Computers' limitations, as seen in 1967

This October, 1967 Playboy article on computers and their limitations features an all-hands computer debugging session in which the machine's minders grab their "trembling screwdrivers" and leap into the "machine's intestines."
Over the past ten years, it has been fashionable to call these great buzzing, clattering machines "brains." Science-fiction writers and Japanese moviemakers have had a lovely time with the idea. Superintelligent machines take over the world! Squish people with deadly squish rays! Hypnotize nubile girls with horrible mind rays, baby! It's all nonsense, of course. A computer is a machine like any other machine. It produces numbers on order. That's all it can do.

Yet computers have been crowned with a halo of exaggerated glamor, and the TV election-predicting circus is a classic example. The Columbia Broadcasting System got into this peculiar business back in 1952, using a Remington Rand Univac. The Univac did well. In 1956, for instance, with 1/27 of the popular vote in at 9:15 p.m., it predicted that Dwight Eisenhower would win with 56 percent of the votes. His actual share turned out to be 57.4 percent, and everybody said, "My, my, what a clever machine!" The Univac certainly was a nicely wrought piece of engineering, one of the two or three fastest and most reliable then existing. But the credit for insight belonged to the political experts and mathematicians who told the Univac what to do. It was they, not the machine, who estimated that if Swamp-water County went Democratic by X percent, the odds were Y over Z that the rest of the state would go Democratic by X-plus-N percent. The Univac only did the routine arithmetic.

Which escaped attention. By the 1960s, the U. S. public had the idea that some kind of arcane, unknowable, hyper-human magic was soldered into computers--that a computerized answer was categorically better than a hand-cranked answer. As the TV networks and hundreds of other businesses realized, computers could be used to impress people. A poll prediction looked much more accurate on computer print-out paper than in human handwriting. But, as became clear at least to a few in 1966, it's the input that counts. Honeywell programing expert Malcolm Smith says: "You feed guesswork into a computer, you get beautiful neat guesswork back out. The machine contains no Automatic Guess Rectifier or Factualizing Whatchamacallit."



  1. Amazingly clearheaded for its time. It has to be said that computers, both then and now suffer from exactly this limitation.

    It is also clear, however, that the author is not a computer scientist. There is a big difference between a computer and just any other machine: Turing-completeness. A computer can potentially do any calculation whatsoever, including simulating a human brain. It makes a big difference.

    Still, the author clearly understands the limitations of computing much better fifty years ago than most people do today. Good work, Playboy! It appears you can read it just for the articles!

  2. The tapes of all my pr0n downloads are crowding me out of my conapt. And the “portable” PDP-32 gave me a hernia. So much for the glorious promises of the Computer Age. The eggheads can take it all back and go stuff it in a magnetic drum.

    Ralph 124C41+
    Sector R

  3. The tape reels of my downloads of Bettie Page pinups are crowding me out of my conapt and the “portable” PDP-28 is a joke. It gave me a hernia. If this is the fulfillmment of the glorious promises of the Computer Age, the chromedomes can take it back and go stuff it in a magnetic drum.

    Ralph 124C41+
    Radian City, Sector R, Sub-sector N

  4. “A computer is a machine like any other machine. It produces numbers on order. That’s all it can do.”

    It may seem quaint, but this is actually just as true today, just as it will be tomorrow – and it should printed on laminated cards and handed out to all those delusional people who can´t utter the word “singularity” without wetting themselves with glee.

  5. This point is just more generally true of the use of mathematical argumentation, especially in the popular press. I frequently hear people who have little background in serious math (and, let’s face it, quite a few people who do) treat an argument embroidered by numbers and formulae as inherently more rigorous and objective than an argument expressed verbally. The math itself, as well as the data inputs and the premises, are more-or-less black boxed.

  6. Two things:

    1) It’s amazing what else you’ll find while reminiscing on the pr0n in a 1967 Playboy.

    2) It’s still largely true. Unless… Boingboing is completely run by computers! Holy Turing Test, Batman!

  7. As true today as it was back then! Garbage in, garbage out – computers can’t turn straw into gold!

  8. Picasso once (insert adverb) said, “Computers are useless because they only give you answers.”

  9. Now, will someone please convince my boss that my computer doesn’t have a magic Ex Lax input slot for shitting out accurate sales forecasts.

  10. The words used by computer scientists from the ’50s and ’60s used to describe/debunk the “thinking” of computers is strangely similar to how one might describe/debunk the “thinking” of the Bush administration.

    [Norbert Wiener] conjured up a nightmarish vision of a giant computer printing out “war won: assignment completed . . .”


  11. Interesting how they quote the original Diebold. I wonder what he would think of where his company has gone.

  12. @Brainspore, heh. I’m expecting it eventually, but even Moore’s law won’t get us up near human processing power for a while.

