The HLF Portraits: Leonard Adleman

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The HLF Portraits: Leonard Adleman
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The Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation presents the HLF Portraits: Leonard Adleman; ACM A.M. Turing Award, 2002 Recipients of the ACM A.M. Turing Award and the Abel Prize in discussion with Marc Pachter, Director Emeritus National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institute, about their lives, their research, their careers and the circumstances that led to the awards. Video interviews produced for the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation by the Berlin photographer Peter Badge. The opinions expressed in this video do not necessarily reflect the views of the Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation or any other person or associated institution involved in the making and distribution of the video. Background: The Heidelberg Laureate Forum Foundation (HLFF) annually organizes the Heidelberg Laureate Forum (HLF), which is a networking event for mathematicians and computer scientists from all over the world. The HLFF was established and is funded by the German foundation the Klaus Tschira Stiftung (KTS), which promotes natural sciences, mathematics and computer science. The HLF is strongly supported by the award-granting institutions, the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM: ACM A.M. Turing Award, ACM Prize in Computing), the International Mathematical Union (IMU: Fields Medal, Nevanlinna Prize), and the Norwegian Academy of Science and Letters (DNVA: Abel Prize). The Scientific Partners of the HLFF are the Heidelberg Institute for Theoretical Studies (HITS) and Heidelberg University.

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well professor let's start when you work a long time ago in your childhood in San Francisco yeah was yours an intellectually rich environment actually I guess classically you'd say it wasn't so I came from a lower middle-class economic strata and my mother worked in a bank and my father worked in a appliance store so appliance stores don't exist anymore but they are now sections in a Best Buy or something right but appliance stores used to be the place you go for toasters and washing machines and little things like that and it turned out that the appliance store was the conduit to my intellectual development wonderful tell me about I'll tell you so I was born in 45 and so the war was ending you were barely more than 45 barely or yes I was and and the war had just ended and a new thing was coming online and it existed experimentally before called television okay and and so right around I'm guessing 48 49 starts to become actual broadcast commercial television in the big cities one of which is San Francisco okay so that meant if you're going to go commercial with television you had a sell televisions but of course there were no television stores right so where do you sell televisions you sell them at the appliance store okay so one day my father comes home and he's got this box well I actually had a lot of stuff those screens are small but yeah the screen was about the size of our cellphones right the resolution must worse right he sets this down and because it was so small he also brought home this big magnifying glass that you said in front of it which you know I didn't realize we're the only enhance the size not the resolution but at least allowed several people to see what was going on was okay and so at that moment when he brought that home I became what I consider sort of the oldest member of the television generation so ever since then you know kids are born they're plucked down in front of a television and that's how they learned culture they learned you know academic things they learn everything that way right okay so the result of plucking that down when I was about four years old was monumental it made me a terrible reader I loved reading I read all the time but I just can't read fast and I can't read out loud or I just never developed that skill very much it but I I learned tremendous amounts from that television and it's and its successors and sometime after getting the television show started coming on like mr. wizard yes okay and so mr. wizard appeared and he did amazing things like he showed us a hard-boiled egg and a milk glass and and then he showed us the class with hard-boiled egg inside but the neck of the Memphis was not the adequate diameter passed the egg and he said he was going to show us how to get it in nonetheless and to me that was a revelation right and then that's was probably those moments were when I think I really began the journey as a scientist mathematician so your first mentor was mr. wizard I can't say I mean there were there are many mentors that come over that television right you know but yes mr. wizard wish Hughes really represented that kind of influence that's right and your your parents are not saying get away from the television and read or some there they're happy to have you watch it I'm sitting there watching that okay now some of your colleagues as laureates wanted to know how the damn thing worked what about you did you I don't remember that error about I only cared to this extent that I only cared so that I could get the maximum number of stations tuned in and that required a little bit of skill at that time you know you got it right no I didn't care however I want to get you to school of the lower grades of this point elementary and then through high school what are you interested in what what kinds of teachers are you having yes I'm interested in absolutely nothing okay and this person