Walter Isaacson studied history and literature at Harvard University and philosophy, politics, and economics at Oxford. His flair for journalism was noted early and he began his career with The Sunday Times of London. Later, he worked for Time magazine, becoming its editor in 1996. He also served as chairman and CEO of CNN.
Isaacson gained fame for his absorbing biographies of polymath talents, including the founder of Apple, Steve Jobs, scientist Albert Einstein, and founding father Benjamin Franklin. He currently directs the Aspen Institute, a policy studies organization in Washington, D.C.
Instructions: Download each section of the lecture by clicking on the part subtitle so that you can mark it up as you read. We recommend that you have your students read the lecture twice. Do a first reading to get a sense of the overall argument. Then do a second, closer reading to see how the parts fit together. These questions are designed to guide you as you execute the second reading.
[The opening anecdote about Percy, a previous Jefferson Lecturer, introduces Isaacson’s theme: the creativity that comes when science and the humanities interact.]
[It helped him realize the importance of people who can stand on the intersection of the humanities and science—who can “think different.” Benjamin Franklin, “America’s founding humanist,” was also an experimental scientist who looked for ways in which his research could benefit society: for example, his experiments with electricity led to the most important invention of the age, the lightening rod. Franklin's friend and protégé, Thomas Jefferson, combined a love of science with that of the humanities. Both men were exemplars of the Enlightenment in which natural order and Newtonian science were thought to be the foundations of government.]
[Here, the second paragraph of the Declaration of Independence, which begins, “We hold these truths…”. Franklin edited the text and made several substantial improvements. For example, he changed “We hold these truths to be sacred and undeniable” in Jefferson’s draft to “self-evident”. A suggested reply would be that the final version of the sentence reflects a fine balance of scientific thought: rationality and reason (self-evident truths) and the humanistic disciplines of philosophy and theology (divine providence). This argument strengthens the author’s thesis about need for science and the humanities to be interrelated.]
[“Contempt for authority” led Einstein to question received wisdom; imagination helped him visualize abstract theories, equations. His spiritual sensibility gave him a sense of humility: that there is something in the universe superior to man. An exposure to Mozart activated his love of beauty.]
[The implication is that Einstein would not have made his discoveries without this combination of qualities.]
[His theory of relativity. Because it is so abstract and mathematical, it is very difficult for the layman to understand. Thus, it hastened the notion that science and the humanities are “two cultures” that don’t understand each other.]
[That a human-technology symbiosis will bridge the gap between humanities and science.
Suggested answers: (1) Because he needed to lay the groundwork to establish a cogent argument. He did this by first emphasizing the synergy of the sciences and the humanities through multiple examples. (2) That Isaacson needed to offer a general audience background before introducing his thesis. (3) That as a non-technical lecture, Isaacson wanted to engage his audience with educational stories as well as inform and prepare them.]
[(1) Ada envisioned the modern day computer by realizing the Analytical Engine was capable of processing other symbols in addition to math; (2) Ada also realized that the Analytical Engine had no ability to think for itself or create on its own. This machine could only process what humans ordered it to do.]
[(1) Turing developed a formal description of a universal machine that could perform any logical operation. (2) Turing posed “Lady Lovelace’s Objection” asking how we can know whether a machine could think. He answered it with what became known as the “Turing Test.” He suggested a scenario where a problem would be posed to both a machine and a person. If the questioner couldn’t tell the difference between the answers, then it would follow that a machine was capable of thinking. Turing predicted the evolution of machines in the coming years that would meet such a challenge.]
[Turing approach: the ultimate goal of computing is artificial intelligence; Lovelace approach: machines will not replace humans but become partners with humans, each supplementing the strengths of the other. Humans will supply the originality and creativity that machines will never possess.]
[(1) Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein: Frankenstein became a staple of science-fiction and raised the frightening specter of a man made machine having a separate intelligence and will;
(2) 2001: A Space Odyssey's Hal: Hal is a character in the form of a futuristic computer who displays frightening human intention;
(3) John von Neumann’s “mixed procedures”: The architecture of computers is fundamentally different from the human brain. Computers are digital and deal in absolute units (black and white), whereas brains are analog and deal in streams of possibilities (many shades of gray). Future computers might do well to combine digital and analog operations;
(4) Frank Rosenblatt’s The Perceptron (machine): Rosenblatt formulated a mathematical approach for creating a machine with an artificial neural network like a brain. This computer would have the ability to walk, talk, see, write, reproduce itself, and be conscious of its own existence. It would also be capable of original thought;
(5) IBM’s Deep Blue victory in chess: Deep Blue was a chess-playing machine that beat the world champion.
