Marvin Minsky. "Public Lecture"
Artificial Life V. May 16, 1996. Nara, Japan.
Videotape provided by Katsunori
Transcribed, condensed and edited by Nick Gessler.
I would like to talk about the humanities and why I think that Computer Science is the most important thing that's happened to the humanities since the invention of writing. Computer Science is something new that happened to the world about 50 years ago.
Fifty years ago, in the 1940s and 50s, human thinkers learned for the first time how to describe complicated machines. We invented something called computer language, programming language, and for the first time people had a way to describe complicated processes or complicated machines: Complicated systems: systems made of thousands of little parts all connected together: networks. Before 1950 there was no language to discuss this, no way for two people to exchange ideas about complicated machines. But why is it important to understand? Because that's what you are. Computer Science is important, but that importance has nothing to do with computers.
Computer Science is a new philosophy about complicated processes, about life, about Artificial Life, about natural life, about Artificial Intelligence, about natural intelligence. It can help us understand our brain. It can help us understand how we learn and what knowledge is. It can help us understand how we think and how we feel. And this will change everything.
What is an operating system like Windows? That's the part of the brain that does all of the housework for the other parts. No one knows how it works, but every computer needs an operating system. This is a new idea. How does the human operating system work? This question is new. Aristotle, Kant, Descartes, and other philosophers didn't know that you need an operating system to use knowledge.
So all philosophy, I think, is stupid. It was very good to try to make philosophy. Those people tried to make theories of thinking, theories of knowledge, theories of ethics, and theories of art, but they were like babies because they had no words to describe the processes or the data. How does the computer read a program and interpret it? How does one part of the brain read the processes in another part of the brain and use them to solve a problem? No one knows. And before 1960 no one asked. In a computer the data is alive. If you read philosophy you will find that those were very smart people. But they had no idea of the possibilities of how thinking might work. So I advise all students to read some philosophy, and with great sympathy. Not to understand what the philosopher said, but to feel compassionate and say, "Think of those poor people years ago who tried so hard to cook without ingredients, who tried to build a house without wood and nails, who tried to build a car without steel, or rubber or gasoline." So look at philosophy with sympathy. But don't look for knowledge. There is none. Remember whenever you see ancient wisdom that still seems smart, what does it mean? It means that the ancient wisdom has something wrong with it that keeps people from replacing it for a long time.
The idea to carry away is that Computer Science is not about computers. It's the first time in 5000 years that we've begun to have ways to describe the kinds of machinery that we are. We may not be exactly right because we started just 40 years ago. But I think ours is the right direction. What happened in philosophy was wrong. What happened in most other fields was wrong. Not because the ideas were bad in themselves, but because they didn't show us how to make a system that was complicated enough or versatile enough that it could do as many different things as the brain. To me that's the important thing.
So I think Computer Science is the secret for the future of humanities because it will help people understand what we are. That's what the humanities always wanted to do, but it never succeeded. I think that the description of what a person was in Aristotle, 2000 years ago, is of the same quality as the description of what a person is in a modern psychology book. They're all using theories that are too simple. They're all using languages that cannot describe the kind of things that we really are.