Today in 1996, the US Postal Office introduced a special “Computer Technology” stamp to mark the fiftieth anniversary of ENIAC, the first large-scale, electronic digital computer. The stamp shows an image of a brain partially covered by small blocs that contain parts of circuit boards and binary code. The image encapsulates well the conviction that computers are giant brains, articulated in 1949 by Edmund Berkeley in his book, Giant Brains or Machines that Think: “Recently there have been a good deal of news about strange giant machines that can handle information with vast speed and skill….These machines are similar to what a brain would be if it were made of hardware and wire instead of flesh and nerves… A machine can handle information; it can calculate, conclude, and choose; it can perform reasonable operations with information. A machine, therefore, can think.” Thirty years later, Marvin Minsky famously stated: “The human brain is just a computer that happens to be made out of meat.”
To which Joseph Weizenbaum replied: “What do these people actually mean when they shout that man is a machine (and a brain a ‘meat machine’)? It is… that human beings are ‘computable,’ that they are not distinct from other objects in the world… all this is not the fault of the computer. Guilt cannot be attributed to computers. But computers enable fantasies, many of them wonderful, but also those of people whose compulsion to play God overwhelms their ability to fathom the consequences of their attempt to turn their nightmares into reality. I recall, in this connection, a debate I once had with Herbert Simon. Perhaps frustrated by my attitudes, he shouted: ‘Knowledge is better than ignorance!’ (I think he thought he had me there). I replied: ‘Yes! But not at any price.’”
But Weizenbaum was in a small and ever-decreasing minority. In his 2005 book, The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil predicted that by 2045, machine intelligence may equal or surpass the collective intelligence of all human beings on Earth.
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