Human Versus Machine Intelligence and Communication (1959)


"Somewhat the same problem arises in communicating with a machine entity that would arise in communicating with a person of an entirely different language background than your own. A system of logical definition and translation would have to be available. In order that meanings should not be lost, such a system of translation would also need to be precise. We are all familiar with the unhappy results of language translations which are either lacking in precision or where suitable words of equivalent meaning cannot be found. Likewise, translating into a machine language cannot be anything but an exact operation. Machines even more than people must be addressed with clarity and unambiguity, for machines cannot improvise on their own or imagine that about which they have not been specifically informed, as a human might do within reasonable limits of error. . . .

"We must now ascertain how concepts are formulated within the framework of computer language. For analogy, let us first consider the manner in which instructions are usually given to a non-mechanical entity. When we instruct, for example, a human being, we are aided by the fact that the human is usually able to fill in gaps in our instructions through acumen acquired from his own past experiences. It is seldom necessary that instructions be either detailed or literal, although we may have lost sight of this fact.

"The computer in a correlate example is a mechanical 'being' which must be instructed at each and every step. But it can be given a very long list of instructions upon which it can be expected to subsequently act with great speed and accuracy and with untiring repetition. Machine traits are: low comprehension, high retention, extreme reliability, and tremendous speed. The use of superlatives here to describe these traits is not exaggerative. Since speed becomes in practice the equivalent of number, the machine might be, and has sometimes been, equated to legions — an army, if you will — of lowgrade morons whose conceptualization is entirely literal, who remember as long as is necessary or as you desire them to, whose loyalty and subservience is complete, who require no holidays, no spurious incentives, no morale programs, pensions, not even gratitude for past service, and who seemingly never tire of doing elementary repetitive tasks such as typing, accounting, bookkeeping, arithmetic, filling in forms, and the like. In about all these respects the machine may be seen to be the exact opposite of nature's loftiest creature, the intellligent human being, who becomes bored with the petty and repetitious, who is unreliable, who wanders from the task for the most trivial reasons, who gets out of humor, who forgets, who requires constant incentives and rewards, who improvises on his own even when to do so is impertinent to the objectives being undertaken, and who in summary (let's face it) is unsuitable to most forms of industry as the latter are ideally and practically conceived in our times. It becomes apparent in retrospect that the only excuse we might ever have had for employing him to do many of civilization's more literal and repetitious tasks was the absence of something more efficient with which to replace him!

"It is not the purpose of this volume to explore further the ramifications of the above statements of fact. . . ."(Nett & Hetzler, An Introduction to Electronic Data Processing [1959] 86-88).

Timeline Themes