You're Not Very Smart After All
February 18, 1950 - The Saturday Evening
A Space Odyssey, released in 1968 and based at least in part
on Arthur C. Clarke's 1948 novel The Sentinel, was more
than just a science fiction movie. It was a reflection
on the public's and even some of the scientific community's trepidation
over the potential power of run-amok computers to be used for or
even themselves commit evil (e.g, HAL 9000). Fear of the unknown
is nothing new. Noted mathematicians and computer scientists quoted
in this 1950 article from The Saturday Evening Post worry
about robots (aka computers) "going insane" or being used by the
likes of Hitler and Stalin to dominate the world with totalitarian
rule. Others, however, have a more optimistic outlook: "The men
who build the robots do not share these terrors. Far from destroying
jobs, they testify, they will create new ones by the hundreds of
thousands, just as the industrial revolution eventually did. Moreover,
most of the robot builders would make book that in time 'thinking
machinery' will bring about a happier, healthier civilization than
any known heretofore. What the odds on Utopia ought to be, however,
not even the robots themselves can estimate."
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February 18, 1950
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You're Not Very Smart After All
By John Kobler
Now the scientists have come up with "mechanical
brains" - electronic monsters that solve in seconds a problem that
would take you hours. They're human enough to play gin rummy, even
have nervous breakdowns.
OUT of scientific laboratories
from New York to Moscow there is emerging in ever-increasing numbers
a series of wonder-working robots whose power for good or evil,
for creativeness in peace or destruction in war, exceeds that of
supersonic flight and nuclear fission. Indeed, scientists working
in both of those fields, among many others, continually look to
the robots for the answers to their thorniest problems. Yet for
all their fabulous potentialities the robots merely count and measure.
They are the gigantic computing machines with the
bizarre names - SSEC, Eniac, Edvac, Binac, Mark I, II and III, Rudy
the Rooter, to list a few and they can solve in infinitely less
time than it would take Albert Einstein merely to state them almost
any practical mathematical problem and many problems in pure mathematics.
Although they have been developed chiefly in the United States,
scientists on both sides of the Iron Curtain are now producing them.
Recently, Pravda announced that Russia's two top-priority targets
of scientific research were atomic energy and computing machinery.
So strikingly do the mechanisms of these robots suggest to some
observers the workings of the human brain and nervous system that
they are often called "mechanical brains." This infuriates a good
many of their creators, notably Prof. Howard Aiken, of Harvard's
Computation Laboratory. "They can't think any more than a stone,"
Aiken states flatly. "They're timesaving tools, pure and simple.
There is no substitute for the mathematician, and there
Jack Manning Photos
Its panels of electronic tubes blinking and clicking like mad,
International Business Machines' SSEC goes to work on a problem.
It costs $300 an hour to run and is booked solid for six months
Harvard's Professor Howard Aiken is infuriated by suggestions
that any robot computer can think.
MIT's Professor Norbert Wiener finds a startling similarity
between robots and the human brain.
IBM's President Thomas J. Watson reassures us that machines
won't replace mortal scientists.
Another school of mathematicians, however,
whose most eloquent spokesman is MIT's brilliant, eccentric Prof.
Norbert Wiener, does not hesitate to draw startling parallels between
the robots and humans. Like humans, Wiener points out, the robots
remember, choose, correct their own mistakes. Dr. Claude E. Shannon,
of the Bell Telephone Laboratories, has shown how a computer can
play chess; Dr. J. W. Mauchly, of Philadelphia, has trained his
Binac to play gin rummy. Doctor Shannon puts it :this way: "The
machines will force us either to admit the possibility of mechanized
thinking or to further restrict our concept of thinking."
Whatever the essential physiology of the robots, it is certain
that their computing capacities surpass those of any human being.
Consider the behavior of one of these prodigies, Aiken's Mark II,
From the Air Force at Wright Field recently came
a request to interpret the performance data of a new four-engine
bomber. The end object was to enable the pilot to complete a round
trip from air base to target with the optimum consumption of fuel.
