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TOXIC WASTE: DARKENING CLOUD OVER

U.S.

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FEB/MAR 1986

VOL. 89 NO.2

EDITED AT THE MASSACHUSETIS

INSTITUTE OF TECHNOLOGY

TechnologyReview
18
TOWARD LIBERAL LEARNING FOR ENGINEERS
BY SAMUEL C. FLORMAN Leading schools should pave the way in enriching humanistic education for engineering students.

26

SPECIAL REPORT: DIGITAL TYPOGRAPHY


BY CAROLINE CHAUNCEY Better typography for video screens and computer printers will make reading easier and faster and enhance in-house publishing efforts.

32
44

UNIVERSITIES, PROFESSORS, AND PATENTS: A CONTINUING CONTROVERSY


BY CHARLES WEINER History shows that patenting by universities can often do more harm than good. COVER STORY:

44

THE MULTIPROCESSOR REVOLUTION: HARNESSING COMPUTERS TOGETHER


BY MICHAEL L. DERTOUZOS These new computing machines could not only be much faster and cheaper but could achieve elusive goals of artificial intelligence.

58

THE HIDDEN LIABILITY OF HAZARDOUSWASTE CLEANUP


BY GORDON F. BLOOM New regulations on the disposal and cleanup of hazardous waste promise far-reaching effects on American business.

TechnologyReview
PUBU HER

FIRST LINE

William

J. Hecht

EDITOR-IN-CHJEF John I. Martill MANAGING EDITOR

Learning from Controversy

Jonathan Schiefer
DESIGN DIRECTOR ancy L. Cahners DESIGN/ PRODUCTION MANAGER

Kathleen B. Sayre
SENIOR EDITORS

Alison Bass Sandra Hackman Sandra Knight Susan Lewis


ASSISTANT PRODUCTION MANAGER

Elizabeth Fullon
PRODUCTIO IEDIToiuAI. ASSISTANT

Valerie Kiviar
ASSISTANT TO THE EDITORS

Lori

oller

BUSINESS MANAGER

Peter D. Gellatly
CIRCULA TIO DIRECTOR

Julie Zuckman
SUBSCRJ1YllON SERVICE MANAGER

Dorothy R. Finnerry
CIRCULA nONI ADVERTISING AS (STANT

Linda E. Brennan
ADVISORY BOARD

Edward T. Thompson Chairman O. Reid Ashe Viewdata Corp. of America William Bennett Harvard Medical School Health Letter Claude W. Brenner Commonwealth Energy Group, Ltd. Robert C. Cowen The Christian Science Monitor Edwin Diamond Dept. of Journalism, N. Y. U. David E. Gushee Congressional Research Service Fred Jerome Scientists' Institute for Public Information Victor K. McElheny Vannevar Bush Fellowships, M.J.T. Louis Menand III Dept. of Political Science, M.l.T. Emma Rothschild Program in Science, Technology, and Society, M.I.T. Lester C. Thurow Sloan School of Management, M.I.T. Frank Urbanowski The M.I.T. Press

roo often think of engineering as a profession that exploits predictable materials and mechanics and so deals little if at all with ambiguity and uncertainty. Indeed, many engineers cherish such an understandable, apparently infallible world. But engineering is not so simple. A their projects become more complex, engineers are realizing that they can only hypothesize about the behavior of interlocking ysterns. The effects of new technology and especially of new sy tems simply cannot be foreseen when they are in their first, mo t primitive forms. And questions about social impact bring ambiguity to most engineering decisions. This and the preceding issue of Technology Review clearly demonstrate the uncertainties in complex systems and in the interface between society and technology. In our cover story in January, Professors Hubert and Stuart Dreyfus wrote that "artificial intelligence has failed to live up to its promise, and there i no evidence that it ever will." But in this issue Professor Michael Dertouzos argues that multiprocessors-devices with which the Dreyfus brothers are thoroughly familiar-may enable us to realize "some of our most romantic and ambitious aspirations" for computers-machines that will "recognize image, understand speech, and behave more intelligently." AI 0 in our January issue, Professor Vera Kistiakow ky argued that university communities should eschew research related to the Reagan administration's Strategic Defense Initiative-the controversial Star Wars program. In this issue Professor Jack Ruina argues with equal fervor against eliminating SDI-related research from the academic environment.

