Tamás Roska (b. 1940) is co-inventor of the CNN Universal Machine, a host of cellular universal computers on a single chip (with L. O. Chua, 1992), and the analogic CNN Bionic Eye, a cellular universal computer inspired by the operation of the retina (with F. S. Werblin and L. O. Chua, 1993), both developed at the University of California at Berkeley. His career has been shaped by this research work, which combines biology, microelectronics, and computer engineering, at the cutting edge of the revolution in information technology. He divides his time between Budapest, where he is now head of the Jedlik Laboratories of the Information Technology Faculty of Pázmány Péter Catholic University, and Berkeley, Santa Clara, California and Notre Dame, Indiana. The following conversation took place at his university office in Budapest, and focuses on the relationship between education, knowledge and research.
GyK: Pázmány Péter is the oldest Hungarian University with a continuous history, where the pioneer of computing theory and builder of the first fully stored programmable computer, János (John von) Neumann received his doctoral degree in mathematics. What connects János Neumann, yourself and your faculty as part of an ancient Catholic University?
TR: From 1635, when the Archbishop of Esztergom Péter Pázmány established the University, until 1950, this was the major university in Hungary. First it was run by the Jesuits, and in the late 18th century it became the Royal University. After the First World War it was named Péter Pázmány University of Science. After the Communist takeover in 1950 the university was split into three parts: the Semmelweis Medical School; the tiny school maintained by the Roman Catholic Church, which retained the name Pázmány, teaching theology and philosophy; and the rest, which was re-named Eötvös Loránd University. In 1992 after the regime change, Pázmány became a full-fledged university once more, run by the Catholic Church. But we often work closely with various faculties of Eötvös and other Hungarian universities, especially with Semmelweis University of Medicine in the field of bionics. So there is a broadening intellectual collaboration in many fields among the three successors of the historical Pázmány University, the destruction of which one can take as a metaphor, for the way in which ideology ruptured our intellectual life between 1948 and 1990.
GyK: How could Pázmány be restored as a full university so soon after the peaceful revolution of 1989–90?
TR: A will and a vision emerged immediately after the changes, in a very humble setting. On New Year’s Day, 1990, not far from here, in a tiny parish priest’s home, a professor of canon law, Péter Erdő sat down with a few of us. We dreamt about how to re-establish the good old Pázmány University by extending it again to those fields from which it had been banned by ideological policing. The foundation of new faculties of information technology, and electronic and computer engineering was not an issue – but to expand into the fields of law as well as the humanities did meet resistance initially. In the aftershock of the peaceful revolution, the almost hegemonic Marxist mentality which dominated Hungarian humanities faculties and scholarship naturally resisted our intention to broaden our focus into those fields. But we held to our dream of introducing a new openness in intellectual thinking, and return to the roots at the Pázmány University in modern forms, and we finally prevailed. It is really remarkable that our University with over 8,000 students is a research university, with one of the broadest scientific spectrums. It has several doctoral schools in nine scientific branches, including science, technology, humanities, social sciences and theology. It is the only Hungarian member of the International Research University Network (IRUN) in Europe.
GyK: From your vantage point as a renowned researcher and Dean of the Faculty of Information Technology, how do you see the uses and abuses of the internet? What is the so-called digital divide? How should the internet be used, and what can go wrong?
TR: The internet is definitely shaping our way of thinking, our way of behaving, our way of knowing. And my experience in the field of science and technology and university education is that those who know more can efficiently use the internet to accelerate their acquisition of knowledge. While those who are not stupid but are just illiterate, become more and more illiterate. Why? Because if you just search for anything on the internet, let’s say on Google, you will get a thousand answers, or a hundred thousand answers. How many of those will you actually read? Maybe the first five. But what are those first five? A colleague of mine tested this, and asked the same question on Google, Yahoo and others. Only 30 per cent of the answers were identical, in the first twenty or so places. Why? Because the order of the answers can be easily manipulated by external means. It does not follow an order of relevance.
The key point here is that if you don’t know what to ask, or where to ask it from, the answer you receive may be completely misleading. If your level of abstraction is very low, you cannot ask essential questions, because you are just asking about the phenomenon, and not the essence.
The German philosopher Max Scheler characterized philosophy as the “love of essence”. And the “love of essence” means that we need a certain level of abstraction in different fields to understand broader relationships. Otherwise we are always dragged along on the examples. Another way of gaining essential knowledge is via cathartic encounters with art, like a poem, a drama, a piano sonata, a painting.
There is a phrase in common parlance in the US – “the digital divide” – which usually means the gap between young people who can use computers, and older people who cannot. But that is a misleading notion. The real point is that the internet is making the knowledgeable people more knowledgeable, and the illiterate ones more illiterate.