Expressed another way: given his altitude, load, number of engines
functioning and other variables, how fast should he fly to get the
best mileage per gallon? This involved finding equations between
all variables which would be applicable under all flying conditions.
Aiken entrusted the preparation of the problem to one of
his brightest disciples, Peter Young, who is so accustomed to thinking
in digits that he has been known to state his age as "twenty-two
point seventy-five." Young began by supposing the plane to be on
the ground, with no load and two propellers turning. He then rearranged
the variables in every practical combination: altitude still zero,
still no load, but three propellers turning, and so on up to maximum
performance. All told, he correlated 100 items of data. To do so
and translate them into the only language Mark II understands -
punched tape - took Young two days. Had he attempted instead to
solve the problem himself with pencil and paper, he would have had
to work steadily around the clock for one month. Mark II ground
out the results - 7920 of them - in thirty-six hours.
rolled off a typewriter-like part in long sheets. When reinterpreted
in the form of a graph and installed in the instrument panel of
the bomber, they will tell the pilot from minute to minute his exact
fuel potential. For example, at 5000 feet, with a load of 70,000
pounds and all four propellers spinning, he will know that to obtain
optimum efficiency - in this case one eighth of a mile per gallon
- his speed should be 160 miles per hour. "A trivial problem," says
Another problem, which cannot be considered trivial,
was fixing the position of the moon at any time, past or future,
with high accuracy - perfect accuracy is not possible by any method.
This was the first challenge to be taken up by International Business
Machine's SSEC - Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator - which
has the highest capacity and production rate of any calculator now
in service - when that mammoth robot moved into its soundproofed,
air conditioned chamber in the company's Manhattan headquarters
two years ago. It was a problem in pure science, although knowing
the approximate positions for the current year is a practical necessity
for navigators. The American Nautical Almanac publishes them regularly.
But formerly to calculate the current positions would occupy two
mathematicians at the Naval Observatory, using what were then the
fastest calculators, every working day the year round. SSEC computed
more than eight positions an hour. One machine hour corresponds
roughly to ten years of paper-and-pencil work.
agencies and the armed forces, industrialists, economists and sociologists
are feeding problems to the robots as fast as they can digest them.
The Mark trio, which cost more than $1,000,000 - a "megabuck" or
"kilogrand," as mathematicians say facetiously - work twenty-four
hours a day, seven days a week. SSEC, costing $300 an hour to run,
is always solidly booked six months ahead.
One of the trickiest
tasks, and until recently a top-secret one, to which a robot has
ever been assigned was working out equations for the guidance of
antiaircraft fire during World War II. Using MIT's Bush Differential
Analyzer-designed by Dr. Vannevar Bush - Wiener and several other
mathematicians devised an apparatus to be built into antiaircraft
range finders which would locate and track enemy planes and calculate
the trajectory of the bullets faster than either bullets or planes
could travel. This entailed prediction. The fire-control apparatus,
in itself a computer, aimed the gun not directly at the plane, but
at the next point where the plane might be, taking into account
its speed, the wind velocity and other variables.
firing accuracy still further, Wiener proposed adding to the computer's
intake a subtler kind of data - the probable behavior of the pilot
"The more a plane doubles and curves in flight,"
Wiener reasoned, "the longer it remains in a dangerous position.
Other things being equal, a plane will fly as. straight a course
as possible. However, by the time the first shell bursts, other
things are not equal, and the pilot will probably zig-zag, stunt
or in some other way take evasive action.
"If this action
were completely at the disposal of the pilot, he would have so much
opportunity to modify his expected position before the arrival of
a shell that we should not reckon the chances of hitting him to
be very good. On the other hand, the pilot does not have a completely
free chance to maneuver at will. For one thing, he is in a plane
going at an exceedingly high speed, and any too sudden deviation
from his course will produce an acceleration that will render him
unconscious, and may disintegrate the plane. Moreover, an aviator
under the strain of combat conditions is scarcely in a mood to engage
in any very complicated and untrammeled voluntary behavior, and
is quite likely to follow out the pattern of activity in which he
has been trained."
