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The Computer in Your Future

A little quiz: who spoke the following lines, and on what occasion?

…no plausible claim to intellectuality can possibly be made in the near future without an intimate dependence upon XXX. Those intellectuals who persist in their indifference, not to say snobbery, will find themselves stranded in a quaint museum of the intellect, forced to live petulantly, and rather irrelevantly, on the charity of those who understand the real dimensions of the revolution and can deal with the new world it will bring about.

Of course, the answer depends on what one substitutes for “XXX.” Readers who filled in, say, “national socialism” could have supposed that these words were spoken as a warning to German intellectuals who had not yet appreciated the glory of the Nazi revolution, by Josef Goebbels on the occasion of the book burning in Berlin on May 10, 1933. Readers could substitute “the ideas of the great leader and teacher” for “XXX” and leave open what particular revolution is being talked about. Leaders who come to mind, and whose names would render the quoted paragraph plausible, are, to name just a few: Karl Marx, General Pinochet, Stalin. The Germans, by the way, had a word for what intellectuals are here being warned to do: Gleichschaltung, which is translated as “bringing into line” or “coordination.”

But, implausible as it may seem at first glance, “XXX” in the quoted passage stands for “this new instrument,” meaning the computer. The authors of The Fifth Generation maintain that intellectuality, the creative use of the mind engaged in study and in reflection, will soon become inevitably and necessarily dependent on the computer. They are astounded that American intellectuals aren’t rushing to enlist in their revolution. They would expect, they say,

that American intellectuals (in particular those who still talk so reverently about the values of a liberal education, the sharing of the common culture, and so on, and so on) are eager to mold this new technology to serve the best human ends it possibly can.

Unfortunately, they’re not. Most of them haven’t the faintest idea what’s happening…they live in a dream world, irresponsible and whimsical, served by faithful old retainers (in the form of periodicals that are high in brow, even higher in self-importance, but low in circulation) that shamelessly pander to their illusions.

In this book Edward Feigenbaum, a professor of computer science at Stanford University and a cofounder of two commercial companies that market artificial intelligence software systems, and Pamela McCorduck, a science writer, give the reader an idea of what’s happening in the world of computers. They make the following claims:

First, certain American computer scientists have discovered that if computers are expected to intervene in some activity in the real world, then it would help, to say the least, if they had some knowledge of the domain of the activity in question. For example, computer systems designed to help make medical diagnoses had better know about diseases and their signs and symptoms.

Second, other American computer scientists have described designs of computers, “computer architectures,” that depart radically from the industry’s traditional design principles originally laid down by the pioneer computer scientist, John von Neumann. In orthodox, so-called von Neumann, machines, long chains of computations are organized as sequences of very small computational steps which are then executed serially, that is, one step after another. The new architectures allow computational chains to be decomposed into steps which can be executed as soon as the data for executing them is ready. They then don’t have to wait their turn, so to speak. Indeed, many steps can be executed simultaneously. Computation time is in a sense “folded” in such machines, which are consequently very much faster than their orthodox predecessors.

Third, still other computer scientists, mainly French and British, have created a computer language which they believe to be well suited for representing knowledge in computers in a form that lends itself to powerful logical manipulation. The Japanese hope that the conjunction of this computer language with the new architecture will allow ultrarapid computation of “inferences” from masses of stored knowledge. Fourth, these developments have taken place at a time of continuing dramatic progress in making computers physically smaller, functionally faster, and with increasing storage capacities. Computer hardware becomes constantly cheaper.

Finally, the Japanese, who already dominate the world market in consumer electronics, have seized on the resulting opportunity and decided to create entirely new and enormously powerful computer systems, the “fifth generation,” based on the developments described above. These systems, as the book jacket puts it, will be “artificially intelligent machines that can reason, draw conclusions, make judgments, and even understand the written and spoken word.”

This appears to be a very ambitious claim. But not to seasoned observers of the computer scene who have long since learned to penetrate the foggy language of the computer enthusiasts. What have they boasted of before and how were such boasts justified in reality? One example will do: In 1958, a quarter of a century ago, Herbert Simon and Allen Newell, both pioneer computer scientists and founding members of the Artificial Intelligence (AI) movement within computer science, wrote that “there are now in the world machines that think, that learn and that create. Moreover, their ability to do these things is going to increase rapidly until—in the visible future—the range of problems they can handle will be coextensive with the range to which the human mind has been applied.”1

In other words, the most recent ambitions of the Japanese were already close to being realized according to leaders of the American artificial intelligence community a quarter of a century ago! All that remained to be done—and it would be done within the “visible future”—was to extend the range of the problems such machines would solve to the whole range of the problems to which the human mind has been applied.

