Steve Jobs’s Biographer Celebrates the Man-Machine Interface

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Walter Isaacson, the journalist and biographer who leads the Aspen Institute (shown at a forum in 2013), gave the 43rd annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on Monday.
May 12, 2014

For all the advances in artificial intelligence, computers alone will never supersede what creative human minds and computers can accomplish jointly, according Walter Isaacson, the biographer and president of the Aspen Institute.

Human creativity allows for the discerning of patterns, aesthetic judgments, social emotions, and personal consciousness.

"These are what the arts and the humanities teach us, and why those realms are as valuable to our education as science, technology, engineering, and math," Mr. Isaacson told an audience here at the Kennedy Center on Monday evening. "If we humans are to uphold our end of the bargain when it comes to a man-machine symbiosis, if we are going to retain our role as partners with machines, we must continue to nurture the humanities, the wellsprings of our creativity. That is what we bring to this party."

The remarks came during the 43rd annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities. Invitations to deliver the lecture are reserved for the brightest minds in the field. Arthur Miller, Toni Morrison, and John Updike are among the past honorees.

In his lecture, "The Intersection of the Humanities and the Sciences," the 61-year-old Mr. Isaacson said that a robust understanding of the humanities would be critical in the next phase of the digital revolution, which will fuse technology with media, fashion, music, entertainment, education, and the arts. The new era will go beyond the current pouring of "old wine"—books, newspapers, songs, movies—into new "digital bottles," he said, and give way to novel forms of expression.

"This innovation will come from people who are able to link beauty to engineering, who are able to link humanity to technology, able to link poetry to processors," Mr. Isaacson said.

Those who will rise to the top in this new landscape will be individuals who flourish where the arts, humanities, sciences, and technology intersect, and who have a "rebellious sense of wonder that opens them to the beauty of them all."

Mr. Isaacson drew on the lives of great thinkers of recent centuries, including Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and the writer and mathematician Ada Lovelace. Those figures distinguished themselves not solely by their brilliance—smart people are not so uncommon—but by their ability to think differently and to straddle the humanities and the sciences, Mr. Isaacson said. Einstein, for example, marveled at "nature’s most mundane amazements."

"His success came from his imagination, rebellious spirit, and his willingness to question authority," Mr. Isaacson said. "These are things the humanities teach."

Mr. Isaacson has made himself a lifelong student of brilliant, unconventional characters. Born and raised in New Orleans, he studied literature and history at Harvard University, later continuing his studies as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford. Mr. Isaacson forged a career as a journalist, joining Time magazine in 1978 and helping to chronicle the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. He served as editor of the magazine from 1996 to 2001, leaving to become chairman and chief executive of the cable news network CNN. Two years later, Mr. Isaacson was named to his current position, as president and chief executive of the Aspen Institute.

In 2011, Mr. Isaacson wrote himself into the consciousness of a new generation of nonfiction readers with his biography of Steve Jobs, the co-founder of Apple and a demigod in the worlds of consumer technology and product design. The infamously exacting Mr. Jobs hand-selected Mr. Isaacson for the task, granting the writer dozens of interviews as he battled cancer during the final years of his life. Mr. Isaacson has also written biographies of Franklin, Einstein, and Henry Kissinger.

Mr. Jobs understood that the best technology incorporates the arts and humanities, Mr. Isaacson told the audience on Monday.

"Jobs was a genius in understanding how people would related emotionally to their devices," he said. "He understood the emotion, beauty, and simplicity that makes for a great human-machine interface."