Accordingly, the escape tactics of thousands of fighter pilots were
analyzed, reduced to equations and incorporated into the same fire-control
aparatus. This, of course, could not enable antiaircraft range finders
to predict with 100 per cent accuracy the tactics of any individual
pilot, but it did immeasurably narrow the margin of probability.
Wiener has since become so terrified by the possibilities
of his own war work that in 1947 he refused to address a symposium
at Harvard on computing machines, on the ground that they were being
used for war purposes. "I do not intend," he declared at the time,
"to publish any future work of mine which may do damage in the hands
of irresponsible militarists."
A great many adaptations
of the robots' answers have been and still are military secrets
even to the mathematicians in charge. The Harvard group recalls
the day shortly after Mark I got cracking when a problem arrived
from the Army which seemed to make no sense. The figure apparently
represented an attempt to release an immense output of energy from
a tiny input of matter. Only after Hiroshima did Harvard realize
that it had been dealing with the mathematics of the atom bomb.
At present, IBM mathematicians are baffled by the 'Purport
of what they have named "Problem Hippo." The statement of it covers
thirty-six pages, the solution calls for 9,000,000 operations, and
it will keep SSEC ticking away for 150 hours, or the equivalent
of 1500 years of man-hours. The address of the sender is Los Alamos
Occasionally somebody hands the robots
a problem that stymies them. Such a one was forwarded not long ago
to SSEC by the Adjutant General's office, which wanted an analytic
expression of qualifications for military personnel. Thousands of
recruits had been quizzed before and after service. The Army proposed
to establish mathematically what questions put to the recruits on
entrance into service had been predictive of their future success
or failure as military men. To untangle that one would have taken
SSEC 150 years.
And then there are the people who submit
problems so far beneath a robot's talents that it would not deign
to wink a single tube at them. During the recent Pyramid Club madness
a reporter wanted the same robot to compute the number of days one
club would need to run to exhaust the population of the world. Robert
R. Seeber, Jr., co-inventor, with Frank E. Hamilton, of SSEC, explained
to the reporter that this was like asking a Big Bertha to shoot
a sparrow. With pencil and paper he whipped out the answer in ten
minutes - thirty-two days.
What is the anatomy of the robots
and how do they work? Their complexity lies mainly in the
vast numbers and interrelations of their parts, the miles of wire,
the tens of thousands of tubes. The basic principles are comparatively
simple. There are two great families of mathematical robots: the
digital calculators and the analog machines. The first, with which
this report is primarily concerned, compute in individually distinct
digits. In other words, they count. The second, of which the Bush
Differential Analyzer is the best known, compute in physical quantities
such as length, angle, electric current, water pressure. They measure.
The analog machines are faster, but their precision is limited.
For the upper spectrum of mathematical shadings the digital calculators
In appearance, a digital calculator SSEC, for
instance - is a large chamber one or more of whose sides are glass-enclosed
panels of electronic tubes. When SSEC is at work, the panels blink
furiously with a click-clacking sound, a galaxy of noisy glass stars
in a glass sky. Standing in this chamber with the IBM motto, THINK,
emblazoned over the doorway, visitors sometimes remark that they
feel, not like a man with a brain inside him, but like a brain with
a man inside it.
men who tend SSEC vigorously agree with IBM's President Thomas J.
Watson that" no machine can take the place of the scientist; this
machine only leaves him more time for creative thinking." At the
same time they display an almost emotional attitude toward it,
patting it when it functions smoothly, chiding it when it falters.
"We think of it as having temperament," one of the scientists confesses,
"a woman's temperament."