Some of the differences in these points of view are more apparent than real. The Dreyfus brothers, for example, argued that it is futile to seek "thinking machines" that will emulate the human mind because the mind often responds intuitively rather than following cookbook rules; it often relies on holistic recognition of images rather than sequential logic; and it brings a world of experience to bear on even the simplest daily decisions. Who can conceive of machines that can do these things? Dertouzos acknowledges many of these point. "Con ider the cerebellum, where over a trillion cells share the complex task of higher-level thinking in yet unknown way," he writes. "What arrogant reasoning led us to believe that a single processor capable of only a few million instructions per econd could ever exhibit intelligence?" But he believes that thousands or millions of processors, working concurrently, just might. Kistiakowsky and Ruina agree about the SDI technology itself; neither thinks Star Wars will be militarily fruitful. But they disagree on the social impact of this research effort on the university. Kisriakowsky believe it will distort academic priorities; Ruina believes that concerted faculty oppo ition to any arena of research will itself impair academic freedom. Both these issues, we think, are examples of how soundly argued controversy can provide enlightenment for participants and observers alike. M.LT. President Paul E. Gray note that the national debate on SDI has been "invigorated and illuminated by discussion and reflection within the universities." That spirit of constructive controversy motivates much of what appears in our pages, too. -John Mattill

FEBRUARYfMARCH

1986

LETTERS

Asteroids, Computerized Walking


ASTEROIDS AND NUCLEARWAR

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In "The Bombarded Earth" Uuly, page 64), Eugene F. Mallove say that asteroid bombardment differs from nuclear warfare largely because the former is inevitable. Based on just this one criterion, asteroids win 1-0 as the bigger threat. Popular conclusion: forget nuclear war. In fact, I estimate that the odds of nuclear war are more than 1 percent per year, while the likelihood that an asteroid will collide with the Earth and do equal damage is about 1 percent per hundred years. Moreover, nuclear war entails dangers the public has not been encouraged to appreciate. For example, the press compared the eruption of Mount St. Helens with the "equivalent" explosion of H-bombs, disregarding the insidious nature of lethal fallout. On a more cheerful note, writers of scif storie and comic strips have speculated that the United States and the Soviet Union might use their large missiles cooperatively to eliminate dangerous asteroids. Defending ourselves against an asteroid is no doubt several orders of magnitude easier than defending against a full-scale nuclear attack, and if it requires most of the 15,000 or so warheads of both sides, so much the better. Having at last learned the benefits of U.S.-Soviet cooperation, we could simply destroy the rest of the weapons-or, better still, dilute their highly enriched fissile material for use as fuel in nuclear power plants. (This would allow us to produce 5 trillion kilowatts of power, or several hundred billion dollars' worth of electricity, according to a detailed proposal by Westinghouse.) Hoping for an asteroid to save us from ourselves seems crazy, but it may not be in this crazy world.
ALAN F. KAY

per hundred years. According to the numbers I have seen, it is likely to be far less than that. In any ca e, direct comparison of nuclear war and asteroid impact is difficult at best. My point i that both nuclear war and asteroid impact are seriou hazards. Society needs to attend to both of them, though it i obviou ly much more urgent to prevent nuclear war. Yet we can't ignore Eugene Shoemaker's claim that there is a 40 percent chance that another Tunguska-like event will occur within the next 75 years. A lot of people may be hit-and soon! One more point: we don't need nuclear weapons to deflect an asteroid if its trajectory is known early enough-say 10 to 15 years before impact. Conventional explosives or rockets will suffice. Also, I'm sure that some eager military strategists have noticed how convenient it would be to have a properly sized cosmic chunk come down on Moscow or Wa hington. Fortunately, it would be difficult to sneak away from Earth unnoticed to divert an asteroid to do just that.
USING ELECTRONICS HELP PEOPLE WALK

TO

Winchester, Mass. The author responds: I don't believe my article could lead most people to conclude that asteroids are more dangerous and important than nuclear war. Nor do I agree that press coverage of the Mount St. Helens eruption may have lulled the public into a false sense of security. The public, I think, instinctively knows about the hazards of radioactive fallout, even if it doesn't know the details. Also, it is not true that the chance that an asteroid impact will create damage equal to that from nuclear war is 1 percent
ILLUSTRATION: PAUL MOCK

Four years ago, most people considered computerized walking "impossible," even though, as Michael J. Rosen admits, it had been going on in the laboratory for a long time. (See "The Nan Davis Story: A Trail of False Hopes," july, page 60.) Ironically, there wasn't much concern about correcting the public's rnisimpressions about the progress of such research until the public became hopeful. Researchers say they are worried about false claims. But I suspect their real fear i that the public might begin to ask what other "impossibilities" have been possible all along. Embarrassing question are already surfacing about why tax dollars spent on re earch aren't producing much for human benefit besides employment for scientists. Also, if, as Rosen suggests, Jerrold Petrofsky cultivated the media, he probably did so to garner more funding. Many of Petrofsky's critics might secretly regret not having come up with the idea themselves. ADELE TANNER Amherst, Mass. Adele Tanner is president of the western Massachusetts chapter of the Spinal Cord Society. Continued on page 68

