Science: The Thinking Machine

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Memory & Weather. A group led by Julian Bigelow of Princeton's Institute for Advanced Study (whose world-famous mathematician, Professor John von Neumann, developed much of the theory behind modern computers) is building these memory tubes into a machine whose working surfaces are folded upon themselves like the brain's cortex. The machine is intended for such ambitious jobs as long-range weather forecasting.

The factors that cause U.S. weather—varying barometric pressure, temperature, humidity, wind velocity, topography, etc. —interact so intricately that the human brain cannot handle the "burden of computation." During World War II, 40 skilled operators with 40 desk computers tried to keep up with U.S. weather. They fell behind like earthworms paced by a meteor.

Chemicals & Economics. Other practical computing assignments will come from chemistry. The properties of chemical compounds are determined by the characteristics of the atoms that form their molecules; but when chemists try to predict the characteristics of a new compound, not yet synthesized, they run into barriers of figuring. Computers of the future will leap lightly over such barriers. Computermen believe that future chemists will tell the machines to examine thousands of possible compounds in search of the best one: say, a plastic with great elasticity. When such a compound is found, the chemists will set about synthesizing it.

In many other fields the machines will have figuring to do. According to Harvard's Professor Aiken, U.S. economic health depends upon the interaction of 38 industries. But they interact in such complex ways that economists can only guess at present whether they will hatch, a few months later, a boom or a depression. It should be possible for the machines, thinks Aiken, to solve at short intervals a sort of "flow equation" of U.S. economic affairs. After digesting reports on production, payrolls, bank loans, etc., the brainy monsters should be able to forecast economic rain or sunshine. It might even be possible, according to Aiken, to "program" a machine so that it could beat the stock market.

Mechanical Stenographer. Computermen point out that the human brain and the machines speak basically the same language: the simplified language of binary arithmetic. When a stenographer, for instance, listens to her boss's dictation, her ears catch sound waves ("In reply to yours of the 4th . . ."), and turn them into the yes-or-no signals that her neurons demand. Then her neurons send instructions to her finger muscles that result in shorthand scratchings.

There is no reason, say the computermen, why a machine cannot do the same thing. It would need an attachment to turn spoken words into trains of binary numbers. Then the numbers would be turned into typed words. They would not necessarily be spelled phonetically. The machine could decide by reference to memory, just as a flesh & blood stenographer does, how each group of sounds ought to be spelled. Other "memories" would tell it how to clean up the boss's grammar.

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