I think and maybe I spoke too quickly I did have some interest in the science as I got you know chemistry said and then I got a friend who was into chemistry and we did a little chemistry and I tube and and those things but I I really wasn't interested I didn't even have the concept of that you could be interested in something a lot of this stuff escaped me it seems but I did have one of those pivotal teachers who changed my life okay so when I was about to graduate from high school there was this lady she taught a class in literature I assumed I was there because I had to take it but we got into Shakespeare okay and that was such a revelation to me because we would read some Shakespeare and she would expose deeper meaning for me the story was the story you know I got the fact that you know people were stabbing each other and stuff like that that was cold and ghosts but but um but there could be deeper meaning you know I was like wow you know what's this going on so one day she calls me up after class and she says Leonard what are you gonna do when you graduate and I said I don't know I guess I'll go to City College which was the sort of junior college there that's what my Brotherhood I don't know you know I never thought about she said well listen why don't you go to Berkeley instead and I said okay yeah and and that was one of those you know splitting the pass change transform my life how come you got it were your grades good my grades were not that good I recall I had just less than a B average okay but the average meant something then not like today you know the average meant I was probably in the top ten in my school at that time a top ten percent yeah you know nothing nothing special but but I could take the SAT test I think it was yes in which case you know I got not so great on the English part but on the math part you know that about yourself I knew it indirectly that is to say when I would take math classes and they Euclid's you know axioms and everything all of it was obvious to me it was so simple to me and I would get comments from my teachers like you know wow you know whatever and then I get dragged in all through my life I'd get dragged in to principal's offices with my parents and that discussion always went you know Leonard's not accompli living up to his potential right so I guess I was doing well on the score you know in those exams all the time but no I you know I that wasn't really astute okay you did well you did well on part of your essay - yes sir enough of the rest to get you into Berkeley which is already certainly a distinguished University yeah how are you deciding because you don't have to decide in major for two years but where are you going yeah so here's what I'm going so I'm Jewish I believe you I joined a Jewish
fraternity and they all want to be doctors you know and those well okay they all want to be doctors and so I said well I guess I'll be a doctor too right and so I started to take biology classes right and and one day I remember I was looking through you know microscope at some cutout beast and I said I hate this stuff yeah and I got up and I walked down I dropped all those of course thereby breaking your father's heart you know my fraternity brothers hard-ons yes but your father is living you progress he's not saying this is where I want you to go yeah yeah I guess so you know it's good question my father isn't giving me much guidance then and later when the 60s come in and we all become you know touchy feely important so I went through a period of resenting my father for not being a greater part of my life so you're adrift in Europe with your own curiosity or your own neurons for subjects or whatever right you're gonna need somebody guiding you or you just know I never felt like I needed somebody what are you just drop you just dropped your prospects of being a doctor yes so then I look around yeah well I I look around and say well what have I taken that moment get me to graduate I'm not gonna go the doctor route I so I've taken all these biology classes I've been here for a number of years what's the fastest way out and the fastest way out was well math I've been forced you know to take a lot math courses it's always easy for me and I looked at well you know I take three more math courses and I do this at via I can get out so that by default yeah man by default because I don't I don't have this great love of math that I would later develop it maybe not at that time you're definitely not on fire yet I'm sounding that I'm not I'm not you go to math you know does you get excited oh by them to the by the math no because what's really going on at Berkeley at that time yes is not math no right I'm taking math classes from you know some of the greatest mathematicians of argue you know those generations and you know we're discussing politics right right nobody's doing anything they're supposed to see no the free speech police be cleaner right so your energy in a way is elsewhere you're your intellectual ability is keeping you well within the math students or are you doing really pretty well as a bath soon I think that's doing really well yeah okay you know is easy for me like I could do it and but actually I know when I sort of did fall in love yeah the other description with mathematics so after I graduate from Berkeley I do get out yes I go to work for Bank of America so no graduate school thinking at that point no I don't know what I'm doing yeah and so so I go to work at Bank of America and I'm a systems analyst that them in a computer game okay and so what happens is and then I go to the Federal Reserve Bank and I fall in with a bunch of people some of whom knows something about mathematics