Innovation

IdeaFestival 2016: Why science and tech need the humanities to create maximum value, explains MIT physicist

MIT's Alan Lightman explained how technology and the humanities must play powerful complementary roles in society, echoing ideas from Steve Jobs and Edwin Land.

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MIT's Alan Lightman speaks at IdeaFestival 2016.

Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

Researchers are making rapid advances in science and technology, but we need the humanities to properly integrate these innovations into human society, said MIT professor Alan Lightman at IdeaFestival 2016 on Wednesday.

"Science and technology give us new material things, like iPhones and atomic bombs," said Lightman, who is both a scientist and a fiction writer. "But how we actually use those things depends on our values and priorities, and how we choose to live in the world as humans and a society."

Ultimately, science and technology do not have value in and of themselves, Lightman said. "It is we human beings who have values, and must use those values to guide science and technology," he said.

Scientists and humanists experience the common aims of seeking truth and creativity, Lightman said. "And both the physicist and the novelist seek beauty—the simplicity of design, unity, and balance."

SEE: How we learned to talk to computers, and how they learned to answer back

In some ways, the humanities have been left behind in the past 10 years due to emphasis on STEM in higher education institutions. But to be successful, science and technology must be guided by the liberal arts, including ethics and philosophy, Lightman stressed.

For example, in the early 1970s, when researchers first experimented with bioengineering and gene splicing, a number of people were concerned for humanistic and ethical reasons to what this would mean. Ultimately, the community put a moratorium on gene splicing until more research could be performed. "You need a larger view in order to guide you," Lightman said. "Pure science is always going to advance on its own. When it comes to the application of science, we have to take into account that this is happening in a human society with values."

Many problems faced in the world today, such as scarcity of energy resources and environmental issues, naturally bring the scientists and humanities together. "We need some kind of comfort level between the two," Lightman said.

Perhaps the most famous advocate of the need to combine the arts and sciences was Steve Jobs. This philosophy was apparent from the early days of Apple. In a 1996 interview with NPR, Jobs said that Apple's success was due to blending the humanities and computing: "I think our major contribution was in bringing a liberal arts point of view to the use of computers... In my perspective ... science and computer science is a liberal art, it's something everyone should know how to use, at least, and harness in their life. It's not something that should be relegated to 5% of the population over in the corner. It's something that everybody should be exposed to and everyone should have mastery of to some extent, and that's how we viewed computation and these computation devices."

Jobs insisted that the collaboration of computer scientists, artists, and designers lead to the best ideas and products, across each of his companies. "One of the greatest achievements at Pixar was that we brought these two cultures together and got them working side by side," Jobs said in 2003.

Jobs' philosophies were heavily influenced by Edwin H. Land, inventor of instant photography and founder of Polaroid. Land said that business should be at the "intersection of art and science." He also said he believed "the ideal business is composed of managers and dreamers, and it is the responsibility of the former to protect the latter."

In Walter Isaacson's biography Steve Jobs, Jobs referred to Land as one of his childhood heroes. "Edwin Land of Polaroid talked about the intersection of the humanities and science," Jobs told Isaacson when discussing his legacy in the book. "I like that intersection. There's something magical about that place."

This view held strong for Jobs throughout his years of work. "It is in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough—it's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields us the results that make our heart sing," Jobs said of his strategy upon introducing the iPad 2 in 2011.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. The realm of science and technology requires input from the humanities in order to be applied successfully to our human society, according to MIT professor Alan Lightman at an IdeaFestival 2016 talk on Wednesday.
  2. Both scientists and artists seek out beauty and simplicity of design in their creations.
  3. Steve Jobs and Edwin Land espoused similar views, emphasizing the need for both technology and the liberal arts to create the best products.

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About Alison DeNisco Rayome

Alison DeNisco Rayome is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers CXO, cybersecurity, and the convergence of tech and the workplace.

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