PRISM Magazine On-Line  - December 1999
Teaching Toolbox
Book Report

The Age of Spiritual Machines: When Computers Exceed Human Intelligence

The Age of Spiritual MachinesBy Ray Kurzweil. Viking Press; 1999; 388 pp., $25.95.
Reviewed by Lyle Feisel

We all know—more or less—what has happened to computing in the past 20 or 30 years. Now, how about the next 20 or 30? Or 50 or 100? While this is a very big question, Ray Kurzweil takes it on with gusto and confidence. And well he might. The predictions in his 1990 book, The Age of Intelligent Machines, have largely come true, so why not take a crack at the next century?

If you were to read the penultimate chapter of The Age of Spiritual Machines first, you might conclude that you were reading a work of science fiction. Most of the conditions described seem, shall we say, a bit on the wild side. If, however, you start at the beginning and follow the predicted evolution of computing throughout the next century, the technological leaps seem more plausible.

For starters, Kurzweil predicts the demise of Moore's Law by about 2020. Moore's Law—which states that every two years, at a given cost, there will be a doubling of both the amount of computing circuitry and the speed at which the circuitry operates—has held true for the past three decades or so. When it finally does fall, however, Kurzweil predicts that it will be replaced not by a slower rate of growth, but by an even faster one.

The author captures this concept in his Law of Accelerating Returns: "As order exponentially increases, time exponentially speeds up (that is, the time interval between salient events grows shorter as time passes)." In an evolutionary process, where knowledge can be transmitted and hence accumulated, this seems to make sense. Conclusion? Computers—or perhaps we should say computing capability—will grow at an accelerating exponential rate. As a consequence of the explosion of computing capability, Kurzweil describes other predicted technological innovations—such as nanobots, sensory implants, and remote tactile communication—an advance with many possibilities.

The big leap, however, centers on the adjective in the book's title—spiritual. If one takes a purely mechanistic view of the human brain as an enormous collection of biological neurons, one may conclude that a similarly enormous collection of silicon or carbon "neurons" can emulate or duplicate the functions of that brain. One of the functions of that brain is to develop a sense of consciousness, i.e., self-awareness. Once an entity is conscious, we may presume that it will develop emotions, desires, personality, and the other manifestations of what we have referred to as our humanity, including—why not?—spiritual experience. This premise will, of course, find many more critics than the purely technical predictions. (Since the accumulation of years does tend to increase humility—or at least discretion—this writer will not voice an opinion on the issue.)

To help explain his points, the author employs a very effective technique, whereby he "converses" with a fictional person in each chapter. "Molly" asks many of the questions that the reader is likely to want answered. But Kurzweil does not have her ask only questions that he can answer; as the book progresses, some questions arise that are not resolved. In part, this happens because Molly ages and evolves within the time frame of the book, while the author stays in the present. Note the use of the word "evolves." One of the book's predictions is that human bodies will be technically augmented with much more active components and that the interface between an individual's brain and his or her computer will become very diffuse. Evolution therefore takes on a slightly different, or at least expanded, meaning.

This book will probably be heavy going for the technological laity, but engineers and computer scientists would do well to give it a read. The technical predictions are interesting and the question of machine spirituality intriguing. As the creators of technology, we should be interested in both.


Lyle Feisel is dean of engineering at SUNY-Binghamton.

New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World

New Rules for the New Economy:By Kevin Kelly. Penguin USA; 1999; 179 pp.; $19.95.
Reviewed by Lawrence Casper

In our technological age there is a special fascination with current directions of technologies and their perceived future impacts on society. Kevin Kelly, editor of Wired magazine, has made a significant contribution to this area with New Rules for the New Economy: 10 Radical Strategies for a Connected World. This book, which is in a class with Alvin Toffler's Future Shock, looks at broad societal, cultural, and business impacts of technology on a global scale.

Kelly's "rules" on how the machines of information technology are transforming our global economy are less an authoritative code or set of fixed principles as they are a set of "essential dynamics" or "ten distinct refrains." This book is not for those who solicit prescription, but rather for those who seek comprehension.

The core concept of New Rules is that we are moving to a radically different model for the organization of the economy and society. The exponential growth in the World Wide Web, the explosion of electronic commerce, and the rapid evolution of business models are all indicators of a new economic order. According to Kelly, the new economy has three distinct characteristics: it is global; it favors intangibles such as ideas, relationships, and knowledge; and it is "intensely interlinked."

