Copyright 1994 The Washington Post
The Washington Post
August 12, 1994, Friday, Final Edition
SECTION: STYLE; PAGE F1
LENGTH: 2285 words
HEADLINE: The Pixelated Professor; Some Computers Are User-Friendly. They'd Feel Right at Home With David Gelernter.
BYLINE: John Schwartz, Washington Post Staff Writer
DATELINE: WOODBRIDGE, Conn.
David Gelernter is explaining why he seems to disagree with everybody.
"I am always uncomfortable with an intellectual consensus," says the Yale computer scientist. Slightly heavyset, with a mop of curly dark hair and a dark beard, the bespectacled Gelernter resembles a bear with a cultivated appreciation for discussing the Talmud. "When everybody stands around shaking their heads and saying 'obviously,' I have to wonder if they're not being lazy."
This distrust of conventional thinking has led the 39-year-old academic into strange territory over the years. Take his new book, "The Muse in the Machine: Computerizing the Poetry of Human Thought."
Gelernter actually calls for science to develop computers with emotions -- a computer capable of telling its users to "buzz off."
He foresees one such computer, programmed to advise lawyers, that might balk:
User: So? What's the answer?
Computer: Sorry. I was just thinking about the opening paragraphs of "Emma" ...
User: Why are we talking about Jane Austen? Stick to the point.
Computer: It's just something about the slightly vulnerable self-assurance of the plaintiff that got me off on this, I suppose.
Please. Most of us find our PCs obstinate. Must they become petulant?
But Gelernter argues that his immodest proposal is the quickest road to creating computers with the creative spark that is the hallmark of the human mind. He says everything you think about how you think is wrong.
"Insubordinate electronics are more or less the last thing we need at the moment," Gelernter admits. Yet, "when we have added emotion, then and only then will our computers be capable of surprising us with an occasional genuine insight."
Insight is one of those things David Gelernter has a lot of. Also chutzpah.
He is also one of the few people in the world who can begin anecdotes with "After I got blown up ..."
Surviving the Blow
Early in the morning on June 24, 1993, Gelernter was going through the mail when he opened a book-size package. It turned out to be a shrapnel-packed letter bomb, and David Gelernter joined the unlucky ranks of the 13 scientists and executives targeted by UNABOM, the FBI's code name for a serial bomber who has killed one person and injured 23 in all since beginning his attacks in 1978. No warning. No rationale. Boom.
Gelernter, bloody but lucid, made his way from his office in Arthur K. Watson Hall to the Yale infirmary. He wouldn't emerge from the hospital for six weeks and is still recovering.
He has taken his tragedy with spirit and wit. Last August, Gelernter came home from the hospital, sat down at his computer and pecked out a brief note to colleagues on the Yale computer science faculty describing his injuries and expressing hopes that he would return to teaching by the spring. (He did.)
The note, which he posted electronically and which was subsequently distributed worldwide in a kind of digital samizdat, showed a nearly jaunty attitude toward his ordeal. Calling himself "the department's very own official terrorist bomb victim," Gelernter wrote: "All in all, I am the luckiest man alive (emphasis on alive). Surviving the explosion was evidently a pretty neat trick on my part, and I could have been hurt much worse." Expressing thanks to his family, friends and colleagues, he joked that he was "privileged" to be an academic in computer science, a field in which "one decent typing hand and an intact head is all you really need."
He still depends on his wife, Jane, for many two-handed tasks; she nursed him to health during the months that he was immobilized with both hands bandaged and unusable.
Walking with a visitor in the living room of his book-filled home outside of New Haven, the damage is evident today: Dark scars snake across his arms and can be glimpsed under his loose shirt. He is in the midst of a series of operations that might eventually bring sight back to his lacerated right eye. He has recovered the use of his left hand, but surgery continues on his right, now reduced to three tortured fingers.
