The Mighty Man-Computer Team

In 1965, a year after she retired from the National Bureau of Standards, but while she was still acting as a consultant for them, Ida Rhodes published The Mighty Man-Computer Team. It makes interesting reading today, partly as an example of Rhodes' excellent writing, but also as an interesting comment on how computers have changed in the last 50 plus years. We present below the first few paragraphs of Rhodes' article:

The Mighty Man-Computer Team

If the Martians, Venusians, or Plutonians ever bother to observe the antics of their neighbours on the Planet Earth, they must be vastly amused by our attitude toward the digital automatic computer, the DAC for short. While professing to be completely baffled by the frenzied rush on the part of the lemmings to be drowned in the sea, we - earthlings - have perversely chosen to denigrate the unsurpassable human brain by affixing to a pile of wires and tubes that ludicrous title "The Thinking Machine." What a churlish way to thank Mother Nature for our bountiful mental endowment which dwarfs into insignificance those fabulous gifts of magic, lavished upon their favourites by the doting fairy godmothers.

Let us take inventory of our divine heritage. The human cranium possesses a storage capacity equivalent to at least a thousand billion binary digits. Supplementing this opulent installation, there are five known input devices - our magnificent sense perceptions - and perhaps additional senses, of whose existence we are only dimly aware. Maintained by a superbly efficient system of physical organs, our mind is enabled to exercise an astounding number of sublime functions. The myriads of impressions, which we receive through our senses, are being constantly shuffled and miraculously combined into concepts, whose count exceeds by far the total number of elementary particles in the entire universe. Yet, this colossal aggregate is actually infinitesimal in comparison to the fantastic number of ideas which our brain can engender by continuously associating various concepts. We are thus led to the conclusion that should another Merlin arise, capable of constructing a lifeless contraption for simulating human thought, he would run out of all the material available in the Cosmos, long before he succeeds in completing his very first specimen.

The elation, which some of us may feel at such largesse on the part of Providence, rapidly subsides as we reflect on how few members of our species either fully appreciate, or strive to make use of, their prodigious birthright. Regard the humble amoeba. With its single tiny cell, it manages to find its proper environment; to gather, ingest, and digest suitable food; to eliminate its wastes; to grow, to mature, and to produce young. How many of the earth's three billion human denizens care to utilize their stupendous mental powers for higher or nobler aims than the unicellular amoeba?

We trumpet with loud fanfare the blessings of our huge array of devices, invented for the purpose of extending and enhancing our natural prowess, as well as of freeing us from back-breaking, time-consuming tasks. Let us bear in mind, on the other hand, that every tool is a two-edged sword. If its wielder be animated by vicious motives, it can turn - in his hands - into an accursed weapon of wanton destruction. Impressed by man's mighty intellect and the horse's amazing strength, our ancestors were inspired to blend the two into the image of a devastating Centaur. It is now within our power to replace this violent monster by an incomparably more efficacious, yet supremely beneficent, Megataur. Embodying the awesome potentialities of the high-speed computer and guided, at all times, by the highest dictates of an exalted human conscience, the new image could become a source of radiant hope for our strife-ridden, despair-laden world.

It is gratifying to learn that a group of high-minded medics have united to form "Physicians for Social Responsibility." It is easy to predict, that the members of our profession, who were deeply stirred by the eloquence of John F. Kennedy's inaugural address, or by the loftiness of Pope Paul's plea for peace, or by the earnestness of President Johnson's appeal to join the Great Society, would be eager to endorse the "Megataur for Social Responsibility."

We might start by borrowing a custom of the ancient Hebrew scribes, who underwent an elaborate daily ritual of self-purification, before assuming their sacred task of copying the Scriptures. Before outlining what constitutes, from my point of view, a similar ritual for Automators, I would want to make sure that all visitors' guns were checked at the entrance.

We are told that when the great de Forest - regarded as the father of television - observed the fare being dished out for the benefit of the captive viewers, he exclaimed in despair: "Heavens, what have they done to my child?" I suspect that the inventors of DAC are moved to utter a similar cry of distress, when witnessing the daily abuse and misuse of their illustrious brainchild.

Last Updated November 2017