It is perhaps the delusion of every generation to exaggerate the novelty of their age and believe they face challenges and opportunities that no one has ever faced before. So it is today as we contemplate our automated future.
The great service of Thomas Rid’s book — Rise of the Machines: The Lost History of Cybernetics — is to highlight how we have been grappling with the relationship between man and machine for longer than we might have imagined. It also shows how the debate has been coloured by the full spectrum of emotions.
According to Rid, the idea of playing God and creating mechanical life predates the invention of the computer by many centuries — at least in the world of mythology. Early Jewish folklore recounted the tale of the golem, a shapeless clay figure brought to life by humans. The Greeks invented Hephaestus, the divine blacksmith, who created automata out of bronze. The Czech playwright Karel Čapek gave us R.U.R.. (Rossum’s Universal Robots), a story about a factory manufacturing artificial workers that popularised the word “robot” when it was staged in the US in 1950.
Humans may have long obsessed about machines that could think and make decisions on their own. Then, in the 1940s, they began to become a reality as artillery shells equipped with radio fuses helped shoot down V-1 rockets during the second world war. “Never before had one autonomous weapon clashed with another autonomous weapon with so little human interference,” Rid writes.
Norbert Wiener, a brilliant, eccentric MIT mathematician, coined the term cybernetics and emerged as its leading theoretician, publishing Cybernetics; or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine in 1948. As Rid puts it, Wiener and the early cyberneticists replaced the magic of mythology with science.
Wiener was seen as the “prophet of the second industrial revolution”, veering from the wildly enthusiastic to the deeply pessimistic. In 1950 he wrote that automatic machines would be the economic equivalent of slave labour, producing an “unemployment situation in comparison with which . . . the depression of the thirties will seem like a pleasant joke”. That view has particular resonance today as we once again fret about the rise of the robots.
Rid, a professor in security studies at King’s College London, is a fine chronicler of the debate, deftly recounting the hope, hype, and fears that have accompanied our thinking on automation. “The machines were always a positive and a negative force at the same time, utopian and dystopian at once, although most of the time optimism dominated.”
Governments and the military dominated the early use of computers in the 1950s and 1960s, with the US army at one time even exploring the deployment in Vietnam of an 18ft, two-legged walking tank known as the Pedipulator.
Radical and libertarian thinkers in the US remained suspicious about computers seeing them as a means of societal control. One described cyborgs as the “illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism”.
But as computers became more powerful and accessible, they were increasingly viewed by hippies on the US west coast as a mechanism for liberation, helping to stimulate the astonishing development of Silicon Valley. Timothy Leary, the US psychologist, compared computers with psychedelic drugs given their mind-enhancing properties.
More harmonious visions of man and machine emerged, and by 1995 it was estimated that 10 per cent of the US population could be classified as cyborgs, given their bodies contained implants, such as electronic pacemakers or artificial joints. Richard Brautigan’s poetic vision of computers as “machines of loving grace” began to take shape.
Rise of the Machines is a fascinating if slightly frustrating book, dazzling in parts but never quite adding up to an integrated whole. One stark lesson is that we should remain wary of all those predicting the future impact of technology. “The futurists, of course, didn’t always get the future wrong, but almost always they got the speed, the scale, and the shape wrong,” Rid writes. “They continue to do so.”
The reviewer is the FT’s Innovation editor
Rise of the Machines: The Lost History of Cybernetics; Thomas Rid; Scribe Publications, £20