To Understand Where We’re Headed, Read This Essay Written 64 Years Ago

Norbert Wiener was at MIT legend. He taught at the Institute for a long time (after getting his PhD from Harvard at age 17), where he epitomized the absent-minded professor. Of the legion of perhaps-apocryphal stories about him, my favorite was related by fellow mathematician Howard Eves,

When he and his family moved to a new house a few blocks away, his wife gave him written directions on how to reach it, since she knew he was absent-minded. But when he was leaving his office at the end of the day, he couldn’t remember where he put her note, and he couldn’t remember where the new house was. So he drove to his old neighborhood instead. He saw a young child and asked her, “Little girl, can you tell me where the Wieners moved?” “Yes, Daddy,” came the reply, “Mommy said you’d probably be here, so she sent me to show you the way home”.

In 1949, the year after he published his landmark work Cyberneticsthe New York Times asked him to contribute an essay about “what the ultimate machine age is likely to be” to the Sunday edition of the paper. Due to an unfortunate series of events the essay never ran. Until Monday, when the Times finally ran it along with an introduction by John Markoff.

It’s a pretty amazing document — way ahead of its time. Wiener thought the ultimate machine age was upon us in 1949 so he was a bit early, but as Paul Saffo reminds us, “never mistake a clear view for a short distance.”

Wiener foresaw robots:

Machines much more closely analogous to the human organism are well understood, and are now on the verge of being built. They will control entire industrial processes and will even make possible the factory substantially without employees.

The instrumentation of just about everything:

In these the ultra-rapid digital computing machines will be supplemented by pieces of apparatus which take the readings of gauges, of thermometers, or photo-electric cells, and translate them into the digital input of computing machines.

and machine learning:

The possibility of learning may be built in by allowing the taping [i.e. programming] to be re-established in a new way by the performance of the machine and the external impulses coming into it, rather than having it determined by a closed and rigid setup, to be imposed on the apparatus from the beginning.

And he laid down a great ground rule for how far this can go:

Roughly speaking, if we can do anything in a clear and intelligible way, we can do it by machine.

But he was not an uncritical cheerleader for technology. Like me, he was concerned about how workers would fare as technology kept racing ahead, and in his essay he offered a plainly-worded caution, and a direct challenge to everyone who’s not worried about technological unemployment. I’ll close this post with his words, and with an appeal to all of us to take them seriously.

These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.

We must be willing to deal in facts rather than in fashionable ideologies if we wish to get through this period unharmed. Not even the brightest picture of an age in which man is the master, and in which we all have an excess of mechanical services will make up for the pains of transition, if we are not both humane and intelligent.