John Meszar Asks To What Extent Can Human Mental Processes be Duplicated by Switching Circuits?


In 1953 Bell Laboratories engineer John Meszar published "Switching Systems as Mechanical Brains," Bell Laboratories Record XXXI (1953) 63-69.

This paper, written in the earliest days of automatic switching systems, when few electronic computers existed, and, for the most part, human telephone operators served as "highly intelligent and versatile switching systems," raised the question of whether certain aspects of human thought are computable and others are not. Meszar argued for "the necessity of divorcing certain mental operations from the concept of thinking," in order to "pave the way for ready acceptance of the viewpoint that automatic systems can accomplish many of the functions of the human brain." 

"We are faced with a basic dilemma; we are forced either to admit the possibility of mechanized thinking, or to restrict increasingly our concept of thinking. However, as is apparent from this article, many of us do not find it hard to make the choice. The choice is to reject the possibility of mechanized thinking but to admit readily the necessity for an orderly declassification of many areas of mental effort from the high level of thinking. Machines will take over such areas, whether we like it or not.

"This declassification of wide areas of mental effort should not dismay any one of us. It is not an important gain for those who are sure that even as machines have displaced muscles, they will also take over the functions of the 'brain.' Neither is it a real loss for those who feel that there is something hallowed about all functions of the human mind. What we are giving up to the machines— some of us gladly, others reluctantly— are the uninteresting flat lands of routine mental chores, tasks that have to be performed according to rigorous rules. The areas we are holding unchallenged are the dominating heights of creative mental effort, which comprise the ability to speculate, to invent, to imagine, to philosophize, the dream better ways for tomorrow than exist today. These are the mental activities for which rigorous rules cannot be formulated— they constitute real thinking, whose mechanization most of us cannot conceive" (p. 69).

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