometimes you have to embrace loss

and sometimes you have to embrace suffering.

And sometimes you have to embrace that.

If you have a safety net,

you’re not really committing enough.

You’re not, you know,

basically you’re allowing yourself to slip.

But if you just go all in

and you just, you know,

let go of your reservations,

that’s when you truly will get somewhere.

So anyway, that’s like the,

I managed to narrow it down to what, 15 songs?

Thank you for that wonderful journey

that you just took us on,

the darkest possible places of Greek song

to ending on this country song.

I haven’t heard it before,

but that’s exactly right.

I feel the same way,

depending on the day,

is this the luckiest human on earth.

And there’s something to that,

but you’re right, it needs to be,

we need to now return to the muck of life

in order to be able to truly enjoy it.

So it’s…

What do you mean muck?

What’s muck?

The messiness of life.


The things that were,

things don’t turn out the way you expect it to.


So like, to feel like you’re in the right place,

to feel lucky,

is like focusing on the beautiful consequences.


But then that feeling of things being different

than you expected,

that you stumble in all the kinds of ways,

that seems to be,

needs to be paired with the feeling of luck.

There’s basically one way,

the only way not to make mistakes,

is to never do anything.


Basically, you have to embrace the fact

that you’ll be wrong so many times.

In so many research meetings,

I just go off on a tangent and say,

let’s think about this for a second.

And it’s just crazy for me,

who’s a computer scientist,

to just tell my biologist friends,

what if biology kind of worked this way?


And they humor me.

They just let me talk.

And rarely has it not gone somewhere good.

It’s not that I’m always right,

but it’s always something worth exploring further,

that if you’re an outsider with humility

and knowing that I’ll be wrong a bunch of times,

but I’ll challenge your assumptions,

and often take us to a better place,

is part of this whole sort of messiness of life.

Like if you don’t try and lose and get hurt

and suffer and cry and just break your heart

and all these feelings of guilt and,

wow, I did the wrong thing.

Of course, that’s part of life.

And that’s just something that,

if you are a doer, you’ll make mistakes.

If you’re a criticizer, yeah, sure,

you can sit back and criticize everybody else

for the mistakes they make.

Or instead, you can just be out there making those mistakes.

And frankly, I’d rather be the criticized one

than the criticizer.

Yeah, brilliantly put.

Every time somebody steals my bicycle,

I say, well, no, my son’s like,

why do they steal our bicycle, dad?

And I’m like, aren’t you happy that you have bicycles

that people can steal?


Aren’t you happy that you have bicycles that people can steal?

I’d rather be the person stolen from than the stealer.

Yeah, it’s not the critic that counts.

So that’s, we’ve just talked amazingly

about life from the music perspective.

Let’s talk about life from, human life,

from perhaps other perspective and its meaning.

So this is episode 142.

There is perhaps an absurdly deep meaning

to the number 42 that our culture has elevated.

So this is a perfect time to talk about the meaning of life.

We’ve talked about it already,

but do you think this question that’s so simple

and so seemingly absurd has value

of what is the meaning of life?

Is it something that raising the question

and trying to answer it, is that a ridiculous pursuit

or is there some value?

Is it answerable at all?

So first of all, I feel that we owe it to your listeners

to say why 42?


So of course the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy

came up with 42 as basically a random number.

Just, you know, the author just pulled it out of a hat

and he’s admitted so.

He said, well, 42 just seemed like just random numbers any.

But in fact, there’s many numbers that are linked to 42.

So 42, again, just to summarize,

is the answer that these super mega computer

that had computed for a million years

with the most powerful computer in the world

had come up with.

At some point, the computer says,

I have an answer.

And they’re like, what?

It’s like, you’re not gonna like it.

Like, what is it?

It’s 42.

And then the irony is that they had forgotten, of course,

what the question was.


So now they have to build a bigger computer

to figure out what the question is,

to which the answer is 42.

So as I was turning 42,

I basically sort of researched

why 42 is such a cool number.

And it turns out that,

and I put together this little passage

that was explaining to all those guests

to my 42nd birthday party

why we were talking about the meaning of life.

And basically talked about how 42

is the angle at which light reflects off of water

to create a rainbow.

And it’s so beautiful because the rainbow

is basically the combination of sort of,

it’s been raining, but there’s hope

because the sun just came out.

So it’s a very beautiful number there.

So 42 is also the sum of all rows and columns

of a magic cube that contains all consecutive integers

starting at one.

So basically, if you take all integers

between one and however many vertices there are,

the sums is always 42.

42 is the only number left under 100

for which the equation of X to the cube

plus Y to the cube plus Z to the cube is N

and was not known to not have a solution.

And now it’s the only one that actually has a solution.

42 is also one, zero, one, zero, one, zero in binary.

Again, the yin and the yang,

the good and the evil,

one and zero, the balance of the force.

42 is the number of chromosomes for the giant panda.

And the giant panda, I know it’s totally random.

It’s a suspicious symbol of great strength

coupled with peace, friendship, gentle temperament,

harmony, balance, and friendship

whose black and white colors again symbolize yin and yang.

The reason why it’s the symbol for China

is exactly the strength, but yet peace and so on and so forth.

So 42 chromosomes.

It takes light 10 to the minus 42 seconds

to cross the diameter of a proton

connecting the two fundamental dimensions

of space and time.

42 is the number of times a piece of paper

should be folded to reach beyond the moon,

which is what I assume my students mean

when they ask that their paper reaches for the stars.

I just tell them just fold it a bunch of times.

42 is the number of messier object, 42, which is Orion.

And that’s one of the most famous galaxies.

It’s I think also the place where we can actually see

the center of our galaxy.

42 is the numeric representation of the star symbol

in ASCII, which is very useful

when searching for the stars.

And also a reg exp for life, the universe and everything.

So star, in Egyptian mythology, the goddess Maat

which was personifying truth and justice

would ask 42 questions to every dying person.

And those answering successfully would become stars

continued to give life and fuel universal growth.

In Judaic tradition, God ascribe the 42 lettered name

and trusted only to the middle age pious meek

free from bad temper, sober and not insistent on his rights.

And in Christian tradition, there’s 42 generations

from Abraham, Isaac, that we talked about,

the story of Isaac, Jacob, eventually Joseph, Mary and Jesus.

In Kabbalistic tradition, Elocha, which is 42

is the number with which God creates the universe

starting with 25, let there be and ending with 70, good.

So 25 plus, you know, 17, there’s a 42 chapter sutra,

which is the first Indian religious tradition

which is the first Indian religious scripture

which was translated to Chinese,

thus introducing Buddhism to China from India.

The 42 line Bible was the first printed book

marking the age of printing in the 1450s

and the dissemination of knowledge

eventually leading to the enlightenment.

A yeast cell, which is called a single cell eukaryote

and the subject of my PhD research

has exactly 42 million proteins.

Anyway, so there’s a series of 42.

You’re on fire with this, these are really good.

So I guess what you’re saying is just a random number.

Yeah, basically.

So all of these are backronyms.

So, you know, after you have the number,

you figure out why that number.

So anyway, so now that we’ve spoken about Y42,

why do we search for meaning?

And you’re asking, you know, will that search

ultimately lead to our destruction?

And my thinking is exactly the opposite.

So basically that asking about meaning

is something that’s so inherent to human nature.

It’s something that makes life beautiful

that makes it worth living.

And that searching for meaning is actually the point.

It’s not the finding it.

I think when you found it, you’re dead.

Don’t ever be satisfied that, you know, I’ve got it.

So I like to say that life is lived forward

but it only makes sense backward.

And I don’t remember whose quote that is,

but the whole search itself is the meaning.

And what I love about it is that

there’s a double search going on.

There’s a search in every one of us

through our own lives to find meaning.

And then there’s a search which is happening

for humanity itself to find our meaning.

And we as humans like to look at animals and say,

of course they have a meaning.

Like a dog has its meaning.

It’s just a bunch of instincts, you know,

running around, loving everything.

You know, remember our joke with a cat and the dog.

Yeah, cat has no meaning.

No, no.

