TIME OF GROWING PAINS FOR INFORMATION AGE

[ Mon. Aug. 6. 2001 ]

BETHLEHEM, Conn. —These would seem to be heady times to be a computer scientist. This is the information age, in which, we are told, biology is defined by a three-billion- letter instruction manual called the genome and human thoughts are analogous to digital bits flowing through a computer. And, we are warned, human intellect will soon be dwarfed by superintelligent machines.

"All kinds of people," said Jaron Lanier, a computer scientist and musician, "are happy to tell us what we do is the central metaphor, the best explanation of everything from biology to economics to aesthetics to child rearing, sex, you name it. It's very ego-gratifying."

Mr. Lanier is the lead scientist of the National Tele-Immersion Initiative, a virtual reality system that has been designed for the Internet.

He and six other scientists were sitting under a maple tree one recent afternoon worrying whether this headiness was justified. They found instead that they could not even agree on useful definitions of their field's most common terms, like "information" and "complexity," let alone the meaning and future of this revolution.

The other scientists were two computer science professors, Dr. David Gelernter of Yale and Dr. Jordan Pollack of Brandeis University; three physicists, Dr. Brian Greene of Columbia, Dr. Alan Guth of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Dr. Lee Smolin of the Center for Gravitational Physics and Geometry at Penn State; and a psychologist and neuroscientist, Dr. Marc Hauser of Harvard.

John Brockman, a literary agent who represents these scientists, had convened them at the country house here that he shares with his wife and partner, Katinka Matson. Mr. Brockman said he had been inspired to gather the group by a conversation with Dr. Seth Lloyd, a professor of mechanical engineering and quantum computing expert at M.I.T. Mr. Brockman recently posted Dr. Lloyd's statement on his Web site, www.edge.org: "Of course, one way of thinking about all of life and civilization," Dr. Lloyd said, "is as being about how the world registers and processes information. Certainly that's what sex is about; that's what history is about." .....

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