GyK: So there is a digital divide, but it works in a different way?
TR: Exactly. So this is one issue.
GyK: That suggests to me that the teaching of how to use the internet is either not there, or is failing?
TR: The use of the internet and mobile phones and so on is so new, historically speaking, that most of us are just testing how to behave with them. For example, I gave a talk at the IBM Research Center many years ago, in 1974 when I was first at Berkeley. At that time the library at the Thomas Watson Research Center was a kind of temple of knowledge. Recently I returned there, and my host told me – look, I will show you the library today. We went in, and it was almost empty! And the following week it was reconstructed for a different purpose, because in science and technology now, when you really have to keep up with the latest results, you acquire your input from the internet. But I think that it is to keep necessary fundamental books in printed form.
GyK: Do you think that the basic books of humanity will all go onto the internet in the future, and we will have to discard books as a physical thing? Is an apple on the screen the same as the real thing?
TR: This is a fundamental issue. I think that books remain books. If you read the Kindle or the iPad in a book-like way, then you are reading the same kind of books. The major difference is in technology. What is the reason that until two or three years ago, all the available e-readers did not have any impact? The answer is very simple: because the resolution of the screen had not changed for the preceding 40 years. It was always 100 dots per inch. The slogan about “the paperless office” was the biggest cheat, because all of us were printing more and more and more. And why? Because that new resolution is a 600 or a thousand dots per inch. And for our eyes that resolution business was a huge problem. But then there came an innovation from Taiwan – the invention of e-paper – and based on that, Kindle and the other new e-book devices were developed, and suddenly you were able to read in a much nicer way. If you are reading a printed book that is not well produced – like most paperbacks – it’s not a nicer experience than reading on the Kindle now. It was a cultural change when a year ago the value of books sold by Amazon in Kindle form exceeded the value of those sold in printed form. But books remain books. You may prefer to read a more beautiful book on paper. Many New York Times bestsellers that are intellectually ridiculous cost about 20 dollars; however, you can buy on Kindle for less than $20 all the books of Chesterton. So nowadays wonderful books can be bought on Kindle for pennies.
GyK: Surely a lot depends on the people who select what books are turned into e-books. And where will our libraries be kept? Will the books which do not become e-books be discarded?
TR: The content is what matters. For me, a book, with capital letters, a BOOK depends on the contents.
GyK: Let’s say there was a great novel, written in 1999, which was not a success at the time, and no one talks about it. Only a few copies survive. No one brings it out as an e-book. Then 20 years from now, critics suddenly decide that this was the great book of the age. But it is not available anywhere as an e-book. It exists only in the memories of a few critics – what happens then?
TR: This is a major question. Technically speaking as well. If we consider that technical formats and materials that were made thirty years ago have gone, they practically no longer exist. I think print is necessary, not only for archival, but for many other reasons. Recently a friend showed me a couple of 13th century and 14th century books. They were amazingly beautiful for the eye as well. So I think until a more stable, electronic format is invented, paper is absolutely necessary.
GyK: If knowledge is only accessible on (computer) screens, will not our tactile sense be starved? Our brain researcher friends tell us that knowledge which comes to the brain also through touch is more valuable than something coming merely through the eyes.
TR: In the multimodal way of acquiring information, combining the visual, tactile and auditory senses, it is clear that these reinforce one another. But I do think that – and this is becoming more and more important – the key of success is to have enough quiet time and a healthy mix of meditation and action.
GyK: The Pázmány University of the 1910s and 1920s created the intellectual environment which nurtured János Neumann. Does Europe have any comparative advantage today in scientific education, considering that the primary interest in science today is in the United States, and not in Europe?
TR: The key intellectual ingredients which serve as the basis of a good scientific education, and where Europe may still have a comparative advantage, are the following. Number one: a broad philosophical, artistic and historical background, an overview of the Greek-Roman-Judaeo-Christian heritage, which implies an understanding of why modern science developed in the Mediterranean area. Sergio Marchionne, for example, was the saviour of Fiat, and now of Chrysler. His background was philosophy.
Secondly, the capacity for a high level of abstraction, including the quantitative sciences. And thirdly, moral integrity and self-discipline. So I think these are the three cornerstones on which success is founded for the researcher, even in today’s era of high technology. The institutional background for such an education and knowledge is a good high school and university culture as against the multiversity so aptly characterized in a book by Alasdair MacIntyre.
