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Intervention by Denise Caruso Read Intervention by Denise Caruso, Executive Director of the Hybrid Vigor Silver Award Winner, 2007 Independent Publisher Book Awards; Best Business Books 2007, Strategy+Business Magazine

THE EVER PRESCIENT LEDERBERG

by Denise Caruso ~ February 11, 2008.
Permalink | Filed under: Hybrid Vigor.

While researching a radio commentary I’m writing on Joshua Lederberg, the Nobel Laureate who died last week, I found a interview he did with Computerworld Magazine in November 1986 for its Computers & Society issue. Called “Tying Minds Together to Advance Science and Social Intelligence,” Lederberg offered some fascinating and prescient perspectives on the role of computers in the practice of scientific research.

Beyond their use for data analysis, he said,

… what has been perhaps a greater interest to me — and this is the thread that goes through the work I did with Ed Feigenbaum at Stanford — is the use of the computer in the communications network as the technical support for improving the social system of scientific advance. It’s a way in which minds can be brought together more effectively and make an effective use of the expertise that’s present elsewhere.

One need only look at the role that the Internet plays in so many interdisciplinary research centers to see how right Lederberg was on that count.

He also made a remarkable statement that today’s mas macho, chest-thumping genetic engineers in particular might want to pay heed to. Talking about expert systems, he said one of the best things about them was the ability to discover logical inconsistencies in the background of the expert knowledge used to build them:

You might call that criticism rather than creativity, but I think we have to keep in mind that with any scientific advance or cultural one, that these two have to be kept hand-in-hand. We need a lot of imagination, and it has to be checked by criticism.

2 Responses to THE EVER PRESCIENT LEDERBERG

  1. Deepak

    Wholeheartedly agree. Of course, even the use of computers for scientific pursuit is pitifully undervalued, although not as much as it used to be,

    The good news. A lot has happened in the past couple of years, so the prognosis for the communication aspect of computing is a good one.

  2. Denise Caruso

    Definitely agree that the prognosis is good for the communications aspects — I’m especially interested in how some of the big grid computing projects will fare over the years. I wrote a kind of fun piece for NYT about collaborative software some years ago: http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9A04E0DE1F30F936A35752C1A9679C8B63&scp=21&sq=%22denise+caruso%22&st=nyt

    I’d love to know what areas specifically that computers are undervalued in scientific pursuit. I am sure that’s true in many fields, but it would be interesting to see where from your perspective. (Also, what is your perspective? Are you a working scientist? Just curious.)

    In biotech, interestingly, there are some important instances where computers — or at the very least, automation — can tip to the “overvalued” side. The most obvious example: gene-disease links.

    We’ve all heard about “the gene” responsible for producing various diseases in individuals — diabetes, Alzheimer’s, obesity, schizophrenia, depression, etc. But in early 2005, a study reported that as many as 95 percent of these gene-disease links don’t actually exist.

    The main reason cited is the speed and efficiency with which computers can sequence and analyze genes. Reading gene sequences can take about a day now instead of several months, but because the sequences are analyzed by software without a human reality check, some of them get linked randomly to a disease in a statistically significant way.

    Everybody is eager to publish a new link, but as the study authors said, they don’t usually submit the “Ooops! Our bad” stories, and journals don’t often print retractions. And so a reductionist view of biology persists.

    Just a warning flag about the reliability/fallibility continuum of technology …

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