The New Academy of Laputa

October 19, 2010


“He had been Eight Years upon a Project for extracting Sun-Beams out of Cucumbers.” From Gulliver’s Travels, 1735 Faulkner edition.

Book Review
Philip J. Davis

Natural Computing: DNA, Quantum Bits and the Future of Smart Machines. By Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere, W.W. Norton, New York, 2010, 288 pages, with 18 glossy photos, $16.95.

I begin by reminding my readers of the classic Academy of Laputa. The brainchild of Jonathan Swift in Gulliver's Travels (1726), Laputa was a spoof on some of the questionable activities of the Royal Society (founded in 1660). Among Swift's targets were the cogitations of pure mathematicians, who were said to come up with nothing that was useful. I should point out that the academicians of Laputa were proposing (among many other activities) to extract sunbeams from cucumbers, to convert ice into gunpowder, and to build houses from the roof down.

One project that especially caught my eye as I reread Swift's parody was the Laputian development of a mechanical contrivance by which

"the most ignorant person, at a reasonable charge, . . . might write books in philosophy, poetry, politics, laws, mathematics and theology without the least assistance from genius or study."

The cucumber project reflected contemporary speculations about the energy intake of plants. It also presaged the extraction of sunbeams (vitamin D) from codfish liver oil, and if Swift's mechanical contrivance anticipated Vannevar Bush's 1945 Memex, and ultimately the know-it-all Google, then we must admire and praise Swift's oracular, futuristic vision. The complete text of "A Voyage to Laputa" in Gulliver is well worth reading (or rereading if you read it as a child, without, of course, adult understanding).

***

The team of Dennis Shasha and Cathy Lazere have told the story of the development of 14 projects involving 14 persons (or teams) that are at the cutting edge of technology. Shasha is the author of many collections of mathematical puzzles---worthy successors of the late Martin Gardner's Mathematical Recreations. Lazere is a freelance writer who has written extensively on finance and technology. Out of Their Minds: The Lives and Discoveries of 15 Great Computer Scientists, the result of an earlier collaboration, appeared in 1995.

In narratives that take us directly into the experiences, the intentions, the aspirations of the principals, we learn once again that most scientific and technological advances derive from a community of workers in the field, based on small and partial results, experiments, etc. Shasha and Lazere immerse their readers in the day-to-day life and shop-talk and chatter heard in the labs or work spaces of the principals. Alas, this chatter, though often amusing or revealing, can obscure important aspects of the narrative---what the technologists propose to do, whether their proposals are reasonable, what successes they have obtained.

Here are 10 of the 14 instances mentioned in the book that I have dug out of the occasional textual obscurity:

Using insects and other creatures as models, Rodney Brooks develops autonomous robots. He has found commercial and military applications for his work; the best known is the Roomba vacuum cleaner.

David Shaw builds computers with specialized architectures to simulate 10 microseconds of protein activity in a day of computation.

Jonathan Mills builds analog computers from the plastic conductive packaging foam used for shipping electronic devices and explosives. He proposes using this material to solve a variety of problems.

Gerry Sussman and Radhika Nagpal propose to build biologically based computers, using cells as the primary component.

Jake Loveless and Amrut Bharambe have used genetic algorithms for large financial applications.

Nancy Leveson works on systems analysis, in the sense of human organizations and organizational flaws that lead to catastrophic errors.

Paul Rothemond proposes to use biochemical nanotechnology to build comparably sized electric circuitry.

Steve Skiena proposes to use DNA technology to build weakened viruses for use in vaccines. The viruses have been built; the vaccines are around the corner.

Monte Denneau has developed massively parallel computers. Having reached 500 gigaflops, he expects soon to achieve a petaflop (10^12).

Scott Aaronson considers quantum computing.

***

Thus, in this book, we find described a mixed bag of enterprises in various stages of conception, gestation, birth, and reception.

Some years back, Senator William Proxmire of Wisconsin (1915–2005), a neo-Swiftian, created and publicized the "Golden Fleece Awards." Some of the awards ridiculing government grants in science and technology were justified; others were not. My intention in calling the collection of researchers described in this book members of a New Academy of Laputa is not to scoff but to call attention to the iffy nature of the technological enterprise and its long-term effects on society. Philosophers and historians have often pointed out that the promises of paradise on earth frequently end with the reverse. Faint Heart never won Fair Lady, and self-doubt never won a Nobel Prize in science.

Philip J. Davis, professor emeritus of applied mathematics at Brown University, is an independent writer, scholar, and lecturer. He lives in Providence, Rhode Island, and can be reached at philip_davis@brown.edu.


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