The robots have five main groups
of organs: An input system - the "eyes," so to speak, which read
the problem and the instructions for solving it. Computing units
- the inner "brains" which perform the actual mathematical operations.
Storage cells or" memory" of two kinds, one which remembers intermediate
results until they are to be combined with the body of the problem
- as when you say "put down two and carry the one" - and a permanent
memory containing logarithms and functional tables. A central control
or "nervous system," to route the traffic of numbers from one set
of tubes to another, keeping the operations in the right sequence.
An output system, or "voice," that delivers the final solution.
These five organs are fundamentally mechanized versions of the same
ones you use when tallying a bridge score or checking your bank
For the robots, which, after all, are not quite
so bright as you, the job has to be facilitated by several ingenious
short cuts. Here is one of them: the most fiendishly intricate problems
that scientific genius might dream up can be reduced to the four
elementary operations of schoolroom arithmetic: addition, subtraction,
multiplication and division. And these can be further reduced to
two, for multiplication is merely repeated addition, and division
merely repeated subtraction. So no matter how knotty the problem,
the robot need only add or subtract at any one stage.
short cut is its language the punched card or perforated tape,
to mention only two dialects in use. A card or tape wide enough
to carry five positions in a row offers thirty-two different possible
meanings. Thus, the first position can be blank or punched, two
possibilities; combinations of first and second positions give four
possibilities; and so on up to thirty-two.
panels frame cells or banks of tubes, each tube corresponding to
a position on the cards. Eniac, a ten-digit calculator, has cells
of ten columns, ten tubes to the column. The first column represents
digits, the second tens, the third hundreds, and so on. The bottom
tube of each column represents 0, the second 1, the third 2, and
so on. Suppose the number to be indicated is 6,487,399,961. As the
card is fed into Eniac's input system, electrical pulses light up
Tube 6 in the tenth, or billion, column, Tubes 4, 8, 7 in the hundred-million,
ten-million and million columns, and so on.
To follow a
simple operation from start to finish, take 268 times 64. The first
step is up to the mathematician, who must break up the problem into
a kind of pidgin mathematics - the additions and subtractions that
the robot can readily handle. Furthermore, the problems as originally
propounded by the sender are rarely free from errors in statement,
and these errors must be weeded out. The robot can do only what
it's told, and if its orders contain nonsense, it will grind out
nonsense. In a difficult problem these preliminaries call for a
very high order of thinking, which is one reason why both Aiken
and Watson insist that no robot will ever replace human brains.
The simplified instructions are next translated into punched-hole
code, transferred to the cards, and thence to the creature's input
system. The switches are flipped - a process which automatically
sets up paths of current to the cells. What the punched-card language
says goes something like this:
"Store the number 268 in
Memory Cell I. Store the number 64 in Memory Cell II. Now take 268
to the Multiplying Unit and 64 to the Multiplicand Unit. Multiply
them. Some robots - like Eniac - have built-in multipliers wired
to give the product of any two digits; otherwise the robot will
add 268 six times, 268 four times, shift the second result over
one space in the cell, and add. Deliver the answer to Memory Cell
III, then to the printer."
When tussling with a really tough
problem, the robot frequently chooses between alternative methods
of procedure, for there are more ways than one of skinning a mathematical
cat. Its instructions may have said: "If the third intermediate
result is bigger than a million, add; if smaller, subtract." If
a robot needs a logarithm, it may look it up in its permanent memory,
just as a schoolboy consults his book of tables. Eniac, however,
computes all logarithms from scratch - it can do it faster that
Do the robots pull boners? Lots of them. In fact, two
days running without a slip-up is about the record. Tubes weaken,
wires short-circuit. A moth once fluttered into Mark II and raised
hob with its calculations until the frantic engineers could locate
the saboteur. A burned-out tube may produce serious mistakes, but
seldom a total breakdown. Usually the robot can correct such mistakes
itself, always assuming the proper instructions have been issued
to it in advance. One way is by performing all operations in duplicate.
