Pearls of Wisdom from Martin Hellman – 2015 ACM A.M. Turing Award Laureate
Interview conducted and edited by Wylder Green of the HLFF Communications Team.
How did you become familiar with the HLF?
When I won the ACM A.M. Turing Award this year, I was automatically invited to the HLF.
What does the ACM A.M. Turing Award mean to you?
It came at a fantastic time. I worked in cryptography forty years ago and I still keep a hand in it, but it hasn’t been my primary interest for thirty-five years. About thirty-five years ago my primary interest shifted to the bigger issues in the world, helping to increase the probability that someone will be around in fifty or a hundred years to use the algorithms for which we [Whitfield Diffie and Martin Hellman] won the award. Human beings are getting very powerful through technology, with nuclear weapons being the most obvious example. But even cyber security — or rather cyber insecurity — could become an existential threat as we connect our electrical grid to the Internet. Technology has given us what has historically been thought of as god-like physical power, and yet if I ask how close to ‘god-like’ our maturity level is as species, people laugh. The real problem isn’t nuclear weapons or cyber insecurity, but the chasm between our god-like physical power through technology and our, at best, irresponsible adolescent maturity level as a species. — So, that’s what I’ve been devoting myself to over the last thirty-five years.
My wife Dorothie and I are writing a book that takes a totally new approach to bridging that chasm, and the award came along at just the right time, because a) it gives us half a million dollars to spend on those issues, particularly publicizing the book, and b) it gives us a lot of publicity connected with the (ACM A.M.) Turing Award.
What sort of ways do you feel that we could mature ourselves?
I think the most critical one is to recognize that we are not immortal as species. Humanity will have a finite lifetime and the question is, ‘Will we suffer infant mortality?’ If someone dies in their eighties or nineties, it’s sad but not a tragedy. Whereas, if a child dies at age five or six, that’s a tragedy. Measured in “species years”, the human race is probably not even five or six, so dying at this point in time would be a real tragedy. So, the most critical step in maturing is to face the reality that the human race is not immortal, that there are real risks, such as a failure of nuclear deterrence. It can’t work perfectly forever, so how long can we expect it to work? Even if its mean time to failure were 500 years, which seems optimistic, that would be equivalent to playing Russian roulette with the life of a newborn child since his or her expected lifetime is roughly one-sixth of that.
That’s another key problem we need to face: we don’t see ourselves very honestly, at either a personal or national level.
Why did your interest shift from cryptography to human survival?
My initial motivation was not to save the world. Rather, it was a desire to save my marriage. We got married in ’67, so when we started this process in 1980 we had been married thirteen years and we’d done a good job of messing it up — although we didn’t know it at the time because we were too busy doing other things. When we finally took time, starting in 1980, to look at our relationship, we realized it was in deep trouble. — It took different kinds of help at different points in time, but we transformed an almost failed marriage to one where we haven’t had a single fight or argument in 10 or 15 years. I didn’t think that was possible by the way. I have to credit Dorothie with the vision. Her sensitivity to conflict, which initially drove me crazy, also played a key role in achieving that goal. Now I treasure it.
In some ways the transformation process was very logical in that we had to examine the assumptions that underlie our world view. One assumption I had was that you didn’t have to work at being the best person you can be, you didn’t have to work at being a loving person. But the reality is it takes a lot of hard work. — The things that we had to learn to transform our marriage in that dramatic way are the same things that the nations of the world need to learn to solve the environmental threats that they face and to stop getting into needless wars, each of which entails needless nuclear risk. —One reason that we combined resolving interpersonal and international conflicts is that working on both at the same time actually accelerated both efforts.