That ambition remains as absurd today as it was twenty-five years ago. In the meanwhile, however, much progress has been made in getting computers to “understand” the written word and even some words spoken in very highly controlled contexts. Is the Japanese project then really not very ambitious? The answer depends on the standards of intelligent computer performance one adopts: by those Simon and Newell evidently held twenty-five years ago, not much remains to be done. If, on the other hand, words like “judgment,” “reason,” and “understanding” are to be comprehended in their usual meanings, then the prospects for anything like full success for the Japanese project are very dim. I believe the Japanese will build some remarkable hardware in the coming decade, but nothing radically in advance of American designs. However, in order to do all they intend to do in a single decade, the Japanese have organized a huge effort involving the close cooperation of Japan’s Ministry of International Trade and Industry (MITI) and the major Japanese firms in the electronics industry.

That, briefly, is “what’s happening.” But Feigenbaum and McCorduck do more than merely deliver the latest bulletins from the high-technology front. They also present their own vision of the world that is within our grasp, if only we would reach for it. Here are just a few of their speculative glimpses into that future:

Loneliness will have been done away with—at least for old people. There will be friendly and helpful robots to keep them company.

The geriatric robot is wonderful. It isn’t hanging about in the hopes [sic] of inheriting your money—nor of course will it slip you a little something to speed the inevitable. It isn’t hanging about because it can’t find work elsewhere. It’s there because it’s yours. It doesn’t just bathe you and feed you and wheel you out into the sun when you crave fresh air and a change of scene, though of course it does all those things. The very best thing about the geriatric robot is that it listens [emphasis in the original]. “Tell me again,” it say, “about how wonderful/dreadful your children are to you. Tell me again that fascinating tale of the coup of ‘63. Tell me again…” And it means it. It never gets tired of hearing those stories, just as you never get tired of telling them. It knows your favorites, and those are its favorites too. Never mind that this all ought to be done by human caretakers; humans grow bored, get greedy, want variety.

Then there will be the “mechanical” doctor. But

if the idea of a mechanical doctor repels you, consider that not everyone feels that way. Studies in England showed that many humans were much more comfortable (and candid) with an examination by a computer terminal than with a human physician, whom they perceived as somehow disapproving of them.

Another helpful device that awaits us is the

intelligent newspaper [which] will know the way you feel and behave accordingly.

It will know because you have trained it yourself. In a none-too-arduous process, you will have informed your intelligent newsgathering system about the topics that are of special interest to you. Editorial decisions will be made by you, and your system will be able to act upon them thereafter…. It will understand (because you have told it) which news sources you trust most, which dissenting opinions you wish to be exposed to, and when not to bother you at all.

You could let your intelligent system infer your interests indirectly by watching you as you browse. What makes you laugh? It will remember and gather bits of fantasia to amuse you. What makes you steam? It may gather information about that, too, and then give you names of groups that are organized for or against that particular outrage.

We may suppose, by the way, such a system would be just as ready to help other agencies, say the police, gather information and obtain names of groups that may be for or against “outrages” that interest them.

But, much more importantly, what Feigenbaum and McCorduck describe here is a world in which it will hardly be necessary for people to meet one another directly. Not that this is a consequence they hadn’t foreseen and from which they would recoil. They have seen that aspect of the new world and they greet it as a welcome advance for mankind:

Despite the gray warnings about how the computer would inevitably dehumanize us, it has not. We are just as obstreperously human as ever, seizing this new medium to do better one of the things we’ve always liked to do best, which is to create, pursue, and exchange knowledge with our fellow creatures. Now we are allowed to do it with greater ease—faster, better, more engagingly, and without the prejudices that often attend face-to-face interaction [emphasis added].

A geriatric robot that frees old people from the murderous instincts of their children and is programmed to lie to them systematically, telling them that it understands their petty stories and enjoys “listening” to them. Mechanical doctors we can be utterly candid with and which won’t disapprove of us as human doctors often do. Technical devices in our own homes that gather information about us and determine to what group we ought to belong and which ones we should hate. Technical systems that permit us to exchange knowledge “engagingly” with our fellow creatures while avoiding the horror of having to look at them or be looked at let alone touched. This is the world Feigenbaum and McCorduck are recommending.

  1. 1

    H.A. Simon and A. Newell, “Heuristic Problem Solving: The Next Advance in Operations Research,” Operations Research, vol. 6 (January-February 1958), p. 8.

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