So, and I’m noticing the yin yang symbol right here

with this whole panda, black and white and the 0102.

You’re on fire with that 42.

Some of those are gold ASCII value for a star symbol.


So basically in my view, the search for meaning

and the act of searching for something more meaningful

is life’s meaning by itself.

The fact that we kind of always hope that,

yes, maybe for animals that’s not the case,

but maybe humans have something that we should be doing

and something else.

And it’s not just about procreation.

It’s not just about dominance.

It’s not just about strength and feeding, et cetera.

Like we’re the one species that spends such a tiny,

little minority of its time feeding

that we have this enormous, huge cognitive capability

that we can just use for all kinds of other stuff.

And that’s where art comes in.

That’s where the healthy mind comes in

with exploring all of these different aspects

that are just not directly tied to a purpose.

That’s not directly tied to a function.

It’s really just the playing of life.

The, you know, not for particular reason.

Do you think this thing we got,

this mind is unique in the universe

in terms of how difficult it is to build?

Is it possible that we’re the most beautiful thing

that the universe has constructed?

Both the most beautiful and the most ugly,

but certainly the most complex.

So look at evolutionary time.

The dinosaurs ruled the earth for 135 million years.

We’ve been around for a million years.

So one versus 135.

So dinosaurs were extinct, you know,

about 60 million years ago

and mammals that had been happily evolving

as tiny little creatures for 30 million years

then took over the planet and then, you know,

dramatically radiated about 60 million years ago.

Out of these mammals came the neocortex formation.

So basically the neocortex,

which is sort of the outer layer of our brain

compared to our quote unquote reptilian brain,

which we share the structure of with all of the dinosaurs.

They didn’t have that and yet they ruled the planet.

So how many other planets have still, you know,

mindless dinosaurs where strength

was the only dimension ruling the planet?

So there was something weird that annihilated the dinosaurs.

And again, you could look at biblical things

of sort of God coming and wiping out his creatures

to make room for the next ones.

So the mammals basically sort of took over the planet

and then grew this cognitive capability

of this general purpose machine.

And primates push that to extreme

and humans among primates have just exploded that hardware.

But that hardware is selected for survival.

It’s selected for procreation.

It’s initially selected with his very simple

Darwinian view of the world of random mutation,

ruthless selection, and then selection

for making more of yourself.

If you look at human cognition,

it’s gone down a weird evolutionary path

in the sense that we are expanding

an enormous amount of energy on this apparatus

between our ears that is wasting, what,

15% of our bodily energy, 20%,

like some enormous percentage of our calories

go to function our brain.

No other species makes that big of a commitment.

That has basically taken energetic changes

for efficiency on the metabolic side for humanity

to basically power that thing.

And our brain is both enormously more efficient

than other brains, but also, despite this efficiency,

enormously more energy consuming.

So, and if you look at just the sheer folds

that the human brain has, again, our skull could only

grow so much before it could no longer go

through the pelvic opening and kill the mother

at every birth, so, but yet the folds continued

effectively creating just so much more capacity.

The evolutionary context in which this was made

is enormously fascinating, and it has to do with

other humans that we have now killed off

or that have gone extinct.

And that has now created this weird place of humans

on the planet as the only species

that has this enormous hardware.

So that can basically make us think

that there’s something very weird and unique

that happened in human evolution that perhaps

has not been recreated elsewhere. Maybe the asteroid

didn’t hit, you know, sister earth,

and dinosaurs are still ruling, and, you know,

any kind of proto human is squished

and eaten for breakfast basically.

However, we’re not as unique as we like to think

because there was this enormous diversity

of other human like forms.

And once you make it to that stage where you have

a neocortex like explosion of, wow, we’re not

competing on intelligence, and we’re not competing

on social structures, and we’re not competing

on larger and larger groups, and being able to

coordinate and being able to have empathy,

the concept of empathy, the concept of an ego,

the concept of a self, of self awareness,

comes probably from being able to project

another person’s intentions,

another person’s intentions to understand

what they mean when you have these large cognitive groups,

large social groups.

So me being able to sort of create a mental model

of how you think may have come before I was able

to create a personal mental model of how do I think.

So this introspection probably came after this sort

of projection and this empathy, which basically means,

you know, passion, pathos, suffering,

but basically sensing.

So basically empathy means feeling what you’re feeling,

trying to project your emotional state

onto my cognitive apparatus.

And I think that is what eventually led

to this enormous cognitive explosion

that happened in humanity.

So, you know, life itself in my view is inevitable

on every planet.

Inevitable. Inevitable.

But the evolution of life to self awareness and cognition

and all the incredible things that humans have done,

you know, that might not be as inevitable.

That’s your intuition.

So if you were to sort of estimate and bet some money on it,

if we reran Earth a million times,

would what we got now be the most special thing

and how often would it be?

So scientifically speaking, how repeatable is this experiment?

So this whole cognitive revolution?


Maybe not.

Basically, I feel that the longevity of, you know,

dinosaurs suggests that it was not quite inevitable

that we humans eventually made it.

What you’re also implying one thing here.

You’re saying, you’re implying that humans

also don’t have this longevity.

This is the interesting question.

So with the Fermi Paradox, the idea that the basic question

is like, if the universe has a lot of alien life forms in it,

why haven’t we seen them?

And one thought is that there’s a great filter

or multiple great filters that basically would destroy

intelligent civilizations.

Like this thing that we, you know, this multifolding brain

that keeps growing may not be such a big feature.

It might be useful for survival,

but it like takes us down a side road

that is a very short one with a quick dead end.

What do you think about that?

So I think the universe is enormous,

not just in space, but also in time.

And the pretense that, you know, the last blink

of an instant that we’ve been able to send radio waves

is when somebody should have been paying attention

to our planet is a little ridiculous.

So my, you know, what I love about Star Wars

is a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away.

It’s not like some distant future.

It’s a long, long time ago.

What I love about it is that basically says,

you know, evolution and civilization

are just so recent in, you know, on earth.

Like there’s countless other planets

that have probably all kinds of life forms,

multicellular perhaps, and so on and so forth.

But the fact that humanity has only been listening

and emitting for just this tiny little blink

means that any of these, you know, alien civilizations

would need to be paying attention

to every single insignificant planet out there.

And, you know, again, I mean, the movie Contact

and the book is just so beautiful.

This whole concept of we don’t need to travel physically.

We can travel as light.

We can send instructions for people to create machines

that will allow us to beam down light

and recreate ourselves.

And in the book, you know, the aliens actually take over.

They’re not as friendly.

But, you know, this concept that we have to eventually

go and conquer every planet.

I mean, I think that, yes,

we will become a galactic species.

So you have a hope, well, you said think, so.

Oh, of course, of course.

I mean, now that we’ve made it so far.

So you feel like we’ve made it.

Oh gosh, I feel that, you know, cognition,

the cognition as an evolutionary trait

has won over in our planet.

There’s no doubt that we’ve made it.

So basically humans have won the battle for, you know,


It wasn’t necessarily the case with dinosaurs.

Like, I mean, yes, you know,

there’s some claims of intelligence.

And if you look at Jurassic Park, yeah, sure, whatever.

But, you know, they just don’t have the hardware for it.

And humans have the hardware.

There’s no doubt that mammals have

a dramatically improved hardware

for cognition over dinosaurs.

Like basically there’s universes where strength won out.

And in our planet, in our, you know,

particular version of whatever happened in this planet,

cognition won out.

And it’s kind of cool.

I mean, it’s a privilege, right?

It’s kind of like living in Boston instead of,

I don’t know, some middle age place

where everybody’s like hitting each other

with, you know, weapons and sticks.

You’re back to the Lucky Ones song.

I mean, we are the lucky ones.

But the flip side of that is that this hardware

also allows us to develop weapons

and methods of destroying ourselves.

Again, I want to go back to Pinker

and the better angels of our nature.

The whole concept that civilization

and the act of civilizing

has dramatically reduced violence, dramatically.

If you look, you know, at every scale,

as soon as organization comes,

the state basically owns the right to violence.

And eventually the state gives that right

of governance to the people,

but violence has been eliminated by that state.