Another issue is the culture of discovery versus invention. Which should go hand in hand. This means that discovery is uncovering a truth that is at hand but concealed, like many laws in physics and theorems in mathematics. Invention is a new framework of thoughts or a construction of new tools and equipment. Examples include numerous engineering inventions, like the electric lamp, but also a new axiomatic system in mathematics or a new framework for computing.
GyK: And you are saying that today these are not hand in hand?
TR: I say that all these are classical intellectual values rooted in the culture of Europe, starting with the establishment of the idea of a University in the 11th century and the industrial revolution later on. They go hand in hand at the frontiers of technology, the area where I and my colleagues do research. Here, the last fifty years were the age of integrated-circuit based information technology, which had a profound influence in transforming our lives, partially via the internet and mobile communication and computing. The new era emerging now will be dominated by the bionics-based medical technologies and related life sciences and technologies. At these frontiers we need again the integrated synthetic view of many branches of knowledge, and we need students prepared in the classical gymnasium, as found in the first third of the 20th century in Hungary.
There are also serious intellectual problems elsewhere. Think of the problem of “one nation, two cultures” in the US, as discussed in the famous book of this title, by the noted American historian Gertrude Himmelfarb. We badly need knowledge, art, and moral integrity in a synthetic view.
Consider the opinion-based culture of the media, for example the hodge-podge of reporting about Hungary in the international press, so much conditioned still by a post-68 generation in the Western elites.
For success in science and elsewhere, you need a knowledge-and-moral-based culture.
GyK: It would surely require a revolution in schools and higher education?
TR: I am more and more of the firm view that in the development of children and young people, the six to eight years of high school (from 10 or 12 to 18 years of age) is the crucial intellectual period. In the US, I am sometimes asked why there are so many successful Hungarians in science, technology and arts. One of the first articles of the first issue of the new Millennium in Nature magazine even suggested that “20th century science was born in Budapest”. So I was asked why there was such a blossoming of scientific and artistic talents in such a small country in the first half of the 20th century. I think for two main reasons. The very high level of high school education, starting from the school reform of Baron József Eötvös, the writer and minister of education after 1867. And the second reason was the very high social prestige of being educated. Unfortunately, the introduction of the so-called lower level high school graduation requirements in Hungary, in about 2003, basically destroyed the literacy of young people for almost a decade. In mathematics, only three per cent of students chose to pass the higher level matriculation exam, in other words, until 2002 was called the “normal” level. This means that some students come to our Faculty with good high school marks in maths, who are unable to add two or three fractions together. If you are 18 years old and still unable to add fractions, then I fear you will never learn. Just as if you don’t learn poems by heart – at least a hundred was the norm when I was at school – then you will never learn poems later on. That means that your mindset will be dramatically different. And the name of the game is the mindset. As I see it, American high school education, on the whole, creates a major problem in the US in the field of high technology: that many outstanding research institutions are unable to fill the critical jobs with US citizens.
GyK: So you are saying that traditional education, here and presumably in other countries, actually laid a good foundation which would be appropriate for the so-called information age?
GyK: But just the opposite happened in recent educational reforms in Hungary. The downgrading of American high schools took place much earlier.
TR: This degradation of high school education has happened more recently in Europe. In Italy, Germany, France, and Britain, for example. One study showed that thirty per cent of people under thirty in Britain are now unable to do any job which requires a certain amount of reading, in order to understand what to do.
If one thinks back to those famous Hungarians, their high school education was excellent, and there was a sustaining culture, too. The father of Zoltán Kodály, the composer, worked as a station-master in provincial towns, and at home at the weekends played in a violin string quartet, and played his violin during the time between two trains. This is the kind of culture from which those creative geniuses, a Bartók or a Szilárd sprang. And not only Hungarians, also Poles during those years. And as a result Polish scientists were also more prominent in the US, than one might have expected from their proportion within the population. Thinking of these two countries, one might even add that difficult historical times actually help people in their development.
GyK: The solution you suggest is the formation of a sort of creative minority. How might this come about and how might it function?
TR: In science and technology the creative minority plays the most important role. In my field, at most of the excellent university departments, not more than 80–120 students are admitted in a year. Personal attention and later personal mentoring provides for the right intellectual environment for creative talents.
The basis is to have enough excellent high school graduates. I have heard it said that of 1,500 high schools in Hungary, 50 or 80 are still truly excellent. If the new law on education that has been recently passed by Parliament manages to reinstate the standard of excellence, that would be a real achievement. Education should not just be about making students feel happy in school. We need excellent high schools which foster talent from an early age. Another important point is that in the last twenty years in Hungary, as in other post-Communist countries, in a historically very short time, the number of students attending higher education increased about five times, from 8.5 per cent to over 40 per cent. This same process took maybe 40 to 50 years in Western Europe and beyond. This is in principle good. But it has created the problem of blurring the actual difference between the educational level of the technical or other colleges and universities. Mass education at universities, without increasing the number of professors, prevents research.
