Our computers advance, but our fears about them remain remarkably consistent, cycling through peaks and valleys in some as yet undiagnosed pattern. In the spring of 1961, Life magazine ran a long feature story titled “The Machines Are Taking Over: Computers Outdo Man at His Work — and Soon May Outthink Him.” It made for unsettling reading.
“The American economy,” reported the writer, Warren R. Young, “is approaching the point of no return in its reliance on computers.” He provided a long list of examples to show how computers were quickly taking over not only factory work but also professional jobs requiring analysis and decision-making, in such fields as engineering, finance, and business. Computers “will tend to make middle-management obsolete.” The digital machines, he went on, were even moving into the creative trades, composing “passable pop songs” and “Beatnik poems.” Soon, they’d be able to perform “robotic translation of foreign publications, particularly scientific and political material written in Russian.”
The use of language is, of course, one of the traits that has most notably distinguished human beings from all other creatures. The complete mastery of human language by computers may well be on its way. Some scientists say that digital computers can already “think.” Though they greatly doubt that computers will be able to do creative thinking, they are coming close.
Most ominous of all, wrote Young, was the arrival of machine learning:
A new machine called the Perceptron is actually able to learn things by itself, by studying its environment. Built by a Cornell psychologist, Dr. Frank Rosenblatt, it is equipped to look at pictures and in future versions will hear spoken words. It not only recognizes what it has seen before but also teaches itself generalizations about these. It can even identify new shapes similar to those it has seen before.
The Perceptron is so complex that even its inventor can no longer predict how it will react to a new problem. “If devices like the Perceptron,” says one expert, “can really learn effectively by themselves, we will be approaching the making of a true robot, fantastic as that sounds. But remember, all this was begun and devised by human brains, so humans — if they take care — will remain supreme.”
Young didn’t find such tepid reassurances all that convincing:
This is cheering news, no doubt. But there is another view of the future in a story that computer designers now tell only as a macabre joke: A weary programmer who has spent his life tending a computer that always has the right answer for everything finally gets fed up. “All right,” he asks his machine, “if you’re so smart, tell me — is there a God?” The computer whirs gently, its lights flicker, its coils buzz and hum, and at last it clicks out the answer: THERE IS NOW.
Computers hadn’t even mastered lower-case letters, and already we’d infused them with delusions of grandeur.