So this whole concept of central governance

and people agreeing to live together

and share responsibilities and duties

and, you know, all of that

is something that has led so much to less violence,

less death, less suffering, less, you know, poverty,

less, you know, war.

I mean, yes, we have the capability to destroy ourselves,

but the arc of civilization

has led to much, much less destruction,

much, much less war and much more peace.

And of course there’s blips back and forth

and, you know, there are setbacks,

but again, the moral arc of the universe.

But it seems to just, I probably imagine

there were two dinosaurs back in the day

having this exact conversation

and they look up to the sky

and there seems to be something like an asteroid

going towards Earth.

So it’s, while it’s very true

that the arc of our society of human civilization

seems to be progressing towards a better, better life

for everybody in the many ways that you described,

things can change in a moment.

And it feels like it’s not just us humans

we’re living through a pandemic.

You could imagine that a pandemic would be more destructive

or there could be asteroids that just appear

out of the darkness of space,

which I recently learned it’s not that easy

to actually detect them.


So 48, what happens in 48 years?

I’m not sure.

2068, Apophis.

There’s an asteroid that’s coming.

In 48 years, it has very high chance

of actually wiping us out completely.


So we have 48 years to get our act together.

It’s not like some distant, distant hypothesis.


Like, yeah, sure, they’re hard to detect

but this one we know about, it’s coming.

So how do you feel about that?

Why are you still so optimistic?

Oh gosh, I’m so happy with where we are now.

This is gonna be great.

Seriously, if you look at progress,

if you look at, again, the speed with which knowledge

has been transferred, what has led to humanity

making so many advances so fast?


So what has led to humanity making so many advances

is not just the hardware upgrades,

it’s also the software upgrades.

So by hardware upgrades, I basically mean our neocortex

and the expansion and these layers

and folds of our brain and all of that.

That’s the hardware.

The software hasn’t,

you know, the hardware hasn’t changed much

in the last, what, 70,000 years.

As I mentioned last time,

if you take a person from ancient Egypt

and you bring them up now, they’re just as equally fit.

So hardware hasn’t changed.

What has changed is software.

What has changed is that we are growing up in societies

that are much more complex.

This whole concept of neoteny basically allows

our exponential growth.

The concept that our brain has not fully formed,

has not fully stabilized itself until after our teenage years.

So we basically have a good 16 years, 18 years

to sort of infuse it with the latest

and greatest in software.

If you look at what happened in ancient Greece,

why did everything explode at once?

My take on this is that it was the shift

from the Egyptian and hieroglyphic software

to the Greek language software.

This whole concept of creating abstract notions,

of creating these layers of cognition

and layers of meaning and layers of abstraction

for words and ideals and beauty and harmony.

How do you write harmony in hieroglyphics?

There’s no such thing as, you know,

sort of expressing these ideals of peace and justice

and, you know, these concepts of,

or even, you know, macabre concepts of doom, et cetera.

You don’t have the language for it.

Your brain has trouble getting at that concept.

So what I’m trying to say is that these software upgrades

for human language, human culture,

human environment, human education

have basically led to this enormous explosion of knowledge.

And eventually after the enlightenment,

and as I was mentioning the 42 line Bible

and the printed press, the dissemination of knowledge,

you basically now have this whole horizontal dispersion

of ideas in addition to the vertical inheritance of genes.

So the hardware improvements happen

through vertical inheritance.

The software improvements happen

through horizontal inheritance.

And the reason why human civilization exploded

is not a hardware change anymore,

it’s really a software change.

So if you’re looking at now where we are today,

look at coronavirus.

Yes, sure, it could have killed us a hundred years ago,

it would have, but it didn’t.


Because in January, we published the genome.

A month later, less than a month later,

the first vaccine designs were done.

And now less than a year later, 10 months later,

we already have a working vaccine that’s 90% efficient.

I mean, that is ridiculous by any standards.

And the reason is sharing.

So the asteroid, yes, could wipe us out in 48 years,

but 48 years?

I mean, look at where we were 48 years ago, technologically.

I mean, how much more we understand

the basic foundations of space is enormous.

The technological revolutions of digitization,

the amount of compute power we can put

on any nail size hardware is enormous.

And this is nowhere near ending.

We all have our little problems going back and forth

on the social side and on the political side,

on the sort of human side and the societal side,

but science has not slowed down.

Science is moving at a breakneck pace ahead.

So, you know, Elon is now putting rockets out

from the private space.

I mean, that now democratization of space exploration

is, you know, gonna revolutionize everything.

It’s gonna explode, continue.

In the same way that every technology has exploded,

this is the shift to space technology exploding.

So 48 years is infinity from now

in terms of space capabilities.

So I’m not worried at all.

Are you excited by the possibility of a human,

well, one, a human stepping foot on Mars

and two, possible colonization of not necessarily Mars,

but other planets and all that kind of stuff

for people living in space?


Inevitable. Inevitable.

Would you do it?

Or do you kind of like Earth? Of course, of course.

You know, how many?

How many people will you wait?

Will you wait for, I think it was about

when the Declaration of Independence was signed,

about two to three million people lived here.

So would you move like before?

Would you be like on the first boat?

Would you be on the 10th boat?

Would you wait until the Declaration of Independence?

I don’t think I’ll be on the short list

because I’ll be old by then.

They’ll probably get a bunch of younger people.

But you’re, it’s the wisdom and the,

then again, you are the lucky one.

But wisdom can be transferred horizontally.

I gotta tell you, you are the lucky one.

So you might be on the list.

I don’t know.

I mean, I kind of feel like I would love

to see Earth from above, just to watch our planet.

I mean, just, I mean, you know,

you can watch a live feed of the space station.

Watching Earth is magnificent,

like this blue tiny little shield.

It’s so thin, our atmosphere.

Like if you drive to New York,

you’re basically in outer space.

I mean, it’s ridiculous.

It’s just so thin.

And it’s just, again, such a privilege

to be on this planet, such a privilege.

But I think our species is in for big, good things.

I think that, you know,

we will overcome our little problems

and eventually come together as a species.

I feel that we’re definitely on the path to that.

And, you know, it’s just not permeated

through the whole universe yet.

I mean, through the whole world yet,

through the whole Earth yet,

but it’s definitely permeating.

So you’ve talked about humans as special.

How exactly are we special relative to the dinosaurs?

So I mentioned that there’s, you know,

this dramatic cognitive improvement that we’ve made,

but I think it goes much deeper than that.

So if you look at a lion attacking a gazelle

in the middle of the Serengeti,

the lion is smelling the molecules in the environment.

Its hormones and neuro receptors

are sort of getting it ready for impulse.

The target is constantly looking around and sensing.

I’ve actually been in Kenya and I’ve kind of seen the hunt.

So I’ve kind of seen the sort of game of waiting

and the mitochondria in the muscles of the lion

are basically ready for, you know, jumping.

They’re expensing an enormous amount of energy.

The grass as it’s flowing

is constantly transforming solar energy into chloroplasts,

you know, through the chloroplast into energy,

which eventually feeds the gazelle

and eventually feeds the lions.

And so on and so forth.

So as humans, we experience all of that,

but the lion only experiences one layer.

The mitochondria in its body

are only experiencing one layer.

The chloroplasts are only experiencing one layer.

The, you know, photoreceptors and the smell receptors

and the chemical receptors,

like the lion always attacks against the wind

so that it’s not smelled.

Like all of these things are one layer at a time.

And we humans somehow perceive the whole stack.

So going back to software infrastructure

and hardware infrastructure,

if you design a computer,

you basically have a physical layer that you start with.

And then on top of that physical layer,

you have, you know, the electrical layer.

And on top of the electrical layer,

you have basically gates and logic and an assembly layer.

And on top of the assembly layer,

you have your, you know, higher order,

higher level programming.

And on top of that,

you have your deep learning routine, et cetera.

And on top of that,

you eventually build a cognitive system that’s smart.

I want you to now picture this cognitive system

becoming not just self aware,

but also becoming aware of the hardware that it’s made of

and the atoms that it’s made of and so on and so forth.

