After World War II, my father was a writer and editor in New York. His byline was “Dan Gillmor” (I’m Dan Jr.), and one of his favorite publications was the Nation magazine, a prominent progressive journal (then and now) to which he contributed for many years.
Recently, my nephew Daniel Kahn Gillmor (sometimes known as Daniel Gillmor; sorry if this gets confusing), forwarded a clip from the magazine that his mother, my sister Mickey, had sent him. (Update: It may have been his father, Henry…) I hadn’t seen it before, and (like Daniel) was delighted by it.
I showed it to my friend John Markoff, the New York Times journalist who now writes primarily about robotics and artificial intelligence, and he said, “That has to be the first thing ever written on malware.” I’m not positive about that (let me know if you know otherwise), but the piece was definitely way, way ahead of its time — consider how today’s and especially tomorrow’s robots and AI truly do threaten to erase employment on a mass scale — and a fond reminder of how smart my dad was, not to mention his acute sense of the absurd.
Anyway, here’s that piece:
Mechanical Brain Era
By Dan Gillmor
(The Nation, 16 July 1949, p.62)
Little would we suspect, were it not for Louis N. Ridenour, dean of the Graduate College, University of Illinois, that we are standing on the threshold of the Second Industrial Revolution. In an article in the May issue of Fortune Dr. Ridenour explained the significance of “mechanical brains” or “automatic digital computers.” Heretofore, he said, we have had to control machines by the regrettable device of “inserting a man” — in a steam shovel, for instance. Thanks to the new electronic super-gadgets, this era, the Era of Inserted Man, is about to end. The automatic digital computers will take over.
The a. d. c.’s can do arithmetic a thousand times faster than men. They can remember what answer they got, compare it with the answer to another calculation, decide what to do next, do it, and type out their conclusions on a “suitably modified teletypewriter.” They have only two drawbacks, says Dr. Ridenour. The more complex they become, the more likely they are to make mistakes. Engineers try to get around this by wiring them so that whenever any little thing goes wrong, the whole machine goes crazy, thus warning its human masters that there is a bat in the electronic belfry. Human brains behave differently: “If a part fails [in ithe human brain],” says the Dean, “every effort is made to conceal the fault…” As electronic brains become more complicated, engineers will probably have to rig them so that they will not rationalize their neuroses.
The second problem is apparently to get rid of that teletypewriter on which the operator still must tell the machine what to do and vice versa. When that happens, we shall have “progressed far enough to complete the control organization of the machine–its sense organs and nervous system… While the First Industrial Revolution involved substitution of machinery for man’s musculature, the second will replace by inanimate devices man’s senses, nervous system, and brain… Though certain men at certain times perform superlatively in controlling machines, the over-all performance of a satisfactory automatic-control system Is likely to be preferable, since a machine cannot be frightened, distracted, bored, or unionized as readily as a human operator can.”
The Illinois savant has not overlooked even more desirable attributes of the a. d. c.: it doesn’t eat, sleep, switch to Calvert’s, or, best of all, get wages. “The present activities of certain labor organizations,” the Dean says, “seem calculated to encourage the trend [toward replacement of men by the new machines] as rapidly as our technology permits…. Rising wages put a premium on high productivity per worker and thus on fewer workers. Any acts of capricious irresponsibility or malicious obstructionism on the part of labor unions put a premium on as complete an elimination of the human worker as possible.” In parentheses, Dr. Ridenour remarks, “And some union activities must have this aspect to employers.”
Strikes, contract negotiations, and demands for higher wages and shorter hours do indeed “have this aspect to employers.” But such acts of malicious obstructionism are soon to become part of the bygone era of the First Industrial Revolution. Nothing would seem to stand in the way of “productivity per worker” reaching a numerical value of infinity. Of cause a few obstructionist workers may resist such a trend, since it will eventually put them out of work. The C.I.O. [labor union] may even form a Automatic Digital Computers’ Organizing Committee. The capricious fellows may vote an assessment to buy an a. d. c themselves. For a while second-order differential equations will pour out of the C.I.O. a. d. c., as Mr. Murray and his colleagues try frantically to find a solution for the rapidly spreading obsolescence of the human brain. But the N.A.M., well in the lead with a new super-a. d. c, produced by International Business Machines, will blandly reply with a third-order equation. Hearst headlines will thunder:
The Automatic Computer Subcommittee of the Un-American Activities Committee will bare a plot, hatched by Soviet agents trained on red a. d. c.’s, to wire subversive circuits into the United States Steel master-control a. d. c. Witnesses will be asked, “Are you or have you ever been
The employers, who pioneered in a. d. c.’s will be one jump ahead all the time; and finally peace will settle over the land, with the Second Industrial Revolution predicted by Dr. Ridenour in full swing. Mankind will have achieved that perfect society in which there are only employers and eagerly cooperating a. d. c’s.
DAN GILLMOR is a feature writer on the New York Compass.