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TECHNOLOGY REVIEW 5

ROBERT C. COWEN

Time far Chemists to pun Their Heads from the Sand


chemists of the United State have peered into a (synthetic) crystal ball and glimpsed a bright future. Give them more money and tools for basic research and they promise to produce more food, better medicines, cleaner environments, and wondrous new materials. A National Academy of Sciences (NAS) report, commissioned to take a comprehensive look at the state of U.S. chemistry for the first time in 25 years. spells all this out in detail. Editorializing in Science, E.G. Jefferson, chairman of the board of Du Pont, calls the report "an impressive 350-page catalog of gifts to society that the chemical sciences can provide if we will just fill out our national order blank." I wonder if the public sees it thar way. While Science ran Jefferson's editorial under the headline "America's Ultimate Christmas Catalog," today's newspaper headlines reflect a very different perception of chemistry's role in society. "Problems at Chemical Plants Raise Broad Safety Concerns," proclaimed one. "U.S. Names 403 Toxic Chemicals That Pose Risk in Plant Accidents," another warned. A third headline reported that "Labels on Household Products Begin to Warn of Long- Term Health Threats." And recently, the American Chemical Society's weekly Chemical & Engineering News (C&EN) reported on an Environmental Protection Agency study that found that nearly 7,000 accidents involving toxic chemicals had killed 139 people and injured 1,478 over the preceding five years. Chemists bearing gifts aren't exactly welcome in American society these days. Yet you would scarcely realize it in thumbing through the NAS report, Opportunities in Chemistry. Nor would you realize the depth of public concern by the attendance at the ethics session sponsored by the American Chemical Society's Women Chemi ts Committee during the ACS national meeting last September in Chicago. Certainly the NAS study, led by George C. Pimental of Univer ity of California at Berkeley, is justified in the scientific prom-

HE

If chemists ignore
safety concerns, the chemical industry may
become as hamstrung as nuclear power.
ises it makes. These promises are based on detailed examination of the chemical sciences, which encompass chemical engineering, material sciences, and many aspects of biology and environmental science. U.S. policymakers generally should heed the study's advice that we beef up funding for research in these fields, especially at universities, to maintain leadership in the chemical sciences. We all can appreciate the study's point that the chemical industry-which ultimately depends on basic research-is a vital national resource, as it annually runs a $12 billion po itive international balance of trade. The Public's Overriding Fear However, the single overriding public concern regarding chemistry is safety and fear of being poisoned. This is where the Pimental report appears naive and somewhat confused about the public's priorities. It asserts that to understand and solve environmental problems involving chemicals, "our society must a sure the health of its chemistry enterprise." The re-

ROBERT C. COWE IS SCIENCE EDITOR OF THE CHRISTIAN SCIE CE MONITOR AND FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE NATIONAL ASSOCIATIO OF SCIENCE WRITERS.

port reflects an implicit assumption that, if only American society can be made to realize the benefits chemistry has to offer, the public will automatically boost its support of the field. The report also implies that while chemists have a responsibility to deal with issues of public concern, this responsibility is less important than their responsibility to perform scientific research. In a oneparagraph comment, it notes that the public is involved in choosing and implementing policies dealing with environmental risk and observes that "chemists ... have a secondary, but important, informational responsibility here." The report makes no mention of the moral and ethical responsibilities of individual scientists, despite increasing public concern about such matters. Louis Fernandez, chairman of Monsanto and immediate past chairman of the Chemical Manufacturers Association, seems to recognize this fact: "The big issue for the chemical industry is to gain public confidence that it is acting responsibly and that it isn't putting dollars and profit ahead of everything else, which is a common perception." If chemists do not effectively deal with the public's concern about the safety of their products, both chemical research and the chemical industry may become as hamstrung as the nuclear power industry. As Fernandez and other perceptive industry leaders realize, this danger supersedes all other issues in the field today. Yet insensitivity to the magnitude of the problem seems to be widespread among chemists. For example, the introduction to the NAS report justifiably proclaims that "there is no area of basic science that offer a more secure investment in the nation's future." It finds chemistry's progress to be "epitomized by the striking fact that the number of new compounds continues to increase at a rate faster than exponential." Yet many people are alarmed by that very fact; they wonder what new chemical horrors are being released daily into the environment. Moreover, the Pimental report expects a deficit-conscious Congress and administration to let the National Science Foundation "begin a three-year initiative to increase its support for chemistry by 25 percent a year," beginning in fiscal year 1987. The current level of support is about $150 million. The report also urges the Continued on page 14
ILLUSTRATION: ELIZABETH SLOTE

FEBRUARY/MARCH 1986