There’s a line from an e.e. cummings poem that has nestled itself in the back of my mind since the first time I read it, probably in college an eon ago.
“The single secret will still be man,” he wrote.
The line pops into consciousness occasionally when circumstances summon it. I was reminded of it again recently when I heard New Orleans native Walter Isaacson talk about his new book, “The Innovators: How a Group of Hackers, Geniuses, and Geeks Created the Digital Revolution.”
If you’ve read the book or heard Isaacson talk, you already know one of his themes. Ada Lovelace, the daughter of the poet Lord Byron and the inventor of the concept of the computer algorithm, predicted correctly that machines would be capable of doing many complex tasks. But she also said they would not be able to think.
So far, despite the advances in artificial intelligence, Lovelace’s contention holds true. Computers may do things that look like human thought, but really are just a way to process information at faster and faster speeds.
In a speech earlier this year to the National Endowment for the Humanities, Isaacson described how the computer Deep Blue was able to beat then-world chess champion Garry Kasparov in 1997. “Deep Blue won its chess match by brute force,” Isaacson said. “It could evaluate 200 million positions per second.”
Isaacson quotes Kasparov himself: “Deep Blue was only intelligent the way your programmable alarm clock is intelligent.”
So, there’s something about human thought that hasn’t been matched yet by the machines. There’s been great progress in that direction through larger and larger neural networks, but mankind’s “secret” is still safe, cocooned inside a mystery wrapped in an enigma.
I also think of cummings’ line in the same context as William Faulkner’s famous Nobel Prize acceptance speech in 1950. Five years after the end of World War II, with Europe still in shambles and the United States and the Soviet Union rattling nuclear sabers at each other, Faulkner refused to accept that the end of humanity was near.
In words that may be more famous than a line from any of his works, Faulkner said, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.”
Cummings’ poem is full of imagery of natural catastrophe. He writes of a wind that “strangles valleys,” “stifles forests” and “flays screaming hills with sleet and snow.”
In that context, the line about the secret that “will still be man” seems to be about the survival of humanity despite all the natural odds that beset it.
Here in Louisiana, we know about surviving the dangers of the natural world. We have lived through great hurricanes and terrific floods. We have controlled a powerful river and built a mighty fortress around the New Orleans area to — we hope — beat back whatever surges the Gulf may assault us with.
We’ve survived the worst that nature can throw at us. Or maybe it would be more correct to say that we hope we’ve seen the worst that nature has in store.
I’ve used the word “hope” in the two preceding paragraphs because that’s what it comes down to in the end. We hope we’ve seen nature’s worst, but we can’t know for sure.
Nevertheless, in the face of doubt, we move on. Humanity always does.
Southern Louisiana has recovered nicely from the dual attacks of Katrina and Rita, and that recovery tracks the path of recoveries from earlier disasters, like Betsy, Andrew and the great Mississippi River flood of 1927.
Through it all, the single secret still is mankind.
Dennis Persica’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.