I mean again I can program you know I don't get paid and so I start to read Martin Gardner has a column in Scientific American called mathematical and this is a you know I think this is such a common story among mathematicians of my generation Martin Gardner influenced tremendous number of us you know and so so bad is gone because that guy really influenced this field and so um I remember I read various things and I read about girdle and completeness one of them you know great great results of all time both philosophically and mathematically about the nature of truth truth in mathematics the impossibility of apprehending it raising questions about what is mathematics anyway giving us the answer we don't know what mathematics is your Shakespeare moment yeah I guess it is I guess it is so I say to myself I remember saying I say you know I'm gonna go back to school because I think if I go back to school and get a PhD I'll be much more desirable on the John Martin sure though which turns out to be false because I'm getting the kind of theory I got meant that weird like you know 11 places I can work in the whole world he now and didn't throw in my prospects but but I said when I go back I'm gonna learn one of these grands sort of exciting things like black holes or Berlin completer system I'm gonna learn it not just as a cocktail party discussion and actually learn what it meant and so I go back to school in computer science and I start to take mathematical logic now your ability to focus on computer science where are we in history where there is such a field is it is there a department at this point at Berkeley in computer yeah aspect of mathematic yeah they were going through the throws of what to do they were building a computer science department I think it at all it already existed they did have the difficulty of trying to figure out should be part of mathematics should be part of engineering right at Berkeley they came down on the engineering side actually so it's the School of Engineering who actually implies it was okay okay but I start to take mathematical logic and and math it always bothered me all through my life I could do it but it I was baffled I I'm always confused anyway but I don't like being particularly confused in a way that causes anxiety and and so I was baffled when bizarre things would happen you know I understood dxdy but I didn't like it when they took the dy and put it on the other side and said well you know now we're gonna do this that I said what you don't want it are there any rules here and you just move stuff around and and I didn't like that aspect of math of X but when I start this quest in mathematical logic and I have this great teacher John Addison and we start to do girdle all of a sudden everything's built from these few axioms amela Frankel axioms and suddenly I said oh there is a foundation there is a bottom of all this and suddenly this beautiful tree emerges right that is mathematics especially knowing I'm going to press your terminology not to challenge it but then I know more about it okay I find with people who are mathematically inclined that aesthetic phrases are often is beautiful yeah elegance are you saying actually those words yourself there is a beauty in this that I am personally you know historically I can't know what words I say but yes yes you know it manifests it's when I speak of mathematics the whole thing it manifests itself in my mind as this and you know it's not as vivid as this as this big crystal tree right and and and it is beautiful and it's a place you can go around and you can look at more closely and see all these dazzling beautiful things and you can wander around that tree and some other things and and not only that you can sometimes be surprised and see things that maybe you and nobody else has ever seen these are beautiful experiences if and and on top of that you know and this isn't from the contemporaneous with what I'm talking about but but in retrospective you know from my view now I don't make those distinctions you know about beauty and creativity belonging in one area or another is it all agreed I am intrigued but I also see you know I
don't think that there's a big difference between you know Bach Rembrandt and gaps you know to me those guys are the same um young man you're gonna have to choose the PhD topic yes how are you gonna do that well I got another tip when I was at the Federal Reserve Bank and this was from a woman named Linda traveler she had got out undergraduate degree in mathematics and she had spent some time with gradual work and she said when you go to Berkeley see if you can work with Manuel blum blum maybe familiar because he's a turing laureate and so i did look up manuel and i started to talk to him now his stuff was very closely related to the logic I was falling in love with and and he himself is you know charismatic brilliant wonderful out-of-the-box incredible guy and so that was part of this process by which I you know found my way to a particular sort of thing and the particular sort of thing I found my way to ultimately was what was called computational complex this was a new emerging view of computers asking the question of well what can be done on computers and how fast can it be done and and started working that in particular with a specialization in number theory an ancient discipline that I was four to fortunate enough that I had two lines of development of mathematics coming together and colliding and very ancient one number theory comes back you know at least to the Greeks 2300 years ago her son but at the same time I have this new one computational complexity theory and number theory was full of algorithms and we