The doctors had initially suggested amputating the hand but agreed to try to save as much of it as they could, performing what Gelernter calls "a heroic piece of surgery." He later discovered that he could, with the help of a strap, grasp a pencil or brush between his index and middle fingers, making the additional pain of surgery worthwhile. "I was so thrilled to discover that I could draw again; I thought I never would."
Now he does a good deal of his work at home. He can work at his Macintosh, which is linked to the university computers. He has moved it from a basement study into the breakfast nook, close by the computer his two sons use for games and fun. "I discovered I love being in the kitchen with the boys romping around."
He draws a connoisseur's pleasure from what most people take for granted: surviving. In the acknowledgments to his new book, he gives thanks for the compassion and aid during the awful summer of '93, when he found that "help was so generously forthcoming that I almost believe we will remember the summer more, in the end, for the kindness of family, friends, the community and total strangers than for the crime that occasioned it. If it in fact works out that way, isn't the only possible conclusion that good beats evil in the end?"
Fun With Linda and ADA
David Gelernter has always been the man on the outside. In the 1970s, he helped to create software that confounded expectations of what individual computers could do. He developed software linking workstations so that, by taking advantage of each machine's idle moments for collaborative computation, they operated together as efficiently as mainframes or even supercomputers.
Gelernter named his creation Linda, and therein lies an awful pun. The government had sponsored the development of a computer language named ADA, a tip of the hat to Ada, countess of Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Byron and a 19th-century pioneer in the theory of computing. Gelernter puckishly named his creation Linda, after a very different Lovelace. The project has been spun off into a New Haven company, SCA, that engages Gelernter as a consultant.
Gelernter gives free rein to this nonconformist streak in his book. A dilettante's delight, it takes the reader on a sweeping tour of cognitive science, computer science, English Romantic poetry and even biblical interpretation -- and Gelernter thumbs his nose at established experts every step of the way. He says he yearned to write it, but didn't relish the ire it was likely to raise. "It took me a decade to write and publish this book because I knew people would hate it, and I didn't want to pick fights with people.
"I think wistfully -- if not quite longingly -- about people who fit in better," Gelernter says.
The underlying theme of "Muse in the Machine" is Gelernter's attempt to come up with a new theory of consciousness -- one that gives a greater role to the emotions than is common in the fields of cognitive science and artificial intelligence.
One of the kinds of mental glue that holds memories together, Gelernter theorizes, is emotion, which is inextricably tied to the body. Gelernter writes that "an emotion is a mental state with physical correlates; it is the felt state of mind, where 'felt' means that signals reach the brain that are interpreted as bodily sensations, however fleeting and subtle."
Gelernter describes a spectrum of thinking that runs from "high focus" -- sharp, analytical thinking -- to a "low focus" mode in which we have less control over our train of thought and ideas come up unbidden. We travel down the spectrum as we tire; our thought trains become unfocused. Similarly, Gelernter writes, we gain tighter focus for our thoughts as we move from infancy to maturity. Gelernter even claims that the human race has moved up the spectrum over the centuries, developing the ability for rational thought rather late in the game.
Although he calls high-focus thought one of mankind's greatest achievements, Gelernter suggests that we have come to undervalue the mode of thinking at the other end of the spectrum. The thread linking low-focus thoughts is emotion, Gelernter says. He talks of a palette of feelings so varied and nuanced that incidents sharing a distinct emotional flavor might be linked in our minds, though they may be logically unrelated.
To illustrate the point, he looks not only to cognitive theorists, but also to the English Romantic poets, whose works, he says, are "about different kinds of thought" -- poems such as Shelley's "Mont Blanc":
The everlasting universe of things
Flows through the mind, rolls its rapid waves,
Now dark, now glittering ...
Coming Under Fire
The tone of the book is sweeping, audacious, sometimes even more than a little arrogant. In one footnote he jokes, "In case you were wondering, all of my claims are right. (It's good to have that settled.)"
But why an emotional computer? It's a way to test the hypothesis. Although the machine itself might be useless, Gelernter admits, the act of putting it together could lead to interesting discoveries.
