EDGE 4 January 23, 1997
An Interview with Nathan Myhrvold
THE REALITY CLUB
Lew Tucker and Steve Lohr on "The Chef" (Nathan Myhrvold)
David Lykken on Steven Pinker's "Organs of Computation"
An Interview with Nathan Myhrvold, Chief Technical Officer, Micrsosoft
Last year, the following email message arrived: "Thirteen years
ago I went on a three month leave of absence from a job and, much
to the consternation of my employer, I subsequently broke my promise
and never returned. I know what you're thinking. That's just the
sort of irresponsible act you've come to expect from the likes of
me. That's what my boss thought at the time thought too, and with
good reason. Amazingly enough, I'm still on good terms with him.
His name is Stephen Hawking, and he's one of the world's foremost
physicists. Meanwhile, as a direct result of my truancy, I'm one
of the world's backmost physicists. As luck would have it, I've
managed to scrape by with a job at Microsoft."
Thus read Nathan Myhrvold's email invitation to a dinner at the
Seattle Zoo with "the current occupant of the Lucasian Chair of
Mathematics, a position once held by Isaac Newton." Nathan, who
went to Cambridge as a postdoc after receiving his doctorate from
Princeton, worked with Hawking on research in cosmology, quantum
field theory in curved space time, and quantum theories of gravitation.
(Today, thirteen years later, he is a member of the board of trustees
of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, and
he serves on the advisory board of Princeton University's department
The guest list at Nathan's gala dinner ranged from New York investment
banker Herbert Allen, Jr. to Stephen Hawking, from NBC President
Robert Wright to Danny Hillis. What makes him very unique is that
in addition to his business and scientific interests, he is a master
French chef who has finished first and second in the world championship
of barbecue in Memphis, Tennessee. He also works as an assistant
chef at one of Seattle's leading French restaurants.
NATHAN MYHRVOLD is a bridge between the scientists of the third
culture and the digerati. He is accomplished scientist who is at
the helm of Microsoft's massive research program.Myhrvold is chief
technology officer at Microsoft corporation, reporting to Microsoft
CEO Bill Gates as a member of the Executive Committee. This group
is responsible for the broad strategic and business planning for
the entire company. He also is responsible for the Advanced Technology
and Research Group, which has a budget of more than $2 billion a
year. Previously he was group vice president of Applications and
Content, which comprised a number of Microsoft divisions, including
Desktop Applications, Consumer, Research, and Microsoft On-line
THE CHEF (Nathan Myhrvold)
JB: What's a CTO?
MYHRVOLD: Hell if I know. You know, when Bill and I were discussing
my taking this job, at one point he said, Okay, what are the great
examples of successful CTO's. After about five minutes we decided
that, well, there must be some, but we didn't have on the tip of
our tongues exactly who was a great CTO, because many of the people
who actually were great CTO's didn't have that title, and at least
some of the people who have that title arguably aren't great at
My job at Microsoft is to worry about technology in the future.
If you want to have a great future you have to start thinking about
it in the present, because when the future's here you won't have
JB: So, what's happened with Microsoft's efforts regarding online
publishing? Sounds like yet another example of Brockman's Law: "Nobody
knows and you can't find out".
MYHRVOLD: That's basically right. At this stage in human history,
technology plays a role that is enormously important. On Wall Street
technology is one of the key leading indicators for the entire economy;
something happens in high tech the whole market goes down. Back
when the Dow theory was first developed they had the Dow industrials
and they had the railroads, as the Dow transportation index. No
one really cares about the transportation index anymore, but back
when it was first created, it was an incredibly powerful force.
If you did that today you'd have to have a technology index in some
sense. And probably for the next 20 years, technology, particularly
computer technology, is going to be one of the most dynamic parts
of the economy and society. In the 20 year time frame time you could
argue that genetic engineering and a variety of biological technologies
are going to wind up having even more impact on us, because they'll
cure our diseases.
But the biology stuff doesn't get to happen unless we get another
20 years of computing to happen. Suppose you sequence the human
genome. You will have this thing that sits on a CD-Rom, and you're
going to analyze it with computers. Writing it all out, all these
strings of AGCT, is no fun at all. So the enormous revolution in
biology that is about to take place is highly dependent on computing.
