Analogia: A Conversation with George Dyson

by Ashutosh Jogalekar

George Dyson is a historian of science and technology who has written books about topics ranging from the building of a native kayak (“Baidarka”) to the building of a spaceship powered by nuclear bombs (“Project Orion”). He is the author of the bestselling books “Turing’s Cathedral” and “Darwin Among the Machines” which explore the multifaceted ramifications of intelligence, both natural and artificial. George is also the son of the late physicist, mathematician and writer Freeman Dyson, a friend whose wisdom and thinking we both miss.

George’s latest book is called “Analogia: The Emergence of Technology Beyond Programmable Human Control”. It is in part a fascinating and wonderfully eclectic foray into the history of diverse technological innovations leading to the promises and perils of AI, from the communications network that allowed the United States army to gain control over the Apache Indians to the invention of the vacuum tube to the resurrection of analog computing. It is also a deep personal exploration of George’s own background in which he lived in a treehouse and gained mastery over the ancient art of Aleut baidarka building. I am very pleased to speak with George about these ruminations. I would highly recommend that readers listen to the entire conversation, but if you want to jump to snippets of specific topics, you can click on the timestamps below, after the video.

7:51 We talk about lost technological knowledge. George makes the point that it’s really the details that matter, and through the gradual extinction of practitioners and practice we stand in real danger of losing knowledge that can elevate humanity. Whether it’s the art of building native kayaks or building nuclear bombs for peaceful purposes, we need ways to preserve the details of knowledge of technology.

12:49 Digital versus analog computing. The distinction is fuzzy: As George says, “You can have digital computers made out of wood and you can have analog computers made out of silicon.” We talk about how digital computing became so popular in part because it was so cheap and made so much money. Ironically, we are now witnessing the growth of giant analog network systems built on a digital substrate.

21:22 We talk about Leo Szilard, the pioneering, far-sighted physicist who was the first to think of a nuclear chain reaction while crossing a traffic light in London in 1933. Szilard wrote a novel titled “The Voice of the Dolphins” which describes a group of dolphins trying to rescue humanity from its own ill-conceived inventions, an oddly appropriate metaphor for our own age. George talks about the formative influence of Trudy Szilard, Leo’s wife, who used to snatch him out of boring school lessons and take him to lunch, where she would have a pink martini and they would talk.

26:14 From the voice of the dolphins to the intelligence of the dolphins. A foray into the fascinating world of animal and plant communication. Learning how animals communicate leads to a radically different notion of language and intelligence. George talks about Paul Spong, the founder of Orcalab in 1970, and the succession of scientists who have been trying to decipher the language of killer whales for decades without much success. Humans are biased by our emphasis on discrete symbolic language, but many animals clearly communicate through very different modes, from optical to acoustic. Understanding true intelligence will likely involve a deep understanding of both analog computation and distributed, non-discrete intelligence of the kind shown by dolphins, fungi and trees.

We also equate language with intelligence, and while that is clearly true of human beings, it’s not true of many animals, especially ones that communicate through distributed analog networks. Even when it comes to recognizing artificial intelligence, George believes that most people have the Turing test backwards, a bias driven again because of our obsession with human language. “True intelligence would be intelligent enough to not reveal itself. The absence of intelligence is not absence of data.” We mention Dyson spheres, named after Freeman, which announce the presence of an intelligent civilization without any trace of human intelligence or language.

31:27  The use of an optical communications network by the U.S. Army to subjugate the Apache Indians. George mentions two ominous developments: the communication of the Native Americans’ locations with heliography and a name tag system that numbered them and binned them into hostile and friendly, both harbingers of the surveillance state and big technology now tracking our very identities.

36:36 A startling vision, observed by George’s daughter Lauren in 2012, of the present and future: a baby at an airport playing with an iPad which is young enough to be drinking mother’s milk. George mentions Samuel Butler’s striking metaphor from Erewhon’s “Book of the Machines”, that of an ant tickling an aphid in a mutual embrace of symbiosis: As Butler asked, “May not man himself become a sort of parasite upon the machines? An affectionate machine-tickling aphid?” The iPad tickles the baby’s brain and perpetuates itself as much as the baby tickles its buttons and apps. Bill Gates, Elon Musk and a few others have talked about doomsday scenarios in which machines of the “Terminator” type subjugate us, but George and Samuel Butler’s vision of them instead drawing us into a kind of warm, deep sleep of addiction by tickling us is both more likely and more insidious in its own way.

43:31 An important lesson: The way for us to respect both humans and technology is to remember and respect the individuals. Instead of colonization and usurpation of one technology and civilization by others, we should learn to instead borrow and share. A good contrast is the Russians in Alaska where they borrowed cutting-edge native kayak technology vs the U.S. army which chose to instead foist itself on the Apaches. In fact nature has been doing this kind of sharing in its most important innovations for a long time – we call it symbiosis. We mention Lynn Margulis whose seminal work on symbiosis describes what happens when two organisms – or cultures – share instead of fight. This principle should apply as much to technology as to peoples and cultures if we want to benefit from technology instead of exclusively having it benefit from us.

48:20 We talk about an important shortcoming of the American education system which draws sharp lines between working with your hands and working with your brain. George muses about having a place like the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton where his father worked, a place dedicated to unadulterated pure thought, but also a kind of farm where ivory tower intellectuals would be forced to work with their hands. A vision similar to Samuel Butler writing “Darwin Among the Machines” while farming sheep in rural New Zealand in 1863.

52:54 We end with an exhortation by George to explore artificial intelligence in the wild rather than with the top- down kind of control with which we are familiar. We briefly touch on the possible relevance of Gödel’s incompleteness theorems and work on the continuum hypothesis to machine learning. George, Freeman and I agree that far from seeming like a gloomy, end-of-science scenario, this kind of work proves that science will continue to offer us riches that are inexhaustible, so we will keep marching on.