Michael Nielsen: Tools for Thought

My guest today is Michael Nielsen a scientist, writer and computer programmer who works as a research fellow at Y Combinator Research. Michael has written on various topics from quantum teleportation, geometric complexity and the future of science. Michael is the most original thinker I have discovered in a long time when it comes to artificial intelligence, augmenting human intelligence, reinventing explanation and using new media to enable new ways of thinking.

Michael has pushed my mind towards new and unexpected places. This conversation gets a little wonky at times, but as you know, the best conversations are difficult. They are challenging because they venture into new, unexplored territory and that's exactly what we did here today. 

Michael and I explored the history of tools and jump back to the invention of language, the defining feature of human collaboration and communication. We explore the future of data visualization and talk about the history of the spreadsheet as a tool for human thought. 

“Before writing and mathematics, you have the invention of language which is the most significant event in some ways. That’s probably the defining feature of the human species as compared to other species.”






Show Topics

4:01 Michael’s North Star, which drives the direction of his research

5:32 Michael talks about how he sets his long-term goals and how he’s propelled by ideas he’s excited to see in the world.

7:13 The invention of language. Michael discusses human biology and how it’s easier to learn a language than writing or mathematics. 

9:28 Michael talks about humanity’s ability to bootstrap itself. Examples include maps, planes, and photography 

17:33 Limitations in media due to consolidation and the small number of communication platforms available to us 

18:30 How self-driving cars and smartphones highlight the strange intersection where artificial intelligence meets human interaction and the possibilities that exist as technology improves

21:45 Why does Photoshop improve your editing skills, while Microsoft Word doesn’t improve your writing skills?

27:07 Michael’s opinion on how Artificial Intelligence can help people be more creative

“Really good AI systems are going to depend upon building and currently depend on building very good models of different parts of the world, to the extent that we can then build tools to actually look in and see what those models are telling us about the world.” 

30:22 The intersection of algorithms and creativity. Are algorithms the musicians of the future?

36:51 The emerging ability to create interactive visual representations of spreadsheets that are used in media, internally in companies, elections and more.

“I’m interested in the shift from having media be predominantly static to dynamic, which the New York Times is a perfect example of. They can tell stories on newyorktimes.com that they can’t tell in the newspaper that gets delivered to your doorstep.”

45:42 The strategies Michael uses to successfully trail blaze uncharted territory and how they emulate building a sculpture 

 53:30 Michael’s learning and information consumption process, inspired by the idea that you are what you pretend to be

56:44 The foundation of Michael’s worldview. The people and ideas that have shaped and inspired Michael. 

01:02:26 Michael’s hypothesis for the 21st century project involving blockchain and cryptocurrencies and their ability to make implementing marketplaces easier than ever before

“The key point is that some of these cryptocurrencies actually, potentially, make it very easy to implement marketplaces. It’s plausible to me that the 21st century [project] turns out to be about [marketplaces]. It’s about inventing new types of markets, which really means inventing new types of collective action.”

 Host David Perell and Guest Michael Nielsen

Host David Perell and Guest Michael Nielsen


Hey again, it's David here. You can support the North Star Podcast by leaving us a review on iTunes, or you can share the podcast on Twitter or Facebook.

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If you would like to learn more about North Star Media, you can visit my website, perrell.com, or connect with me directly on Twitter at @david_perrell. If you enjoyed this episode, you'll also liked the episode with Tyler Cowen, who writes about economics, technology, and culture. In that episode, Tyler shares some seriously counterintuitive points on travel, the millennial generation and how he thinks about learning and the future.