|A screen grab of the story's opening spread. Image courtesy of Modern Mechanix blog.
1967. Charlie Chaplin is out and Jimi Hendrix is in. It may be the summer of love, but it is also a year of riots and violence. While war rages in Vietnam, the space race is picking up speed.
In that atmosphere, it's hardly surprising to see well-written, well-researched literary journalism appearing in Playboy. Max Gunther's "Computers: Their built-in limitations" mixes piquant wit with an easy writing style that draws the reader in, creating an extremely well-crafted piece.
Too bad his criticisms of computing were so off the mark that today, his commentary has become unintentional satire.
There are many parts that may bring a smile to your lips. Here are a few gems:
- Computers are just a status symbol.
"To have a computer is 'in.' Even if you're a scruffy little company that nobody ever heard of, you must have a computer. Businessmen meeting at conventions like to drop phrases such as 'My EDP manager told me' and 'Our programing (sic) boys think,' and watch the crestfallen looks of uncomputerized listeners."
- Putting computers in charge of our armies could be apocalyptic.
"The last war might, in fact, be a war between computers. It would be a coldly efficient war, no doubt. A logical war: Score 70,000,000 deaths for my side, 60 megadeaths for your side; I'm ahead: your move, pal. How could we convey to the machines our totally illogical feelings about life and death? A country is made of people and money, and the people may properly be asked to give their lives for their country, yet a single human life is worth more than all the money in the world. Only the human brain is flexible enough to assimilate contradictions such as this without blowing a fuse."
- Computers give us a false sense of objectivity.
"'What the computer does,' he says, 'is to allow us to believe in the myth of objectivity.' The computer 'acts without excessive hesitation, as if it is sure, as if it knows. …' A man who isn't sure can often make people think he is, simply by coming up with a bundle of factual-looking print-out. He hides his own bad brainwork, says Professor Johnson, by 'sprinkling it with eau de computer.'"
- Research will be limited by the very limited capabilities of computers.
"Worse, Professor Johnson says, the growing availability of computers tends to make some researchers in scientific institutions avoid problems that don't lend themselves to machine handling: Problems involving human values, problems of morality and aesthetics, subtle problems that can't be translated into arithmetic and punched itito (sic) those neat little snip-cornered cards-all these get left out of the calculations. The tendency is to wrench reality around and hammer it into a nice square shape so the inflexible machines can swallow it."
- And finally, towards the end of the article, Gunther lists several things humans can do that he believes computers will never be able to do: write music, play chess, translate languages, or find answers in a library of information. Yet today, we know that computers rule the chess roost, they are increasingly capable of translating many foreign languages, and they are by far the quickest method for finding materials in a vast library.
Gunther does make some valid points. Today, we still don't understand the human brain, or how we could create true artificial intelligence. It is either foolish or dishonest to brandish computer results as proof of infallibility, just as not all statistics are created equal. And it is certainly true that, at least so far, computers are just tools that follow orders.
But in 2009, this article certainly brings with it a familiar lesson: technology stops its forward march for no man's opinion. The times, they are a-changin'.
-Miriam Boon, iSGTW