seth_lloyd's picture
Professor of Quantum Mechanical Engineering, MIT; Author, Programming the Universe
Quantum Mechanical Engineer, MIT, Author, Programming the Universe

I have changed my mind about technology.

I used to take a dim view of technology. One should live one's life in a simple, low-tech fashion, I thought. No cell phone, keep off the computer, don't drive. No nukes, no remote control, no DVD, no TV. Walk, read, think — that was the proper path to follow.

What a fool I was! A dozen years ago or so, by some bizarre accident, I became a professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT. I had never had any training, experience, or education in engineering. My sole claim to engineering expertise was some work on complex systems and a few designs for quantum computers. Quantum-mechanical engineering was in its early days then, however, and MIT needed a quantum mechanic. I was ready to answer the call.

It was not my fellow professors who converted me to technology, uber-techno-nerds though they were. Indeed, my colleagues in Mech. E. were by and large somewhat suspicious of me, justifiably so. I was wary of them in turn, as one often is of co-workers who are hugely more knowledgeable than one is oneself. (Outside of the Mechanical Engineering department, by contrast, I found large numbers of kindred souls: MIT was full of people whose quanta needed fixing, and as a certified quantum mechanic, I was glad to oblige.) No, it was not the brilliant technologists who filled the faculty lunchroom who changed my mind. Rather, it was the students who had come to have me teach them about engineering who taught me to value technology.

Your average MIT undergraduate is pretty technologically adept. In the old days, freshmen used to arrive MIT having disassembled and reassembled tractors and cars; slightly later on, they arrived having built ham radios and guitar amplifiers; more recently, freshmen and fresh women were showing up with a scary facility with computers. Nowadays, few of them have used a screwdriver (except maybe to install some more memory in their laptop), but they are eager to learn how robots work, and raring to build one themselves.

When I stepped into my first undergraduate classroom, a controls laboratory, I knew just about as little about how to build a robot as the nineteen and twenty year olds who were expectantly sitting, waiting for me to teach them how. I was terrified. Within a half an hour, the basis for my terror was confirmed. Not only did I know as little as the students, in many cases I knew significantly less: about of the quarter of the students knew demonstrably more about robotics than I, and were happy to display their knowledge. I emerged from the first lab session a sweaty mess, having managed to demonstrate my ignorance and incompetence in a startling variety of ways.

I emerged  from the second lab session a little cooler. There is no better way to learn, and learn fast, than to teach. Humility actually turns out to have its virtues, too. It turns out to be rather fun to admit one's ignorance, if that admission takes the form of an appeal to the knowledge of all assembled. In fact, it turned out that, either through my training in math and physics, or through a previous incarnation, I possessed more intuitive knowledge of control theory than I had any right to, given my lack of formal education on the subject. Finally, no student is more empowered than the one who has just correctly told her professor that he is wrong, and showed him why her solution is the right one.

In the end, the experience of teaching the technology that I did not know was one of the most intellectually powerful of my life. In my mental ferment of trying to learn the material faster and deeper than my students, I began to grasp concepts and ways of looking at the world, of whose existence I had no previous notion. One of the primary features of the lab was a set of analog computers, boxy things festooned with dials and plugs, and full of amplifiers, capacitors, and resistors, that were used to simulate, or construct an analog, of the motors and loads that we were trying to control. In my feverish attempt to understand analog computers, I constructed model for a quantum-mechanical analog computer that would operate at the level of individual atoms. This model resulted in one of my best scientific papers. In the end, scarily enough, my student evaluations gave me the highest possible marks for knowledge of the material taught.

And technology? Hey, it's not so bad. When it comes to walking in the rain, Goretex and fleece beat oilskin and wool hollow. If we're not going to swamp our world in greenhouse gases, we damn well better design dramatically more efficient cars and power plants. And if I could contribute to technology by designing and helping to build quantum computers and quantum communication systems, so much the better. Properly conceived and constructed technology does not hinder the simple life, but helps it.

OK. So I was wrong about technology. What's my next misconception? Religion? God forbid.