What a Satire

“– What a satire, by the way, is that machine [Babbage’s] on the mere mathematician! A Frankenstein-monster, a thing without brains and without heart, too stupid to make a blunder; that turns out results like a corn-sheller, and never grows any wiser or better, though it grind a thousand bushels of them!” (Oliver Wendell Holmes, The Autocrat of the Breakfast Table)

“In the light of this description the analogy so passively received nowadays, of the mind as computer, is manifestly fallacious. A computer does not think, it feels nothing, and what it is said to ‘know’ — bits of information all cast in the digital mode — has no fringe. Nor has it a memory, only storage room. On any point called for, the answer is all or none. Vagueness, intelligent confusion, original punning on words or ideas never occur, the internal hookups being unchangeable; they were determined once for all by the true minds that made the machine and the program. When plugged in, the least elaborate computer can be relied on to work to the fullest extent of its capacity; the greatest mind cannot be relied on for the simplest thing; its variability is its superiority. Homer nods, Shakespeare writes twaddle, Newton makes mistakes, you and I have been known to talk nonsense. But they and we can (as the phrase goes) surpass ourselves, invent, discover, create. The late John von Neumann, mathematician, logician, and inventor of game theory, would not allow one to liken the mind to a computer. He knew how his mind worked and he understood his computer. So goodbye to all the bright remarks, in fiction and conversation, about programming oneself to pass an interview.” (Jacques Barzun, A Stroll with William James)

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