Computer science lost an intellectual cornerstone this week with the death of Michael Dertouzos, the distinguished Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor whod led the schools Laboratory for Computer Science since 1974. Far more sadly, the world lost a vigorous advocate for the planets underdogs – a tireless humanitarian determined to repair what he saw as a growing and dangerous disconnect between people and their technology.
We would all do well to pause at his passing, to put aside for a few moments our workaday anxieties about failing business plans and anemic economies, to focus, if only briefly, on the far bigger issue that was his passion – the purpose, meaning and design of human technology.
Dertouzos was often lumped with leading futurists like Ray Kurzweil, George Gilder, Bill Joy and Marvin Minsky. But he stood apart from his contemporaries because running through his books, speeches and interviews was an urgent sociopolitical undercurrent that would have seemed Orwellian had it not been tempered by a gritty optimism.
He detested hype and vigorously attacked any hint of romantic abstraction about computers and networks. “I hate the term cyberspace, ” he once told me. “Where is cyberspace? You cant show it to me. Its an unnecessary abstraction. Whats wrong with the simple word network?” When I asked him if that meant he would also reject the term “mind” in favor of “brain,” he laughed and allowed, “Maybe I would.” Yet this just-the-facts-maam scientist and engineer insisted the Internet was a world-altering social and economic leap for people, and he evangelized information technology as a democratizing influence that would eventually undermine tyranny.
“The primary force is the people – whether they want to partake of the economic miracle in the world,” he told Interactive Week in an interview for our international issue last November. “If so, theyve got to play by the rules of the economic miracle, which are predominantly democratic nations. So I dont see the notion of dictatorship surviving beyond a couple of decades.”
Dertouzos social consciousness was born in Athens, where this son of a Greek navy admiral grew up in the political and economic turmoil that was Greece during World War II and in the decades that followed. The suffering he witnessed firsthand as a child and young adult etched in him a permanent sensibility that manifested itself in everything he wrote. His final book, published this year by HarperCollins, was titled The Unfinished Revolution: Human-Centered Computers and What They Can Do for Us. Its central theme is that computers are poorly integrated into our lives and demand too much of our attention.
That same fervor for human utility in technology design led Dertouzos in 1999 to organize collaboration between MITs Laboratory for Computer Science and its Artificial Intelligence Lab on a project called Oxygen. The premise, he told an audience gathered for LCS 35th birthday celebration that year, was that computing had to evolve from a human/machine interface to a technology that was transparent and fully integrated into our lives – “as natural a part of our environment as the air we breathe.”
In a tribute that Interactive Week will publish next week, Kurzweil wrote: “I cannot think of anyone else who contributed in as many diverse ways, all of which were infused with his humanitarian concern and optimism.” He recalled sparring most recently with Dertouzos in a series of point-counterpoints over Bill Joys assertion that certain areas of research should be abandoned because of the dangers they pose. While they countered Joy from different perspectives, “we were fully in agreement,” Kurzweil recalled, “on Michaels closing statement, which sums up his own pioneering contributions: This process [of applying our knowledge] will serve us best if, alongside our most promising technologies, we bring our full humanity, augmenting our rational powers with our feelings, our actions and our faith. “
In the end, I can think of no better epitaph for Michael Dertouzos than the words he himself chose to articulate the mission of LCS.
“We feel extraordinarily privileged to have a hand in shaping the Information Revolution – the third major socioeconomic movement of our world,” he wrote. “But our quest goes beyond utilitarian increases in human productivity to the broader ways in which information can help people. We find ourselves in the junction of two interrelated challenges: Going after the best, most exciting, forefront technology; and ensuring that it truly serves human needs.”