Wiener on robots

An essay by Norbert Wiener written in 1949 intended for the New York Times was recently uncovered.  He pretty much had it right 64 years ago. Below is the rather serious last section. Earlier in the piece, we find out that programming was  called “taping” at that time.

New York Times:

The Genie and the Bottle

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.

Finally the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do. In the discussion of the relation between man and powerful agencies controlled by man, the gnomic wisdom of the folk tales has a value far beyond the books of our sociologists.

There is general agreement among the sages of the peoples of the past ages, that if we are granted power commensurate with our will, we are more likely to use it wrongly than to use it rightly, more likely to use it stupidly than to use it intelligently. [W. W. Jacobs’s] terrible story of the “Monkey’s Paw” is a modern example of this — the father wishes for money and gets it as a compensation for the death of his son in a factory accident, then wishes for the return of his son. The son comes back as a ghost, and the father wishes him gone. This is the outcome of his three wishes.

Moreover, if we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

3 thoughts on “Wiener on robots

  1. an old book by n weiner tried to derive quantum mechanics from a diffusion process. (bohm and nelson (princeton (con?) among others tried the same thing—-nelson recently tried to show peano arithmatic is consistant; didnt work).
    i read one other book by weiner which maybe this is about–human use of technology or something—he was very much a humanitarian. knew his stuff tho quantum theory is still open book.


  2. ps i meant nelson showed ‘peano is inconsistant’
    he retracted it like his stuff on qm (nothing new there)

    hilbert’s mistake
    they discussed this on FOM archive (martin davis) and n-category cafe (and i dont like category theory —-did meet paul cohen once (continuum hypothesis—he didnt like my solution–‘we dont do it that way’ (i’m into lowenheim-skolem, etc )


  3. ps2 . i see francesco lerit of u geulph (associate prof neuroscience and cog scinece) says rat studies show high fructose sugar is addictive and that may explain the obesity epidemic. ‘a calories is not a calorie’, or ‘the law of one price’ (economics) is false. one could mention crack laws. (i even know this—its 2$ for a large diet coke up the corner, and across the street its 89 cents). h. weyl’s gauge theory presumably explains this. (you might get hit by a car crossing the street and i got a gun pulled on me recently there).

    i didnt even know some primes were twins (zhang)—i guess biotech. i thought the zeta function was the partition function for the numbers. (statistical number theory—g h hardy, ramanujan—weiner studied with hardy and bertrand russel too.)
    zhang at least had a job at a subway shop.
    (unlike jason richwine got his PhD from harvard showing that charles murray will get him a job at AEI).
    i got totally flooded last nite but at least it wasnt the UK or Oklahoma (grapes of wrath) or pakistan. (if i stay up i can see my niece’s graduation in singapore (her free scholarship—got tired of north carolina) —she’s going to MIT in engineering or such after a year in Taiwan (to perfect her languages)
    some of my family went to see it—then they are going on holiday in cambodia and vietnam. (i hope that holiday isnt like what is on my blog from the dk’s.)


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