The mechanistic, hierarchical world is no longer dominant as we move to the "soft" information world and the knowledge economy. This is the biological model, a squishy world of decentralization, interconnectivity, complexity, flux, and spontaneity. Although the "hard" world of machines and devices will remain important, increasingly the "value added" will be intellectual—transforming commodity materials into high-performance automobiles, computers, and entertainment electronics.

"The new economy is about communication, deep and wide," Kelly says. Decentralization, local control, and networking of complex, highly populated systems are surpassing expectations based on old models and organizational structures. Kelly admits that the limits to this new model are, at best, poorly understood. In his view, we must begin to understand these networked systems as "ecologies." To continue to evolve these ecologies requires disruption—just as in the biological world—by imposing a state of "persistent disequilibrium" so that new states can constantly develop. In the midst of telecommunications globalization and the emergence of ever-larger corporations, the chaos of the new economy also creates enormous opportunities for small business. As Kelly puts it, "We see in the World Wide Web the promise of creating a viable midlands." Think of it: until recently an entrepreneur with an idea for a small, globally dispersed niche market of perhaps only a few thousand individuals would have virtually no prospect for success. But in a world that recently surpassed six billion inhabitants, the Web will ultimately allow that entrepreneur to succeed with little more than the idea and a computer with a wire running to a jack in the wall.

The current generation of college undergraduates recognizes the power and potential of this new economy. The model of the student entrepreneur, represented by the cultural icons of Apple Computer and Microsoft, is being replicated daily in dorm rooms and engineering labs in colleges across the U.S. and increasingly across the globe. The chaos of the new economy is a world of opportunity where success rests on knowledge and skills, and where the traditional barriers of race, nationality, or even economic status become transparent.

For those who seek to understand or enter the world of Internet entrepreneurship, New Rules for the New Economy is required reading. For others in the engineering community, this lively, provocative book is highly recommended to better understand the business and social impact of information technology. We have a front row seat in history with the changes now occurring, and New Rules for the New Economy can serve as a guidebook as this drama of social evolution unfolds. And for those still perplexed by this new world, Kelly's advice is brilliant and simple—just hire a 17-year-old to work for you.


    Lawrence Casper is assistant dean of engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

A History of Aerodynamics and Its Impact on Flying Machines

A History of AerodynamicsBy John D. Anderson, Jr. Cambridge University Press; 1999; 478 pp., $39.95.
Reviewed by John Weese

In A History of Aerodynamics, John Anderson masterfully couples the development of theory with experiment, and correlates this evolving knowledge with the advent and improvement of flying machines. This delightful book requires careful attention, but it'll be read and re-read with genuine appreciation.

Scientists and engineers have worked diligently to understand fluid flow and its application to practical systems, beginning with Aristotle and Archimedes, and to da Vinci. Anderson includes fascinating descriptions of important milestones, from George Cayley's 1804 model glider—which is remarkably similar to modern ones—to early 19th century whirling arm experiments to determine aerodynamic lift forces. Some aircraft modelers may be tempted to construct their version of Cayley's glider because it looks as if it ought to fly well, especially with modern materials. There are also exceptionally good accounts of Lilienthal's 1890s manned glider flights.

Anderson carefully documents contributions to theoretical aerodynamics, including the evolution of the Navier-Stokes equation, which is used in essentially the same form today as when published by Stokes in 1845. The author also writes about the difficulties encountered in trying to solve this equation, including insights gained from the experiments of Helmholtz, Kirchhoff, Lord Rayleigh, and Reynolds. Physical understanding of phenomena such as vorticity, vortex filaments, vortex sheets, and boundary layers are also described well.

Anderson notes that the deep-rooted fascination with powered flight led to the foundation of early aeronautical societies, such as the influential Aeronautical Society of Great Britain, established in 1866. Some early members experimented with wind-tunnels and unsuccessfully attempted powered flight.

Samuel Pierpont Langley, a master instrument maker, made concerted efforts to demonstrate the practicality of powered, heavier-than-air flight. His initial attempts with powered flying models, "aerodromes," were successful on May 6, 1896, when his steam-powered aerodrome made two flights of more than 90 seconds.

In the late 1890s, the Wrights made rapid progress, recognizing at the outset the importance of lateral control and making careful, quantitative experiments with gliders. Discovering discrepancies between their observations and the predictions from Lilienthal's experiments, the Wrights performed extensive wind-tunnel experiments. With an improved understanding of airfoil design, vast propeller improvements, and state-of-the-art aircraft controls about three axes, the Wrights were able to usher in the era of powered, manned, heavier-than-air flight.

