Lawrence Stark Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

The Mind's Eye: Conversation with Lawrence Stark, M.D., Professor Emeritus of Engineering and Optometry; 8/16/00 by Harry Kreisler
Photo by Jane Scherr

Page 5 of 6

The Implications of Science

It sounds to me, as I read some of your work and as I listen to you now, that math is the key pathway between these two worlds [human and mechanical]. Is that correct? That is, the ability to come up with mathematical formulations that help us understand what's going on in the mind's eye and in turn use those and apply them to the workings of machines?

That's right. Mathematics is the language of science. It's not science. It's the language of science. One of my daughters who didn't go into science, but rather into writing, went to UC Santa Cruz and had to take a science course because it was part of the core program. She took Astronomy for Non-Scientists. And she called me up, very excited. She said, "You know all those mathematical tricks we studied in math in high school? All those equations and parabolas and ellipses? Well, they use it to describe the planetary system. It explains how things work." And she was very, very excited. Not enough to give up writing and become a scientist, but I think that's the excitement of mathematics as a language. You can say how things work.

Tell us a little about the excitement of science. That is, when you make a discovery, when that moment comes when an idea clicks, when in your case, you have these scan paths and you see their implications.

I have a little psuedo-institute called "The Breakthrough Institute." I use it on my stationery. I tell people I have a breakthrough every day. Very often at two o'clock in the morning I'll have a tremendous idea, and sometimes, quite often by eight o'clock in the morning, I realize it's a mistake. But, it's happened so often I try to analyze why it was a mistake, why my mind was thinking in that way. I think it's very exciting to try to see solutions to problems. And there are all levels of problems. There are general problems, like vision and the scan path. And then there's a particular problem with how to arrange the lighting on a piece of instrumentation so you can measure the eye better. And in a way, they're equally exciting. One of the problems one has to fight as a scientist is not to get too involved in the moment-to-moment discoveries, which are necessary to run your lab and do experiments, but to try to also have part of your thinking reserved for bigger problems, you might say, or for less solvable problems or problems that just are interesting even though you can't approach them.

One of the interesting things about the collections of papers that I looked at was, especially in the introductions and the conclusions, your reference to the problems of humanity generally, not just the problems of vision. I'm curious what your findings about the way we see tell us about society and human interaction?

What it tells me is that so much of our interaction is within our own brains, and that the contact we have with other people and with the outside world is very sparse. People can have a model in their head and that model subsumes their thinking process, and it's almost impossible to change that model. So one can have a model of gray-haired God up in the sky, and if you believe that, then everything that happens is a result of that person watching over you and doing this and doing that. Once you have that model, it's very hard to shake the model. A friend of mine who's a neuroanatomist, Valentino Brightenburg, has pointed out that each brain cell in our cortex has about 20,000 connections; 10,000 to other cells, and 10,000 from other cells. And of those 10,000 inputs and outputs to each cell in the cerebral cortex, only one of them goes to the outside world. For example, to move a muscle. Only one of them, on the average, comes from the outside world, for example, to carry a vision signal, or a temperature signal. These billions of neurons are all talking to each other through all these connections, and they're only getting sparse information from the outside. So the generation of models in people's heads and the functioning of those models, are what drives them. I think that's one of the real problems in humanity, that people can't really interact, and the way they form their models is shaped by very primitive forces in our culture, and in every culture. I think people who want to change the world are going to have to change the models.

Does this thinking make you more conservative about human affairs or more radical?

It's hard to define conservative and radical. I would say I'm very conservative in that I don't like people to interfere with other people, unless that person's doing harm. I feel that each person's morals should be allowed to control himself. I don't like interference with people's activities. I don't know if religious views trying to control people would be called conservative or radical. I tell people I'm too conservative to be Republican because I think a lot of their social engineering is not what I call "freedom," but kind of a radical change, much as the communists tried to change people's economic behavior. And so, I don't know. Another thing that my studies in genetics have taught me is that we're all one flesh. All the people in humanity. I remember walking around in London once about 25 years after I had lived there as a young man. And I, seeing these crowds of people and walking around and knowing that I might be related to any one of them, because I cast my seeds widely, if not wisely, and I just felt like I was a parent to all these people. And so I think humanity is linked in this biological fashion, but we're separated in terms of our internal models.

So the misinformation, the inability of people to communicate with each other, at one level doesn't surprise you, based on your theory?

No. That's correct.

But on the other hand, you just said that biologically the fact that we can move beyond misinformation and lack of communication doesn't surprise you either.

Right. It's a strange mixture. As you study, as you meet all these people that visit the International Institute here at Berkeley, you see people of very wide cultures. And they're all the same. And they're all different.

Your work touches on the world of the movie 2001, of HAL's taking over, and I'm curious because one thing that I might read into your work, looking at the problem of the ethical dimensions of creating machines with human-like ability, suggests that man becomes most God-like in creating man-like machines. Is that a fair statement?

Or even surrendering to them. Like there's a famous film, Blade Runner. Harrison Ford starts out eliminating robots that have escaped from a space ship and have come back to Earth. And the robots turn out to be much more human, much more moral than he expected. I remember there's a robot that's holding him up when he's about to fall off a bridge. And he ends up falling in love with a robot and turning his back on society and escaping to Alaska with her. And so I think this can be very interesting, how humans interact with robots.

You know that the director, Ridley Scott, has recently revealed that his intention was for the Harrison Ford character to be a robot in the end, but the studios made him cut that.

Right. I like that film very much because they diagnosed the robot by using my pupilometer. I invented this television pupilometer that measures the pupil of the eye. And they had one of those on the desk of the psychologist who was quizzing one of the robots to see if he had human reactions.

So did you get a credit at the end?

No, no, no. No credit or anything, but I was very pleased to see it.

Next page: Lessons Learned

© Copyright 2000, Regents of the University of California