So it’s as if your AI system,

and there’s this beautiful scene in 2001 Odyssey of Space,

where Hull, after Dave starts disconnecting him,

is starting to sing a song about daisies, et cetera.

And Hull is basically saying, Dave, I’m losing my mind.

I can feel I’m losing my mind.

It’s just so beautiful.

This concept of self awareness of knowing

that the hardware is no longer there is amazing.

And in the same way humans who have had accidents

are aware that they’ve had accidents.

So there’s this self awareness of AI

that is, you know, this beautiful concept about,

you know, sort of the eventual cognitive leap

to self awareness.

But imagine now the AI system

actually breaking through these layers

and saying, wait a minute,

I think I can design a slightly better hardware

to get me functioning better.

And that’s what basically humans are doing.

So if you look at our reasoning layer,

it’s built on top of a cognitive layer.

And the reasoning layer we share with AI,

it’s kind of cool.

Like there is another thing on the planet

that can integrate equations and it’s manmade,

but we share computation with them.

We share this cognitive layer of playing chess.

We’re not alone anymore.

We’re not the only thing on the planet that plays chess.

Now we have AI that also plays chess.

But in some sense that that particular organism,

AI as it is now only operates in that layer.


And then most animals operate

in the sort of cognitive layer that we’re all experiencing.

A bat is doing this incredible integration of signals,

but it’s not aware of it.

It’s basically constantly sending echo location waves

and it’s receiving them back.

And multiple bats in the same cave

are operating at slightly different frequencies

and with slightly different pulses.

And they’re all sensing objects

and they’re doing motion planning

in their cognitive hardware,

but they’re not even aware of all of that.

All they know is that they have a 3D view of space

around them, just like any gazelle walking through,

you know, the desert.

And any baby looking around is aware of things

without doing the math of how am I processing

all of these visual information, et cetera.

You’re just aware of the layer that you live in.

I think if you look at this, at humanity,

we’ve basically managed through our cognitive layer,

through our perception layer, through our senses layer,

through our multi organ layer, through our genetic layer,

through our molecular layer, through our atomic layer,

through our quantum layer,

through even the very fabric of the space time continuum

unite all of that cognitively.

So as we’re watching that scene in the Serengeti,

we as scientists, we as educated humans,

we as, you know, anyone who’s finished high school

are aware of all of this beauty

of all of these different layers interplaying together.

And I think that’s something very unique

in perhaps not just the galaxy, but maybe even the cosmos.

This species that has managed to in space

cross through these layers from the enormous

to the infinitely small.

And that’s what I love about particle physics.

The fact that it actually unites everything.

The very small and the very big.

It’s only through the very big

that the very small gets formed.

Like basically every atom of gold

results from the fusion that happened

of increasingly large particles before that explosion

that then disperses it through the cosmos.

And it’s only through understanding the very large

that we understand the very small and vice versa.

And that’s in space.

Then there’s the time direction.

As you are watching the Kilimanjaro mountain,

you can kind of look back through time

to when that volcano was exploding

and growing out of the tectonic forces.

As you drive through Death Valley,

you see these mountains on their side

and these layers of history exposed.

We are aware of the eons that have happened on earth

and the tectonic movements on earth.

The same way that we’re aware of the Big Bang

and the early evolution of the cosmos.

And we can also see forward in time

as to where the universe is heading.

We can see Apophis in 2068 coming over,

looking ahead in time.

I mean, that would be magician stuff in ancient times.

So what I love about humanity and its role in the universe

is that if there’s a God watching,

he’s like, finally, somebody figured it out.

I’ve been building all these beautiful things

and somebody can appreciate it.

And figured me out from God’s perspective,

meaning become aware of, you know.

Yeah, so it’s kind of interesting

to think of the world in this way as layers

and us humans are able to convert those layers

into ideas that you can then combine, right?

So we’re doing some kind of conversion.

Exactly, exactly.

And last time you asked me about

whether we live in a simulation, for example.

I mean, realize that we are living in a simulation.

We are, the reality that we’re in

without any sort of person programming this is a simulation.

Like basically what happens inside your skull?

There’s this integration of sensory inputs

which are translated into perceptory signals,

which are then translated into a conceptual model

of the world around you.

And that exercise is happening seamlessly.

And yet, you know, if you think about sort of, again,

this whole simulation and Neo analogy,

you can think of the reality that we live in as a matrix,

as the matrix, but we’ve actually broken through the matrix.

We’ve actually traversed the layers.

We didn’t have to take a pill, like we didn’t, you know,

Morpheus didn’t have to show up

to basically give us the blue pill or the red pill.

We were able to sufficiently evolve cognitively

through the hardware explosion

and sufficiently evolve scientifically

through the software explosion

to basically get at breaking through the matrix,

realizing that we live in a matrix

and realizing that we are this thing in there.

And yet that thing in there has a consciousness

that lives through all these layers.

And I think we’re the only species.

We’re the only thing that we even can think of

that has actually done that,

that has sort of permeated space and time scales

and layers of abstraction plowing through them

and realizing what we’re really, really made of.

And the next frontier is of course, cognition.

So we understand so much of the cosmos,

so much of the stuff around us,

but the stuff inside here, finding the basis for the soul,

finding the basis for the ego, for the self,

the self awareness, when does the spark happen

that basically sort of makes you you?

I mean, that’s really the next frontier.

So in terms of these peeling off layers of complexity,

somewhere between the cognitive layer

and the reasoning layer or the computational layer,

there’s still some stuff to be figured out there.

And I think that’s the final frontier

of sort of completing our journey through that matrix.

And maybe duplicating it in other versions of ourselves

through AI, which is another very exciting possibility.

What I love about AI and the way that it operates right now

is the fact that it is unpredictable.

There’s emergent behavior

in our cognitively capable artificial systems

that we can certainly model,

but we don’t encode directly.

And that’s a key difference.

So we like to say, oh, of course,

this is not really intelligent because we coded it up.

And we’ve just put in these little parameters there

and there’s like six billion parameters

and once you’ve learned them,

we kind of understand the layers.

But that’s an oversimplification.

It’s like saying, oh, of course, humans,

we understand humans, they’re just made out of neurons

and layers of cortex and there’s a visual area.

But every human is encoded

by a ridiculously small number of genes

compared to the complexity of our cognitive apparatus.

20,000 genes is really not that much

out of which a tiny little fraction

are in fact encoding all of our cognitive functions.

The rest is emergent behavior.

The rest is the cortical layers

doing their thing in the same way

that when we build these conversational systems

or these cognitive systems or these deep learning systems,

we put the architecture in place,

but then they do their thing.

And in some ways,

that’s creating something that has its own identity.

That’s creating something that’s not just,

oh yeah, it’s not the early AI

where if you hadn’t programmed

what happens in the grocery bags

when you have both cold and hot and hard and soft,

the system wouldn’t know what to do.

No, no, you basically now just program the primitives

and then it learns from that.

So even though the origins are humble,

just like it is for our genetic code,

for AI, even though the origins are humble,

the result of it being deployed into the world

is infinitely complex.

And yet, it’s not yet able to be cognizant

of all the other layers of its,

you know, it’s not able to think about space and time.

It’s not able to think about the hardware in which it runs,

the electricity in which it runs yet.

So if you look at humans,

we basically have the same cognitive architecture

as monkeys, as the great apes.

It’s just a ton more of it.

If you look at GPT3 versus GPT2,

again, it’s the same architecture, just more of it.

And yet it’s able to do so much more.

So if you start thinking about sort of

what’s the future of that, GPT4 and GPT5,

do you really need fundamentally different architectures

or do you just need a ton more hardware?

And we do have a ton more hardware.

Like these systems are nowhere near

what humans have between our ears.

So, you know, there’s something to be said

about stay tuned for emergent behavior.

We keep thinking that general intelligence

might just be forever away,

but it could just simply be that

we just need a ton more hardware

and that humans are just not that different

from the great apes, except for just a ton more of it.

Yeah, it’s interesting that in the AI community,

maybe there’s a human centric fear,

but the notion that GPT10 will achieve general intelligence

is something that people shy away from,

that there has to be something totally different

and new added to this.

