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TED2010

George Whitesides: Toward a science of simplicity

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Simplicity: We know it when we see it -- but what is it, exactly? In this funny, philosophical talk, George Whitesides chisels out an answer.

- Chemist
In his legendary career in chemistry, George Whitesides has been a pioneer in microfabrication and nanoscale self-assembly. Now, he's fabbing a diagnostic lab on a chip. Full bio

Most of the talks
00:18
that you've heard in the last several fabulous days
00:20
have been from people who have the characteristic
00:23
that they have thought about something,
00:25
they are experts, they know what's going on.
00:27
All of you know about the topic
00:31
that I'm supposed to talk about.
00:33
That is, you know what simplicity is,
00:35
you know what complexity is.
00:37
The trouble is, I don't.
00:39
And what I'm going to do is share with you
00:41
my ignorance on this subject.
00:43
I want you to read this,
00:46
because we're going to come back to it in a moment.
00:48
The quote is from
00:53
the fabled Potter Stewart
00:55
opinion on pornography.
00:59
And let me just read it,
01:02
the important details here:
01:04
"Shorthand description, ['hardcore pornography'];
01:06
and perhaps I could never succeed in intelligibly defining it.
01:09
But I know it when I see it."
01:12
I'm going to come back to that in a moment.
01:14
So, what is simplicity?
01:17
It's good to start with some examples.
01:19
A coffee cup -- we don't think about coffee cups,
01:22
but it's much more interesting than one might think --
01:25
a coffee cup is a device,
01:27
which has a container and a handle.
01:30
The handle enables you to hold it
01:33
when the container is filled with hot liquid.
01:36
Why is that important?
01:39
Well, it enables you to drink coffee.
01:41
But also, by the way, the coffee is hot,
01:43
the liquid is sterile;
01:45
you're not likely to get cholera that way.
01:47
So the coffee cup, or the cup with a handle,
01:49
is one of the tools used by society
01:52
to maintain public health.
01:55
Scissors are your clothes,
01:57
glasses enable you to see things
01:59
and keep you from being eaten by cheetahs
02:01
or run down by automobiles,
02:03
and books are, after all, your education.
02:05
But there's another class of simple things,
02:08
which are also very important.
02:10
Simple in function,
02:12
but not at all simple in how they're constructed.
02:14
And the two here are just examples.
02:17
One is the cellphone, which we use every day.
02:20
And it rests on a complexity,
02:23
which has some characteristics
02:25
very different from those that my friend
02:27
Benoit Mandelbrot discussed,
02:29
but are very interesting.
02:31
And the other, of course, is a birth control pill,
02:33
which, in a very simple way,
02:36
fundamentally changed the structure of society
02:38
by changing the role of women in it
02:40
by providing to them
02:43
the opportunity to make reproductive choices.
02:45
So, there are two ways of thinking about this word, I think.
02:50
And here I've corrupted
02:53
the Potter Stewart quotation
02:55
by saying that we can think about something --
02:58
which spans all the way from scissors
03:00
to the cell phone,
03:02
Internet and birth control pills --
03:04
by saying that they're simple,
03:06
the functions are simple,
03:09
and we recognize what that simplicity is
03:11
when we see it.
03:13
Or there may be another way of doing it,
03:15
which is to think about the problem in terms of what --
03:19
if you associate with moral philosophers --
03:22
is called the teapot problem.
03:25
The teapot problem I'll pose this way.
03:29
Suppose you see a teapot,
03:32
and the teapot is
03:34
filled with hot water.
03:37
And you then ask the question:
03:39
Why is the water hot?
03:41
And that's a simple question.
03:43
It's like, what is simplicity?
03:45
One answer would be:
03:47
because the kinetic energy of the water molecules is high
03:49
and they bounce against things rapidly --
03:51
that's a kind of physical science argument.
03:53
A second argument would be:
03:56
because it was sitting on a stove with the flame on --
03:58