needed to know how fast they ran and could we find algorithms that did the same thing but did it faster that's computation closer so I got to be right at the you know Nexus of these two events and that was really fortunate because you know I recommend to all the people listening this make sure you choose a discipline which a is just developing and B is gonna become a really big thing and that's guessable no no no it's not yes yeah it's not but if you can do that you know it really makes the right but you're also giving advice in a way by example of following your nose of a plant you don't necessarily know where the future is going to be right don't you know what interests you okay let me do a little public service announcement you know and to young people who might do this thing yeah I guess this goes under don't sell yourself short that is I see a number of researchers who are content to take a small problem as work to solve it and many times succeed but an alternative and you know you're gonna make your own decisions this could be terrible advice is to take the biggest problem that's out there Riemann hypothesis and NPP is still open work on those really work on that spend years working on them because you know of course the odds are small that you'll succeed but in the process of failure even it can be a glorious failure you can learn tremendous amounts during that time and you can discover solutions to other greater probes but if you never sort of try anything really daunting you don't know if maybe it's your time maybe you will succeed so what is your actual thesis topic yeah number theoretic aspects of computational complexity taking you know sort of Gauss meets Turing okay and that's what it was where is that good a leader it's the obvious question but I assume it's receipt as a acceptable doctorate yeah how does that place you professionally yeah it places me in a very good position but really again it's you know so much of everything that happens in every person's life is a matter of luck and an accidental celebration and preparation I look yes and they were prepared yeah I am prepared so remember this new field computational complexity and even computer science itself is just emerging at the ear I suspect so there's a lot of open Ning's Manuel belong that is a very esteemed guy and he came from MIT that's where he got his PhD so he can write a letter I assume he did he never showed it to me that said you know this would be a good guy to hire so I get hired at MIT basically as an assistant professor in the mathematics department because I'm not because I'm you know so grand but because I'm doing the right sort of thing that people are looking for it right on so and and of course that's a you know heck of a place to end up it's hard for California to leave California I'm going at the person level are you hesitating at all at this point it was horrible for me it was it was not good so my not only had not left California but I probably you know other than going to maybe Reno with my parents but I never left the Bay Area really I you know maybe I had made a trip to LA yes I decision yeah and so so um and I remember first of all I got a rude awakening because you know I took instruction from my friends that they explained it was going to be cold and they explained that you buy clothes that have layers and you put on the layers as you as it gets colder well you know almost as soon as I show up I gotta walk across a famously cold thing called the Charles roof over the Charles River part of the Harvard bridge about which famously Admiral Byrd said the clothes policy to ever been was on that bridge I have to walk over that and by like probably like by October you know way before winners in the shop I got all the letters on you know I got them all on get on and and so it was cold and then I went to a McDonald's when I arrived in in Cambridge and I ordered my you know Big Mac and you know the usual stuff and when the transaction was finished I'm standing there and the cash she was looking at me and I'm looking at her and then our transactions over and it's a little bit of an awkward moment and you know maybe she says next get outta line with my goods and I realized she and said have a nice day but in California they always said that or a nice day all right so there was a cultural changes okay a coolness there was social well as Club back yeah well put and so yes and and and so and I I had just been getting divorced for my first wife I brought my German Shepherd with me who got killed the first week and you know run over I was as low as I've ever been in my life okay and I got sick very sick you know respiratory problems bothered me and it was just pretty terrible okay people you you're gonna go through bad stuff typically yeah how early are you better find intellectual companions immediately immediately so the the only thing that's good is that I'm surrounded by these incredibly brilliant people you know many of whom become my friends and you know certainly become my colleagues and that is that's wonderful right but for me it's about the only thing that's why they pulling you a through conversation and intellectual interaction in any direction yeah they are so what happens is it's a very collegial place and people do shared research they they talked about the mystery it's not really my nature um I'm the guy who will sit in his room
