In 1949, He Imagined an Age of Robots

In 1949, He Imagined an Age of Robots

May 20 2013

It was a vision that never saw the light of day.

The year was 1949, and computers and robots were still largely the stuff of science fiction. Only a few farsighted thinkers imagined that they would one day become central to civilization, with consequences both liberating and potentially dire.

One of those visionaries was Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), an American mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1948 he had published “Cybernetics,” a landmark theoretical work that both foreshadowed and influenced the arrival of computing, robotics and automation. Two years later, he wrote “The Human Use of Human Beings,” a popularization of those ideas and an exploration of the potential of automation and the risks of dehumanization by machines.

In 1949, The New York Times invited Wiener to summarize his views about “what the ultimate machine age is likely to be,” in the words of its longtime Sunday editor, Lester Markel.

Wiener accepted the invitation and wrote a draft of the article; the legendarily autocratic Markel was dissatisfied and asked him to rewrite it. He did. But through a distinctly pre-Internet series of fumbles and missed opportunities, neither version ever appeared.

In August, according to Wiener’s papers, which are on file at the M.I.T. Libraries, The Times asked him to resend the first draft of the article so it could be combined with the second draft. (It is not clear why the editors failed to keep a copy of the first draft.)

“Could you send the first draft to me, and we’ll see whether we can combine the two into one story?” wrote an editor in the paper’s Sunday department, then separate from the daily paper. “I may be mistaken, but I think you lost some of your best material.”

But by then Wiener was traveling in Mexico, and he responded:

“I had assumed that the first version of my article was finished business. To get hold of the paper in my office at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology would involve considerable cross-correspondence and annoyance to several people.

“I therefore do not consider it a practical thing to do. Under the circumstances I think that it is best for me to abandon this undertaking.”

The following week the Times editor returned the second draft to Wiener, and it eventually made its way to the libraries’ Archives and Special Collections. It languished there until December 2012, when it was discovered by Anders Fernstedt, an independent scholar who is researching the work of Karl Popper, the 20th-century philosopher.

Almost 64 years after Wiener wrote it, his essay is still remarkably topical, raising questions about the impact of smart machines on society and of automation on human labor. In the spirit of rectifying an old omission, here are excerpts from “The Machine Age,” courtesy of the M.I.T. Libraries (all rights reserved).



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