And yet it’s not seriously considered that

this very simple thing, this very simple architecture,

when scaled, might be the thing

that achieves super intelligence.

And people think the same way about humanity

and human consciousness.

They’re like, oh, consciousness might be quantum,

or it might be, you know, some nonphysical thing.

And it’s like, or it could just be a lot more

of the same hardware that now is sufficiently capable

of self awareness just because it has the neurons to do it.

So maybe the consciousness that is so elusive

is an emergent behavior of you basically string together

all these cognitive capabilities that come from running,

from seeing, for reacting,

from predicting the movement of a fly

as you’re catching it through the air.

All of these things are just like great lookup tables

encoded in a giant neural network.

I mean, I’m oversimplifying, of course,

the complexity and the diversity of the different types

of excitatory and inhibitory neurons,

the wave forms that sort of shine through

the connections across all these different layers,

the amalgamation of signals, et cetera.

The brain is enormously complex.

I mean, of course.

But again, it’s a small number of primitives

encoded by a tiny number of genes,

which are self organized and shaped by their environment.

Babies that are growing up today

are listening to language from conception.

Basically, as soon as the auditory apparatus forms,

it’s already getting shaped to the types of signals

that are out in the real world today.

So it’s not just like, oh, have an Egyptian be born

and then ship them over.

It’s like, no, that Egyptian would be listening in

to the complexity of the world and then getting born

and sort of seeing just how much more complex the world is.

So it’s a combination of the underlying hardware,

which if you think about as a geneticist,

in my view, the hardware gives you an upper bound

of cognitive capabilities,

but it’s the environment that makes those capabilities shine

and reach their maximum.

So we’re a combination of nature and nurture.

The nature is our genes and our cognitive apparatus.

And the nurture is the richness of the environment

that makes that cognitive apparatus reach its potential.

And we are so far from reaching our full potential, so far.

I think that kids being born a hundred years from now,

they’ll be looking at us now and saying

what primitive educational systems they had.

I can’t believe people were not wired

into this virtual reality from birth as we are now,

cause like they’re clearly inferior and so on and so forth.

I basically think that our environment

will continue exploding and our cognitive capabilities,

it’s not like, oh, we’re only using 10% of our brain.

That’s ridiculous.

Of course, we’re using 100% of our brain,

but it’s still constrained by how complex

our environment is.

So the hardware will remain the same, but the software,

in a quickly advancing environment,

the software will make a huge difference

in the nature of like the human experience,

the human condition.

It’s fascinating to think that humans will look

very different a hundred years from now,

just because the environment changed,

even though we’re still the same great apes,

the descendant of apes.

At the core of this is kind of a notion of ideas

that I don’t know if you’re,

there’s a lot of people, including you,

eloquently about this topic,

but Richard Dawkins talks about the notion of memes

and let’s say this notion of ideas,

multiplying, selecting in the minds of humans.

Do you ever think about ideas from that perspective,

ideas as organisms themselves

that are breeding in the minds of humans?

I love the concept of memes.

I love the concept of these horizontal transfer of ideas

and sort of permeating through our layer

of interconnected neural networks.

So you can think of sort of the cognitive space

that has now connected all of humanity,

where we are now one giant information

and idea sharing network,

well beyond what was thought to be ever capable

when the concept of a meme was created by Richard Dawkins.

So, but I wanna take that concept

just into another twist,

which is the horizontal transfer of humans with fellowships.

And the fact that as people apply to MIT

from around the world,

there’s a selection that happens,

not just for their ideas,

but also for the cognitive hardware

that came up with those ideas.

So we don’t just ship ideas around anymore.

They don’t evolve in a vacuum.

The ideas themselves influence the distribution

of cognitive systems, i.e. humans and brains

around the planet.

Yeah, we ship them to different locations

based on their properties.

That’s exactly right.

So those cognitive systems that think of physics,

for example, might go to CERN

and those that think of genomics

might go to the Broad Institute.

And those that think of computer science

might go to, I don’t know, Stanford or CMU or MIT.

And you basically have this co evolution now

of memes and ideas

and the cognitive conversational systems

that love these ideas and feed on these ideas

and understand these ideas and appreciate these ideas

now coming together.

So you basically have students coming to Boston to study

because that’s the place

where these types of cognitive systems thrive.

And they’re selected based on their cognitive output

and their idea output.

But once they get into that place,

the boiling and interbreeding of these memes

becomes so much more frequent.

That what comes out of it is so far beyond

if ideas were evolving in a vacuum

of an already established hardware,

cognitive interconnection system of the planet,

where now you basically have the ideas

shaping the distribution of these systems.

And then the genetics kick in as well.

You basically have now these people

who came to be a student kind of like myself

who now stuck around and are now professors

bringing up our own genetically encoded

and genetically related cognitive systems,

mine are eight, six and three years old,

who are now growing up in an environment

surrounded by other cognitive systems of a similar age

with parents who love these types of thinking and ideas.

And you basically have a whole interbreeding now

of genetically selected transfer of cognitive systems

where the genes and the memes are co evolving

the same soup of ever improving knowledge

and societal inter fertilization,

cross fertilization of these ideas.

So this beautiful image.

So this is shipping these actual meat cognitive systems

to physical locations.

They tend to cluster in the biology ones,

and the biology ones cluster in a certain building too.

So like within that there’s clusters on top of clusters,

top of clusters.

What about in the online world?

Is that, do you also see that kind of,

because people now form groups on the internet

that they stick together so they can sort of,

these cognitive systems can collect themselves

and breed together in different layers of spaces.

It doesn’t just have to be physical space.

Absolutely, absolutely.

So basically there’s the physical rearrangement,

but there’s also the conglomeration

of the same cognitive system.

Doesn’t need to be, i.e. human.

Doesn’t need to belong to only one community.

So yes, you might be a member

of the computer science department,

but you can also hang out in the biology department.

But you might also go online into,

I don’t know, poetry department readings

and so on and so forth.

Or you might be part of a group

that only has 12 people in the world,

but that are connected through their ideas

and are now interbreeding these ideas in a whole other way.

So this coevolution of genes and memes

is not just physically instantiated.

It’s also sort of rearranged in this cognitive space as well.

And sometimes these cognitive systems hold conferences

and they all gather around

and there’s like one of them is like talking

and they’re all like listening

and then they discuss and then they have free lunch

and so on.

No, but then that’s where you find students

where when I go to a conference,

I go through the posters where I’m on a mission.

Basically my mission is to read and understand

what every poster is about.

And for a few of them,

I’ll dive deeply and understand everything,

but I make it a point to just go poster after poster

in order to read all of them.

And I find some gems and students that I speak to

that sometimes eventually join my lab.

And then sort of you’re sort of creating this permeation

of the transfer of ideas, of ways of thinking

and very often of moral values, of social structures,

of just more imperceptible properties

of these cognitive systems

that simply just cling together.

Basically, I have the luxury at MIT

of not just choosing smart people,

but choosing smart people who I get along with,

who are generous and friendly and creative and smart

and excited and childish in their uninhibited behaviors

and so on and so forth.

So you basically can choose yourself to surround,

you can choose to surround yourself

with people who are not only cognitively compatible,

but also imperceptibly

through the meta cognitive systems compatible.

And again, when I say compatible, not all the same.

Sometimes, not sometimes, all the time.

The teams are made out of complimentary components,

not just compatible, but very often complimentary.

So in my own team, I have a diversity of students

who come from very different backgrounds.

There’s a whole spectrum of biology to computation,

of course, but within biology, there’s a lot of realms.

Within computation, there’s a lot of realms.

And what makes us click so well together

is the fact that not only do we have a common mission,

a common passion and a common view of the world,

but that we’re complimentary in our skills,

in our angles with which we come at it and so on and so forth.

And that’s sort of what makes it click.

Yeah, it’s fascinating that the stickiness

of multiple cognitive systems together

includes both the commonality,

so you meet because there’s some common thing,

but you stick together because you’re different

in all the useful ways.

Yeah, yeah.