that's an historical argument.
04:01
A third is that I wanted hot water
04:03
for tea --
04:05
that's an intentional argument.
04:07
And, since this is coming from a moral philosopher,
04:09
the fourth would be that it's part of God's plan for the universe.
04:11
All of these are possibilities.
04:14
The point is that you get into trouble
04:16
when you ask a single question
04:19
with a single box for an answer,
04:21
in which that single question actually is many questions
04:23
with quite different meanings,
04:26
but with the same words.
04:28
Asking, "What is simplicity?" I think falls in that category.
04:31
What is the state of science?
04:35
And, interestingly, complexity
04:37
is very highly evolved.
04:39
We have a lot of interesting information
04:41
about what complexity is.
04:43
Simplicity, for reasons
04:45
that are a little bit obscure,
04:47
is almost not pursued,
04:49
at least in the academic world.
04:51
We academics -- I am an academic --
04:53
we love complexity.
04:55
You can write papers about complexity,
04:57
and the nice thing about complexity is
04:59
it's fundamentally intractable in many ways,
05:01
so you're not responsible for outcomes. (Laughter)
05:03
Simplicity -- all of you really would like
05:06
your Waring Blender in the morning
05:09
to make whatever a Waring Blender does,
05:11
but not explode or play Beethoven.
05:13
You're not interested in the limits of these things.
05:16
So what one is interested in
05:19
has a lot to do with the rewards of the system.
05:21
And there's a lot of rewards in thinking
05:24
about complexity and emergence,
05:26
not so much in thinking about simplicity.
05:28
One of the things I want to do
05:31
is to help you with a very important task --
05:33
which you may not know that you have very often --
05:36
which is to understand
05:39
how to sit next to a physicist at a dinner party
05:41
and have a conversation. (Laughter)
05:44
And the words that I would like you to focus on
05:46
are complexity and emergence,
05:49
because these will enable you to start the conversation
05:51
and then daydream about other things.
05:54
(Laughter)
05:56
All right, what is complexity in this view of things,
05:59
and what is emergence?
06:02
We have, actually, a pretty good working definition of complexity.
06:04
It is a system, like traffic,
06:07
which has components.
06:09
The components interact with one another.
06:11
These are cars and drivers. They dissipate energy.
06:13
It turns out that, whenever you have that system,
06:16
weird stuff happens,
06:18
and you in Los Angeles
06:20
probably know this better than anyone.
06:22
Here's another example,
06:25
which I put up because
06:27
it's an example of really important current science.
06:29
You can't possibly read that. It's not intended that you read it,
06:32
but that's a tiny part
06:35
of the chemical reactions going on
06:37
in each of your cells at any given moment.
06:39
And it's like the traffic that you see.
06:42
The amazing thing about the cell is that
06:45
it actually does maintain a fairly stable
06:47
working relationship with other cells,
06:49
but we don't know why.
06:52
Anyone who tells you that we understand life,
06:54
walk away.
06:56
And let me reduce this to the simplest level.
06:59
We've heard from Bill Gates recently.
07:02
All of us, to some extent, study
07:04
this thing called a Bill Gates.
07:06
Terrific. You learn everything you can about that.
07:08
And then there's another kind of thing that you might study,
07:10
and you study that hard.
07:13
That's a Bono, this is a Bono.
07:15
But then, if you know everything you can know about those two things,
07:17
and you put them together,
07:20
what can you say about this combination?
07:22
The answer is, not a lot.
07:24
And that's complexity.
07:26
Now, imagine building that up to a city, or to a society,
07:28
and you've got, obviously, an interesting problem.
07:31
All right, so let me give you an example
07:34
of simplicity
07:37
of a particular kind.
07:39
And I want to introduce a word
07:41
that I think is very useful,
07:43
which is stacking.
07:45
And I'm going to use stacking for a kind of simplicity
07:47
that has the characteristic
07:50
that it is so simple
