Norbert Wiener’s worried vision for an automated America never was realized–until maybe now, that is. In an article in the August 18, 1950 Brooklyn Daily Eagle, the cyberneticist and mathematician explained how the second Industrial Revolution might be a mixed blessing. The story:
“Cambridge, Mass. — If Russia doesn’t ruin us the robots will, a noted scientist predicted today. Dr. Norbert Wiener, professor of mathematics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said Moscow and the new mechanical brains might even prove unwitting allies in driving the United States into a ‘decade or more of ruin and despair.’
Wiener is the bearded former boy prodigy who earned his doctorate of philosophy at the age of 19 and went on to develop the new science of ‘cybernetics’–the use of communication in controlling men or machines.
Will Take Over Tasks
He said the United States is on the verge of a ‘second industrial revolution’ in which robot factories operated by so-called mechanical brains will take over all the routine tasks of production from men.
‘Short of any violent political changes or another great war, I should give a rough estimate that it will take the new tools 10 or 20 years to come into their own,’ Wiener said.
But he added that the demands of a war with Russia would speed the development of robot factories and almost inevitably see the automatic man age in full swing within less than five years.’
What happen to humans when the robots take over?
May Be a Good Thing
Wiener has a word of warning about that in a new book, The Human Use of Human Beings, which will be published Monday by Houghton Mifflin Company.
If the new machines are used wisely, he said, it may in the long run ‘make this a good thing and the source of the leisure which is necessary for the cultural development of man on all sides.
But Wiener said the depression of the 1930s will look like ‘pleasant joke’ in comparison with what will happen if the nation misuses the new machines which can calculate, remember, pass judgement and even succumb to nervous breakdowns.
‘Thus the new industrial revolution is a two-edged sword,’ he said. ‘It may be used for the benefit of humanity, assuming that humanity survives long enough to enter a period in which such a benefit is possible.'”