Science: The Thinking Machine

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Chess Player. Dr. Claude E. Shannon of Bell Telephone Laboratories is figuring how to make a calculator that can play chess. He thinks that one could play well enough to beat all except the greatest chess masters. Machines are also capable, he thinks, of orchestrating a melody and of making simple logical deductions.

Computing machines are very expensive at present; Mark III cost $500,000. But they are becoming simpler, as well as more intelligent, and their cost can be cut enormously by commercial production methods. It is almost certain that they will come into wide use eventually. On Professor Aiken's desk are sheaves of letters from corporations eager to learn about the computers' potentialities.

Nearly all the computermen are worried about the effect the machines will have on society. But most of them are not so pessimistic as Wiener. Professor Aiken thinks that computers will take over intellectual drudgery as power-driven tools took over spading and reaping. Already the telephone people are installing machines of the computer type that watch the operations of dial exchanges and tot up the bills of subscribers.

Psychotic Robots. In the larger, "biological" sense, there is room for nervous speculation. Some philosophical worriers suggest that the computers, growing superhumanly intelligent in more & more ways, will develop wills, desires and unpleasant foibles' of their own, as did the famous robots in Capek's R.U.R.

Professor Wiener says that some computers are already "human" enough to suffer from typical psychiatric troubles. Unruly memories, he says, sometimes spread through a machine as fears and fixations spread through a psychotic human brain. Such psychoses may be cured, says Wiener, by rest (shutting down the machine), by electric shock treatment (increasing the voltage in the tubes), or by lobotomy (disconnecting part of the machine).

Some practical computermen scoff at such picturesque talk, but others recall odd behavior in their own machines. Robert Seeber of I.B.M. says that his big computer has a very human foible: it hates to wake up in the morning. The operators turn it on, the tubes light up and reach a proper temperature, but the machine is not really awake. A problem sent through its sleepy wits does not get far. Red lights flash, indicating that the machine has made an error. The patient operators try the problem again. This time the machine thinks a little more clearly. At last, after several tries, it is fully awake and willing to think straight.

Neurotic Exchange. Bell Laboratories' Dr. Shannon has a similar story. During World War II, he says, one of the Manhattan dial exchanges (very similar to computers) was overloaded with work. It began to behave queerly, acting with an irrationality that disturbed the company. Flocks of engineers, sent to treat the patient, could find nothing organically wrong. After the war was over, the work load decreased. The ailing exchange recovered and is now entirely normal. Its trouble had been "functional": like other hard-driven war workers, it had suffered a nervous breakdown.

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