Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1114:
GORE'S METAPHOR

by John H. Lienhard

Click here for audio of Episode 1114.

Today, let's talk about distributed intelligence. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

My new issue of Science magazine has a fine editorial by Vice President Al Gore. Gore puts forth his metaphor of distributed intelligence. He begins by talking about computers. Twenty-five years ago, computer pundits expected a few huge machines to handle all our computing needs. No one saw the personal computer coming. No one saw how machine intelligence would be distributed today.

Gore reminds us that we live by metaphors. The factory was once our metaphor for making things. Our livers were blood factories; our minds were idea factories. The metaphor of the factory, the large central production unit, has been breaking down ever since Henry Ford. Where is a computer made today, or an automobile? Pieces are made all over the world: China, Mexico, Taiwan, the US. My computer was assembled at a little shop down on the corner.

Not just computer manufacture, but computer use as well, has been decentralized. Ten years ago the last vestige of the large central computer was the so-called super-computer which we used only for huge computations. But each new generation of PCs has taken over more super-computer turf. At the same time, super- computers themselves become smaller and more affordable.

Besides, we can now do many large calculations with blinding speed using arrays of cheap PCs wired to work in parallel with one another. The upshot is that machine intelligence actually gains in effectiveness as it distributes itself into the population.

Now, Gore says, that's the way human potential also works. Large central organizations can't think. Only individuals can think. We must capitalize on individuals thinking in parallel.

Yet we cling to the metaphor of the factory. The purpose of a large central factory is to maximize the production of a standard product at the lowest unit cost -- just as the purpose of a super-computer is to maximize the speed of a very long calculation. By the metaphor of the factory, research is a waste of time.

But society is faced with problems that cannot be met with the output of factories. They must be met with human intelligence, and intelligence must be applied by many of us working in parallel.

Henry Ford's cheap Model-T's had far less road life than today's cars. They were fuel-inefficient and needed constant maintenance. The factory itself was ill-equipped to improve the product. Modern automobiles had to emerge from the distributed intelligence of competitors and users -- not from the Ford factory.

So Gore says we need to feed intelligence at the grass-roots level. We need to fund education and research. The worst thing we can to is let an educated over-class develop. The worst thing for all of us is a super-computer model of intellectual elitism.

Gore finishes with another wonderful term. Our survival, he concludes, depends on our ability to create -- a learning society.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Gore, A., The Metaphor of Distributed Intelligence. Science, Vol. 272, 12 April, 1996.


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-1997 by John H. Lienhard.

Previous Episode | Search Episodes | Index | Home | Next Episode