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Brilliant Mathematician Norbert Wiener Described the Robo-Apocalypse in 1949

Six decades later, the warning seems perfectly timed.

by Meghan Neal
May 22 2013, 8:20pm
Image via the MIT Web Museum

For decades we humans have been certain that in the future, robots would either bring about a utopian society wherein machines do all the work and we cool our heels (Kevin Drum’s provocative Mother Jones article predicted this robot paradise will arrive as soon as 2040), or rise up against us, a la countless science fiction stories.

In fact, The New York Times pointed out that “even in 1920, when the playwright Karel Capek gave English speakers the Czech word "robot" (laborer) in his play "R.U.R.," the androids at Rossum's Universal Robots were bent on wiping out the human race.” And according to Motherboard's Ben Richmond, who recently saw "R.U.R." performed, the machine future may not be too far off.

Back in 1949—around the time the industrial age was giving way to a high tech era—the legendary MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener theorized that the direction the scale would tip would ultimately depend on how stupid or not stupid humans behaved during the rise of intelligent machines. He should know; Wiener was the founder of cybernetics, the scientific study of the relationship between humans and machines, which heavily influenced robotic engineers.

A half century ago Wiener famously wrote "The world of the future will not be a comfortable hammock in which we can lie down to be waited upon by our robot slaves.” This week The New York Times dug up an earlier essay titled “The Machine Age” in which he elaborates on this warning. (The essay was supposed to be published in 1949 but the Times somehow fumbled the whole thing, leaving it to gather dust at MIT for six decades.)

Here's an excerpt, via the Times:

Not even the brightest picture of an age in which man is the master, and in which we all have an excess of mechanical services will make up for the pains of transition, if we are not both humane and intelligent....There is general agreement among the sages of the peoples of the past ages, that if we are granted power commensurate with our will, we are more likely to use it wrongly than to use it rightly, more likely to use it stupidly than to use it intelligently...

Moreover, if we move in the direction of making machines which learn and whose behavior is modified by experience, we must face the fact that every degree of independence we give the machine is a degree of possible defiance of our wishes. The genie in the bottle will not willingly go back in the bottle, nor have we any reason to expect them to be well disposed to us.

In short, it is only a humanity which is capable of awe, which will also be capable of controlling the new potentials which we are opening for ourselves. We can be humble and live a good life with the aid of the machines, or we can be arrogant and die.

The way Wiener saw it, if humans weren't careful to respect the potential consequences of our creations—something we're pretty terrible at doing—society could be headed for “an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.” Six decades later, the warning seems perfectly timed.