The Book Club

The Alchemy of Our Time

Dear Jim–

I met Neil Gershenfeld in the fall of 1995, when I went up to Cambridge for the “1010” celebration–the 10th anniversary of the Media Lab. When I was there, the place was in the midst of a transition, what Nicholas Negroponte described as the movement from “bits to atoms.” Clever at constructing phrases–“being digital” for instance–Negroponte and the professors there had come to a turning point and made a decision. When the Media Lab began, its mission was to develop “multimedia.” Back then, the idea of integrating image, sound, and text using computers was still a pretty far out idea. Your typical home PC had no such thing as a video board, sound card, let alone the hypertext of the World Wide Web. Flashing forward a decade, the subtext at the Media Lab was that the world outside its walls had galloped ahead of their own tinkerings. Via the remarkable growth of the Internet, coupled with ever faster home PCs, multi-media had not only arrived–it was being pioneered and developed by legions of programmers, hobbyists, and soon brand-name media companies. Where Negroponte had been obsessed with High Definition TV (HDTV) and fiber-optics, the Net had subsumed those issues in an organic fashion. Their initial mission–multimedia–became has-been. So they switched, from “bits” to “atoms.” Which is the context behind Gershenfeld’s book.

Neil’s Things That Think project is very much at the forefront of what the Media Lab is doing today. And this time around, it looks like they are seeding the beginnings of the next wave of computing. If we look at the hot toys for children this season–Furby, a googling furry electronic doll with light and touch sensors (I was sent a Furby, and eventually starved it to death in a lightless box), and a new breed of Lego blocks that contain robotic circuitry (so kids can build their own robots at home), we get the sense of a new generational divide. I predict that today’s pre-teens will be the first generation to play with robots. Much as today’s teens are the first to have grown up with the Net, and mine was the first grow up with home computers, this generation will be accustomed to the premise of “things that think” in an organic, familiar, way, from childhood.

The philosophical implications are profound. Extrapolating for a moment, I would say that growing up playing with robots will impart a different way of understanding the moral implications of engineering the human body. Which brings us to Kurzweil. Kurzweil, who spends much time imagining how the human body, through symbiosis with computers, will evolve to another form, sidesteps the moral and ethical questions implicit in this sort of future. For instance, if we can build prosthetic limbs for invalids, why not go the next step and build “better” limbs for people without injury (eyes that see beyond 20/20, a better heart, etc.)? Combine that with questions of genetic engineering and cloning, then put that in the context of a younger generation who is comfortable with robots, and you have the seeds of a profound fissure. Will older generations who did not grow up with electronic Lego have a far more traditional (conservative?), reaction to whether human cloning is ethical? We see this already in sports, with younger athletes far more comfortable with performance-enhancing drugs. And why not use them? The idea of a “pure” body may become an obsolete concept.

Gershenfeld, through his short-term, hands-on principles, is enabling a gradualist approach to the creation of robots–after all, a robot is merely a computer with the ability to sense its environment, and act upon that input. The phrase “things that think” is another way of saying “robot.” But where Gershenfeld differs from Kurzweil is in his notion of human-machine symbiosis. For Gershenfeld, these are more efficient tools. For Kurzweil they are means to immortality.

And for me they are tools of fantasy and communication–and yes–a sort of intellectual discipline. At the end of your note, you write of the rigors of learning FORTRAN. And get nostalgic for the days of such hands-on logic. I do too. One of my greatest moments, intellectually, in high school, was finding a visceral understanding of infinity in a recursive loop. There in the computer room, faced with a program that kept crashing for no reason I could understand, my teacher came to show me that the loop was not “looping.” It was going inside itself, like an infinite series of Russian dolls, each containing and spawning the next, yet each equal in size, until the poor machine could no longer contain such vastness and crashed. Infinity in a recursive loop! It was beautiful. That’s an experience altogether too hard to attain with today’s PCs; machines whose opacity dissuade every day users, let alone kids, from that sort of deep tinkering. In Kurzweil’s world, and Gershenfeld’s, our machines will only become more opaque, more mysterious, and more like magic. The alchemy of our time.