07:52
and so reliable
07:54
that I can build things with it.
07:56
Or I'm going to use simple to mean
07:58
reliable, predictable, repeatable.
08:00
And I'm going to use as an example the Internet,
08:05
because it's a particularly good example
08:07
of stacked simplicity.
08:09
We call it a complex system, which it is,
08:12
but it's also something else.
08:14
The Internet starts with mathematics,
08:17
it starts with binary.
08:20
And if you look at the list of things on the bottom,
08:22
we are familiar with the Arabic numbers
08:25
one to 10 and so on.
08:27
In binary, one is 0001,
08:29
seven is 0111.
08:32
The question is: Why is binary
08:35
simpler than Arabic?
08:37
And the answer is, simply,
08:39
that if I hold up three fingers, you can count that easily,
08:41
but if I hold up this,
08:44
it's sort of hard to say that I just did seven.
08:46
The virtue of binary is that it's the simplest possible way
08:48
of representing numbers.
08:51
Anything else is more complicated.
08:53
You can catch errors with it,
08:55
it's unambiguous in its reading,
08:57
there are lots of good things about binary.
08:59
So it is very, very simple
09:01
once you learn how to read it.
09:03
Now, if you like to represent
09:05
this zero and one of binary,
09:07
you need a device.
09:09
And think of things in your life
09:11
that are binary,
09:13
one of them is light switches.
09:15
They can be on and off. That's binary.
09:17
Now wall switches, we all know, fail.
09:19
But our friends who are condensed matter physicists
09:23
managed to come up, some 50 years ago,
09:25
with a very nice device, shown under that bell jar,
09:28
which is a transistor.
09:31
A transistor is nothing more than a wall switch.
09:33
It turns things on and off,
09:35
but it does so without moving parts
09:37
and it doesn't fail, basically, for a very long period of time.
09:39
So the second layer of simplicity
09:42
was the transistor in the Internet.
09:45
So, since the transistor is so simple,
09:48
you can put lots of them together.
09:51
And you put lots of them together and you come with
09:53
something called integrated circuits.
09:55
And a current integrated circuit
09:57
might have in each one of these chips
09:59
something like a billion transistors,
10:01
all of which have to work perfectly every time.
10:03
So that's the next layer of simplicity,
10:06
and, in fact, integrated circuits
10:09
are really simple in the sense that they,
10:11
in general, work really well.
10:13
With integrated circuits, you can build cellphones.
10:15
You all are accustomed to having your cellphones work
10:18
the large majority of the time.
10:21
In Boston ... Boston is a little bit like Namibia
10:23
in its cell phone coverage, (Laughter)
10:25
so that we're not accustomed to that all the time,
10:27
but some of the time.
10:29
But, in fact, if you have cell phones,
10:32
you can now go to this nice lady
10:34
who's somewhere like Namibia,
10:36
and who is extremely happy with the fact
10:38
that although she does not have
10:40
an master's degree in
10:42
electrical engineering from MIT,
10:44
she's nonetheless able to hack her cell phone
10:46
to get power in some funny way.
10:48
And from that comes the Internet.
10:51
And this is a map of bitflows across the continent.
10:53
The two blobs that are light in the middle there
10:56
are the United States and Europe.
10:59
And then back to simplicity again.
11:01
So here we have what I think is one of the great ideas,
11:04
which is Google.
11:07
Which, in this simple portal
11:09
makes the claim
11:11
that it makes accessible
11:13
all of the world's information.
11:15
But the point is that
11:17
that extraordinary simple idea
11:19
rests on layers of simplicity
11:22
each compounded into a complexity
11:25
that is itself simple,
11:27
in the sense that it is completely reliable.
11:29
All right, let me then finish off
11:33
with four general statements,
11:35
an example and two aphorisms.
11:39
The characteristics, which I think
11:42
are useful to think about for simple things:
11:44
First, they are predictable.
11:47
Their behavior is predictable.
11:51
Now, one of the nice characteristics
11:53
of simple things
11:55
is you know what it's going to do, in general.