(6) IBM’s Watson’s victory in Jeopardy!: Watson was a mega computer that beat Jeopardy! champions;
(7) John von Neumann’s singularity (popularized by science fiction writer, Vernor Vinge):
This is the moment when computers are not only smarter than humans but can also design themselves to be super smart, and will thus no longer need mere mortals.]
[The author asserts that “true artificial intelligence has remained a mirage, always about twenty years away.” There are many basic abilities to think and/or appear like humans that computers have yet to achieve.]
[Licklider proposes a complementary relationship between humans and computers. In this vision, they will be coupled together very tightly and the resulting partnership will think as no human brain has ever thought and process data in a way not approached by the early forms of information-handling machines.
The teams that built Deep Blue and Watson later adopted this symbiotic approach. They devised a tournament, held in 2005, where grandmasters of chess could work in teams with computers of their choice. The final winner was not a grandmaster nor a state-of-the-art computer, but two American amateurs who used three computers at the same time and knew how to manage the process of collaborating with their machines.
One possible drawback to such a symbiosis would be increasing human dependence on technology to the point of not being able to function independently without it. That could potentially backfire should the technology or the infrastructure come under attack, go haywire, or become compromised from another, unforeseen force such as a natural disaster.]
[The final hurdle would be a “Licklider Test,” which would determine if a machine would be better off solving problems completely on its own rather than working in human partnership. This changes the goal from the evolution of artificial intelligence to the optimization of collaboration between human and machine capabilities—“to let the machines do what they do best and have them let us do what we do best.” One concern is the author’s use of the verb “let” in the last phrase (“have them let us…”) Is this giving machines a sentient power equal to humans? If so, could that backfire in some way?]
[Alan Kay grew up in a household of ideas that didn’t distinguish between “art” and “science”. Steve Jobs attended a creative liberal arts college and studied dance, calligraphy, and literature. These endeavors would later influence Jobs’ design innovations.]
[Human beings remain relevant because we possess an imagination. We bring together new, original ideas in endless, ever-varying combinations. We discern patterns and appreciate their beauty. We have an ability to compose and tell stories. Our creativity involves values, aesthetic judgments, social emotions, personal consciousness, and a moral sense that machines don’t possess. Humankind must nurture the capacities for expression and understanding in the arts and the humanities for they are the wellsprings of this creativity.]
[Isaacson envisions that machines and humans will get smarter together. They will play to each other’s strengths and shore up each other’s weaknesses. There is also a potential shadow side to Isaacson’s sunny vision. What’s to say that artificial intelligence will never outstrip human intelligence at some point in its future evolution? Can humankind be certain of the ramifications of that? Could machines possibly be programmed to integrate an ethical construct that would mitigate any problems caused by such inequality?]
[Rebellion involves the ability to challenge the conventional thinking and constructs of the age one is born into. Such an ability to think and act as an independent agent is fundamental to forging new paths in science, indeed, to making progress in any field. Einstein’s rebellious nature was offered as an exemplar of this type of iconoclastic behavior.
Isaacson is holding up such independence of mind and spirit along with an ability to merge arts and science as the winning combination for the future. The act of interpretation afforded by a humanities program of study is just as essential as the act of calculation demanded by a STEM curriculum. The future will be inherited by those who have mastered both. They will then be able to integrate technology and the creative arts into new forms of expression. Future innovations will be spawned by those able to connect the unique capacities of human beings with the operations of technology.]
Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, connecting insights gained from specific details to an understanding of the text as a whole.
Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary that makes clear the relationships among the key details and ideas.
Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text (e.g., how Madison defines faction in Federalist No. 10).
Analyze in detail how a complex primary source is structured, including how key sentences, paragraphs, and larger portions of the text contribute to the whole.
*Note: This essay version has been partitioned and subtitled by the editors in order to facilitate student interaction. It may not conform in all details to the spoken lecture or transcript.