Norbert Wiener’s The Machine Age, Published 64 Years Later

In 1949, The New York Times invited MIT mathematician Norbert Wiener to summarize his views about “what the ultimate machine age is likely to be,” in the words of its longtime Sunday editor, Lester Markel.

Wiener accepted the invitation and wrote a draft of the article; but Markel was dissatisfied and asked him to rewrite it. Wiener did. But things fell through the cracks and his articles were never published.

Until now.

Per the Times, “almost 64 years after Wiener wrote it, his essay is still remarkably topical, raising questions about the impact of smart machines on society and of automation on human labor. In the spirit of rectifying an old omission,” here are excerpts from The Machine Age.

My favorite one is titled “The Genie and the Bottle”:

These new machines have a great capacity for upsetting the present basis of industry, and of reducing the economic value of the routine factory employee to a point at which he is not worth hiring at any price. If we combine our machine-potentials of a factory with the valuation of human beings on which our present factory system is based, we are in for an industrial revolution of unmitigated cruelty.

We must be willing to deal in facts rather than in fashionable ideologies if we wish to get through this period unharmed. 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.

Finally the machines will do what we ask them to do and not what we ought to ask them to do. In the discussion of the relation between man and powerful agencies controlled by man, the gnomic wisdom of the folk tales has a value far beyond the books of our sociologists.

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. [W. W. Jacobs’s] terrible story of the “Monkey’s Paw” is a modern example of this — the father wishes for money and gets it as a compensation for the death of his son in a factory accident, then wishes for the return of his son. The son comes back as a ghost, and the father wishes him gone. This is the outcome of his three wishes.

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.


Interestingly, I didn’t make the connection to who this Weiner fellow was until I looked him up on Wikipedia. I studied the famous Wiener process (also known as standard Brownian motion) in my graduate course in stochastics.

Joshua Topolsky on Google Glass: Awesome, Self-Conscious

Joshua Topolsky, editor of The Verge, had a chance to try out the new Google Glass, a $1,500 wearable computer. He recounts his impressions:

But what’s it actually like to have Glass on? To use it when you’re walking around? Well, it’s kind of awesome.

Think of it this way — if you get a text message or have an incoming call when you’re walking down a busy street, there are something like two or three things you have to do before you can deal with that situation. Most of them involve you completely taking your attention off of your task at hand: walking down the street. With Glass, that information just appears to you, in your line of sight, ready for you to take action on. And taking that action is little more than touching the side of Glass or tilting your head up — nothing that would take you away from your main task of not running into people.

It’s a simple concept that feels powerful in practice.

The same is true for navigation. When I get out of trains in New York I am constantly jumping right into Google Maps to figure out where I’m headed. Even after more than a decade in the city, I seem to never be able to figure out which way to turn when I exit a subway station. You still have to grapple with asking for directions with Glass, but removing the barrier of being completely distracted by the device in your hand is significant, and actually receiving directions as you walk and even more significant. In the city, Glass make you feel more powerful, better equipped, and definitely less diverted.

Joshua Topolsky looking like a modern day robot.

Joshua Topolsky looking like a modern day robot.

How long do you think this effect will persist when others start wearing Google Glass?

I will admit that wearing Glass made me feel self-conscious, and maybe it’s just my paranoia acting up (or the fact that I look like a huge weirdo), but I felt people staring at me. Everyone who I made eye contact with while in Glass seemed to be just about to say “hey, what the hell is that?” and it made me uncomfortable.

Interesting observations.

On Essay Grading Software

The future for essay grading isn’t looking too bright (or is, depending on how you look at it). This New York Times piece details the advancement of machine grading:

As essay-scoring software becomes more sophisticated, it could be put to classroom use for any type of writing assignment throughout the school year, not just in an end-of-year assessment. Instead of the teacher filling the essay with the markings that flag problems, the software could do so. The software could also effortlessly supply full explanations and practice exercises that address the problems — and grade those, too.

Tom Vander Ark, chief executive of OpenEd Solutions, a consulting firm that is working with the Hewlett Foundation, says the cost of commercial essay-grading software is now $10 to $20 a student per year. But as the technology improves and the costs drop, he expects that it will be incorporated into the word processing software that all students use.

As the article attests, it is still easy to game software by feeding in essays filled with factual nonsense that a human would notice instantly but software could not. For this reason, I hope the complete automation of grading isn’t left to the machines anytime soon.