Automation and Early Computation, Social Inequaltiy

Haldane did not foresee the computer, the most potent agent of social change during the last fifty years. He expected his Daedalus, destroyer of gods and of men, to be a biologist. Instead, the Daedalus of this century turned out to be John von Neumann, the mathematician who consciously pushed mankind into the era of computers. Von Neumann knew well what he was doing. Soon after the end of the second world war, he started the Princeton computer project. Like Haldane's Daedalus, he had dreams that went far beyond the scientific instrument that he was building in Princeton. He spoke and wrote much about automata. His automata were abstract generalizations of a computer. An automaton was a machine that could not merely compute but carry out actions in the real world as instructed by its program. Von Neumann saw that there was no limit to the scale and complexity of actions that automata could perform. His computer was only a small step toward the realization of his dream of automata guided by artificial intelligence.

Beyond the intelligent automaton was another dream, the self-reproducing automaton. Von Neumann proved with mathematical rigor that a self-reproducing automaton was possible, and enunciated the abstract principles that would govern its design. He dreamed that the creation of self-reproducing automata would be a boon to mankind, abolishing hunger and poverty all over the earth, providing us with obedient slaves to satisfy our needs. Self-reproducing automata could build our homes, cook our food, and wait on us at table. But Von Neumann, like Haldane's Daedalus, was destined to turn good into evil. An unfriendly critic might say that the hidden purpose of Von Neumann's dream of self-reproducing automata was to make all humans superfluous except for mathematicians like himself. In the end, even the mathematicians, who would initially be needed in order to design the automata, might also turn out to be superfluous.

Two developments that Von Neumann did not foresee were the personal computer and the computer-game software industry. These two side-effects of his activities have grown with explosive speed. Like other rapid technological changes, they have brought with them both good and evil. On the good side, they have given us computers with a human face, computers accessible to ordinary people for profit or for fun. Von Neumann never imagined that computers could be humanized to such an extent that mothers would use them to print birth announcements and schoolchildren would use them to do homework. On the evil side, the homecomputer industry has widened the gap between rich and poor. The child of computer-owning parents grows up computer-literate and is showered with opportunities to enter the world of high-tech education and industry. The child without access to a home computer is left behind. Computer illiteracy is an additional barrier that a poor child has to overcome in order to earn an honest living.


Folksonomies: technology social inequality

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Computer (0.957196): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
John von Neumann (0.815652): geo | dbpedia | freebase | yago
Von Neumann architecture (0.603926): dbpedia | freebase | yago
ENIAC (0.601387): geo | dbpedia | freebase | yago
Personal computer (0.600881): dbpedia | freebase | opencyc
EDVAC (0.577838): dbpedia | freebase | yago
David Hilbert (0.517172): dbpedia | freebase | yago
Von Neumann universal constructor (0.515413): dbpedia | freebase | yago

 Imagined Worlds
Books, Brochures, and Chapters>Book:  Dyson , Freeman (1997), Imagined Worlds, Retrieved on 2015-05-31
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  • Folksonomies: science science fiction