Ultimately it's going to have a bigger impact. Certainly in another
20 or 30 years, as I'm entering my 60's, I'm hoping it'll have an
My kids asked me the other day what the human genome project was
about. I have these twins who are about 8 now. They'd heard about
it, and they'd heard about DNA, and so I explained what people were
doing. They said, well Daddy, why are they doing that? I replied
by the time you're my age there may not be cancer or a whole bunch
of other diseases. So they thought for a minute, one of them said
by the time we're your age? Daddy, it might be too late for you!
And it might. But the technology age fortunately isn't too late
for me. I am a little bit in the thick of it. As everyone is right
JB: The Net shakeout has begun. Any comments?
MYHRVOLD: I wrote an article in Slate about the economics of the
Web, where I pointed out that there were no economic models regarding
the content creation on the Web. At this point. The blunt way to
put that is the word that usually follows manic is depressive. The
phase of enormous uncritical not well-thought out enthusiasm for
the Net which we've seen in Wall Street and many other ways in the
last 12 months is going to give way to a period of time where people
are very negative, at least about some aspects of it. Some of the
corrections that we're going to see the market make are going to
be too far the other way. In the same sense that they were crazy
high six months ago they're going to be crazy low six months from
now. Roughly speaking.
So that's one effect. The second effect is that even setting aside
the market being overly negative, it's just basically true that
many of these things don't have a lot of basis in reality. They
never did. Or they did at one time and now events have changed.
If you look at television as an example: TV ultimately developed
both a strong subscription version, which is cable, and a strong
advertising version which is ordinary broadcast television. It's
a great example of a new medium that developed both, but it developed
both over a period of about 30 years. It took a while for the major
advertisers to shift their advertising budgets from print and billboards
and those cute little Burma Shave signs that they used to have in
the 30's. Those people had a hard time shifting to television. Similarly
the advertisers of the world spend billions and billions of dollars,
but they're not going to shift those billions, which is a central
part of their business, until they understand the medium more, until
there's more people there and until the techniques of Web advertising
are understood better.
All those things take time. It doesn't happen overnight. A lot
of the problem with the Web comes from mis-extrapolating. There
are some curves that are rising enormously fast. Like take the number
of people who get on the Internet. That curve is going like a rocket.
That's because it's easy for people to get on the Net. A hundred
million people have personal computers, of one variety or another,
and they're not on the Web yet. Getting on the Web means getting
a modem, which for most of those people are already built into their
computer; getting some free software, and signing up to a service
where someone may give you up to a year free to get on the service.
The barrier to getting on the Net is very low, and the pressure's
very high, because you hear about it constantly. And all your friends
are on it. Pretty soon everyone who's even half awake is going to
be on the Web, in some form or another. Maybe just for email, maybe
just for limited exploration; but they'll be there. That curve grows
very very fast.
On the other hand, the curve for getting advertisers to support
content sites is based on a fundamentally different dynamic. It's
about people having success with Web advertising. It's about ad
agencies understanding how to do it. Unfortunately the center of
gravity of the advertising world has been broadcast, which is a
quite different medium, quite different set of techniques. Getting
the people in the board rooms of America and the rest of the world
to decide to shift billions away from something that they're very
comfortable with over to the Net takes time. A much longer period
of time than it takes millions of people to say "Oh, what the hell,
I'll answer that free offer and get on the Net." But if you take
those curves extrapolated from one phenomenon and move them over
to another, you make the wrong decision.
To keep it in perspective the early days of the personal computer
industry were just as tumultuous. Just the stakes were smaller,
and nobody gave a damn.
At The West Coast computer fair, there was a point where you could
have gone and Steve Jobs and Mike Markkula would have run your credit
card and sold you an Apple I. Many of the companies of that era
tanked. There was a company called Gavalan that made the first portables.
Some companies were spectacularly successful, and then fell right
off, like Osborne Computer.
That example is being played out today on the Net. The Net is
way more central to society, so it's been hyped far more than early
PCs were. Because it threatens potential entertainment, content
and communications, the stakes are enormously higher. Instead of
companies going through five million dollars of venture capital
funding, and tanking, as they did in the early 80's, today they
get an instant IPO valuation of five hundred million dollars, and
then tank. So they have a hundred to one difference to scale.