If the two sets of results fail to check at any point, a new path
of current is set up, causing the robot to retrace its steps and
start over from the last checked point. Should the same mistake
recur, it may then stop altogether, flash red lights, ring bells,
blow horns and otherwise indicate distress until the defective part
has been repaired.
The history of man's attempts to invent
machines to count for him is millenniums old. The abacus was in
use 2500 years ago. It was the ancestor of all digital calculators,
as the slide rule, developed in the seventeenth century by a succession
of English mathematicians, anticipated the analog machines.
The first calculator to perform a series of operations without
human aid, other than its original instructions, however, was conceived
more than 100 years ago by a strange, obsessed Cambridge University
professor, Charles Babbage. He worked on the design of two machines.
His first was the "difference engine," which used, twenty-six digits
and was to be used in computing mathematical tables. A considerable
portion of this calculator was built, but it was abandoned and Babbage
went on to the design of a more ambitious project, the" analytical
engine," which was to use punched cards. Design of this second engine
was carried out in elaborate detail, but Babbage died before construction
was started, and it too was abandoned long before completion. To
help him in his work, the British Government granted him substantial
sums. In addition, he spent $50,000 of his own, gave up his chair
of mathematics at Cambridge, and wrecked his health with overwork.
But neither the technical skills nor the materials available in
that pre-electronic age were up to the task. Babbage died, broke
and disappointed, and the march of the caculating robots slowed
to a standstill.
In 1936, a rangy, sharp-eyed young Harvard
physicist named Howard Aiken stumbled across some of the forgotten
writings of Babbage, and promptly fell in love with the idea of
"difference engines." He longed to build one himself, but he could
find no backers. His determination hardened, however, when he read
this appeal in Babbage's Passages from the Life of a Philosopher:
If, unwarned by my example, any man shall attempt so unpromising
a task and shall succeed in constructing an engine embodying in
itself the whole of the executive department of mathematical analysis,
I have no fear of leaving my reputation in his charge, for he alone
will fully be able to appreciate the nature of my efforts and the
value of their results.
knew at once that he was that man, and through him the reputation
of "Old Babbage," as he affectionately refers to him, recovered
its luster. For further study convinced Aiken that the Englishman
had discovered the fundamentals of calculating machinery; only the
construction techniques had eluded him. "If Old Babbage had lived
another fifty years," Aiken says today, "there wouldn't have been
much left for me to do."
It was Watson of IBM, with his
long experience in manufacturing business machines, who made the
ancient dream possible. IBM scientists, in collaboration with Aiken,
provided the mathematical knowledge, its engineers the production
know-how, and by 1944 they completed the world's first large-scale
automatic calculator. Watson presented it to Harvard, where it was
immediately put to work on problems for the Navy, which had meantime
commissioned Aiken a commander.
Having since built Mark
II and Mark III and set his sights on a Mark IV, Aiken reports that
no more robots will be built by his laboratory. "It's time for United'
States industry to take over and start producing in quantity,"
Already in other laboratories and some commercial
plants new robots are being geared to perform feats that will make
their predecessors seem like fumbling slowpokes.
Mauchly and a scientist, J. Presper Eckert, are now building a total
of six identical computers for use by such varied organizations
as the U. S. Census Bureau, the Prudential Insurance Company and
a market-research firm in Chicago.
At the Institute for
Advanced Study in Princeton, engineers under the direction of Prof.
John von Neumann, one of the world's foremost mathematicians and
the No: 1 authority on the laws of probability, are rushing to completion
a robot playfully nicknamed "The Maniac" which they expect to forecast
weather with a speed and accuracy hitherto undreamed of. Like robot-directed
gunfire, weather prediction is based on mathematical probability,
the margin of error being narrowed in ratio to the quantity of data
that can be' collated. The weather everywhere, past and present,
predetermines tomorrow's weather in Chicago. Meteorologists have
long understood this relationship and had access to a good deal
of the data. Reports pour into the national Weather Bureau in Washington,
for example, from some 4000 widely scattered stations at the rate
of 600,000 figures a day. But by the time all of it could be mathematically
related, tomorrow's weather - in fact, next year's weather - would
have come and gone. With the limited data weathermen do have time
to assess, they can now forecast only about three days ahead with
60 per cent accuracy. The Maniac should be able to forecast a week
ahead with 90 per cent accuracy, and take no more than sixteen hours
to do it.
