Technology: The Cybernated Generation

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Because computer technology is so new and computers require such sensitive handling, a new breed of specialists has grown up to tend the machines. They are young, bright, well-paid (up to $30,000) and in short supply. With brand-new titles and responsibilities, they have formed themselves into a sort of solemn priesthood of the computer, purposely separated from ordinary laymen. Lovers of problem solving, they are apt to play chess at lunch or doodle in algebra over cocktails, speak an esoteric language that some suspect is just their way of mystifying outsiders. Deeply concerned about logic and sensitive to its breakdown in everyday life, they often annoy friends by asking them to rephrase their questions more logically.

These men, ranging from the systems engineers at the top down to the machine operators, have made a pampered and all but adored child of the computer. Not content with having it perform wondrous feats in space and on earth, they are constantly trying to extend its capabilities. In the experimental milieu they have created, they have taught computers to play ticktacktoe, blackjack, checkers and a passable game of chess, instructed it to compose avant-garde music (the Illiac Suite at the University of Illinois), write simple TV westerns and whodunits, and even try its hand at beatnik poetry. Example:

The iron mother's bouquet did rudely


Yes, I am as fine as many murmuring crates.

The problem with having a machine for a buddy, of course, is that it does not make a very good conversationalist —but the scientists are busy fixing that. Until now computer experts could only communicate with their machines in one of 1,700 special languages, such as COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language), Fortran (Formula Translation), MAD (Michigan Algorithmic Decoder) and JOVIAL (Jules's Own Version of the International Algebraic Language). All of them are bewildering mixtures that only the initiated can decipher. Now some computers have reached the point where they can nearly understand—and reply in—plain English. The new Honeywell 20 understands a language similar enough to English so that an engineer can give it written instructions without consulting a programmer. The day is clearly coming when most computers will be able to talk back.

Mass Leisure. At least for now, the computer seems to raise almost as many problems as it solves. The most pressing and practical one is, of course, displacement of the work force. Each week, the Government estimates, some 35,000 U.S. workers lose or change their jobs because of the advance of automation. There are also thousands more who, except for automation, would have been hired for such jobs. If U.S. industry were to automate its factories to the extent that is now possible—not to speak of the new possibilities opening up each year—millions of jobs would be eliminated. Obviously, American society will have to undergo some major economic and social changes if those displaced by machines are to lead productive lives.

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