Coexisting with Computers

Michael Dertouzos

     ... led MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science from 1974 to 2001. His books include What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives. He also has several start-up companies to his credit, as well as technology patents. Professor Dertouzos was regularly called upon to advise the leaders of governments and corporations on the future directions and potential impact of information technology. He called both Boston, MA, and Athens, Greece his "hometowns."

Dr. Dertouzos died in August, 2001.

Excerpts: Michael Dertouzos
Conversation 1 RealAudio1:00

Michael Dertouzos thinks he sees how the new world of information will change our lives. Considering he is Director of MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science and a professor at MIT, that's not surprising.

What IS surprising is Professor Dertouzos' urgent plea that we heal the 300 year old wound the Enlightenment inflicted on human wholeness. He insists that we must reunite our "techie" (technological) and "humie" (humanist) sides if we are effectively to cope with the future.

He reminds us technology is only tools and tools are human creations. They are our children. Therefore, it is we, not some alien force, who create the Revolutions -- the plow made possible the Agricultural Revolution; the motor yielded us the Industrial Revolution; and the computer is the tool which is ushering in the Information Revolution.

The abundance of "hype" around the new technologies raises Professor Dertouzos' hackles. He's a vocal critic of hype and he fears "technologists are the worst!" Media do their fair share, too. Professor Dertouzos has a long list of notions he describes as hype. Nothing is exempt -- content, application, even what is not said are all susceptible to hype. Just for starters, he thinks a great deal of what people claim for the future of virtual reality is foolishness (he's more confident of "augmented reality") and he has no patience with the idea of implanting computers in humans. Beware of hype!

Professor Dertouzos reminds us our tools are neutral. Both the angels within each of us and the devils we all harbor will have access to the new technologies. It will be ours to decide how the new tools will be applied. He sees computers expanding our horizons personally, professionally, helping our children, making lives more pleasant and productive. He also sees the potential for enormous threats to everyone's well being, especially if we fail to address the growing gap between those who are "plugged in" and those who are not. He sounds a clear call to us all to be vigilant as the new technologies unfold.

Overarching optimism characterizes Professor Dertouzos, but he balances his hopeful view of the future with caution. Each of us individually and all of us collectively must mend the split between our "techie" and our "humie" sides. Then we do well to trust our common sense. When we have successfully satisfied the material ends the first three revolutions brought us, Professor Dertouzos suggests we may be ready for a Fourth Revolution -- to understand ourselves.

[This Program was recorded June 3, 1997, in Cambridge, Massachusetts, US.]

Conversation 1

Professor Dertouzos describes to Paula Gordon and Bill Russell how both technology and people are required to make sense of humans' "tossed salad" of technological and humanistic challenges -- while humans' ancient aspirations continue unchanged, we must make sense of what happens when we toss new technology into the salad. He describes important predicates of the "Sputnik era."


Conversation 2

Scientists are searching for "what's behind the door -- either nature or God, you pick" while technologists want to use technologies to make life better. Professor Dertouzos describes how both functions -- science and technology -- are pursued at MIT's Laboratory for Computer Science. He rejects the Enlightenment's "unnatural split" as an obstacle to whole human beings. Technology is neither good nor evil, the angels and devils are within us. He warns against the dangers of ignoring either "techie" (technical) or the "humie" (humanistic) considerations. Professor Dertouzos explains why he believes today's rate of change is not appreciably faster than it has been. And he attacks "hype." The media contribute, but, "Practitioners are the worst!" He expands his Litany of Hype with a series of examples from content, application and hype-by-omission.


Conversation 3

More hype, Professor Dertouzous challenges claims for "virtual reality." He then makes a case for "augmented reality." Professor Dertouzos is adamantly opposed to the idea of implanting computers in the human body -- more hype. He posits a basic human need for isolation in community, and explains how vital isolation is to our ability to think. He reminds us we do not know how to make computers that have general intelligence or common sense. He suggests we use our own common sense and knowledge of what is both technically and humanly feasible when evaluating the present and future..


Conversation 4

Professor Dertouzos describes how a person's day might proceed in the future. He describes personal and professional interactions and services, business, family encounters, education, travel and information gathering. Yet another form of hype he debunks is that "agents will replace us." He calls for us to revolt against the intrusion of computers when they intrude on humans. He uses telephone answering and soliciting devices, forms and telemarketing surveys as examples.


Conversation 5

Only 1/2 of 1% of the world's people are now connected to Professor Dertouzos' emerging global marketplace. He's deeply concerned about the techie and humie needs of all the earth's people. While the new technology promotes both diversity and tribalism, he also describes threats posed by the growing gap between the technologically rich and poor nations and peoples within nations. He explains his belief in balancing government and free market forces, using communications satellites as an example. He calls for us to be "vigilant" and explains why that's vital to our present and future well-being. He reminds us "technology is our child, not something out there." He contrasts the information revolution with the move from the agrarian to the industrial age.


Conversation 6

While giving the Enlightenment due credit for its accomplishments, Professor Dertouzos expresses his deep concern over the present-day polarization between technologists and humanists. To effectively cope with the future, humans require both, he says. The "greatest change of all" will be changing our mind set. If we do so, we may be ready to move beyond the three Revolutions (the plow, the motor and the computer) which enhanced our material well-being to the Fourth Revolution -- "We might begin to understand ourselves."



Professor Dertouzos graciously welcomed us only moments after returning from an extended trip to Asia. His staff was unusually helpful in making sure this conversation came to pass. We thank them all.


Related Links:

Michael Dertouzos' books include is What Will Be: How the New World of Information Will Change Our Lives, published by HarperOne.

Technologist John Seely Brown is also interested in the relationships among humans and computers.

Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has a very different view.  He sees a merging of man and machine.

Poet Kurt Brown uses his art to examine our relationships with science and technology.

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