Welcoming Remarks – Peter Staecker
Can I close this one? I’ll do it. The last time I closed the computer on the podium, it took the guy who followed me 15 minutes to open it up again and this was right in the middle of a big, big conference.
You might say that this has nothing to do with the welcoming ceremonies. It’s what to follow.
I can say that Art and I are good friends. Art lives in Winchester. I live in Lexington. I didn’t bring my gun. Art and I always meet at IEEE meetings. We don’t ever meet. We’re in adjacent towns, and I’ve been to Art’s house once, and I don’t think you’ve been to mine yet.
We’re great friends.
I’ve been outside your house.
Thank you very much Art and Greg – I think Greg is, you’re here, I thought you were out doing business – who are very busy. Thank you for allowing me to be a part of this celebration.
When I was preparing my remarks for today … I want to talk to you about three things. I want to talk to you about irrevocability, convergence and Adam and Eve. I came across a 1964 U.S. News & World Report article. It was an interview with Dr. Wiener entitled “Machines Smarter Than Men?” Apologies to the women in the audience. Well, maybe it’s already known that machines will never be smarter than women. In the interview, he talks about the irrevocability of progress and automation and the role of computers in that process because that was the question at the time. His central point is that the trend will persists because of merely the availability of computers, just because they’re there.
A quote from Dr. Wiener, “I’m not even speaking about the trend. It’s an irreversible piece of knowledge. It’s the sort of thing that happened when Adam and Eve took a bite out of the apple when they had the encounter with the serpent. When you’ve eaten up a piece of the fruit of the tree of knowledge, there’s not much you can do except go ahead with that knowledge.” In the ensuing five decades from the time that Professor Wiener said that, we have indeed gone ahead with that knowledge. Today, we pushed the frontiers of machine learning, predictive algorithms, the human machine interface and a dozen other pursuits that were the stuff of science fiction 50 years ago. Technology has evolved primarily because we have wanted, no, we’ve needed to make it evolve. We’ve seen the ills besetting society. As technologists, we wanted to do all we could do to better the human condition. I’ll say that but I’m going to come back and modify that.
Today, we can control prosthetic limbs through nerve impulse. We can implant stimulators within the brain to alleviate the tremors of Parkinson’s and the seizures of epilepsy. As Dr. Wiener said for the interview 50 years ago, those items were not even on the horizon and today they are on the table and a a part of everyday engineering improvements in the medical and technology endeavor.
Right now, on my desk at home – I think it’s my desk, it’s covered with paper – I have coupons from the last time I visited a department store. These coupons are for items I purchased there on occasion over the last few months. I know that somewhere in the cloud there’s an algorithm that knows who I am and is predicting that in the next few months I’m going to buy something else at that store. On my cellphone, I can speak the name of the person and I’m pretty confident that it will dial the right number for me without me pushing any buttons. Things are getting easier and easier. Like many, I’m using a fitness tracker that tells me all kinds of good things about me, that tells me the number of steps I take. It records my strenuous physical activity and it even records how well I sleep at night, and then it stores the data in the cloud. These are simple ubiquitous elements of everyday life, and I am certain that you have some or all of these elements in your daily life as well.
Today, we measure technical progress with Moore’s Law, which started as Moore’s observation in 1965. It was in an article called “Cramming More Components Onto Integrated Circuits,” and Moore’s observation has become a law with a capital L because it’s had a 49-year record of just proceeding exponentially in terms of component density in integrated circuits. Now, that, to me, extends Professor Wiener’s assertion that the advancement of technology is irrevocable. I maintain that Moore’s Law is a law because the entire semiconductor industry knows that they have to get to the next node on the chart. People say, “Well, Moore’s Law is not going to persist.” It’s not going to persist as simply shrinking circuits, but there are many other ways that we can improve the performance of computers.
My only point here is that whereas Wiener was talking about the computer as a thing that sits on the desk or is in a room, the people who are in the semiconductor industry and related disciplines are looking at the micro. They are making the micro improvements available so that the computer is itself facilitated by underlying technology. I think we can say that technology has evolved because Moore’s Law is available, because our micro technologies are advancing and they make many things available to us.
In addition, contemporary technologists and philosophers talk about the singularity. This is when man and machine becomes the same or when robots can make robots that are smarter than they are. Nobody has proved this yet and I ask you, in an era of more pervasive technology in our daily lives, are we the masters of our own fate? You may already know the answer. If you don’t, maybe you’ll get some inputs on that this week.
Finally, Norbert Wiener’s work anticipated the convergence of disciplines, not only within technology, but within other areas adjacent to technology, namely, fields of ethics and philosophy. If you open your bag, you’re going to see instances of that in an IEEE society, the society of technology and its effects. Another question: would he invoke this convergence to connect technology advances with benefiting humanity? I think so and could it be, therefore, that his work was anticipating IEEE’s current tagline which is on your badge? I’m proud to say that Norbert Wiener was the father of our tagline. Further, I think he would welcome the diversity of disciplines and thoughts of the group who is in this room right now, and I urge you to discuss the challenges and opportunities of convergence. I’ll be listening and participating with great interest. Thank you.