And my wife and I, I mean, we adore each other to pieces,

but we’re also extremely different in many ways.

And that’s beautiful. Careful.

She’s gonna be listening to this.

But I love that about us.

I love the fact that I’m living out there

in the world of ideas and I forget what day it is.

And she’s like, well, at 8 a.m.,

the kids better be to school.


And I do get yelled at, but I need it.

Basically, I need her as much as she needs me.

And she loves interacting with me and talking.

I mean, last night, we were talking about this

and I showed her the questions

and we were bouncing ideas off each other.

And it was just beautiful.

We basically have these, basically,

cognitive, let it all loose kind of dates

where we just bring papers

and we’re bouncing ideas, et cetera.

So we have extremely different perspectives,

but very common goals and interests and anyway.

What do you make of the communication mechanism

that we humans use to share those ideas?

Because one essential element of all of this

is not just that we’re able to have these ideas,

but we’re also able to share them.

We tend to, maybe you can correct me,

but we seem to use language to share the ideas.

Maybe we share them in some much deeper way

than language, I don’t know.

But what do you make of this whole mechanism

that ghaf on the matlid is to the human condition?

So some people will tell you

that your language dictates your thoughts

and your thoughts cannot form outside language.

I tend to disagree.

I see thoughts as much more abstract

as basically when I dream, I don’t dream in words.

I dream in shapes and forms and three dimensional space

with extreme detail.

I was describing, so when I wake up

in the middle of the night, I actually record my dreams.

Sometimes I write them down in a Dropbox file.

Other times I’ll just dictate them in audio.

And my wife was giving me a massage the other day

cause like my left side was frozen

and I started playing the recording.

And as I was listening to it, I was like,

I don’t remember any of that.

And it was like, of course.

And then the entire thing came back.

But then there’s no way any other person

could have recreated that entire sort of

three dimensional shape and dream and concept.

And in the same way, when I’m thinking of ideas,

there’s so many ideas I can’t put to words.

I mean, I will describe them with a thousand words,

but the idea itself is much more precise

or much more sort of abstract

or much more something difference,

either less abstract or more abstract.

And it’s either, basically there’s just the projection

that happens from the three dimensional ideas

into let’s say a one dimensional language.

And the language certainly gives you the apparatus

to think about concepts

that you didn’t realize existed before.

And with my team, we often create new words.

I’m like, well, now we’re gonna call these

the regulatory plexus of a gene.

And that gives us now the language

to sort of build on that as one concept

that you then build upon with all kinds of other things.

So there’s this coevolution again of ideas and language,

but they’re not one to one with each other.

Now let’s talk about language itself, words, sentences.

This is a very distant construct

from where language actually begun.

So if you look at how we communicate,

as I’m speaking, my eyes are shining

and my face is changing through all kinds of emotions.

And my entire body composition posture is reshaped.

And my intonation, the pauses that I make,

the softer and the louder and the this and that

are conveying so much more information.

And if you look at early human language,

and if you look at how the great apes

communicate with each other, there’s a lot of grunting,

there’s a lot of posturing, there’s a lot of emotions,

there’s a lot of sort of shrieking, et cetera.

They have a lot of components of our human language,

just not the words.

So I think of human communication

as combining the ape component,

but also of course the GPT3 component.

So basically there’s the cognitive layer

and the reasoning layer that we share

with different parts of our relatives.

There’s the AI relatives,

but there’s also the grunting relatives.

And what I love about humanity is that we have both.

We’re not just a conversational system.

We’re a grunting, emotionally charged,

weirdly interconnected system

that also has the ability to reason.

And when we communicate with each other,

there’s so much more than just language.

There’s so much more than just words.

It does seem like we’re able to somehow transfer

even more than the body language.

It seems that in the room with us

is always a giant knowledge base of shared experiences,

different perspectives on those experiences,

but I don’t know, the knowledge of who the last three,

four presidents in the United States was,

and just all the 9 11, the tragedies in 9 11,

all the beautiful and terrible things

that happen in the world.

They’re somehow both in our minds

and somehow enrich the ability to transfer information.

What I love about it is I can talk to you

about 2001 Odyssey of Space

and mention a very specific scene

and that evokes all these feelings that you had

when you first watched it.

We’re both visualizing that and maybe in different ways.


But in that, yeah, and not only that,

but the feeling is brought back up,

just like you said, with the dreams.

We both have that feeling arise in some form

as you bring up the child facing his own mortality.

It’s fascinating that we’re able to do that,

but I don’t know.

Now let’s talk about Neuralink for a second.

So what’s the concept of Neuralink?

The concept of Neuralink is that I’m gonna take

whatever knowledge is encoded in my brain

directly transfer it into your brain.

So this is a beautiful, fascinating,

and extremely sort of appealing concept,

but I see a lot of challenges surrounding that.

The first one is we have no idea

how to even begin to understand

how knowledge is encoded in a person’s brain.

I mean, I told you about this paper that we had recently

with Li Hui Cai and Asaf Marko

that basically was looking at these engrams

that are formed with combinations of neurons

that cofire when a stimulus happens,

where we can go into a mouse

and select those neurons that fire by marking them

and then see what happens when they first fire.

And then select the neurons that fire again

when the experience is repeated.

These are the recall neurons,

and then there’s the memory consolidation neurons.

So we’re starting to understand a little bit

of sort of the distributed nature of knowledge encoding

and experience encoding in the human brain

and in the mouse brain.

And the concept that we’ll understand

that sufficiently one day

to be able to take a snapshot

of what does that scene from Dave losing his mind,

of Khal losing his mind and talking to Dave,

how is that seen and coded in your mind?

Imagine the complexity of that.

But now imagine, suppose that we solve this problem.

And the next enormous challenge is how do I go

and modify the next person’s brain

to now create the same exact neural connections?

So that’s an enormous challenge right there.

So basically it’s not just reading, it’s now writing.

And again, what if something goes wrong?

I don’t wanna even think about that, that’s number two.

And number three, who says that the way

that you encode Dave, I’m losing my mind

and I encode Dave, I’m losing my mind

is anywhere near each other.

Basically, maybe the way that I’m encoding it

is twisted with my childhood memories of running through

the pebbles in Greece, and yours is twisted

with your childhood memories growing up in Russia.

And there’s no way that I can take my encoding

and put it into your brain,

because it’ll A, mess things up,

and B, be incompatible with your own unique experiences.

So that’s telepathic communication from human to human.

It’s fascinating, you’re reminding us

that there’s two biological systems

on both ends of that communication.

The easier, I guess, maybe half as difficult thing to do

in the hope with Neuralink is that we can communicate

with an AI system, so where one side of that

is a little bit more controllable,

but even just that is exceptionally difficult.

Let’s talk about two neuronal systems talking to each other.

Suppose that GPT4 tells GPT3, hey,

give me all your knowledge, right?

It’s ready, I have 10 times more hardware,

I’m ready, just feed me.

What’s GPT3 gonna do?

Is it gonna say, oh, here’s my 10 billion parameters?

No. No way.

The simplest way, and perhaps the fastest way

for GPT3 to transfer all its knowledge

to its older body that has a lot more hardware

is to regenerate every single possible human sentence

that it can possibly create.

Just keep talking.

Keep talking and just reencode it all together.

So maybe what language does is exactly that.

It’s taking one generative cognitive model,

it’s running it forward to emit utterances

that kind of make sense in my cognitive frame,

and it’s reencoding them into yours

through the parsing of that same language.

And I think the conversation might actually be

the most efficient way to do it,

so not just talking, but interactive,

so talking back and forth, asking questions, interrupting.

So GPT4 will constantly be interrupting.

Annoying. Annoying, yeah.

But the beauty of that is also that

as we’re interrupting each other,

there’s all kinds of misinterpretations that happen,

that basically when my students speak,

I will often know that I’m misunderstanding

what they’re saying, and I’ll be like,

hold that thought for a second.

Let me tell you what I think I understood,

which I know is different from what you said.

Then I’ll say that, and then someone else

in the same Zoom meeting

will basically say, well, here’s another way

to think about what you just said.