11:57
So simplicity and predictability
11:59
are characteristics of simple things.
12:01
The second is, and this is a real world statement,
12:04
they're cheap.
12:07
If you have things that are cheap enough,
12:09
people will find uses for them,
12:11
even if they seem very primitive.
12:13
So, for example, stones.
12:15
You can build cathedrals out of stones,
12:17
you just have to know what it does.
12:20
You carve them in blocks and then you
12:22
pile them on top of one another,
12:24
and they support weight.
12:26
So there has to be function, the function has to be predictable
12:28
and the cost has to be low.
12:31
What that means is
12:33
that you have to have a high performance
12:35
or value for cost.
12:37
And then I would propose
12:41
as this last component
12:43
that they serve, or have the potential to serve,
12:45
as building blocks.
12:48
That is, you can stack them.
12:50
And stack can mean this way, or it can mean this way,
12:52
or it can mean in some arbitrary n-dimensional space.
12:55
But if you have something that has a function,
12:58
and it's really cheap,
13:00
people will find new ways of putting it together
13:02
to make new things.
13:04
Cheap, functional, reliable things
13:06
unleash the creativity of people
13:09
who then build stuff that you could not imagine.
13:11
There's no way of predicting the Internet
13:14
based on the first transistor.
13:17
It just is not possible.
13:19
So these are the components.
13:21
Now, the example
13:24
is something that I want to give you
13:26
from the work that we ourselves do.
13:28
We are very interested in
13:31
delivering health care in the developing world,
13:34
and one of the things that we wish to do in this particular business
13:37
is to find a way of doing medical diagnosis
13:40
at as close to zero cost
13:43
as we can manage.
13:45
So, how does one do that?
13:47
This is a world in which there's no electricity,
13:49
there's no money, there's no medical competence.
13:51
And I don't want to spend your time in going through the details,
13:54
but in the lower right-hand corner,
13:57
you see an example of the kind of thing that we have.
13:59
It's a little paper chip.
14:02
It has a few things printed on it
14:04
using the same technology
14:06
that you use for making comic books,
14:08
which was the inspiration for this particular idea.
14:10
And you put a drop, in this case, of urine at the bottom.
14:13
It wicks its way up into these little branches.
14:16
You know, no power required.
14:19
It turns colors. In this particular case,
14:21
you're reading kidney function.
14:23
And, since the health care worker
14:26
of much of this part of the world
14:29
is an 18 year-old with an AK-47,
14:31
who happens to be out of work and is willing
14:34
to go around and do this sort of thing,
14:36
he can take a picture of it with his cellphone,
14:38
send the picture back to where there is a doctor,
14:40
and the doctor can look at it.
14:42
So what you've done is to take a technology,
14:44
which is available everywhere,
14:47
make a device, which is extremely cheap,
14:49
and make it in such a fashion
14:52
that it is very, very reliable.
14:54
If we can pull this off,
14:56
if we can build more function,
14:58
it will be stackable.
15:00
That is to say, if we can make the basic technology
15:02
of one or two things work,
15:05
it will be applicable to a very, very
15:07
large variety of human conditions,
15:09
and hence, extendable in both
15:11
vertical and horizontal directions.
15:13
Part of my interest in this, I have to say,
15:16
is that I would like to -- how do I put this politely? --
15:18
change the way, or maybe eviscerate,
15:21
the capital structure of the U.S. health care system,
15:23
which I think is fundamentally broken.
15:26
So, let me close --
15:29
(Applause)
15:31
Let me close with my two aphorisms.
15:34
One of them is from Mr. Einstein,
15:36
and he says, "Everything should be made
15:38
as simple as possible, but not simpler."
15:40
And I think that's a very good way of thinking about the problem.
15:43
If you take too much out
15:46
of something that's simple, you lose function.
15:48
You have to have low cost,
15:50
but you also have to have a function.
