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 …

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Computers in Your Future’ December 8, 1983