JB: To Bill's credit, he told me that Microsoft, among a few other
large companies, was prepared to lose a lot of money for at least
three years. It would then be interested to see who was left standing.
Isn't it interesting that companies can call themselves successful
when they've never had a profitable quarter? What does it say about
culture, economics, when some of the leading companies in the field
have never shown a profit.
MYHRVOLD: Not only have they not shown a profit, some of them
don't even have any cash flow (speaking broadly, not just the companies
you mentioned). The one counter-example I can give you is Craig
McCaw, who became a billionaire without ever turning a profit. There
was only one year when McCaw Cellular was profitable and it was
because of an asset sale, it wasn't because of operations. Now the
flip side is that they did have cash flow. The reason they weren't
making a profit is they were continually building up their network,
which clearly was a good decision.
However, we are living in the realm of expectations so much that
ultimately it becomes difficult to fulfill those expectations. It's
a perfectly reasonable statement regarding some set of Internet
companies to say "this company may be enormously important in five
years." However that quickly becomes, "if it's going to be important
in five years, then it's going to be a real rising star in two years."
That means I have to buy the stock now, and that winds up getting
the company fully valued, such that some companies over the course
of last year, have had values that are in excess of anything you
could imagine for their business outlook in five years under reasonable
expectations. To a degree that was crazy; to a degree that was actually
fairly sane. Mostly it was crazy. The problems start to happen when
you get people's expectations up too high. Once they start getting
disappointed, then they wind up crashing things unrealistically
low. We're likely to see a variety of cycles of Internet popularity.
I don't mean national popularity of the Net, but in terms of punditry,
in terms of the business, we're going to see a cyclical phenomenon
where people get way too excited, and then way too depressed. This
is sad, because it's going to hurt some very legitimate companies
and some very legitimate ideas.
JB: When we last talked, you were in charge of Micrsoft's online
stuff. Are you out of that now?
MYHRVOLD: Well, I'm Chief Technology Officer for the company,
and that includes all of our efforts including online stuff and
other things. It's more like I took on additional work.
JB: What does the Internet mean to you now?
MYHRVOLD: The most interesting aspect of the Internet is none
of the technology features; it's putting people in communication
with one another, very broadly. Whether that's through Web sites
that allow people to publish to a large audience with amazing efficiency
and lower cost per unit people that you communicate with; or it's
email or Chat or other means to put people in more direct two-way
communication. The strength of the Internet is with what people
will do with that communication capability. There's cool parts of
the underlying technology that send things around. But people are
too obsessive about the technology and not obsessive enough about
what people are going to do with it. People have focussed enormously
on browsers and the browser world, but the browser is only as useful
as the stuff you're looking at with it. Sure, it's a nice thing,
and for us software guys that want to get down to the guts of it
there's a variety of strengths and weaknesses and we can be plenty
fascinated. But in terms of people, what matters is the information
they can do. You see that in the enormous excitement about Java,
which I'm something of a curmudgeon about. In general, in computer
science for as long as there's been computer science, there have
been trends where people say "I have a new programming language
which will set us all free". Programming languages ultimately solve
very little. Programming languages allow people to express their
ideas as software perhaps a little bit easier. But the really interesting
thing is the programs! So you have to say the interesting thing
about Java will be programs people create in Java. Now will there
be programs they create in Java they couldn't have created any other
way? Highly unlikely. They might be a little easier, they might
not, and we'll have to see how it develops. But a market which is
obsessed with the tools and the appurtenances rather than the actual
effects is clearly focussing on the wrong thing. If any sanity reigns,
a year from now we'll find people are going to be focussing on what
people are using the Internet for, what people are using these tools
for, and not on the tools and the standards and the things themselves.
Within the computer industry they're of huge interest, obviously;
we're all about tools and protocols and standards and all that other
stuff. As we should be. But in terms of what people should really
care about, very broadly, it isn't that stuff. No one goes to a
Frank Lloyd Wright house and says God, I wonder what kind of cement
he used! You see some great painting in the Met and you say, God,
I wonder what sort of pigments there were. Or - my favorite example
- who's the most powerful entity in Hollywood. Kodak? It's all their
film. Or maybe Panavision. It's all their cameras. Well, if you
said that to Steven Spielberg or anybody else in the film industry,
they'd laugh. Sure, they use Kodak film and sure, we use Panavision
cameras, but it's what we do with it that actually matters.
