What’s your next book?
It’s unlikely to be as popular, but it’s about the race to do CRISPR, the gene-editing technology. It somewhat has to do with how women have been marginalized in science, although it didn’t start this way.
In 1998 or 1999, all the leading men in biochemistry and biotech were on the gene-sequencing project, the Human Genome Project. The women get cut out of there. So Jennifer Doudna, now at Berkeley, and Emmanuelle Charpentier at the Planck Institute in Germany, they decide they’re going to focus on RNA. And they discover a technology to use RNA, to take something called CRISPR, which is repeated sequences in a gene, and they’re able to cut your gene and edit it, like you do on a Microsoft Word document. They invented this technology.
I wrote about Einstein because physics was a defining technology of the first half of the 20th century. Einstein writes four papers in 1905—quantum theory, relativity theory, E equals MC2 and the theory of electrons—that culminate in the atom bomb, the GPS, etc. You start then, right in the 1950s, then you’ve got the internet, the computer, the microchip, transistor—you have information technology.
The next 50 years, I’m convinced will be the biotech half-century. We’re trying to cram it into our kids that they should all learn coding. Forget about it. Machines are going to code better than we are. But having this creativity and understanding of the humanity that we connect with it, and understanding basic biological concepts, that’s going be the next important thing.
You mentioned the focus on coding and computers. With your historical perspective, should humans be excited or worried about artificial intelligence and machine learning?
I wrote a book called The Innovators that starts with Ada Lovelace, who was Lord Byron’s daughter. When she was growing up, her mom didn’t particularly like Lord Byron—that makes sense if you know anything about Lord Byron.
So Ada’s mom has her tutored only in math, thinking that’ll keep her from being a romantic poet. But Ada loves the notion of what she calls poetic science, connecting the humanities and science. And she comes up with a notion that the punch cards, which all have a beautiful pattern, can make a general-purpose computer, make music, words, whatever. This was in the earlyish 1800s, by the way.
But she has what’s called “Ada Lovelace’s Objection”: Machines will be able to do everything except be creative. Only the humans will be creative. A hundred years to the day after she writes that, in 1937, Alan Turing does this famous paper called “Can Machines Think?” And he invents the field of artificial intelligence and essentially says, “Machines will be able to replace us. They’re going to wipe us out.”
Ever since then, it’s been a question of the Ada Lovelace school, which is the connection of human creativity to machine in a “synergistic way,” as she called it, versus a Turing way, which is trying to create machines that will get rid of our jobs. Every single data point we have is that the connection of humans with machines will always be more creative than machines alone or humans alone.
And if you look toward the future, never, including right now, have machines decreased the total number of jobs. If technology were going to decrease the total number of jobs, we’d all be unemployed now. We have the lowest unemployment rate in 50 years. So I’m a strong believer that what actually Ada called the “man-machine symbiosis” will always triumph.
Which means, as I teach my students at Tulane, what you’ve got to learn is not how to make machines that are smarter than humans, but how to make machines that can interrelate with humans, so machines and humans can work together better. And I’m convinced at least for the next 100 years, that’s the way it’ll be.
Will machines finally replace us? I guess it’s possible. But I’m only a historian. I’m not a futurist. But every time we have a quantum leap—and I’ll call quantum computing a quantum leap—in technology, it makes a quantum leap in productivity. That’s what technology is, an increase in productivity. You add productivity, you have more demand for product. So I’m convinced that in the next century humans won’t become irrelevant.