At Berkeley a professor doesn’t teach more than four or five lecture hours a week. But here in Hungary, especially in the last decade, the minimum grew to twelve hours. If you teach twelve hours a week, it is guaranteed that you will conduct no research.
GyK: Would it be fair to say that the Hungarian educational system, even during the Communist era, maintained the proportions and requirements of the old high school system and that the educational system remained of a quite high standard in areas of knowledge not distorted by ideological bias?
TR: Yes, and there are several reasons for that. Paradoxically, one of these was most noticeable in the Soviet Union. In that harsh dictatorship, the realms of the sportsman, scientist or musician – not writer, because that was too dangerous – were safe havens. And this example was followed in the East Central European satellite states after World War II. Another reason for the continuing excellence of Hungarian schools was that the teachers of the 1950s and 1960s had received excellent training before the Second World War, and they also set a good example for younger professors and students. The deterioration of teaching standards in the 1980s and 1990s was not caused by the system change, but simply by the gradual disappearance of these role models, these older professors. The new generations became mainly counterselected, as we say – they saw fewer and fewer role models.
GyK: You speak fondly of the traditional Hungarian educational system. My criticism of the same system as a parent is that it does not teach critical thinking. I miss an element of subversion, of being given good marks for questioning or challenging what we are taught.
TR: I think what is missing in our educational tradition is the so-called self-made project. Yet in the very best schools these self-educating circles did exist, this challenging spirit that you speak of was there, but this is what was lost during the Communist era.
GyK: The Hungarian school originally was different from the Prussian school. The problem was that asking questions became more and more dangerous during the Communist era, whereas some virtues of the previous schools survived. There was a spirit of intimidation, and of course just as in society at large, it led to submission, to losing the ability to question things. Rebelling instinctively but not having the ability to question intellectually. To take your analogy of an oasis, an oasis only has a limited effect on the rest of the desert. It is obviously of great value to those crossing the desert, as a place to drink. But how can the oasis – in this case, a creative minority – help to make the desert blossom?
TR: In my field it is my observation that creative ideas come from this kind of intellectual oasis and then they spread from there very fast. We are at the end of 40–50 years of CMOS (complementary metal oxide semi-conductor) technology. In eight or nine years time, when we shrink the smallest sizes in transistors to 9 nanometers, there will be physically no further way of miniaturization with this technology. What will happen then?
In digital logic, in our microprocessors and memories, the elements are switches based on tiny transistors. This is an industrial marvel, this scaling down of the sizes of transistors without increasing the cost of a chip, hence increasing exponentially the computing power. But this is coming to an end after forty years. And what will the technology be after that – of course combined with CMOS?
Just last week, I was in Santa Clara, California, working in such an international intellectual oasis, on an INTEL proposed new feasibility study on this new challenge of future computing architectures. Eight of us were invited from Academia worldwide. This group with INTEL researchers together was an intense interaction. But we need some reflection, too. As Thomas Merton said, contemplation is a world of action. Some insights only grow out of the ability and opportunity of contemplation.
GyK: What stands behind the excellence of Japanese or Indian or Korean researchers?
TR: Nowadays in India, in Taiwan, in the Far East, Singapore, South Korea, they are as good in any specific field of science and technology as the rest of the world, and work more and earn much less. So, in that respect, there is no comparative advantage for Europe any more, it’s clear. And no advantage compared with the US, because the best minds who feel they cannot develop their talent at home, in Bangladesh or wherever, go to California to make their fortune. And even if one tiny percentage will do that – they have this ongoing talent flow.
GyK: And in what direction does this talent flow in research now, as you see it in Berkeley and elsewhere in the US?
TR: As I said, we are at the threshold of a major change. At the moment we have the integrated circuit based information technology, which has been the dominant force in the economy, in the military, in everyday life, shaping our modern world. I think the next wave of the scientific and technological revolution is at the crossroads of electronics, computing and the bio sciences, which we call bionics. And here emerges an intellectual convergence, of the life sciences, engineering sciences and physical sciences. A new way of thinking where complexity and multidisciplinarity become important. And in that way of thinking, independently of where you are doing that in the world, the traditional synergistic culture of science, based on a broad understanding and various ideas, might play a key role.
