The Saturday Evening Post
of Contents] These articles are scanned and OCRed from old editions of the The Saturday Evening
Post magazine. Here is a list of the The Saturday Evening Post articles I have already posted. All copyrights are hereby
February 18, 1950
2001: 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."
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.
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 ahead.
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.
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 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.
They 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 Aiken.
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.
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.
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.
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."
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
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 Scientific Laboratory.
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 are
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.
The 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.
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 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.
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
Aiken 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."
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 through it.
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."
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.
Posted November 30, 2018 (originally February 2, 2013)