The Book Club

I Was a Teenage Computer!

Dear David,

No, exchanging business cards through the skin while shaking hands doesn’t quite make sense to me, but much else in Gershenfeld’s book did. (You piqued my curiosity, by the way, with your claim that “violent strategy” computer games like Myth II–featuring “limbs of exploding dwarves,” no less!--afford you joys comparable to those offered by a good novel. Maybe I should pop into one of those video arcades the next time I’m in Times Square.)

The lotus-eating Kurzweil wants to dissolve all barriers to the realization of fantasy. The engineering-minded Gershenfeld wants to come up with elegant solutions to highly constrained problems: How can a computer be made as good as a book? How can a computer deepen out appreciation of the sounds made by Yo-Yo Ma’s Stradivarius cello? (Kurzweil, by contrast, is more interested in inducing bogus spiritual states through something he’s working on called Brain Generated Music.) Even when the outcomes Gershenfeld and his MIT lab colleagues are striving for seems not especially desirable–computers you can wear in your shoes, for example–their engineering approach is always exhilaratingly clever. And their goal of making computers a seamless and invisible part of the Lebenswelt struck me as altogether admirable.

At first blush, anyway. Then I began to get nostalgic. According to the subtitle of your own new book, David, you “came of age in cyberspace.” I came of age before there was such a thing. The computers I did scientific programming on back in the ‘70s were the most rebarbative and unforgiving of devices. You worked out the logic of your program with a flow chart, you punched up the FORTRAN cards, and you submitted them in a batch to the mainframe operator to run overnight. The next morning you came in and found out you had an infinite loop–damn! So you wearily endeavored to debug the thing and prayed for better luck the next night.

After a few weeks of such punishment, you grew more rigorous in your logic. You also became, perforce, pretty good at running the programs in your head–mentally simulating in advance just what the computer would do, in hopes of avoiding the dread infinite loop.

A bit later I got mixed up in a nasty business called recursive function theory. You know about Turing machines, David–those Platonic counterparts to actual computers, which, with an infinite roll of toilet paper and a printer that only marks zeros and ones on the sheets, can carry out ideal computations of unlimited complexity. Well, my thesis adviser used to make me enact the functioning of endless Turing machine tables. Just as a “neural net” can make a digital computer simulate the architecture and functioning of the neurons in the human brain (a fact which convinces Kurzweil that computers can have full human consciousness), a sadistic professor can make the neurons in a student’s brain simulate the architecture and functioning of a digital computer. If I am not eager to join Kurzweil’s dream of merging with a computer, it’s because I fell that, in a sense, I already have.

(Perhaps the most effective human simulation of a computer took place at Los Alamos during the war, when, in the absence of electronic machines to do the amazingly complex computations necessary for the A-bomb, the wives of the physicists formed mathematical assembly lines, each doing an arithmetic function and passing the result along to the next on a bit of paper.)

While such mental exertions may have permanently impaired my capacity for abstract thought, I still felt they were somehow valuable. Indeed, that–pace Kurzweil, pace Gershenfeld, pace you–is what computers are really good for: instilling intellectual discipline by forcing one to internalize, with some pain, the logical processes of a fundamentally alien mentality. It’s like studying the dead languages, or wrestling with the latest version of Windows.