Extraordinary machines – with neuroscientist Susan Hockfield

Convergence 2.0: Engineers are using the "natural genius" of biological systems to produce extraordinary machines—self-assembling batteries, cancer-detecting nanoparticles, super-efficient water filters made from proteins found in blood cells. Neuroscientist and MIT President Emerita Susan Hockfield and host Jason Gots discuss what all this could mean for our future.

  • "One of my tools as president was never to talk about change. People hate change. But at MIT no one could deny you the opportunity to do an experiment."
  • "If we can create these spaces for convening around our most important problems, We can make progress much faster than we can by insisting that people do the work on their own. And that's the power of the university at its best."


"Are we in the best of times? Or the end of times? One of the oddities of the current era is that extreme pessimism about the world coexists with extreme optimism — and both have a plausible case to make."

I'm quoting Gideon Rachman from a recent Financial Times piece about Bill Gates and David Attenborough. Broadly speaking, Gates is a technooptimist: convinced, like his friend Steven Pinker, that the world's getting better all the time due to technological and scientific progress, and that our problems are largely solvable. Attenborough is the world's most recognizable narrator of nature documentaries and, well, with all that's been happening to the flora and the fauna of the Earth, you can probably guess where he stands.

My guest today, neuroscientist and MIT president emerita Susan Hockfield, is the author of the new book THE AGE OF LIVING MACHINES. And I think it's fair to say she leans toward the Bill Gates side of the spectrum. Given what she's seen and done in her historic career, it's easy to understand why. The technologies she looks at in the book sit at the intersection of biology and engineering—what Hockfield calls "Convergence 2.0". From water filters based on cellular proteins to self-assembling batteries, they seem miraculous, even to the trained eye. And they're densely packed with hope for human ingenuity, and for solving global problems from food shortages to climate change.

Surprise conversation starters in this episode:

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