for eight hours a day basically seven days a week for several years thinking about exactly the same problem all that time you know I really good at concentrate this and I'm not a person who I enjoy interaction but it you know mostly I think and so but I have these colleagues who are wonderful to be with our wonderful people and are super brilliant and they want to discuss problems and so we discussed problems and this leads to really to I guess my turn award is what happens so they want to discuss problems often that I don't want to discuss mmm okay because see I picked up probably from mr. wizard that I should be you know just do these great things right I haven't done anything that's what I'm supposed to be doing and sell this view so so is silly I should be doing that right I should be Gauss right I'm in this to be Gauss right okay and and so I'm only interested in the purest of the pure you know I'm working on for my last theorem you know I'm not right so so one day one of my colleagues Ron Rivest says hey I come to just office you know we're friends and and he says hey did you see this paper by this Stanford guy's Diffie and Hellman and he starts saying you know it's about you send this information and you you know scramble it and person on the other side cannery and I go I think I says words really to the effect that well that's nice lon but you know I got something important to talk about thing of it and so so that's sort of the end of it for that day but Ron is really struck by this ron has found a problem he's passionate about and he's able to secure the collaboration of another good friend of mine adi shamir another brilliant guy and they start talking about how do you find an incarnation of this concept of a public-key cryptosystem that the stanford guys had described in this manuscript this is a coding issue what is the core issue the core issue is you want cryptography secret codes right and secret codes been around for several thousand years but diffie-hellman are visionary enough to say you know there's going to be thing where everybody's going to be connected electronically and they're gonna start doing Commerce and people gonna talk and they're going to need to keep their privacy and everything like that you know never gonna happen right but of course it did right and and for that in that environment you need secret codes to protect privacy right and do other things and and traditional secret codes that existed before the diffie-hellman paper could not be used for certain technical reasons so you need something new and they set different helman we're able to say here's what something new would look like we just don't know how to actually make one okay so Rivest said well you know this is a computational complexity question that they're asking and he says maybe I can make one so he enlists the aid of Adi right helps him tries to get here tries to get me I'm not interested right okay so but on the other hand we were really good friends we hang out every day and I remember we we go on a ski trip to Vermont - right and I'm in gondolas with these guys every day and they're talking about nothing but finding this public key cryptosystem right you know and so you know even to be sociable I had it discuss it with them yeah and so this goes on and on and eventually they come Vic they're coming up with possible incarnations of this thing every day or two days every week and most of them are pretty easy to dismiss many times I think that come up with them and then dismiss them themselves but as as time goes on and in we all need in retrospect now understand why or no as time goes on these codes that they these methods start to rely more and more on the computational complexity of number theory prime ality factoring those fundamental problems of number theory and of course you know I may not be able to do much but if you have questions about computational aspects of number theory um I'm the go-to guy you know throw me the ball right so they start coming up with all these number-theoretic things and because I know all this stuff I'm able to look at and say no that's not gonna work I can break that I can break that I can break that right this goes on and on and then one day on Passover there's a lot of Manischewitz wine run by the way I should say you may interview him so I shouldn't you know preface this by saying I don't think he he recalls this he may even recall something different in which case he's incorrect but this is your your time no this is this is the correct version okay all right so anyway and he drinks a lot of Manischewitz wine as I recall and we go home and I get a call around midnight that night and it's Ron and Ron goes hey Len what about bla bla bla bla bla bla bla bla is what we now call the RSA public key cryptosystem and the second I hear it I say oh hey congratulations Ron I think you did it you you recognize that yeah you know cuz this is like where I live right okay yeah you you finally put the pieces together right this is this is good right so good night right so the next day and by the way you know for those young researchers who are listening to this you know I wish the story was better but this is the way the real world goes and as the next day I think
