Science: The Thinking Machine

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Professor Wiener is a stormy petrel (he looks more like a stormy puffin) of mathematics and adjacent territory. A rarity among scientists, he is willing & able to talk intelligently on almost any subject. Wiener got interested in computing machines while doing war work on gun-pointing mechanisms. His wide-ranging interests (too widely ranging, some of his detractors think) saw in them qualities and possibilities that more practical men had missed.

The great new computers, cried Wiener with mingled alarm and triumph, are not mere mathematical tools. They are, he said, harbingers of a whole new science of communication and control, which he promptly named "cybernetics."* The newest machines, Wiener pointed out, already have an extraordinary resemblance to the human brain, both in structure and function. So far, they have no senses or "effectors" (arms and legs), but why shouldn't they have? There are all sorts of artificial eyes, ears and fingertips (thermometers, strain gauges, pressure indicators, photo-electric tubes) that may be hooked up to the machines. The machines can already work typewriters. They can be built to work valves, switches and all of the other control devices common in modern industry.

Second Revolution. Such a development, says Wiener, is certain. When it does come, he argues, it will usher in "the second industrial revolution," which will devalue the human brain as the first industrial revolution devalued the human arm. He points out that only a few hand workers can now compete with power-driven machines. Soon, he warns, there will be wholly automatic factories with artificial brains keeping track of every process. They will order raw materials, inspect them, store them, route them through the plant. They will pay bills, blow the factory whistle and pay the help (if any).

Many of his colleagues, while admitting that he is a great mathematician, accuse him of sensationalism. Wiener's admirers reply that such bickering is only to be expected in a field as lively as cybernetics. Peace does not reign in a science, they say, until its peaks and valleys have worn to a featureless peneplain grazed by placid ruminants.

What Is Thinking? Do computers think? Some experts say yes, some say no. Both sides are vehement; but all agree that the answer to the question depends on what you mean by thinking.

The human brain, some computermen explain, thinks by judging present information in the light of past experience. That is roughly what the machines do. They consider figures fed into them (just as information is fed to the human brain by the senses), and measure the figures against information that is "remembered." The machine-radicals ask: "Isn't this thinking?"

Their opponents retort that computers are mere tools that do only what they are told. Professor Aiken, a leader of the conservatives, admits that the machines show, in rudimentary form at least, all the attributes of human thinking except one: imagination. Aiken cannot define imagination, but he is sure that it exists and that no machine, however clever, is likely to have any.

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