Imagine you’ve finally convinced yourself to take the plunge and buy the Amazon Echo you’ve been secretly wanting on Amazon.com. You’re on the checkout page and select the ‘one-click purchase’ button since this is clearly not your first purchase on Amazon and all your credit card information is already saved. Now all you have to do is wait patiently until you see that beautiful, brown cardboard box delivered to your doorstep.
Most of us don’t even think twice about providing our credit card information to an e-commerce site like Amazon, let alone having it saved on our account for future use.
We can thank Leonard Adleman for that.
Adleman, a Turing Award winner and USC Henry Salvatori Professor of Computer Science, co-created the RSA cryptography system in 1977, the first public-key cryptography method for securing communication on the Internet. This has made it safe for communicating private information online, like credit card numbers and home addresses. Adleman’s scientific achievements have graced him with critical acclaim and recognition, most recently from the National Inventors Hall of Fame. He is one of 15 inductees in 2018 to share this honor.
When I interviewed Adleman for this article, I was first curious to understand how he manages setbacks in his career of research – a world where setbacks are relentless. His answer: “Look in your toolbox.”
Adleman, who famously said, “mathematics is less related to accounting than it is to philosophy,” believes through life’s experiences we are able to collect different tools necessary to deal with professional and personal problems. One of his own tools is called the “Hassle Fund Tool,” a term Adleman coined when he was an undergraduate student at UC Berkeley.
The core idea of this tool is to discern whether or not a problem is worth dealing with. Be prepared to cut your losses if it’s not. The story behind it comes from a Lake Tahoe ski trip Adleman took with his college friends.
The then 20-year-old Adleman stopped by a gas station to rent tire chains for the snow, and it wasn’t until he reached the summit that he realized he was given the wrong-sized chains. An attempt to jerry-rig them to fit his tires only succeeded in removing paint from his Volvo. Frustrated, Adleman went back to the gas station only to be met with a nonchalant employee who still charged him the $40 rental fee. Disagreement ensued. Adleman paid. Even though he knew he was right, $40 was still cheaper than further emotional distress and frustration. Adleman, now 72, still picks up the Hassle Fund Tool whenever he needs it.
These days Adleman enjoys playing with his grandkids and recreational boxing with world champion trainer Ming Freeman. He also has no plans to step away from his favorite hobby, one that he has admittedly accrued over 70,000 hours of work – research. His latest project revolves around memes (yes, including the Internet ones). But Adleman’s research focuses on the broader idea of memes, which he calls “prenes.” Prenes include memes, but also beliefs, genes and “cenes” (Adleman’s term for data information in computers).
In his upcoming book “Memes, Genes, and Cenes,” due to be published later this year, Adleman explains that prenes are essentially “alive.” They experience the same reproduction, mutation and extinction as biological beings. They obey the same Darwinian theory of evolution (survival of the fittest).
This idea of prenes bridges the world of humanities and the world of science – arguably two worlds that are like oil and water – and provides a foundation to better understand human behavior and where it can lead.
For example, do you identify as a Republican, Democrat or independent? None of the above? Are you religiously Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu or Muslim? Do you practice veganism, vegetarianism or are you an avid carnivore? Our personal beliefs are part of these larger prene constructs that are using us in their struggle to survive. In Adleman’s words, we are all unconscious “prene-warriors” servicing very old prene-sets, be they mental belief systems or biological genes.
Now, remember the Hassle Fund Tool from earlier in this article? Well that is a prene, and it has moved from Adleman’s brain to yours. Consider yourself officially a part of the Adleman-belief prene-set. Whether or not you help it evolve is up to you.