You're Not Very Smart After All
February 18, 1950 - The Saturday
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
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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.
never will be."
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, in action:
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.
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 Aiken.
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.
Today, Government 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.
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.
To improve firing accuracy still
further, Wiener proposed adding to the computer's intake a subtler kind of data - the probable
behavior of the pilot himself.
"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."
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
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 Scientific Laboratory.
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 are required.
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 balance.
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.
Another 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.
The robots' 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.
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:
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 way.
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.
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," he says.
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.
In Philadelphia 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 with mathematics."
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 through
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."
The Frankenstein's-monster 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 blush.
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."
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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