And then by the third iteration,

we’re somewhere completely different,

that if we could actually communicate

with full neural network parameters back and forth

of that knowledge and idea and coding,

would be far inferior,

because the reencoding with our own,

as we said last time, emotional baggage

and cognitive baggage from our unique experiences

through our shared experiences, distinct encodings,

in the context of all our unique experiences,

is leading to so much more diversity of perspectives.

And again, going back to this whole concept of these,

entire network of all of human cognitive systems

connected to each other,

and sort of how ideas and memes permeate through that,

that’s sort of what really creates a whole new level

of human experience through this reasoning layer

and this computational layer

that obviously lives on top of our cognitive layer.

So you’re one of these aforementioned cognitive systems,

mortal, but thoughtful, and you’re connected to a bunch,

like you said, students, your wife, your kids.

What do you, in your brief time here on Earth,

this is a Meaning of Life episode,

so what do you hope this world will remember you as?

What do you hope your legacy will be?

I don’t think of legacy as much as maybe most people.

Oh, it’s kind of funny.

I’m consciously living the present.

Many students tell me, oh, give us some career advice.

I’m like, I’m the wrong person.

I’ve never made a career plan.

I still have to make one.

I, it’s funny to be both experiencing the past,

and the present, and the future,

but also consciously living in the present,

and just, there’s a conscious decision we can make

to not worry about all that,

which again, goes back to the I’m the lucky one kind of thing

of living in the present and being happy winning,

and being happy losing,

and there’s a sort of,

I’m happy losing, and there’s a certain freedom

that comes with that, but again,

a certain sort of, I don’t know,

ephemerity of living for the present,

but if you, if you stay back from all of that,

where basically my current modus operandi

is live for the present, make every day

the best you can make,

and just make the local blip of local maxima

of the universe, of the awesomeness of the planet,

and the town, and the family that we live in,

both academic family and biological family,

make it a little more awesome

by being generous to your friends,

being generous to the people around you,

being kind to your enemies,

and just showing love all around.

You can’t be upset at people if you truly love them.

If somebody yells at you and insults you

every time you say the slightest thing,

and yet when you see them, you just see them with love,

it’s a beautiful feeling.

It’s like, you know, I’m feeling exactly like

when I look at my three year old who’s like screaming,

even though I love her and I want her good,

she’s still screaming and saying, no, no, no, no, no.

And I’m like, I love you, genuinely love you,

but I can sort of kind of see that your brain

is kind of stuck in that little mode of anger.

And there’s plenty of people out there who don’t like me,

and I see them with love as a child

that is stuck in a cognitive state

that they’re eventually gonna snap out of,

or maybe not, and that’s okay.

So there’s that aspect of sort of experiencing life

with the best intentions.

And I love when I’m wrong.

I had a friend who was like one of the smartest people

I’ve ever met who would basically say,

oh, I love it when I’m wrong

because it makes me feel human.

And it’s so beautiful.

I mean, she’s really one of the smartest people

I’ve ever met.

And she was like, oh, it’s such a good feeling.

And I love being wrong, but there’s something

about self improvement.

There’s something about sort of how do I

not make the most mistakes, but attempt the most rights

and do the fewest wrongs,

but with the full knowledge that this will happen.

That’s one aspect.

So through this life in the present,

what’s really funny is,

and that’s something that I’ve experienced more and more

really thanks to you and through this podcast,

is this enormous number of people who will basically comment,

wow, I’ve been following this guy for so many years now,

or wow, this guy has inspired so many of us

in computation biology and so on and so forth.

I’m like, I don’t know any of that,

but I’m only discovering this now

through these sort of sharing our emotional states

and our cognitive states with a wider audience,

where suddenly I’m sort of realizing that,

wow, maybe I’ve had a legacy.

Like basically I’ve trained generations of students

from MIT and I’ve put all of my courses freely online

since 2001.

So basically all of my video recordings of my lectures

have been online since 2001.

So countless generations of people from across the world

will meet me at a conference and say,

like I was at this conference where somebody heard my voice

and it’s like, I know this voice,

I’ve been listening to your lectures.

And it’s just such a beautiful thing where

like we’re sharing widely and who knows

which students will get where

from whatever they catch out of these lectures,

even if what they catch is just inspiration

and passion and drive.

So there’s this intangible legacy quote unquote

that every one of us has through the people we touch.

One of my friends from undergrad basically told me,

oh, my mom remembers you vividly

from when she came to campus.

I’m like, I didn’t even meet her.

She’s like, no, but she sort of saw you interacting

with people and said, wow,

he’s exuding this positive energy.

And there’s that aspect of sort of just motivating people

with your kindness, with your passion, with your generosity

and with your just selflessness of just give,

it doesn’t matter where it goes.

I’ve been to conferences where basically people will,

I’ll ask them a question and then they’ll come back to,

or there was a conference where I asked somebody a question

and they said, oh, in fact, this entire project

was inspired by your question three years ago

at the same conference.

I’m like, wow.

And then on top of that, there’s also the ripple effect.

So you’re speaking to the direct influence of inspiration

or education, but there’s also the follow on things

that happen to that and there’s this ripple

that from you just this one individual first drop.

And from every one of us, from everyone,

that’s what I love about humanity.

The fact that every one of us shares genes

and genetic variants with very recent ancestors

with everyone else.

So even if I die tomorrow, my genes are still shared

through my cousins and through my uncles

and through my immediate family.

And of course I’m lucky enough to have my own children,

but even if you don’t, your genes are still permeating

through all of the layers of your family.

So your genes will have the legacy there, yeah.

Every one of us.

Number two, our ideas are constantly intermingling

with each other.

So there’s no person living in the planet

a hundred years from now who will not be directly impacted

by every one of the planet living here today

through genetic inheritance and through meme inheritance.

That’s cool to think that your ideas, Manolis Callas,

would touch every single person on this planet.

It’s interesting.

It’s not just mine, Joe Smith, who’s looking at this

right now, his ideas will also touch everybody.

So there’s this interconnectedness of humanity.

And then I’m also a professor.

So my day job is legacy.

My day job is training, not just the thousands of people

who watch my videos on the web,

but the people who are actually in my class,

who basically come to MIT to learn from a bunch of us.

The cognitive systems that were shipped to this particular

location in space.

And who will then disperse back

into all of their home countries.

That’s what makes America the beacon of the world.

We don’t just export goods.

We export people.

Cognitive systems.

We export people who are born here.

And we also export training that people born elsewhere

will come here to get and will then disseminate,

not just whatever knowledge they got,

but whatever ideals they learned.

And I think that’s something that’s a legacy of the US

that you cannot stop with political isolation.

You cannot stop with economic isolation.

That’s something that will continue to happen

through all the people we’ve touched through our universities.

So there’s the students who took my classes,

who are basically now going off and teaching their classes.

And I’ve trained generations of computational biologists.

No one in genomics who’s gone through MIT

hasn’t taken my class.

So basically there’s this impact through,

I mean, there’s so many people in biotechs who are like,

hey, I took your class.

That’s what got me into the field like 15 years ago.

And it’s just so beautiful.

And then there’s the academic family that I have.

So the students who are actually studying with me,

who are my trainees.

So this sort of mentorship of ancient Greece.

So I basically have an academic family and we are a family.

There’s this such strong connection,

this bond of you’re part of the Kelly’s family.

So I have a biological family at home

and I have an academic family on campus.

And that academic family

has given me great grandchildren already.


So I’ve trained people who are now professors at Stanford,

CMU, Harvard, WashU, I mean, everywhere in the world.

And these people have now trained people

who are now having their own faculty jobs.

So there’s basically people who see me

as their academic grandfather.

And it’s just so beautiful

because you don’t have to wait for the 18 years

of cognitive hardware development

to sort of have amazing conversation with people.

These are fully grown humans, fully grown adult

who are cognitively super ready and who are shaped by,

and I see some of these beautiful papers and I’m like,

I can see the touch of our lab in those papers.

It’s just so beautiful.

Cause you’re like, I spent hours with these people

teaching them not just how to do a paper, but how to think.