JB: Can you talk about R&D at Microsoft?
MYHRVOLD: We realized a number of years ago that in order for
personal computing to move forward the companies that were involved
in it would have to start doing research, and developing new technology
very rapidly. But for a long time the technical agenda for little
computers was set by big computers. In the early days of the personal
computer industry, people would say well when are you going to have
multi-tasking or multi-processors. There's a whole laundry list
of features that first existed on mainframes or minicomputers. The
workstation guy inherited that list and they ticked a whole bunch
of the things off; the personal computer industry inherited that
list and ticked a whole bunch of things off. It was clear even six
years ago to us that that day would be coming to an end relatively
soon, that we would have done everything big computers did. And,
in fact, given the horsepower that was going to be available in
microprocessors, our little computers wouldn't be little any more.
Our little computers would soon have more computing power than a
big computer of that era. Certainly if you take just the machines
I have under my desk here, or take the hottest machine you can buy
today - 200 megahertz Pentium with 64 megabytes of RAM, etc. - well
that's vastly more powerful than workstations or minicomputers of
five or six years ago.
We realized that we couldn't keep implementing somebody else's
agenda; we had to develop new things. Many people in the computer
industry did develop new things; I don't mean to say that the personal
computer industry was all about slavish copying. But, you know,
the graphic user interface is a great thing for Apple; it was a
great thing for Microsoft, and others - so thank God there was a
Xerox to invent that in the 70's. So Apple and Microsoft and others
could spend the 80's implementing that cheaper, more efficiently,
and extending it. At some point though we can't rely on companies
like Xerox or the old line hardware companies. Most of the development
of the computer that was done privately was done by two kinds of
companies. It was either done by companies not in the computer business,
like AT&T, the height of Bell Labs for many many years - during
the height of their computer research - was at a time that it was
against the law for AT&T to be in the computer business. Xerox is
a company that wasn't in the computer business that did a tremendous
amount of research there. Or, it was hardware companies: IBM, DEC
and others. We thought that there should be research done by software
companies - or a, done by PC industry companies, or by software
companies. We started investing in it, 5 or 6 years ago; we've built
a quite large and I think quite successful research group; we've
got about 170 people in it. And over the course of the next few
years we're going to dramatically increase the size of that and
keep it growing with the company.
JB: What kind of budget are you talking about?
MYHRVOLD: We're still working that out, but one of the things
that's funny is that you've got to work hard to grow something as
fast as the rest of Microsoft, so in the last couple of years our
spending as a percentage of our overall spending, in research, has
declined even while we increased research, we just didn't increase
research as fast as the rest of the company. We can look at reversing
that, and continuing to grow the research group.
The thing about research is of course the total effect is not
directly proportional to the total amount of money you spend. You
don't want to have warm bodies there, you want to have THE best
people you possibly can. And that's always been a constraint on
In areas like databases we have people like Jim Gray, who are
one of the regional founding fathers of relational databases and
transactional technology. In graphics we have arguably one of the
best groups in the world; we have people like Jim Kajiya and Jim
Blinn, Andrew Glasner, Alvy Ray Smith, and a host of other graphics
researchers. In speech recognition we have a very strong team that
has people from Carnegie Mellon and other leading universities.
In natural language we have a very strong team. In programming tools
and programming technology - which is very important to us because
we use that technology ourselves - we have two or three very strong
teams. So across the board - we also have a bunch of people who
have been in the industry for a long time and have a tremendous
track record, as generalists. Butler Lampson, who was there at PARC
when the great things occurred and was a leader at DEC Research.
Gordon Bell, who helped develop the Vax, and championed the it and
Ethernet, championed the whole bunch of other major technological
things at DEC -works for us. Charles Simonyi is another guy who
has been involved in key things in computing at every stage
he has been a longtime Microsoft employee, but wrote the first graphical
word processor at Xerox. And through a combination of having young
people who've just gotten their P h.D. and are out to conquer the
world, and some of these folks who have been conquering it steadily,
at least in the research sense, for the last 20 years, I think we're
going to have a neat mix.
When I first started recruiting for Microsoft it was a real bitch,
because we didn't have a reputation with academics for being a research
place. Academics are often quite conservative; the places they like
to go to have a history of 50 or 100 years like Stanford, MIT or
We had to start one of those without having that long history.
