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Fearsome Machines: A Prehistory

A time line of what happened when in the history of artificial intelligence.
October 24, 2017
Miguel Porlan

Ever since the beginning of industrial society, people have simultaneously marveled at the power of automation and lamented that human capabilities are being irredeemably devalued.



Demanding better conditions and higher pay, textile workers in England smash machinery and set factories on fire. These workers will come to be known as Luddites, after their mythical leader, Ned Ludd, and the name will become a synonym for opponents or critics of technology. But it’s a misnomer: this is a class protest more than a technological one. The stocking-frame machines the Luddites vandalize have been around since the 1600s.



Grappling with the meaning of the “mechanical age,” the philosopher Thomas Carlyle notes that industry has made society richer, and that people are generally better “fed, clothed, lodged, and, in all outward respects, accommodated.” But he questions an increasing “distance between the rich and the poor” and notes a “mighty change” in “modes of thought and feeling”: “Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand.” Will civic life lose its soul? After all, “government includes much also that is not mechanical, and cannot be treated mechanically.”



Ada Lovelace envisions how a calculating machine “might act upon other things besides number[s]”—for example, composing music. She also shows how the machine could be made to determine “that which human brains find it difficult or impossible to work out unerringly.”


“Calculation and reasoning, like weaving and plowing, are work, not for human souls, but for clever combinations of iron and wood. If you spend time in doing work that a machine could do faster than yourselves, it should only be for exercise.”
Mary Everest Boole


“The machine is the very image of efficiency—governed, deadly, predestinarian. But it is an efficiency against which nature cries out; it is an efficiency destitute of that adaptability of means and idealization of ends which is the human essence of true reason.” —Hartley Burr Alexander



Mathematics professor John McCarthy calls for researchers to join him the following summer at Dartmouth College to build the foundation for artificial intelligence. He says, “Every aspect of learning or any other feature of intelligence can in principle be so precisely described that a machine can be made to simulate it.”


McCarthy predicts that bringing AI to the level of humans will take “five to 500 years.”


“The economic problems of the future will not be about growth but about something more nettlesome: the ineluctable increase in the number of people with no marketable skills, and technology’s role not as the antidote to social conflict, but as its instigator.” —Gregory Clark



“I think we should be very careful about artificial intelligence. If I were to guess what our biggest existential threat is, it’s probably that. With artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.”
Elon Musk



After studying the economic effects of advances in AI, the Obama White House suggests increases in the minimum wage, new training programs, and policies aimed at helping workers adjust. But it says the more aggressive step of enacting a universal basic income could be “counterproductive”: “We should not advance a policy that is premised on giving up on the possibility of workers’ remaining employed.”



Russian president Vladimir Putin says that whichever country leads the development of AI will be “the ruler of the world.”

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