Dangers Ahead

The ruler of a totalitarian state might well be tempted to keep a close check by electronic installations on everything that was going on in his realm: the efficiency of agriculture and industry and the quota to be demanded from every citizen. Electronic computers would make it possible for the first time in history to effect a contribution of human beings to the general welfare of the state on really rational lines, with working norms and eating norms, sleeping norms, pleasure norms and propagation norms. The theme has in fact already tempted many writers of science fiction. How would it be if a nation really had all its subjects automatically controlled, checked and regulated in all the details of their lives? How would it be if the mathematicians responsible for the programs succeeded some day in taking over management of the state? What would happen if no one any longer had any control over the computers, if there were no longer anyone with the power to liberate mankind from the everpresent watchfulness of the machines? After a single generation, the inner resistance of human beings would be broken, the rule of the computers forever confirmed. Or at any rate until the first transistors burned out.


There is another vision of the future that seems more Utopian, though scientists exist who believe that one day it will be possible to make it a reality. They envisage the retention of the complete consciousness of individual human beings - their thoughts and their mental capacity - in an electronic computer. The man whose consciousness was thus reproduced in the machine could continue thinking there, so to speak, independently of himself. A crazy idea, but a fascinating one. The consciousness of great spirits could thus be preserved for the world eternally; the electronically preserved minds of Lincoln, Disraeli and Einstein - if only we had been able to keep them in store - could be entrusted with the solution of the problems over which the world's leaders today rack their brains. Once we had reached this stage it would probably no longer be difficult to weld together the wisdom of several great minds in a super-brain that could solve all the world's problems in the twinkling of an eye, demonstrate epoch-making laws of physics in their spare time and give lectures telling us infallibly how we can at last make Lions lie down with lambs.

But there is one thing at any rate that seems perfectly obvious: we shall never know whether a robot will ever feel any specifically human satisfactions or discontents. No robot, probably, will ever be urged by an overflowing heart or a healthy appetite to write a love song or compose a new recipe for lemon meringue pie.

Nor, we suppose, will there ever be a computer that can split its sides laughing.

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Kybernetik - Was ist das?

First printed in Germany: 1963


Cybernetic Computer and Electronic Brain

The fascinating story of how computers work in clear, non-mathematical language