The Blog

In Search of Renaissance Men

Walter Isaacson delivers the 43rd Jefferson Lecture.

2:47 PM, May 13, 2014 • By VICTORINO MATUS
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

Every so often you'll find a headline about robots that will soon resemble (replace?) humans—the technology is only 20 years away. And these robots will be able to act like us and think like us, but they'll obviously be much smarter, making calculations at the speed of light. Sort of like that futuristic buddy-cop series on Fox, Almost Human, in which an android teams up with an officer to fight crime. But at last night's Jefferson Lecture, Walter Isaacson reminded us that these much-touted developments, like the Perceptron from 1958, never seem to materialize. Fortunately, our species remains irreplaceable.

Isaacson, the former editor of Time, CEO of CNN, and biographer of Steve Jobs, Benjamin Franklin, and Albert Einstein, delivered the 43rd Jefferson Lecture (established by the National Endowment for the Humanities) at the Kennedy Center. He titled his address "The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences." And while he discussed the significance of Deep Blue and Watson, Isaacson was equally concerned about the divide between science and the humanities. One cannot live without the other. He pointed out such renaissance men as Leonardo DaVinci, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson—and the renaissance woman Ada Byron, Countess of Lovelace, considered the first computer programmer (in the 1840s, no less). For them, the arts and sciences were one. Likewise, Albert Einstein not only loved math, he also loved Mozart—the correlations here, of course, have been well examined.

"Bill Gates, who focused relentlessly on applied math and engineering when he was at Harvard, produced a music player called Zune," said Isaacson. "Steve Jobs, who studied dance and calligraphy at Reed, produced the iPod." Isaacson then quoted Jobs, who said about Gates, "He'd be a broader guy if he had dropped acid once or gone off to an ashram when he was younger." (Isaacson made sure to mention his admiration for Gates, the philanthropist.)

At the same time, Isaacson chided those humanists who brag about being science illiterate: "[T]hey might merrily admit that they don't know the difference between a gene and a chromosome, or a transistor and a diode, or an integral and differential equation. These things may seem hard. Yes, but so, too, is Hamlet. And, like Hamlet, each of these concepts is beautiful. Like an elegant mathematical equation, they are brushstrokes and expressions of the glories of the universe." (Since I attended Georgetown's School of Foreign Service, whose acronym "SFS" jokingly stood for "Safe From Science," I'll have to take his word.)

With regard to those HAL-like computers, rest easy. We aren't going to lose a battle against them, as in The Terminator or that song "Robots" by Flight of the Conchords, whose opening lyrics are "The year 2000, the distant future, ... The world is quite different ever since the robotic uprising of the late nineties."

As Isaacson observed: "Ask Google a hard question like, 'What is the depth of the Red Sea?' and it will instantly respond 7,254 feet, something even your smartest friends don’t know. Ask it an easy one like, 'Can an alligator play basketball?' and it will have no clue, even though a toddler could tell you, after a bit of giggling."

But computers and humans working together to find, say, a cure for cancer—that already is happening. The future is, at the very least, symbiotic. We can depend on each other, much like on that show Almost Human. Of course Fox just cancelled that show after one year, but you get the idea.

You can watch Walter Isaacson deliver the 43rd Jefferson Lecture here.

Recent Blog Posts

The Weekly Standard Archives

Browse 15 Years of the Weekly Standard

Old covers