And this whole concept of, you know,

the first paper that we write together

is an experience with every one of these students.

So, you know, I always tell them

to write the whole first draft

and they know that I will rewrite every word.

But the act of them writing it

and what I do is these like joint editing sessions

where I’m like, let’s coedit.

And with this coediting, we basically have…

Creative destruction.

So I share my Zoom screen

and I’m just thinking out loud as I’m doing this.

And they’re learning from that process

as opposed to like come back two days later

and they see a bunch of red on a page.

I’m sort of, well, that’s not how you write this.

That’s not how you think about this.

That’s not, you know, what’s the point?

Like this morning was having,

yes, this morning between six and 8 a.m.

I had a two hour meeting

going through one of these papers

and then saying, what’s the point here?

Why do you even show that?

It’s just a bunch of points on a graph.

No, what you have to do is extract the meaning,

do the homework for them.

And there’s this nurturing, this mentorship

that sort of creates now a legacy,

which is infinite because they’ve now gone off on the,

you know, and all of that is just humanity.

Then of course there’s the papers I write

because yes, my day job is training students,

but it’s a research university.

The way that they learn is through the mens and manus,

mind and hand.

It’s the practical training of actually doing research.

And that research is a beneficial side effect

of having these awesome papers

that will now tell other people how to think.

There’s this paper we just posted recently on MedArchive

and one of the most generous and eloquent comments about it

was like, wow, this is a masterclass in scientific writing,

in analysis, in biological interpretation, and so forth.

It’s just so fulfilling from a person I’ve never met

or heard about.

Can you say the title of the paper, Brian Chen?

I don’t remember the title,

but it’s single cell dissection of schizophrenia reveals.

So the two points that we found

was this whole transcriptional resilience.

Like there’s some individuals who are schizophrenic,

but they have an additional cell type

or an additional cell state, which we believe is protective.

And that cell state when they have it

will cause other cells to have normal gene expression patterns.

It’s beautiful.

And then that cell is connected

with some of the PV interneurons

that are basically sending these inhibitory brainwaves

through the brain.

And basically there’s another component of,

there’s a set of master regulators that we discovered

who are controlling many of the genes

that are differentially expressed.

And these master regulators are themselves

genetic targets of schizophrenia.

And they are themselves involved

in both synaptic connectivity

and also in early brain development.

So there’s this sort of interconnectedness

between synaptic development axis

and also this transcriptional resilience.

So, I mean, we basically made up a title

that combines all these concepts.

You have all these concepts,

all these people working together,

and ultimately these minds condense it down

into a beautifully written little document

that lives on forever. Exactly.

And that document now has its own life.

Our work has 120,000 citations.

I mean, that’s not just people who read it.

These are people who used it

to write something based on it.

I mean, that to me is just so fulfilling

to basically say, wow, I’ve touched people.

So I don’t think of my legacy as I live every day.

I just think of the beauty of the present

and the power of interconnectedness.

And just, I feel like a kid in a candy shop

where I’m just like constantly,

where do I, what package do I open first?

And, you know. You’re the lucky one.

A jack of all trades, a master of none.

I think for a Meaning of Life episode,

we would be amiss if we did not have at least a poem or two.

Do you mind if we end in a couple of poems?

Maybe a happy, maybe a sad one.

I would love that.

So thank you for the luxury.

The first one is kind of,

I remember when you were talking with Eric Weinstein

about this comment of Leonard Cohen that says,

but you don’t really care for music, do you?

In Hallelujah.

That’s basically kind of like mocking its reader.

So one of my poems is a little like that.

So I had just broken up with my girlfriend

and there’s this other friend who was coming to visit me.

And she said, I will not come unless you write me a poem.

And I was like, writing a poem on demand.

So this poem is called Write Me a Poem.

It goes, write me a poem, she said with a smile.

Make sure it’s pretty, romantic and rhymes.

Make sure it’s worthy of that bold flame,

that love uniting us beyond a mere game.

And she took off without more words,

rushed for the bus and traveled the world.

A poem, I thought, this is sublime.

What better way for passing the time?

What better way to count up the hours

before she comes back to my lonely tower?

Waiting for joy to fill up my heart,

let’s write a poem for when we’re apart.

How does a poem start, I inquired.

Give me a topic, cook up a style.

Throw in some cute words, oh, here and there.

Throw in some passion, love and despair.

Love, three eggs, one pound of flour,

three cups of water and bake for an hour.

Love is no recipe as I understand.

You can’t just cook up a poem on demand.

And as I was twisting all this in my mind,

I looked at the page, by golly, it rhymed.

Three roses, white chocolate, vanilla powder,

some beautiful rhymes and maybe a flower.

No, be romantic, the young girl insisted.

Do this, do that, don’t be so silly.

You must believe it straight from your heart.

If you don’t feel it, we’re better apart.

Oh, my sweet thing, what can I say?

You bring me the sun all night and all day.

You’re the stars and the moon and the birds way up high.

You’re my evening sweet song, my morning blue sky.

You are my muse, your spell has me caught.

You bring me my voice and scatter my thoughts.

To put that loving writing in vain, I can try.

But when I’m with you, my wings want to fly.

So I put down the pen and drop my defenses.

Give myself to you and fill up my senses.

The baffled king composing, that was beautiful.

What I love about it is that I did not

bring up a dictionary of rhymes.

I did not sort of work hard.

So basically when I write poems, I just type.

I never go back, I just.

So when my brain gets into that mode,

it actually happens like I wrote it.

Oh, wow, so the rhymes just kind of.

The rhymes just kind of come.

It’s an emergent phenomenon.

I just get into that mode and then it comes up.

That’s a beautiful one.

And it’s basically, you know, as you got it,

it’s basically saying it’s no recipe

and then I’m throwing in the recipes

and as I’m writing it, I’m like, you know.

So it’s very introspective in this whole concept.

So anyway, there’s another one many years earlier

that is, you know, darker.

It’s basically this whole concept of let’s be friends.

I was like, ugh, you know.

No, let’s be friends, just like, you know.

So the last words are shout out,

I love you or send me to hell.

So the title is Burn Me Tonight.

Lie to me, baby.

Lie to me now.

Tell me you love me.

Break me a vow.

Give me a sweet word, a promise, a kiss.

Give me the world, a sweet taste to miss.

Don’t let me lay here, inert, ugly, cold,

with nothing sweet felt and nothing harsh told.

Give me some hope, false, foolish, yet kind.

Make me regret, I’ll leave you behind.

Don’t pity my soul or torture it right.

Treat it with hatred.

Start up a fight.

For it’s from mildness that my soul dies

when you cover your passion in a bland friend’s disguise.

Kiss me now, baby.

Show me your passion.

Turn off the lights and rip off your fashion.

Give me my life’s joy this one night.

Burn all my matches for one blazing light.

Don’t think of tomorrow and let today fade.

Don’t try and protect me from love’s cutting blade.

Your razor will always rip off my veins.

Don’t spare me the passion to spare me the pains.

Kiss me now, honey, or spit in my face.

Throw me an insult I’ll gladly embrace.

Tell me now clearly that you never cared.

Say it now loudly like you never dared.

I’m ready to hear it.

I’m ready to die.

I’m ready to burn and start a new life.

I’m ready to face the rough burning truth

rather than waste the rest of my youth.

So tell me, my lover, should I stay or go?

The answer to love is one, yes or no.

There’s no I like you, no let’s be friends,

shout out I love you, or send me to hell.

I don’t think there’s a better way to end

a discussion of the meaning of life.

Whatever the heck the meaning is,

go all in as that poem says.

Manolis, thank you so much for talking today.

Thanks, I look forward to next time.

Thanks for listening to this conversation

with Manolis Kellis, and thank you to our sponsors.

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And now, let me leave you with some words

from Douglas Adams in his book,

Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.

On the planet Earth, man had always assumed

that he was more intelligent than dolphins

because he had achieved so much.

The wheel, New York, wars, and so on,

whilst all the dolphins had ever done

was muck about in the water having a good time.

But conversely, the dolphins had always believed

that they were far more intelligent than man

for precisely the same reasons.

Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.

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