Nestled up in the piñon and juniper of the foothills of Northern New Mexico, the Santa Fe Institute seems like it could be imaginary, or perhaps the sort of place that materializes out of the desert once every hundred years or so. An independent and not-for-profit research institution, SFI hosts scientists, writers, and other thinkers. As their mission states, “our researchers endeavor to understand and unify the underlying, shared patterns in complex physical, biological, social, cultural, technological, and even possible astrobiological worlds.” Luminaries ranging from famed physicist and founder Murray Gell-Mann to writer Cormac McCarthy have wandered the halls, grousing and thinking and slowly unlocking secret knowledge.
Cowan Campus at the Santa Fe Institute.
I visited SFI this summer as part of my Arts, Science, and Culture Initiative fellowship grant. My research looks at humans and their relationships with machines—specifically, how humans “feel” about machines, and what robot feeling might look like. The objects of my research are largely cultural artifacts that live, like SFI itself, at the intersection of scientific inquiry and creative imagination.SFI is helmed by David Krakauer. I first met while Krakauer while filming Fiction Addiction several years ago with my collaborator, Dr. Anya Bershad, a UChicago neuroscientist. (Fiction Addiction was a documentary study of the cultural and neurobiological basis for binge-watching that was funded by ASCI.) At the time, Krakauer was head of the Wisconsin Institute for Discovery, a think-tank similar to SFI. Driving up to the main building, named after Gell-Mann, a winding road leads past a rocket ship that looks like a giant child’s toy. A filled-in pool hosts afternoon yoga classes when the weather is good, and the weather is almost always good. The old pool house nearby has been converted into the smallest art exhibit I have ever seen – I can’t stand up all the way and can cross the room in two steps and a little skip. Included in the pool house art exhibit is a miniature model of the already-small room. A huge slate obelisk stands facing the sun, but a quick spin of a huge metal wheel lowers the obelisk to table height where scientists and other thinkers with a handful of chalk can come together to chip away at the secrets of the universe. SFI isn’t imaginary, but it’s still pretty fantastic.
While my time at SFI can only be described as too short, the projects being worked on throughout the year will have ramifications for generations. While my particular interest in how we might coexist with thinking machines landed on their projects on embodied intelligence, other projects range from how wealth inequality affects the world to complex systems science to the origin of life. Organizations like SFI are rare and magnificent, blending the humanities and the sciences not as disciplines, but as ways of expressing a curiosity about the world that can never be satisfied, although it can be shared. I’m grateful to ASCI for giving me the chance to do so.