In a broader context I might quote Fang Li-Zhi, a noted Chinese astronomer, who played a role in the 1989 protests in Beijing, at Tiananmen Square. When the students’ movement was crushed, he took refuge in the US embassy, and finally was allowed out to England and then to the US. He wrote a very interesting essay, saying that those people who were educated in a Western culture, based on this Judaeo-Greek-Christian way of thinking, are not aware of their implicit knowledge of the universe. Namely, that the world is a rational creation, that man can understand the laws of nature and subdue its forces, that laws are universal. These are unconscious suppositions that led to the fact that modern science (as well as the institution of the university) was made in Europe. He gives some interesting examples. A Chinese physicist made exactly the same experiment as Galileo but a couple of hundred years earlier. But for him it was a case study, unrelated to a system of universal laws, while for Galileo it was the discovery of a universal new law in the universe.
So the education system in the European Union, the traditional mindset and values, the intellectual and spiritual values, seems foolish – like shooting ourselves in the foot.
GyK: As a man of science and technology working at a Catholic University, how do you reconcile modern science and technology and faith in God?
TR: Almost fourteen years ago, in the summer of 1998 I was approached to organize this new college of information technology in Budapest.
It was clear for me what to do and teach and research in our technical fields, and what would be the focus of our novelty. The latter was the inclusion of biology (first neuroscience) in the curriculum and research.
But I realized that it was also crucial to define our moral and spiritual axioms. The rest is thinking and the belief that truth can be found. So what are these crucial axioms or beliefs? Number one is our understanding of man. Actually, the essence of the UN Declaration of Human Rights. The respect for the human dignity of each person, and the defence of life from conception to death. Second, respect for the family and marriage; and thirdly, respect for the freedom of conscience – respecting the views of groups that hold something sacred, within the limits of peace and justice. So these three axioms respecting human dignity, family and marriage, and the freedom of conscience of each human person – and the rest is science.
In addition, something which we cannot either force nor teach too much, but simply show: the rest is a kind of gift, or a kind of understanding, a kind of unexplainable understanding – the gift of the Gospel. But that is a personal gift, which can be humbly accepted and advised or shown to our colleagues, our friends, and our students.
GyK: Which implies a willingness for you as a scientist to accept and even enjoy the unexplainable?
TR: That’s a key word – the unexplainable! and still reasonable! What is reasonable? I am now teaching a new course with a colleague, a mathematician, our Dean Judit Nyéky-Gaizler. A new course on the foundations of computing and programming. I am teaching the computing part. And a key scientist logician is Kurt Gödel. John Neumann and Albert Einstein once wrote the director of Princeton’s Institute of Advanced Study a dramatic letter, asking that the permanent position be given to Gödel. They described Gödel as the greatest logician since Aristotle. In 1930 he refuted a hypothesis all scientists at that time held to be true and proven: the hypothesis that all statements can be proved. At a conference in 1930, Kurt Gödel showed that in every axiomatic system there is at least one statement about which in principle it is impossible to show whether it is true or not – it is undecidable. This was so contrary to the way of thinking of all those famous mathematicians and logicians, that apart from John Neumann no one paid attention to it. Neumann told him he had made a historical discovery. So this Gödel theorem is a turn in the logical way of thinking, which shows that there are undecidable propositions. And not because we are not smart enough. And this is not a defeat; it is the greatest strength of the human intellect that we can prove the limits of our thinking. This was the way in which mathematics became a mature science. Physics likewise, with Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle and some other laws. The students understand this, as a new way of thinking about knowing.
To put it in another way, there are true statements even in logic that in principle cannot be proven.
GyK: You have talked about your European cultural background in a way that seems to suggest that it offers to European researchers, in Europe too, a comparative advantage. But then there is the Indian researcher in India, the Chinese researcher in Taiwan versus the Indian or Chinese researcher working in the US. In what manner do the Indian and Chinese cultural heritages help them in their scientific research?
TR: I can only speak of my personal experience. There is my good friend in Berkeley, Professor Chua, with whom we have worked on the developing of the new cellular computer. He is Chinese in his culture – he was born to a Chinese family in the Philippines, then at eighteen he left for the US to study there, while his cultural orientation is classical European – all the music he listens to, many of the great books. And he is not the only Chinese researcher with this synergy whom I met.
GyK: And classical Chinese painting, or Confucian and Taoist thinking, do you see that heritage helping them?
TR: It is certainly there – but he listens to Mozart, Verdi or Beethoven when meditating on new ideas. Therefore Europe does not have too much time to capitalize on its cultural advantage (unless with an abrupt turn toward a more efficient research policy). Because the US can boast of most of the real centres of excellence – like Berkeley, INTEL, the University of Notre Dame in the field of nanotechnology – and their most promising researchers, like my doctoral students at Berkeley, do make the best use of our entire cultural heritage. They come from all parts of the world, and they work in this synergy.