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What can Leonardo da Vinci teach us about tech?

Walter Isaacson, the author of a new biography of da Vinci, shares some advice for the modern era on Recode Decode.

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“Leonardo da Vinci” author Walter Isaacson
“Leonardo da Vinci” author Walter Isaacson
The Aspen Institute

For the past decade and a half, Walter Isaacson has been writing about a big idea: “What is creativity and how do we achieve it?” He says his new book, “Leonardo da Vinci,” is both a biography of the Renaissance artist/inventor and a culmination of what he learned writing about people like Ada Lovelace, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs.

“If you can stand at that intersection between the arts and sciences, or between beauty and engineering, that’s where you’ll be the most creative,” Isaacson said on the latest episode of Recode Decode, hosted by Kara Swisher.

At the core of Isaacson’s book are da Vinci’s notebooks, which were crammed with ideas about a wide range of topics: Math problems, chemistry formulas, theatrical set designs, inventions and rough sketches of now-famous paintings like The Last Supper. The author said it’s important to not think of da Vinci as “just” an artist.

“The key thing people get wrong is that his time spent doing engineering and math was a waste,” Isaacson said. “Because ‘the helicopter never really flew,’ ‘the tanks never rolled,’ ‘he never squared the circle.’ I feel that if you don’t have the depth and breadth of interest of Leonardo, you don’t end up painting the Mona Lisa or, for that matter, discovering how the aortic valve works.”

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On the new podcast, Isaacson said that, if da Vinci were alive today, the internet would have been “heaven,” a place to learn everything about everything, although it might have also fed his easily distracted mind’s worst impulses.

Today’s innovators in tech could learn from his willingness to be curious and observe the world more carefully, Isaacson said. But he also stressed the importance of combining the humanities and engineering as da Vinci did, rather than specializing in just one or the other.

“Nowadays, we silo things,” he said. “There’s going to be a point where your inventive kid is going to be told, ‘Drill down in engineering, or math.’ No. Learning coding is important, and learning engineering is important, but someday, machines will code pretty well.”

“What will be the ‘Ada Lovelace moment,’ because she was the one who wrote about this in 1830, was the combination of human creativity and machine processing power, having an inventiveness that will exceed what machines alone can do, or what humans alone can do,” Isaacson added.

The image that captures this perfectly, he said, is the Vitruvian Man: A self-portrait of da Vinci that, in one image, combines “creativity and scientific anatomy.”

“That humanism is what’s going to help us when we get artificial intelligence, when we face the moral issue that algorithms might get out of our control,” Isaacson said. “It’s those with a feel for the humanities, history, art, music and the patterns of nature — they ripple from the rivers that we see as a kid, to our heart valve, to the equations we do to describe the curvature of space and time.”

If you like this show, you should also sample our other podcasts:

  • Recode Media with Peter Kafka features no-nonsense conversations with the smartest and most interesting people in the media world, with new episodes every Thursday. Use these links to subscribe on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
  • Too Embarrassed to Ask, hosted by Kara Swisher and The Verge's Lauren Goode, answers the tech questions sent in by our readers and listeners. You can hear new episodes every Friday on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Overcast or wherever you listen to podcasts.
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