Although he expected brickbats, his book has in fact been generally well received. Daniel Dennett, one of the experts in cognition and computer science whom Gelernter expected to dislike the book, told a reporter that he found it provocative, not upsetting.
But Steven Pinker, director of the Center for Cognitive Neuroscience at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, took on Gelernter's "bullying tone" in a New York Times book review and called the central thesis "vulnerable": "Could our ancestors really have survived in unforgiving deserts and tundras if they had lived in a free-associating hallucinatory fog instead of focusing on their very real practical problems?" In e-mail, Gelernter calls the criticism "the we-are-not-amused voice of the cognitive science establishment."
A Life of the Mind
The book's pinball-like bounce between the humanities and the sciences reflects Gelernter's education and career. He grew up in New York's Westchester County with a love of drawing and books, but also found himself drawn to his father's career in the sciences. (Herbert Gelernter, a pioneering expert in the field of artificial intelligence, now teaches at the State University of New York, Stony Brook.)
David Gelernter entered Yale University in 1972 to study biophysics. He spent a year in grad school at Yale studying classical Hebrew literature, then moved to New York, where he enrolled in Yeshiva University for further biblical study. But he also took courses in drawing at the Art Students League, and recalls the blur of Yeshiva by day and sketching by night as one of "the most intellectually rigorous and emotionally satisfying" times of his life.
He couldn't help but notice, however, that his studies didn't seem to be building toward a career. "I was very precocious in some ways and amazingly dumb in other ways," Gelernter says. "I started thinking it was time to find a way to make a living and support a family."
He snagged a doctorate in computer science at Stony Brook by 1982 and headed back to Yale to teach and continue his research.
And so it went, work and learning and genial arguments with colleagues, until the bomb.
Gelernter has made the most of his forced sabbatical. His quest to understand how the mind works has led him to explore the ancient mind, and to question why some passages in the Bible, for instance, seem marvelously incomprehensible if not halucinogenic today. (For example, in Exodus, after the Lord orders Moses to return to Egypt, Moses stopped on the way and "the Lord met him and tried to kill him. But Tsipporah [Moses' wife] took a flint, cut off her son's foreskin and touched it to his feet; she said, 'You are my bloody bridegroom!' And he withdrew from him." Go figure.)
At the same time, Gelernter is at work on his next book, trying to understand a more recent shift in the cultural state of mind. The feeling of ripe optimism that suffused the 1939 World's Fair in New York is a stark contrast to today's dark view of technology and the future. Yet back then, Hitler was on the march, antibiotics were not used to treat disease -- even the president had not been spared from polio. "Along virtually any axis we are immensely better off today," Gelernter says, gesturing absent-mindedly with his right hand, which he keeps concealed under a white surgical sock.
Ideally, Gelernter says, a book that makes sense of this conundrum could even nudge the Zeitgeist, if only a little. He admits that it would be "unforgivable arrogance on the part of a writer to say 'I want to change the mood.' "
But it's clear that he does hope to restore a little of the shine that we have lost.
His Own Man
A visitor asks why Gelernter always seems to stake out a position on the other side of the crowd. The next day, a pensive bit of e-mail pops up on the visitor's computer screen:
"I've been thinking about your comment that perhaps I take contrary positions for the hell of it, out of (what used to be called) cussedness... ."
He brings up his idiosyncratic paintings, which are just as he describes them, "good drawing with neo-fauve colors." They hang throughout his home, in the comfortable living room with its massive stone fireplace. They resemble no one else's work -- least of all those modern artists he admires, such as Willem de Kooning and Jasper Johns. Yet, he says, "I've never exhibited my paintings and don't specially ever intend to. They are different not because I wanted to pick a fight but just because, for better or worse, I am."
GRAPHIC: PHOTO, DAVID GELERNTER WITH ONE OF HIS IDIOSYNCRATIC, PETER CASOLINO FOR TWP