orangutanProf. Patrick Henry Winston ’65, SM 67, PhD 70

Just about every summer, I spend some time in San Diego working with the Naval Research Advisory Committee. Of course, sunny San Diego is the center of a vacationer’s paradise, so over the years, on weekends, I’ve enjoyed everything from jai alai in Tijuana to the Hale telescope at Mount Palomar.

I always include a visit to the zoo in my schedule, even though I am not especially attracted to elephants, giraffes, and such. I go exclusively to watch the orangutans.

50,000 years ago, I expect we humans were pretty much on the same level as the orangutans and our even closer relatives, the chimpanzees, from which we differ only slightly in our DNA. We had been around for quite a while, looking pretty much as we do today, but we didn’t amount to much. But then, something mysterious happened. We started leaving artifacts behind, we emerged from Africa, and we populated the world, killing off a lot of unlucky species that got in the way. Before long, we conquered fire, built pyramids, split atoms, and invented computers.

We argue endlessly about what exactly happened. Some of us in the field of Artificial Intelligence believe it was the ability to form symbolic descriptions that set us apart, especially the ability to combine symbolic descriptions into ever larger and more abstract concepts.

Whatever it was, it wasn’t much. This year, I arrived at the zoo early on Sunday morning, and I saw one of the orangutans use a stick to extract bugs from a hole. Arguably, she was using a tool. I noted that her arms looked so long and her legs so short, she seemed like she was almost standing upright when she walked on all fours.

It occurs to me that if the orangutans had just learned to work their tools a little more, and pitched back a few degrees, maybe MIT would be full of creatures with long orange hair, and we would be in the zoo.