In 1961 Dr. Richard W. Hamming Predicted The Harmful Effects of Computer Technology

Loss Of Privacy, Pooling Of Data And The Slow Blurring Of The Distinction Between Human And Machine “Thinking.”

Richard W. Hamming photo: Naval Postgraduate School

Richard W. Hamming photo: Naval Postgraduate School

In 1961, scientist and mathematician Dr. Richard W. Hamming of Bell Telephone Laboratories, had enormous foresight in predicting that computers would soon change our lives in ways that few people could have imagined half a century ago.

Dr. Hamming saw the future improvements that the computer revolution would bring, but he also warned of the coming dangers in that revolution.  Looking back at his insights today you will find them eerily accurate. In many ways Dr. Hamming merely scraped the surface on many of his suppositions.

Today we are all aware that marketers are tracking your movements on the internet. Unless you’ve set up blockers, all your clicks, all your searches, every site you visit is captured and analyzed. Big Data firms want that information, supposedly just to market to you. The government, banks, schools, brokerage firms, doctor’s offices, pharmacies, and merchants all collect information that you are obliged to provide in order to receive services. You just hope your information is secure and not compromised.

But then you voluntarily share information on Facebook, Twitter and Linked-In. We know that the information we provide is used to compile an aggregate online portrait of our lives that is available for the world to peer into and that includes stalkers, thieves and hackers and yet we still provide it!

Which leads us back to a symposium held in December 27-29, 1961 on “Man and the Computer” at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science held in Denver, CO. At the symposium Dr. Hamming’s observations were listened to attentively and the New York Times interviewed him afterwards. Summarizing  Hamming’s observations:

While computers will surely benefit mankind in ways not yet dreamed of he said, certain harmful effects of the computer revolution can be foreseen. One example he gave was a reduction in individual privacy that would be possible with the increasing storage of personal records even travel information in computers.

A major concern is that a growing amount of personal information was being committed to the memory of machines: various data collected by Selective Service; Social Security, Internal Revenue, insurance companies, places of employment, medical services and even airline companies.

“How do we know that this is always being used for the benefit of the individual?” he asked, “How can we be sure that this information will not be used against a person?”

The implication was that the data could be pooled; drawn on and used in ways for which they were not intended.

“Should we be comparing the computer revolution with the famous ‘industrial’ revolution, which so greatly reduced man’s physical burdens?” Hamming noted, “the computer revolution is, perhaps better compared with the Copernican revolution, or the Darwinian revolution both of which greatly changed man’s idea of himself and the world in which he lives.”

Hamming went on to gauge the size of the computer revolution. He noted first that fundamentally new effects were produced by a change in the technology of what the scientists call “an order of magnitude” which means up to ten times as much.

Computers represent at least six orders of magnitude—a million-fold—increase in speed over hand calculations. They also represent three orders of magnitude — a thousand-fold decrease in cost, and a corresponding increase in reliability, which makes practical certain computations that would not have been undertaken before computers.

“The realization of the computer’s potential to produce completely new effects, which was inherent in the order of magnitude change; has come only gradually,” he said, and scientists are just beginning to explore these possibilities.

For example, computers can simulate atomic explosions and rocket launchings, and design, develop and test—theoretically —inventions that do not physically exist,

In 1961 it was estimated that about 10 per cent of the experiments in the Bell Laboratories were done on computers rather than in a laboratory. Hamming predicted that the time would come when the reverse would be true. Ninety percent of the research would be done on a machine.

Hamming also wondered about the possible psychological effect of computers that can already learn to play games and beat their makers, compose and play their own music and even startle humans with their “inventiveness.”

Dr. Hamming lived to see many of his predictions come true. He passed away in 1998.

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