The development of theoretical aerodynamics and its influence on aircraft design—particularly for aircraft in the World War I and World War II eras—is carefully explained, and of special delight are Anderson's descriptions of many pioneers, with numerous photographs and insights into their personalities. Anderson also shows how, in the era of supersonic flight, theoretical knowledge was coupled with experiments in increasingly sophisticated wind tunnels and with experimental aircraft.

Authoritative and well documented with extensive references, A History of Aerodynamics' technical precision is gratifying. The book makes an excellent reference for anyone interested in the field of aerodynamics, technology development, or the history of flight.


    John Weese is a Regents Professor at Texas A&M University and president of ASEE.

Korolev: How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon

Korolev By James Harford. John Wiley & Sons; 1999; 432 pp., $17.95.
Reviewed by Harry Tollerton

So much has happened since NASA landed the first man on the lunar surface thirty years ago that the space race between the United States and the now-defunct Soviet Union seems a distant memory. No human being has set foot on the moon since 1972, and until recently, our knowledge of the great contest was largely limited to the winning American team of space scientists, engineers, and astronauts.

But now, at last, James Harford, executive director emeritus of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, has filled out the previously one-sided account. In Korolev, How One Man Masterminded the Soviet Drive to Beat America to the Moon, Harford tells the riveting tale of how the Soviet team came close to beating the Americans to the moon under the charismatic leadership of one of the most extraordinary engineers of any country and any time, Sergei Pavlovich Korolev.

Korolev's life is central to the story of the Soviet Union's dramatic thrust into space in the late fifties and early sixties. As Harford explains, Korolev "not only developed the first Soviet ICBM [intercontinental ballistic missile] and launched the Space Age with Sputnik, he put into space the first dog, first man, first two men, first woman, first three men; he directed the first 'walk in space'; he created the Soviet Union's first spy satellite and first communications satellite; he built the launch vehicles and the spacecraft that first reached the Moon and Venus and passed by Mars."

Harford tells of Korolev's wrongful imprisonment in one of Stalin's worst gulags, where he was beaten severely and left with lasting damage to his health. Though he was finally released from prison in 1944, Harford wonders how Korolev and others "remained faithful to their government in later years in spite of the arbitrary infliction of such terrible acts on themselves, their colleagues, their friends and families."

Eventually placed in charge of the Soviet Union's long-range ballistic missile project, Korolev assembled a remarkably successful engineering team while simultaneously keeping three Soviet dictators—Stalin, Khrushchev, and Brezhnev—firmly in his corner. A demanding and sometimes quixotic boss, Korolev nevertheless secured special benefits and awards for his team. And, as Harford notes, it was Korolev's consistent policy to integrate the university education of young engineers into practical on-the-job engineering tasks at his design bureau.

Harford offers a detailed account of the Soviet chief designer's frenzied drive to launch the first space satellite, Sputnik 1, while also designing communications, reconnaissance, and weather satellites, and spacecraft for the moon, Mars, and Venus. The successful flight of Yuri Gagarin—the first man launched into earth orbit—in April, 1961, was a transcendent achievement for Korolev, and yet one for which he was denied popular recognition because of the pervasive secrecy in which the Kremlin enveloped the Soviet space effort. And, ironically, one of the most important effects of his achievement was to revive American interest in manned space flight, leading eventually to Apollo and the American triumph.

Despite Korolev's efforts, the Americans steadily advanced and the Russians fell further behind until the program was canceled in 1974, eight years after his death. But in Harford's opinion, the Russians would not have beaten the Americans to the moon even if Korolev had survived. "[Korolev] was without the advantage of the virtually open-ended budget that the United States had," he writes.

The author adds that the Soviet effort was further hobbled by official hypocrisy and by "bureaucratic bungling, the vicious rivalries between some design bureaus and their chiefs, political infighting, duplication of effort, and . . . paranoid secrecy."

The many obstacles that hindered the Soviet program make Korolev's achievements all the more amazing. This extraordinary and indomitable man deserves a place of high honor in any pantheon of history's greatest engineer-leaders. And thanks to Harford, Americans—engineers and nonengineers alike—can at last read about the worthy adversary we once faced on our journey to the stars.


    Harry Tollerton is a special projects consultant for ASEE.

Appropriate Technology: Tools, Choices, and Implications

Appropriate Technology:By Barrett Hazeltine, Christopher Bull, and Lars Wanhammar. Academic Press; 1998; 350 pp., $49.95.
Reviewed by Mary Bonhomme

Growing out of an engineering course taught at Brown University for liberal arts students, Appropriate Technology demonstrates how to broaden the impact of engineering on the nonengineer. Both the course and the book advocate using technology as a vehicle to "foster the goals of a liberal arts education: increasing students' analytical ability, their understanding of the contemporary world, their confidence in dealing with complex problems, and their ethical and aesthetic sensitivity."

