Computers Aren't So Smart, After All

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ENIAC.jpg

Before the personal computer came along in the 1980s, many in the public saw The Computer as a rare object, a big piece of machinery used by the government and big corporations to spit out prophecies. They were widely misunderstood, Fred Hapgood argued in the August 1974 issue of The Atlantic, particularly the nature of their "intelligence," as it was.

Hapgood was a bit of a naysayer about computing's potential. "While what computers do is important, it certainly does not appear to add up to a revolution," he wrote. He noted that in the 1950s many thinkers had oversold computing's potential, particularly in the realm of artificial intelligence. What's really important about that is the realization that technological change takes a lot longer than we think. While we bemoan the fast pace of digital change, here we see someone in 1974 noting that computing's progress has occurred more slowly than its promoters had anticipated.

Prognostications aside, the reason you should read Hapgood's piece is that it shows a society grappling with what human intelligence meant in the new light of new machines that could do something like think. Intelligence was being explored in a new way: by finding out what was duplicable about how our minds work.

Hapgood's conclusion, which I think is fascinating 26 years later, was that if you could automate a task, it would lose value to humans. What tremendous luck! Humans value that which only humans can do, he argued, regardless of the difficulty of the task. And that because computers were so good at sequential logic problems, we'd eventually end up only respecting emotional understanding, which remained (and remains) beyond the reach of AI.

Here's the last few excellent paragraphs:

MIT hopes within five years to have developed an electronic repairman that can assemble, inspect, maintain, and repair electronic equipment. Stanford University has been doing a lot of work on manipulation and coordinating vision and tactile, systems, and is moving rapidly toward automatic building and assembling machines. Natural language comprehension, wherein a human can converse with a computer in everyday English, has been showing especially dramatic progress in recent years and there are some showpiece programs which work slowly but well. A number of private companies, particularly the Xerox Corporation, are increasing their support of their own research programs.

So it is at least possible that, sometime during the 1980s, we will see the gradual introduction of programs, which, whether or not we call them intelligent, will be able to react reasonably to significantly complicated situations. If we are to learn anything at all from the history of computers in America, it ought to be extreme care in predicting what computers will mean to the society and the culture. There are some general observations that might be pertinent. The first is that these programs are extremely complex and therefore expensive. Even the simplest takes man-years to write, and they must be specifically tailored to particular environments. Their introduction will therefore be extremely slow. It is unlikely that any analogue will exist to the payroll programs of the fifties which could flash through whole groups of industries in a single year. Second, if we were underprepared for the first wave of automation, we are, if anything, overprepared for the second. Much of the public believes that computers already possess powers that, even by the most optimistic forecast, they will not have until well into the next century. New achievements are therefore more likely to be greeted with a shrug than with any sense of heightened significance. Third, one cannot be sure to what extent the sheer physical and financial scale of the machines of the fifties contributed to the frenzy that surrounded them, but it seems worth nothing that the price of hardware is falling precipitously, and appears certain to continue to do so. It has been estimated that the entire world stock of computers, with an original purchase price of $25 billion, could be replaced today for one billion dollars. The comparative value of human labor involved in installations is rising correspondingly. Ten years ago programming accounted for one fifth of the cost of an average installation; by the end of this decade it will be four fifths.

Ironically, the success of the artificial-intelligence scientists may end in their losing their running battle With the "vitalists." The confusion over machine intelligence arose only because the word sprawls over so many activities. Whether or not one believed that constructing geometric proofs was an intelligent activity in itself or merely expressed an intelligence which fundamentally resided at at some deeper level, one had to believe that it was legitimate to involve the word in the first place. The same assumption can be said to be true of such primitive abilities as thinking fast, or possessing an accurate memory. But it seems clear that, over the long run, when activities become mechanized, they lose status. This is an ancient dynamic, long antedating computers. Before the camera was invented, perfect reproduction of nature was thought a noble objective in painting, if not indeed the only proper end. When the camera was able to make this ideal routinely available, everyone grew bored and went off to do other things (though it might be mentioned, not before both Sam Morse and Nathaniel Hawthorne had written that surely the camera would leave artists with naught but a purely historical life). The telegraph companies inherited none of the romance which attached to the riders of the Pony Express. Routing, the planning of the most cost-effective truck and freight-car routes, was once a respected job that was thought to require judgment, skill, and experience. That function is now done by computers and has been for the last ten years, and I would guess that in all that time not two people in the transportation industries have thought seriously about the computer's showing "skill" and "judgment." Indeed, it seems probable that the computer has had at least a part in the developing conviction expressed most explicitly by, but hardly confined to, the "counterculture," that logical, sequential, cause- and-effect reasoning is not only an undistinguished but even a disreputable ability.

Read the rest of Hapgood's "Computers Aren't So Smart, After All."

Revisit more pieces from The Atlantic's archives with the Technology Channel.

Image: An ENIAC accumulator. Credit: Smithsonian.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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