At first it was difficult to get people, serious people, to be interested
in us as a research place. As a development place we were well-known,
but particularly five or six years ago the company was known in
academic circles mainly for DOS, which didn't make lots of computer
scientists want to come work here. But we persevered, and hired
a few good people and then they helped us hire more, and those helped
us hire more, so now it's such an interesting environment to be
in that recruiting is a whole lot easier than it was back then.
One of the things that we thought was very important was establishing
a research culture where we didn't have an us-vs-them attitude between
research and the product. Or an ivory tower attitude - there's a
variety of ways you can describe this - where you get a dysfunctional
relationship between the people that have to ship your products,
which is what ultimately pays the rent, and the people who are doing
research. Part of our proposition was that that needn't be a big
gulf between the two. Of course you're not going to force your researchers
to go out and fix bugs in the next version of Office. They wouldn't
find that very fun, and actually the people that work in Office
would say, What, are you kidding? They don't know enough about it
to go do that. You don't want to ask people who are fixing bugs
on the next version of Office to say, Oh, and in your spare time
we'd like you to do a whole bunch of research. They're different
activities. But there's a tremendous amount of synergy that can
come from having a good relationship between the people in research
and product groups. We've had dozens of things spin off from research
into the product groups, to the point that I don't think you could
find a major product at Microsoft that doesn't have some code or
some significant technology from research. They all do, at this
JB: Given its culture, can Microsoft ever be as open as a Bell
MYHRVOLD: We do that already. Having a lab which is closed and
buttoned down and secretive is ultimately counterproductive. Because
you're only going to have a small fraction of the world's smart
people working for you; you're never going to hire them all. By
being part of a larger research community you get the benefit of
people criticizing - or supporting - the work that you do. We encourage
people to publish - in fact at the last Siggraph conference, 20%
of the papers at the conference were from people at Microsoft. If
you look in other disciplines you'll find that people from Microsoft
are not only key contributors to conferences and are very open about
their work, they help organize the conferences. They're on the editorial
boards of journals, and other things. We think it's very important
to maintain an open environment.
At the same time, you can maintain an open environment and still
get plenty of proprietary value out of things you invent, because
you understand them best, because there's a variety of ways of protecting
your intellectual property. So there's no contradiction between
running research as something that will ultimately yield a great
profit and doing great open research. There isn't a problem. People
think there is, but there isn't. The main difference between research
and one of our other product groups is not a profitability issue.
Research is already very profitable for us, if you count the value
of things that have moved across.
It's more of a time-scale issue and a predictability issue. Research
is much harder to predict when it's going to be valuable to you,
or, when you start a project, if it's going to be valuable to you.
We have a variety of things in speech understanding and natural
language understanding, and other areas, where the potential for
it to be enormously valuable for us is there. But it's very hard
to say, that'll occur in one year, two years, five years - or maybe
never. If you have the ability to sit back and say fine, we'll take
the risk on that, then you'll get a great return on it. But it's
not something where you can manage by saying what's our benefit,
our profit, next quarter, from research. It doesn't work that way.
MYHRVOLD ON ALSOP: At one of his conferences, Stewart was talking
to someone and got him pissed off. The guy walked off in a huff,
and Stewart turned around to me and said, "Well, I guess they don't
come here because I'm just nice to them and say what they want to
hear." I said, "well Stewart, you're enormously lucky to have found
an industry that, not only tolerates you, it richly rewards you
for being that way".
One thing I'm fascinated to find out is how Stewart likes being
a venture capitalist.
MYHRVOLD ON BARLOW: John is entertaining as hell. It's fortunate
that this Internet thing came along, because being an outrageous
rancher and Grateful Dead lyricist was clearly not as exciting going
forward as this promises to be. He's got a new cause to champion.
I think he loves being outrageous.
BROCKMAN ON BRAND: I love Stewart. Stewart has been surfing at
the edge of culture, and the edge of ideas that are forming culture,
for longer than any of us, and he has a wisdom that comes from that
you don't see in so many of the people that don't have that perspective.
MYHRVOLD ON DOERR: John's a fascinating guy. You wonder what would
happen to poor John if he had been born in an era where you couldn't
use email and cellular telephony. Imagine John firing off all his
missives by pony express! It would have been very frustrating to
somebody like him.
