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. Read more »