Science: The Thinking Machine

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Electronic Cobwebs. Laymen are usually baffled When they first look at the machines. Except for Bessie, who has thousands of moving parts that spin and clack entertainingly, they are mostly electronic, and look like the insides of big, enormously complicated radio sets. Among their thousands of vacuum tubes runs a tangled web of fine, insulated wire. On their panels lights flash mysteriously: red lights and white lights dancing like motes in the sunlight as the numbers flow. Harvard's newest machine, Mark III, is probably the handsomest. It was built for the Navy's Bureau of Ordnance, and it looks as spruce and shipshape as a naval officer. At work, it roars louder than an admiral.

Around the machines drifts a dense fog of mathematics, a sort of intellectual tear gas to discomfort the nonmathematical. The machines speak and understand a special language of numbers. These are not "decimal," as ordinary numbers are, built on a base of ten with digits running from 0 to 9. They are "binary" numbers with a base of two, and have only two digits: 0 and 1. In this style of arithmetic, 0 is 0; 1 is i. But 2 is written as 10; 3 is 11; 4 is 100; 5 is 101; 14 is 1110, etc.

Yes-or-No Language. The machines prefer such numbers because their essential parts (electrical relays or vacuum tubes acting like swift relays) obey only two commands: yes or no—i.e., an electrical signal or no signal. So all information fed into the machines has to be predigested into yes-or-no binary arithmetic. Any number, however large, can be expressed in this form. So can elaborate equations like those from the fission problem done for Princeton by the I.B.M. machine. Even languages can be translated in binary numbers. (One way: making different numbers stand for each character, syllable or word.) Any sort of information, once the mathematicians go to work on it, can be broken down into yes-or-no.

But the predigesting job takes some doing. Around each working computer hover young mathematicians with dreamy eyes. On desks flecked with frothy figures, they translate real-life problems into figure-language. It usually takes them much longer to prepare a problem than it takes the machine to solve it.

These human question-askers are sure to lag farther & farther behind the question-answering machines. Mark II, the first calculator built at Harvard for the Navy, is ten times as fast as Bessie. Mark III is 25 times as fast as Mark II and 250 times as fast as Bessie. Machines now abuilding will be faster still. Says Professor Aiken, head of Harvard's Computation Laboratory: "We'll have to think up bigger problems if we want to keep them busy."

Cybernetics Shock. Professor Aiken need not worry: bigger problems are on the way. The success of the automatic calculators set off an explosion of high, wide & handsome pondering that is still reverberating. One of the first recorded tremors was a small, extraordinary book called Cybernetics (John Wiley & Sons; $3), by Professor Norbert Wiener of M.I.T. (TIME, Dec. 27, 1948).

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