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Age of Enlightenment versus Age of Entanglement

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Biology and technology become increasingly alike
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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In fact, I think that we're fundamentally changing our relationship with technology because of that. It used to be that machines were very simple things that a human could understand. A car. My first car, I could take apart, I could figure out what everything in it did, I could fix it if it broke. A car today has all these mysterious modules that even the car mechanics don't understand what they do. They just turn it on a test machine that was written by somebody they don't know and it tells them to replace this module. They have no idea what it did. So our relationship to machines has changed. They've become kind of incomprehensible in the way that nature used to be incomprehensible. I mean, nobody knew how a beanstalk grew, they just knew how to get a bean to grow. And now nobody really knows how a computer draws a picture on a screen, they just kind of know how to get the computer to draw a picture on a screen, in the way that the farmer used to know how to get the beans to grow.

And so that's one sense in which biology and technology are kind of becoming more and more alike. It's also they're becoming more and more alike because we're, of course, engineering biological things. So we can now edit the genes in the bean plant and kind of engineer to do what we want, or we can augment ourselves with peripherals like hearing aids and pacemakers and I'm pretty sure, pretty soon we'll have mental peripherals, so that we'll add memory and communications and calculating ability and so on to our minds. And so the distinction between what is a natural object and what's an engineered object I think is already starting to blur. And in some sense, our relationship to technology is becoming much more like our relationship to nature used to be. So I got to be alive in kind of this amazing short period when we could make these fantastically complicated machines, but we could still understand them. I got to... I'm getting to see the kind of end of that period, where now the machines are so complicated that they're like the Internet: nobody knows exactly what they are. They kind of understand about them, but they don't understand them in great detail. And so I got to be alive at that short period of time when we had complicated machines and could still understand them. They were something special. But I think we're going to go back to the relationship we used to have with nature, where we live in a very complicated world that we kind of negotiate with and kind of understand, but don't really understand in detail. I think that's almost inevitable.

W Daniel Hillis (b. 1956) is an American inventor, scientist, author and engineer. While doing his doctoral work at MIT under artificial intelligence pioneer, Marvin Minsky, he invented the concept of parallel computers, that is now the basis for most supercomputers. He also co-founded the famous parallel computing company, Thinking Machines, in 1983 which marked a new era in computing. In 1996, Hillis left MIT for California, where he spent time leading Disney’s Imagineers. He developed new technologies and business strategies for Disney's theme parks, television, motion pictures, Internet and consumer product businesses. More recently, Hillis co-founded an engineering and design company, Applied Minds, and several start-ups, among them Applied Proteomics in San Diego, MetaWeb Technologies (acquired by Google) in San Francisco, and his current passion, Applied Invention in Cambridge, MA, which 'partners with clients to create innovative products and services'. He holds over 100 US patents, covering parallel computers, disk arrays, forgery prevention methods, and various electronic and mechanical devices (including a 10,000-year mechanical clock), and has recently moved into working on problems in medicine. In recognition of his work Hillis has won many awards, including the Dan David Prize.

Listeners: George Dyson Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is an independent documentary producer who has made a number of films about science and scientists for BBC TV, Channel Four, and PBS.

Tags: technology, biological engineering, nature, bean, programming, peripherals

Duration: 3 minutes, 10 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017