    Assuming we don’t keep revising our brainpower estimates upward, as we’ve also been doing for the last twenty years.

  13. @ Chrs #10:

    I respectfully disagree. Like most people you seem to think that the limiting factor in A.I. is processing power, but that only makes sense if you think of a brain as nothing more than a meat-based computer.

    Computers and brains are both very good at what they do, but they do very different things. Thinking of a computer as an “artificial brain” is like thinking of a table as an “artificial horse” because they each have four legs.

  14. Of course, it’s not about what the computer can do, it’s what its connectivity is doing to us. And, brother, don’t ask me because I don’t know.

  15. Thinking of a computer as an “artificial brain” is like thinking of a table as an “artificial horse” because they each have four legs.

    Brainspore, that’s a real keeper. Thanks.

  16. The counterargument is that our software is advancing as well, not just our hardware, and that we’re learning more about human brains and intelligence.

    The reference to “Superintelligent machines take over the world!” reminded me of a story from around the time of this article I recently read. It was set in a future where pretty much the only humans left lived in five underground cities, each run by its own “infallible” computer. Eventually, there was a minor dispute between two of them which led to both of them nuking the other simultaneously. For some reason that was never explained, the other three cities were nuked at the same time.

    Major kudos if you can name the story. :-)

  17. Shay Guy #20:

    The counterargument is that our software is advancing as well, not just our hardware, and that we’re learning more about human brains and intelligence.

    Granted, but the more we learn about human brains the less likely it seems that we’ll be able to divorce the mind from the body any time soon. The tiniest chemical imbalance in an otherwise healthy brain can mean the difference between a rational, intelligent adult and a drooling schizophrenic. Even something as simple as a traumatic childhood memory can make the difference between a respected doctor and a murderous sociopath.

    A human mind is the product of a lifetime of sensory input and social interaction filtered through an incredibly complex collection of tissue, nerves and chemistry. That’s not exactly something easy to replicate with software.

  18. It’s worth looking up the Turing Machine and the halting problem. Devised by Alan Turing it essentially set the limits back in the 1930s before computers as such existed.
    “Computable Numbers” was far ahead of its time. Alonzo Church at Princeton came up with the lambda calculus. Together they published the Church-Turing thesis.

  19. One of the most convincing counter arguments I heard to the, frankly, inane idea of “The Singularity” was that it should already be here.

    Human intelligence is already augmented by interfacing with computers, and work groups. Give an IQ test to someone who’s online, or a group of people working collaboratively, and you’ll see what I mean.

    So we’ve already created superior intelligence. If Vinge was right, this augmented intelligence should be recursively improving itself and making hyper intelligent pan dimensional death bots as we speak. “If only you could see the World as I do”, they would say, all melancholy, before disassembling us at the quantum level with an act of sheer will. Yes. Thats right. Exactly like Dr Manhattan.

    Of course its all rubbish. Intelligence isn’t a mathematical constant that can be neatly plugged into an equation, its more abstract than that.

  20. Some anthropologists believe that the most unique and creative aspects of human intelligence occurred because of species-wide, physiologically induced schizophrenia.

    Simply (probably too simply) put, our brains evolved and grew larger faster than our skulls, to the point where physical pressure caused psychological reactions. Many of the results of human’s higher thought are, to be blunt, metaphoric, non-rational (initially) and somewhat magical.

    Language, for example, is entirely metaphoric. To say that a puff of breath, a grunt, a wheeze is somehow equivalent to a thing or an action is highly suspect from a natural standpoint. It requires a leap of intuition that does seem somewhat schizophrenic. The same holds true for tools; to look at two or more different things and imagine that they could be different if they are used thus-and-such is an imaginative act. It requires that you look at changes that occur in nature and apply self reference: I see that rocks rolling down a hill break, and that broken rocks have sharp edges, and that I can break a rock if I smash it, and sharp edges can cut me, and I need to cut something else…. So…

    My point is that we may be able, someday, to teach machines to calculate and control certain thought-activities very well. If, however, the basis of creative, metaphoric, imaginative thought is, well… essentially, mental illness… that may be harder to duplicate.

  21. Computers are just extremely fast idiots

    I really like this quote!

    oon, they said, computers would translate languages, write superb music, run libraries of information, become chess champions. Ah, those fantastic machines!

    Translate Languages – Poorly but we’re slowly getting there.
    Write superb music – They’re not doing it by themselves but they’re certainly helping people do it.
    Run libraries of information – check
    Chess champions – check.

    Well we’re getting there.

  22. The best way to think of a computer is as an incredibly useful tool to extend the power of the human mind, not as a replacement for it.

    An automobile is a tool that vastly extends the speed and distance we would be able to travel on our own. But building a faster car is not the same thing as getting closer to an artificial foot.

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