it's the very next day I go into MIT and you know I go into bronze office because we're doing that kind of thing all the time and he hands me a manuscript it's handwritten I wish I had it yes okay and it is obviously the system he's come up with you know the night before and and it's the authorship is Adelman rivesh Shamir a RS and I tell Ron take my name off this it's your invention Ron and he said no no no no you know we wouldn't I got there without your blowing up all these other crypto systems and so we proceeded to have an argument with me trying to get off the paper and him trying to keep me on and we agree that we'll think about it a while come back so I go back you know a day or two later and by the way I've reflected very hard on whether I deserve to be on that paper yeah and and and I recalled that there was one cryptosystem then looked really good at the first and it took me you know staying up all night to figure out how to break it and by the way after our assay was discovered it was rediscovered and published as a new potential crypto system so it was born dead because I already knew how to break it so you know I said well you know maybe that's okay I think it'd be okay for me to be thorough author right and so I went back I said look Ron make me third author and that's how it became artists or is it it's just the way the world works but you know in my case it worked out really well you know I met so are you know who were initially bored by this now increasingly fascinated by the problems represented by this no no I think it's a it's a wonderful field I think there's plenty of problems I'm still more interested in the fundamental number theoretic problems that are gonna lie this can you factor fast and stuff like that okay but no no I I like the field and and I'm even semi sort of working in it I got my own cryptocurrency developing but but no I I still have this quest you know I've seem to have a need to find something very normal let's get you to the next stage can your own journey in addition yeah this was a detour that turned out to be productive for you in the world are you still at MIT for the next X number of years and what are you working on okay I continue to work on number three I leave in my team because being sick all the time and having a terrible time I need to get back to California I don't care what it takes I regret leaving MIT because it's the best place so I come to USC and I continue to work on number theoretic problems in and do a lot in there are you having are you now a professor or this is oh now huh yeah what happens when you cook there I'm tellin ya continues yeah I asked a computer scientist as a canallers I guess yeah and an SC at this point has a computer science department yes they just grown one again part of an engineering school and what are they expecting you to do here what how are you presented as what is your competence what is your I'm a theoretical computer scientist and that's what I am there's only four of us in the department at the time they were gonna let you follow your curiosity that USC four is they've always let me just do whatever I wanted to do and you know in many ways you know what more can you ask for in life you know then I get to do what you want and so yes so I'm a theoretical computer science with you pushing okay you're a numbers theory but where are you going right I'm going towards trying to sort of develop the field of number theoretic algorithms okay I start a conference called the ads and conference I continue to work on fundamental problems in number theory sometimes it was success sometimes of less success and and do that right I also dabble in cryptography and so I do that but I still have this sort of intellectual drive I don't know where it comes from to really do something grand at least in my mind grand and and not to just sort of stay on a path that you know it could stay on it just isn't the way work so um the next thing that happens is I'm by now maybe early 40s okay and it's of the year is 80 mid-80s okay okay and if you read the you know papers and you're interested in science the big thing is HIV and I read some some popular press accounts and I'm going to let you into HIV before I call you the father of the virus or the terminology of the virus or the computer virus yes I think we at least owe you I shall attain ourselves there before we go okay so so among other things I'm teaching I'm teaching classes in computer security that's right cryptography and one day not far from here less than you know an eighth of a mile from that where we're sitting right now I'm teaching this class on computer security and this student comes up his name is Fred Cohen and he says professor Adelman I have a new idea for a computer you know the security problem and I said what is it Fred and he says well I'm gonna write this program and then I'm gonna make it available to people and it's gonna be uploaded and then when people upload it it's gonna do something they never expected right it's gonna give me all of the privileges it basically went today would be all their passwords definitely okay and it's gonna send it back to me okay and I said oh yeah you know that could cause a lot of problems of where does that affect and he says I want to try it and I said well you know it'll work Fred
and he says I want to try it and I said well you don't have to try it thread it if it's clearly gonna work right and so we go several iterations but you know if fred is a wonderful and he's very forceful and so on his behalf I go to the department the head of the department and say look I got the student he wants to try something out on the department computer so this is way before everybody has personal computers work all the students the faculty the administration everybody is using the same computer yes and so the the the the department chairman says to me words that Isis don't sort of resonate over all these years he says why not right so Fred implements his scheme and I invite him to report on the outcome of his Tessa and of course it works you know people should listen to me of course it's gonna work so fred has written this program and like an app you download that promises to do one thing but doesn't this thing spreads through the entire every users chunk of that common computer and Fred then owns every aspect of that computer he can change people's grades he could probably change people's salaries I don't know what else right