(Roughly) Daily

“On the one hand the computer makes it possible in principle to live in a world of plenty for everyone, on the other hand we are well on our way to using it to create a world of suffering and chaos. Paradoxical, no?”*…

Joseph Weizenbaum, a distinguished professor at MIT, was one of the fathers of artificial intelligence and computing as we know it; he was also one of his earliest critics– one whose concerns remain all too current. After a review of his warnings, Librarian Shipwreck shares a still-relevant set of questions Weizenbaum proposed…

At the end of his essay “Once more—A Computer Revolution” which appeared in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1978, Weizenbaum concluded with a set of five questions. As he put it, these were the sorts of questions that “are almost never asked” when it comes to this or that new computer related development. These questions did not lend themselves to simple yes or no answers, but instead called for serious debate and introspection. Thus, in the spirit of that article, let us conclude this piece not with definitive answers, but with more questions for all of us to contemplate. Questions that were “almost never asked” in 1978, and which are still “almost never asked” in 2023. They are as follows:

• Who is the beneficiary of our much-advertised technological progress and who are its victims?

• What limits ought we, the people generally and scientists and engineers particularly, to impose on the application of computation to human affairs?

• What is the impact of the computer, not only on the economies of the world or on the war potential of nations, etc…but on the self-image of human beings and on human dignity?

• What irreversible forces is our worship of high technology, symbolized most starkly by the computer, bringing into play?

• Will our children be able to live with the world we are here and now constructing?

As Weizenbaum put it “much depends on answers to these questions.”

Much still depends on answers to these questions.

Eminently worth reading in full: “‘Computers enable fantasies’ – on the continued relevance of Weizenbaum’s warnings,” from @libshipwreck.

See also: “An island of reason in the cyberstream – on the life and thought of Joseph Weizenbaum.”

* Joseph Weizenbaum (1983)


As we stay grounded, we might spare a thought for George Stibitz; he died on this date in 1995. A Bell Labs researcher, he was known for his work in the 1930s and 1940s on the realization of Boolean logic digital circuits using electromechanical relays as the switching element– work for which he is internationally recognized as one of the fathers of the modern digital computer.

In 1937, Stibitz, a scientist at Bell Laboratories built a digital machine based on relays, flashlight bulbs, and metal strips cut from tin-cans. He called it the “Model K” because most of it was constructed on his kitchen table. It worked on the principle that if two relays were activated they caused a third relay to become active, where this third relay represented the sum of the operation. Then, in 1940, he gave a demonstration of the first remote operation of a computer.


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