At MIT, meanwhile, the more Wiener studies the
robots the more they look like human brains to him. Upon this observation
he has erected an elaborate edifice of theory about both brains
and machines which some of his colleagues dismiss as a Buck Rogers
fantasy and others acclaim as one of the most valuable and exciting
ideas of the century. Wiener terms it cybernetics - from a Greek
word meaning "steersman" - and he defines it as "control and communication
in the animal and the machine."
"Man," he says, "has created
these machines in his own image. Since he intended them to replace
some of his own functions, it is not surprising that they duplicate
some of his own mechanisms. Just as a derrick is a mechanized muscle,
so a calculating machine is a mechanized thought process to deal
There is no reason why, Wiener insists,
that, in addition to reading, remembering, choosing, correcting
their own mistakes, looking up tables, the robots should not develop
conditioned reflexes and even learn from experience. He extends
his analogy to include "nervous breakdowns." When memory impulses
in a man, such as anxiety, fear or guilt, get out of hand and invade
the whole brain, preventing it from thinking about anything else,
the man is said to be insane. Wiener maintains that robots go insane
in very much the same way. An electrical impulse may overshoot the
mark and circulate uncontrollably through the whole system. To cure
certain forms of insanity in humans, surgeons sometimes excise a
portion of the brain, sometimes try to shock the patient back to
normality with electricity or drugs. Similarly, says Wiener, when
a robot runs amok, its engineers may disconnect part of it or clear
its over-burdened circuits by shooting powerful electric currents
The cyberneticians further point out that calculators
need not be confined to calculating. They could also operate entire
factories. By attaching to them strain gauges, pressure valves and
other instruments, mathematical values could be transmuted directly
into manufacturing processes. Something like that happens in many
a hydroelectric plant situated in areas too remote for easy human
access. Such plants regulate their own water height; when in danger,
automatically signal the fact. Even Aiken, who rejects the cybernetic
theory in toto, says, "The ultimate goal of calculating machines
is to design other machines."
threat to human security and welfare which Wiener sees in this picture
is manifold: if the robots could be used as tools to manipulate
a national economy wisely, they could also, in the hands of greedy
individuals or totalitarian governments, be used as deadly weapons.
It is perfectly conceivable to Wiener that industrial markets might
be scientifically rigged, enterprises wrecked, personal liberties
curtailed with an efficiency to make a Hitler, Mussolini or Stalin
On the socioeconomic level he warns, "The first industrial
revolution, the revolution of the 'dark satanic mills,' was the
devaluation of the human arm by the competition of machinery. There
is no rate of pay at which a United States pick-and-shovel laborer
can live which is low enough to compete with the work of a steam
shovel as an excavator. The modern industrial revolution is simply
bound to devaluate the human brain at least in its simpler and more
routine decisions. Of course, just as the skilled carpenter, the
skilled mechanic, the skilled dressmaker have survived in some degree
the first industrial revolution, so the skilled scientist and the
skilled administrator may survive the second. However, taking the
second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre
attainments or less has nothing to sell that it is worth anyone's
money to buy."
The men who build the robots do not share
these terrors. Far from destroying jobs, they testify, they will
create new ones by the hundreds of thousands, just as the industrial
revolution eventually did. Moreover, most of the robot builders
would make book that in time "thinking machinery" will bring about
a happier, healthier civilization than any known heretofore. What
the odds on Utopia ought to be, however, not even the robots themselves
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