okay so then people start thinking you know what else you could do with these kind of programs and the department starts thinking that and they think maybe they shouldn't do any more experiments right so people start to get the idea holy cow right this is really a problem so Fred decides to do a thesis on this and and in the course of doing his thesis we're discussing it and because of something else going on in my life my research I start calling these things too pure viruses because they look like they're behaving like viruses being in the biological biological metaphor yes exactly and so and then that become now turns out that in science fiction literature they had been using that term before right there at that term yes but for any for whatever reason it then gets popularized you know in popular media as the computer virus and that's the story of that so fred is the father of that okay I can send you now to your HIV moment yes and that that's why the name computer virus comes up yeah okay so I'm reading this popular press article on HIV and they're describing the pathogenesis what's happening inside of the body you know when it's somebody's infected and I say well why couldn't I try this you know why wouldn't this work I don't know any biology but but so I start to go to a library a medical library to try to find out how it all works that's really fascinating you know to be in a medical library and I find that all I need to understand medical papers is a dictionary that explains what words mean because in terms of the content of the paper they're almost always you know a graph of some finding and you know for a mathematician that's that's easy like this so so I start to read and I get more and more intrigued by this and I start to come up abandoning this for these initial thoughts I start to become more and more interested in how HIV actually works and the like and I start to read about it and I come up with a new hypothesis of the pathogenesis of HIV and and I tried to you know convince the lead researchers in the HIV field to pursue my idea but that's not going that well and so i decide i will go to an actual molecular biology lab and learn some real molecular biology in order to get a better and penis match with these real researchers so i can speak their language so i decided to spend a summer at a molecular biology place and there is a molecular biology associated with USC that says sure come you know spend the summer working with us they're doing HIV research so I entered that lab and while I can't sort of left biology when I was pre-med because it was disgusting you know I mean look it's not but to me or what is it Franco okay I enter the lab now it's you know been 20 years since that time when I was an undergraduate and it's all different now it's about DNA you know strings over a four letter alphabet to a mathematician right it's it's about all these things and now it's mathematics right I can see it that way and there's all these techniques for manipulating the mathematical objects and so I get really interested and so uh as part of this quest I start to read a famous book by this I think molecular biology of the gene this thing okay and in if they're describing polymerase which is the molecule it's a protein that takes a DNA strand the molecule and makes a copy of it it's what life is all about if that didn't happen no copies of DNA no copies of cells no copies of you right this is big-time if you do envy to that no copies anybody none of us are here right alright so this molecule jumps on to this strand of DNA just a bunch of 80 CS and G's and it's amazing it runs down this molecule and it grabs new pieces out of the floating environment new eighty season G's and creates a second strand identical it's a juggler on a tightrope and it's two nanometers in every direction it's amazing machine but what's in addition just being awesome technology it also looks just like how Turing machines work the description of the really the first computer given by Turing and 19:36 in his paper on the inside of this problem you got a little little mechanical thing that's running down a string of letters I said wow you know these biological things are computing we could compute with this and so that led me to spend a little time designing an experiment where I would use DNA as the basis for a computer and and not not in some way you know I'm gonna use it as wire or something but to use its intrinsic properties biological and chemical properties to make a computer see turning also taught us that early logicians to us that computing is really easy all you need is a way to store information a few simple operations to manipulate that information and you can compute anything that is all things that are computable you can compute and there's a million ways to go about it and even though we expect to do it with silicon these days no reason so instead it could be carried out in liquid you can make the liquid computer where the information stored in DNA and the manipulations like making a copy of information could be done by these molecules like polymers so I carried out an experiment because I would have a lab and I had all the reagents to do that to solve a simple computational problem in a test tube with DNA being the basis so I did that and it worked couldn't have failed and so I I wrote a paper but I didn't know what you did