15:52
So you can't make it too simple.
15:54
And the second is a design issue,
15:56
and it's not directly relevant, but it's a nice statement.
15:58
This is by de Saint-Exupery.
16:01
And he says, "You know you've achieved perfection in design,
16:04
not when you have nothing more to add,
16:07
but when you have nothing more to take away."
16:10
And that certainly is going in the right direction.
16:12
So, what I think one can begin to do
16:16
with this kind of
16:19
cut at the word simplicity,
16:22
which doesn't cover Brancusi,
16:24
it doesn't answer the question of
16:26
why Mondrian is better or worse
16:28
or simpler or less simpler than Van Gogh,
16:31
and certainly doesn't address the question
16:33
of whether Mozart is simpler than Bach.
16:35
But it does make a point --
16:38
which is one which, in a sense,
16:40
differentiates the real world of people who make things,
16:42
and the world of people who think about things,
16:45
which is, there is an intellectual merit
16:48
to asking: How do we make things
16:51
as simple as we can,
16:53
as cheap as we can, as functional as we can
16:55
and as freely interconnectable as we can?
16:58
If we make that kind of simplicity in our technology
17:01
and then give it to you guys,
17:04
you can go off and do all kinds of fabulous things with it.
17:06
Thank you very much.
17:09
(Applause)
17:11
Chris Anderson: Quick question.
17:20
So can you picture
17:22
that a science of simplicity
17:25
might get to the point where
17:27
you could look out at various systems --
17:29
say a financial system or a legal system, health system -- and say,
17:31
"That has got to the point of danger
17:34
or dysfunctionality for the following reasons,
17:36
and this is how we might simplify it"?
17:38
George Whitesides: Yes, I think you could. Because if you look
17:40
at the components from which the system is made
17:42
and examine their fragility, or their stability,
17:44
you can probably build a kind of risk assessment based on that basis.
17:47
CA: Have you started to do that?
17:50
I mean, with the health system, you got a sort of
17:52
radical solution on the cost side,
17:54
but in terms of the system itself?
17:56
GW: Well, no.
17:58
How do I put that simply? No.
18:00
CA: That was a simple, powerful answer. GW: Yes.
18:02
CA: So, in terms of
18:05
that diagnostic technology that you've got,
18:07
where is that, and when do you see that
18:09
maybe getting rolled out to scale.
18:11
GW: That's coming out soon. I mean, the systems work,
18:13
and we have to find out how to manufacture them and do things of this kind,
18:16
but the basic technology works.
18:18
CA: You've got a company set up to ...
18:20
GW: A foundation, a foundation. Not-for-profit.
18:22
CA: All right. Well, thank you so much for your talk. Thank you. (Applause)
18:25

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About the speaker:

George Whitesides - Chemist
In his legendary career in chemistry, George Whitesides has been a pioneer in microfabrication and nanoscale self-assembly. Now, he's fabbing a diagnostic lab on a chip.

Why you should listen

Someday Harvard chemistry professor George Whitesides will take the time to look back on the 950 scientific articles he's coauthored, the dozen companies he's co-founded or the 50-plus patents on which he's named. (He works in four main areas: biochemistry, materials science, catalysis and physical organic chemistry.) In the meantime, he's trying to invent a future where medical diagnosis can be done by anyone for little or no cost. He's co-founded a nonprofit called Diagnostics for All that aims to provide dirt-cheap diagnostic devices, to provide healthcare in a world where cost is everything.

Among his solutions is a low-cost "lab-on-a-chip," made of paper and carpet tape. The paper wicks bodily fluids -- urine, for example -- and turns color to provide diagnostic information, such as how much glucose or protein is present. His goal is to distribute these simple paper diagnostic systems to developing countries, where people with basic training can administer tests and send results to distant doctors via cameraphone.

More profile about the speaker
George Whitesides | Speaker | TED.com