Our cultural imagination also toys with the notion of a self-sufficient artificial intelligencea computer with all the cognitive capacities of a human mind.
Nothing could be more alien to the man who has spent 35 years developing virtual reality.
"Computers are tools," Brooks said. "And the question you ask when you have a tool is, 'What can you do with it?'"
The notion of computers as tools is critical to understanding Brooks' belief in the limitations of artificial intelligence.
He prefers to work toward what he calls the goal of intelligence amplification.
In 1969, after Brooks decided to make computer graphics a focal area for the UNC computer science department (along with computer architecture, software engineering and natural language processing) he arranged a meeting with the provost, Charles J. Morrow. He told Morrow he had a computer with substantial graphics capabilities and a very capable graduate assistant. He added that he was interested in determining the capacity of computer graphics to solve research problems.
He then asked Morrow a question: "Who on the faculty most deserves to have his intelligence amplified?"
Morrow came up with a list of faculty and projects. Brooks chose biochemistry professor Jan Hermanns, who was pursuing the problem of protein-foldingthe still unsolved mystery of how ribosomes bind together into amino acids to form proteins, the basic building material of organic cells.
Working with Hermanns bore an unexpected dividend. The biochemist introduced Brooks to Duke University scientists Sung-Hou Kim and David and Jane Richardson, who were working on another, more soluble project: the development of a system that could derive the three-dimensional structure of a molecule, given crystallographic data from X-rays.
That work, Brooks said, resulted in findings used both by "academic labs studying protein structure and pharmaceutical laboratories designing drugs."
Brooks' pragmatic approach to computer graphics and virtual reality has set the tone for the department's work in those areas for the past 30 years.
"I had a choice of some places much better known than here [when I was looking for a job]," said Professor Henry Fuchs, whose research interests include using ultrasound imaging to enhance the effectivenessand reduce the invasivenessof surgery.
"But I immediately felt in Fred a kinship in our approach to the field, and I suspect that most other people who came here did so for similar reasons."
Indeed, in an attempt to understand how UNC's computer science department has achieved its current eminence, it's difficult to underestimate the influence of Fred Brooks.
"Like most of the people here [in computer science], I get offers from other places, places with more prestige, with more support, in more exotic locations," Fuchs said. "And I'm still here after 22 years. And a large reason for that is Fred, who established and continues to influence this department so it has a certain magic to it."
"It's a place where computer scientists build tools for people, without any apology, in which people are free to work on the same problems for years even though they may not be fashionable."
The value of that philosophy is evident in the strides in computer graphics (of which virtual reality is a sub-field) made in the past decade.
When Brooks set out to make computer graphics a departmental focus, few of his colleagues thought it was important, Fuchs said. But he pursued it, in part, because of a speech he heard at the 1965 meeting of the International Federation of Information Processing Societies. Ivan Sutherland, the inventor of Sketchpad (the first graphics drawing program), exhorted his colleagues to pursue computer graphics research.
Sutherland urged his colleagues to think of the computer screen as a window and to work to make what they saw through that window "look real, sound real ... feel real."
It was a speech, Brooks recalls, "that wonderfully fired the imagination."
And it led to what we now know as virtual reality.
The much-hyped virtual reality essentially is a process by which a computer-generated environment is substituted for an actual one "either by a head-mounted display, which occludes the real world and substitutes stereo images, or by means of a cubicle of screens on which you project a virtual world that surrounds you."
"That's the key," Brooks said, "this immersion.
"And you should be able to interact with objects in the virtual world.
"So if you 'grab'dangerous worda virtual object, the object should 'move' as if you were holding it."
Brooks, however, dislikes the term virtual reality. He prefers "synthetic environments." But he smiles a little sadly as he says it.
"I'm afraid it [virtual reality] has stuck."
Thirty years after Sutherland's speech, Brooks' faith in computer graphics and virtual reality as worthy pursuits clearly has been vindicated.
Virtual reality has gone from being a distant goal of long-term research to a real technology with proliferating applications.
And in the past decade, The New York Times, New Scientist, Business Week, The Economist and Scientific American all have covered computer graphics projects at UNC.
Today these projects often are collaborations between UNC computer scientists and researchers at Harvard, Johns Hopkins and other institutionsas well as faculty in other UNC divisions such as the medical school.
Many industries use virtual reality for vehicle simulations, Brooks notessimulating airplane flight, truck driving, ship piloting.
Among their other projects, Brooks and Fuchs currently research ways to use virtual environments to train people for dangerous occupations, such as fire fighting or military operations.
"We are also working on ways of measuring precisely when the VR illusion is working, and how well, by measuring bodily functions such as heart rate and increase and palm sweat in a stressful virtual situation," Brooks added.
Brooks' work contrasts starkly with the popular image of virtual reality as an entertainment medium. When asked about the increasing use of virtual reality for games, he said, "I think it's inevitable."
Then he paused. "It's not something I feel particularly called upon to spend my time on."
love what I do'
Unlike some faculty who are accomplished researchers, Brooks doesn't begrudge any time he spends teaching.
And it's fair to add that his teaching, as well as his research, has had far-reaching effects on modern computer design. One of his former students, John H. Crawford '77 (MS), was the chief architect of the Intel 386, 486 and Pentium processors.
He does, he admits, "feel torn" about all the committee work that "takes more than half my time"for both the University and national scientific organizations. Committee work, however, comes with seniority, he says.
Committee work or no, he has no intention of retiring.
"I love what I do. I can't think of anything I'd rather do than what I do."
Kevin O'Kelly '92 (MA, '00 MSLS) is a writer based in Carrboro and a columnist for The Chapel Hill News. Article first published in the Carolina Alumni Review, 90(1), Jan/Feb 2001, 22-30. For more information about the Review, visit the UNC General Alumni Association's home page. Presented here by kind permission of the Carolina Alumni Review.