Here come the Robots!

  • December 14, 2014
  • Feature

By Norman and Amelia Lobsenz

Originally published in the Spring/Summer 2014 issue of PULSE.  Click here to download PULSE

While renovating his 1950s home, one of our colleagues discovered this newspaper article in the wall of his house from February 5th, 1950. At the time it was providing critical insulation for the Minnesota winters. We thought we would include it to provide some insight into the mindset of people when they considered technology back then. The capabilities they were amazed with are amusing while we are still waiting for the “humanoid slaves” they predicted within 25 years. The following are the contents of the “Here Come the Robots!” article, copyright 1950 United Newspapers Magazine Corporation. When Harvard University recently unveiled a new 10-ton electronic calculator, which uses its own “language” and “memory” to solve complex mathematical problems thousands of times faster than man, the invasion of our times by the robot machine reached new heights. Dozens of robot devices have been revealed in the past few months. In London, scientists developed a robot brain that signals its own moves in a game of chess, can memorize a bookful of facts and figures, may eventually be able to cook if its inventor can give it a sense of smell. A robot machine in Scotland never loses a ticktacktoe game. When its human opponent plugs in one of nine electrical contacts on a board, an 'X' appears in the corresponding space on a glass screen. A few seconds later the robot’s electronically selected 'O' lights up. You may get a draw, but you’ll never win. Another robot not only regularly beats all comers at an ancient Chinese numbers game called Nim, but keeps its own won-and-lost record.   These examples of electronic magic arenotisolatedones. Expertssaythe eraofrobotsisuponus. Fromsimple household tasks to astronomical computations, automatic devices possessing almost-human powers are taking over with such fantastic magic that in a less enlightened age their inventors might be burned as sorcerers. ALREADY IN USE Robots are already a part of our daily lives. Automatic dishwashers, kitch- en ranges that turn themselves on and off, self-defrosting refrigerators, coin machines that make change, garage doors that open when a headlight beam strikes them or when a car horn sounds—all these are robot-like devices. Nor is the idea of robots strictly a dream of today’s experimenters. Philosopher-scientists of the Middle Ages designed mechanical men that walked, opened doors, played musical instruments. Later there was a robot that even “talked”: it had bellows for lungs, a bagpipe’s reed for vocal cords, a box for a mouth, and an India-rubber funnel, moved by keys that acted as word-forming lips and tongue. But today’s mechanical men are more talented. Westing-house’s Elektro, a seven-foot, 260-pound automaton, can smoke, count to 10, and deliver a speech with a vocabulary of 77 words. The brain of this aluminum-and-steel humanoid (human-like mechanism) is activated by 82 electrical relays which—in response to spoken commands—operate a “nervous system” of motors, levers, gears, and chains. Hundreds of miles of wire run up and down Elektro’s spinal column. He even has a robot dog, Sparko, whose two motors enable him to beg, bark and wag his tail. “WILLIE” PLAYS A HARMONICA A Hammond, IND., inventor, Andrew Bober, gave electronic birth to “Willie,” a dapper metal man who performs all the basic human motions, also sings, dances, plays a harmonica and fires a pistol. Most modern robots are unseen electronic relays that can do almost everything from identifying unknown substances by their chemical "fingerprints" to chain-smoking cigarettes in a test for toxic gases. Three machines in Britain comprise the world’s only robot librarian. Working with a new kind of punched library card, they can do in two minutes what would take human librarians a whole day.   When the Navy wanted to find out how to do a better job of teaching its specialists, it built a robot scorekeeper in a classroom at the Pennsylvania State College. At the touch of a switch the robot tabulates answers and makes an instantaneous, permanent record of students’ responses to different teaching methods. Automatically printed statistics show whatever such variations as color film, sound tracks or music help to speed learning time. Traffic control is fast becoming robotized. In San Diego, Calif., for example, electronic plates buried in a main highway count passing cars and synchronize lights to let autos go faster or slower, according to the density of traffic. The system has already cut accidents by 20 percent. The world’s first robot street-lighting setup was recently installed in New Milford, Conn. Electronic eyes react to changes in natural light—a sudden thunderstorm, early twilight, a rainy morning—and turn on street lamps according to need. Traffic engineers are excited about a new robot eye which, mounted on a car’s bumpers, “buzzes” the driver if the auto is over the center line, or if he is getting too close to another car. Elevator traffic is another field where robot-system controlisgrowing. Westinghouse’s new–Selectomatic system sorts signals from waiting passengers and sets up a pattern of “commands” for starting, stopping, accelerating or braking. Each elevator can almost sense a waiting rider. During peak periods the cars automatically parcel out among themselves a co-ordinated system of equally swift service for all floors.   THEY EVEN KNOW FRENCH Something still for the future is voice-controlled elevators. A model re- cently demonstrated in bilingual Montreal rose at the sound of “going up” or “monter” (its French equivalent) it came down when the voice said “déscen- dre”, or “down please.” Work horses of the robot world are the electronic brains. Their ability to solve infinitely complex problems 12,000 times faster than any human genius makes them essential tools of science. With vacuum tubes for gray cells, the wizard-like brains can do such things as multiply hundreds of 10-digit numbers in a thousandth of a second. One government bureau had to multiply 100,000 pairs of figures each year and add up the results. It took 12 days for the staff to do the job. A robot does it in 10 minutes. The brains can trace the movement of the universe, work out gambling odds, or add two and two. They only make an error when a vacuum tube burns out. Even then the brain knows what has happened and f lashes a warning signal. International Business Machine’s new “selective sequence calculator” is almost frighteningly superhuman: it not only “reads” its problems and instructions, but knowns when and how to use such mathematical short cuts as logarithm tables which it has stored in its electronic memory. Will mankind ultimately create such efficient robots that they will revolt and become masters instead of servants? Dr. Norbert Wiener, of Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a founder of cybernetics—the science of the relationship of human and mechanical brains—doesn’t think so.   COMING—MECHANICAL SLAVES “A real mechanical brain,” he said, “would have to be as large as the tallest skyscraper and might take all the power Niagara Falls can generate to operate it.” But Wiener does think the production of humanoid slaves will be a fact in 25 years. “It’s none too soon to consider how we shall use such slaves,” he said. “We are nearer to their production now than we were to the development of radar ten years ago. We may even be able to build brains operated by chemicals instead of electrical impulses, or brains that can repair themselves and learn by trial and error. Through them, we may also learn more about the intricate patterns behind human psychological complexes.” But robot brains, says Wiener, will not solve the major human problem: the worship of power with no idea of where that power is leading. “We have got to develop our characters or get off the earth,” he says. “Mechanical brains can give us logic and mathematics. But men need more than that. If we have no principles, the answer of the robots, despite their magic, will be useless to us.”

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