Appropriate technologies, as defined by the U.S. Congress Office of Technology Assessment, are "small scale, energy efficient, environmentally sound, labor-intensive, and controlled by the local community." In addition, the technology should "match both the user and the need in complexity and scale." An example of appropriate technology is the production of improved oxcarts from scrap automobile parts. The use of appropriate technologies is important because "it provides goods, services, and jobs that will not be provided any other way," and it "benefits most people, not just a few well-trained specialists."

The book is divided into two sections, focusing first on the technologies themselves—electricity, hydropower, wind power, and photovoltaic devices, among others—and then on how these technologies are used. Each well-organized chapter includes an extensive set of problems and projects that allow students to apply what they have studied.

Engineering design courses could benefit from using this book, which presents clearly the need to anticipate the influence of engineering and technology in bringing about cultural change. These changes may not be for the betterment of the population, even though engineers and technologists may not want to believe it. Indeed, one particularly interesting discussion shows how some chosen technologies have not been appropriate because of a lack of understanding of cultural, economic, educational, and environmental issues, as well as unintended consequences.

For example, providing the people of a primitive island culture with photovoltaic systems for lighting was inappropriate because the social custom on the island was to spend much time outdoors, even at night. The people moved the equipment outdoors, where the heat and humidity proved too much for the systems to handle. And even when the lighting equipment was used indoors, it merely replaced candles or kerosene lamps in front of small shrines, rather than lighting other portions of the house as intended.

Technical readers and nontechnical readers alike will find something of interest in Appropriate Technology . It should be required reading for anyone in a public policy-making position, since many decisions on government aid programs consider only the technology and not appropriateness. Better decisions could result from giving due consideration to the issues raised in this book.


    Mary Bonhomme is associate director
    of continuing engineering education at Purdue University.

Faculty in New Jobs: A Guide to Settling In, Becoming Established, and Building Institutional Support

Faculty in New Jobs:By Robert J. Menges and Associates. Jossey-Bass Publishers; 1999; 338 pp., $24.95.
Reviewed by Phillip C. Wankat

Though this book is aimed at helping new faculty members realize that others in their situation also feel stressed and isolated, deans and department chairs—who typically claim that hiring and retaining new faculty are their two most important tasks—and indeed all professors who interact with new faculty members will also benefit.

Faculty in New Jobs is based on longitudinal data from the New Faculty Project, a study by the National Center of Post-secondary Teaching, Learning, and Assessment on the experiences of new faculty members during their first three years at five institutions. Perhaps because the same information is discussed throughout, the book's individually authored chapters are nearly as cohesive as those in a book written by a single author.

The book first explores the life of newcomers, who are often settling into a new house, a new office, and a new lifestyle, and find that faculty life is very busy and surprisingly lonely. Basic data from the study indicate that new professors generally felt increasingly stressed from their first to their third year. Community college faculty members had the clearest understanding of job expectations and the lowest stress levels, while research university professors felt the least stress for teaching and the most for research. Almost all new professors reported spending more time teaching and less doing research than they thought was expected of them.

The bulk of the book explores the rich data collected on the experiences of newcomers from a variety of viewpoints, including interviews with professors who left their institutions. Chapters 7 and 10 are must-reads for professors interested in teaching. "Learning What Students Understand" addresses questions largely neglected in the engineering education literature: How do we know what curricular content students do not understand? Why are they having difficulties? What can we do to improve their understanding? The authors discuss several answers to these questions, and in the process illuminate why education must be studied in each discipline.

"Faculty Well-Being and Vitality" explores the effects of faculty well-being on productivity, identifying eight traits common to professors with "high well-being" in teaching: 1) Competence in scholarly teaching; 2) Competence in pedagogical knowledge and skills; 3) Competence in classroom leadership and management; 4) Manages goals in teaching and learning; 5) Experiences autonomy in teaching; 6) Experiences social support and collegiality; 7) Receives rewards and recognition for teaching; and 8) Receives generative feedback in teaching. The authors also explore methods to encourage the well-being of new faculty.

Faculty Members in New Jobs makes an excellent companion to Robert Boice's The New Faculty Member (Jossey-Bass, 1992). Written in the language of sociology/psychology, some of the jargon and ideas—locus of control, nomothetic, bidirectionality of socialization—will challenge engineering professors. But readers who persevere will benefit from the effort.


Phillip C. Wankat is the Clifton L. Lovell Distinguished Professor
of Chemical Engineering at Purdue University.

more Teaching Toolbox articles - Teaching , Research, Calendar