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My life list: Climbing the Great Pyramid


The Entanglement needs a different paradigm
W Daniel Hillis Scientist
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The paradigm of the Enlightenment was that you understood something and then that gave you the power to control it. So for instance you could understand F=ma and gravity and you could control a rocket and aim it exactly so that it landed on the Moon. And that was kind of a fantastic paradigm and it got us a certain distance, but it only works for very simple systems. And in this new age we've got now the Entanglement, where we're dealing with these much more complicated systems, where it's not even clear that you break them into objects and causes and effects, but they're complicated bidirectional relationships with things. We need a different kind of paradigm. We can no longer take them apart and then break them down and understand them in their pieces. We have to deal with them as a whole, as an interconnected thing. So something like our global climate, we would like to be able to write down F=ma and the equations and say this is exactly how we're going to understand how CO2 affects the atmosphere, but I think that's unlikely that we're going to understand it in detail. I mean, of course we try and we should try, but the truth of the matter is a very complicated system that involves the oceans and it involves plants and it involves the chemistry of the atmosphere, and we're probably never really going to understand that whole system, but that doesn't mean that we can't influence it. We probably can't control it like we send a rocket to the moon, but we can influence in the same way that a farmer can grow a crop without actually understanding how the plants work and that we can learn ways of influencing it to come out in the direction that we want. So actually, I'm very optimistic about climate change, not because I think we're going to understand it and fix it in an engineering sense, but because I think we're going to learn how to kind of nudge and influence these complicated systems. And we're naturally good at doing that, and that's really the way that we've normally related to nature. It's the only way we've related to nature before the Enlightenment. And that way can work, and I think it can particularly work if we have the help of computers that have bigger capacity to think in that sort of systems way.

So I'm very optimistic that we're going to deal with climate change, not because I don't think it's real, but because we have way more capacity to adapt and intervene and respond than we give ourselves credit for.

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: Christopher Sykes George Dyson

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: climate change, Entanglement, Enlightenment, nature, paradigm, technology

Duration: 3 minutes, 6 seconds

Date story recorded: October 2016

Date story went live: 05 July 2017