Clearly he's an enormously successful venture capitalist. He has
started dozens of companies that have gone on to be successful -
and a few that haven't, but that's kind of part of the game.
Archetype? Hard to say. I saw somebody had suggested Matchmaker;
that's probably sounds a little more appropriate to me than Coach.
But it's some combination of the two.
MYHRVOLD ON DYSON: Esther is a great pattern recognizer. Some
of the patterns she has recognized haven't panned out, or panned
out in unusual ways. I'm amused that her Eastern Europe conference
is held in Portugal this year because the Eastern Europeans told
her they wanted to go someplace warm.
MYHRVOLD ON HILLIS: Danny is a great example of the brilliant
MIT hacker. At one point 80% of computing was the brilliant MIT
hacker - these days it's broadened, but Danny is still the key example
MYHRVOLD ON LANIER: Someone forwarded a piece of mail from him
saying it was charming. I also concluded that it was charming, but
I didn't agree with a word of it. That applies not only to the mail
but maybe to many aspects of Jaron: I don't agree with a lot of
what he says, but he is charming and brilliant.
MYHRVOLD ON MARKOFF: He embodies some of the best of both journalism
skills and understanding, There are very few people who have both
who write about the industry. In fact, most people who understand
the industry well enough just get involved with it directly
John's missing out by just writing about it.
MYHRVOLD ON McNEALY: The best thing I can say about Scott is something
he said about himself which was recently quoted in the press. Someone
asked him a technical question and he said, "I don't know, I'm not
a computer scientist. I majored in golf". You know something? I
bet he did.
MYHRVOLD ON SAFFO: Oracle's a good archetype for him. The oracles
of old would say things that were incredibly prophetic and they
would also say a lot of stuff that was hard to interpret. Saffo
isn't alone here. It comes with being in the futurist business.
MYHRVOLD ON SIEGELMAN: He's the Doer, because he does things.
He implements and runs. We'd love to have Russ back working at Microsoft.
He's incredibly focussed and incredibly great at implementing things.
Maybe the Builder would be another one.
MYHRVOLD ON STONE: Linda is just amazing she is a force
to be reckoned with. I first heard about Linda when my brother was
head of evangelism for Microsoft, and Linda was doing evangelism
for Apple, and was enormously successful. I asked him what army
of people Apple had to get such great treatment, especially given
Apple's many sins. He replied "it's an army all right but
a one-person army. Her name is Linda Stone."
THE REALITY CLUB
Lew Tucker and Steve Lohr on "THE CHEF" (Nathan Myhrvold)
From: Lew Tucker
Since Myhrvold is in general forward thinking in his views, it
is hard to understand his "something of a curmudgeon" stance on
Java. He correctly points out that researchers in computer science
periodically proclaim some new programming language as being the
one which will free us all from the drudgery of actually programming
computers, but by focusing on Java the language, Myhrvold may be
missing what has so many people excited and why it is being embraced
by the industry.
Java is not just another language, but needs to be thought of
as a software platform that directly addresses issues that are important
for the Internet: dynamic network loading of functionality, program
safety and verification, security management, and most importantly,
the ability to run a Java program on practically anyone's operating
system. This is the "ubiquity" play that allowed HTML to have such
a dramatic impact - transforming the pre-Web Internet into what
we have today. Java isn't the first attempt to address these issues
- virtual machines and portable byte codes have been done before.
But by bringing it all together into a single software platform
and getting it adopted by the major players, remarkable things can
begin to happen. No guarantees, but each new twist causes us to
think about problems slightly differently and that's what can lead
to fundamental changes in the way we work and use the systems around
As Myhrvold says, "the interesting thing about Java will be the
programs people create in Java". So what will these programs do
and how will Java effect what gets developed? When I was a research
director at Thinking Machines we were faced with the problem of
how to use massively parallel machines to solve computational problems.
Over time we became pretty good at exposing the inherent parallelism
in each problem because we weren't afraid to think of the solution
in terms of having available millions of "virtual" processors .
This often led to elegant solutions that were efficient even on
only moderately parallel or serial machines.