with a paper in biology you know it's is this biology anyway you know so I decided to send it to science magazine you know science the journal and and I didn't know what they would do with it but I didn't know what else I was gonna do with it so I sent it there and I as I recall I got a phone call from the editor and he said I I want to talk to you about that paper you submitted and I said oh yeah you know yeah what about he said well the referees were ecstatic I get none use like that I'm not even in my best man of medical stuff and so anyway it got published and you know and it was well received and that it ended up a lot of people became interested in DNA computation and and it led me to spend about ten years with my own molecular biology lab pursuing DNA computation and I didn't pursue that very well but I ended up having students who were tremendous okay Eric Winfrey and Paul wrote him in both at Caltech now and they were able to you know use those ideas and other ideas and they were able to do amazing computational things with DNA as the basis and and in addition they sort of went beyond just doing computation with them they they used DNA to self-assemble incredibly beautiful structures so if you want like you know if you happen to need say Oh hundred billion little teeny statues of Liberty these guys can make up DNA put it in an actual tube shake it up and inside will be a hundred billion actual statues of Liberty right in 3d all made out of DNA that all self assembled into these little statues man I think they're really small they're hard to see but we're essentially at the intersection of that man I think we honor I think we are and I think I think that's that's what I think one of the take-home messages is is that what a cell is doing is computation right and so now let's look at cells as doing computation their molecular structures are carry out computations as quickly they are and and so it's not so much maybe mathematics and and biology maybe mathematics and computing and biology and computer science that these are a set of comer geing things and it really is you know much more similar than we may think in fact you know with time I've come to wonder about what the difference is between something that computes in something that it's alive I'm not sure I think there is a difference right and so yeah it's it's this juxtaposition you know of those two fields and perhaps the merging of them that is the most exciting aspect of it oh who is doubting this who is ecstatic by this what what is this intersection really mean in terms of present and future researchers using it yeah I I think at the lowest level it was it just means for example that we might be able to put computers inside of cells extreme I give you an injection but it's not something that kills things it's something that goes inside your cell and monitors what's going on and maybe kills the cell or else what's coming you know or changes this that or the other thing okay we can bring computation to bear we can also you know people look at can now look at like metabolic pathways and like as as computational pathways um so I guess you know we can all look forward to the day when there's hybrid you know somewhat humans somewhat robotic entities I think I've lost track of a lot of that because I I've spent so much time thinking about a different aspect this and in fact that's that's what I've sort of spent 40 years thinking about a different aspect of this different yeah and the following sense so you know Darwin taught us about evolution and then Watson Crick came along and they said and now we kind understand that the fundamental agent of of evolutions that you is Turing taught us that computers in what computers were and a guy named Steven clinic taught us that proved a thing called the recursion theorem which for those who happen to care could be seen as showing us that computers can replicate okay so the things stored in computers are the fundamental elements of a new form of evolution and a new form of replication that can occur among computers and then Richard Dawkins came along and he said yeah there are these things memes these are stored in people's heads but they can mutate and they can be reproduced like on reproducing some of the my names into your head if you're watching this right and so those those ideas can evolve right and so all these things can evolve do they all have common laws that dictate what they will do the answer is yes some were described by Darwin but some are things that people haven't observed yet and and so I've spent about 40 years since reading Richard Dawkins paper in the 70s for his book thinking about this and I think that there's a common theory that encompasses not just a biological but also tells us a lot about the future of computers where they're headed it also tells us a lot about the nature of human endeavor societal endeavors political ones you know religious ones you know Darwin taught us made it clear to us that it's the struggle of genes to survive that makes and destroy species well it's the struggle of memes to survive in exactly the same way that makes and destroys political institutions religious institutions and the like and in in though it's early the it's the struggle of these things stored in computers which I've come to call scenes portmanteau of computer and gene which will determine much about what species of computers evolved in the future what they'll be involved in what their goals will be where they're headed okay so there's this common theory that's intrigued me for about 40 years and I'd wanted to wait longer you know until I could get this whole thing figured out but I discovered that I growing old happened before you know that happened saw a green double time right the book came out hasn't come out has it I need a publisher you're writing it okay yeah and is that what could we call it core truth no it is okay no it's called memes jeans and scenes we're gonna end right there excellent very much thank you it's a pleasure