With the Internet I believe we are facing a similar situation
in that we need to stop thinking about desktops and servers and
to start thinking about writing software for the Net. What then
will it mean to "program the Net"? I don't really know myself, but
judging from the number of Java developers itching to develop applications
and services that are designed to live in the Net and care little
about the underlying hardware system, I'm sure it won't be long
before we find out.
LEW TUCKER, trained as a biologist, is the former director of
Advanced Development at Thinking Machines Corporation and is the
director of JavaSoft's Corporate and ISV Relations for Sun Microsystems,
From: Steve Lohr
Nathan Myhrvold is a futurist with a nice sense of historical
analogy. But I've often wondered if there isn't something basically
flawed in the television analogy, whether cable or broadcast, that
Myhrvold mentions in the interview, and Ted Leonsis of AOL always
The big guys in the on-line world, like AOL and MSN, are building
large audiences and, once the user is inside the tent, they try
to offer something for everyone. It's sort of a mixture of the old
world TV-style huge audiences and a new one
the special-interest offerings so suited to computer networks. But
in the long run, I don't really see the benefit of the so-called
aggregation model (the AOL approach). The ease-of-use benefit is
a real one, but it should diminish over time, unless the Net is
never going to be the big deal as a consumer medium that everyone's
betting it will be. The only other reason for aggregation, it seems,
is the corporate one (we're big, so a business has to be big to
matter to us).
I'm probably wrong, but it seems to me that the content side of
the Net may not be a field in which big corporations have a real
advantage. Unless, of course, the "pushers" (speaking of the technology)
prevail, and the Net becomes television no analogy required.
STEVE LOHR is a technology reporter for The New York Times.
David Lykken on Steven Pinker's "Organs of Computation"
From: David Lykken
There is much to agree with among Steven Pinker's interesting
comments. Evolutionary psychology does provide a provocative and
heuristic perspective, helping us to "reverse engineer" and understand
the species- specific characteristics of the human brain. John Locke
and J.B. Watson both were wrong in supposing that the mind begins
as a tabula rasa and the many modern-day cognitive psychologists
who still treat the brain as only a general-purpose computer also
are wrong. In addition to its general-purpose computer function,
the human brain contain numerous ROMs or special-purpose modules
for learning language, recognizing faces, and the like.
BUT, like Tooby & Cosmides, Gould, and other evolutionary biologists,
Pinker makes the odd mistake of arbitrarily assuming that all of
the genetic diversity that permitted natural selection to evolve
the human brain has now been exhausted and that individual psychological
differences that we observe today are all environmentally produced
(as in his example of one- and no-legged men). In other words, all
human babies today, unlike Paleolithic times, have brains like so
many new Mac computers, waiting to be programmed. This is wildly
improbable on evolutionary grounds (e.g., if there is abundant genetic
diversity in the psychology of domestic animals, as Darwin himself
observed, as well as in the anatomy and physiology of humans, as
any child can observe, why is the human brain the sole exception?
And it is a notion that can only be entertained by resolutely
ignoring several decades of behavior-genetic research. At my University,
we have shown that 69 pairs of monozygotic twins, separated in infancy
and reared apart, correlate about .75 in IQ and .53 in a measure
of happiness or subjective well-being. (This includes two sets of
MZA triplets, each treated as three pairs of MZA twins.) The corresponding
correlations on large samples of MZ twins reared together and also
tested as adults are virtually identical. What this shows (except
to eyes that will not see) is that from about 25% to 75% of the
population variance in psychological traits is associated with genetic
variance. These variance or heritability estimates apply of course
only to the broad middle-class of the western countries from which
these samples were drawn and would be smaller in countries or sub-cultures
where the environmental variance is greater. But the fact remains
that human brains not only have an innate structure that was "engineered"
by evolution, but they also vary innately one from another in as
many ways as we have been able to measure.
The only explanation I can see for the refusal of evolutionary
biologists to acknowledge these facts is political correctness and/or
fear of controversy. Those are both bad reasons. -
DAVID T. LYKKEN is a behavioral geneticist at the University of
Minnesota who recently published the results of a study of 1500
pairs of twins in the May issue of Psychological Science. He is
the proponent of a set-point theory of happiness, the idea that
one's sense of well being is half determined by genetics and half
determined by circumstances. His research illustrates that a person's
baseline levels of cheerfulness, contentment, and psychological
satisfaction are largely a matter of heredity.