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Michael Shallis
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Theodora Wood
Chris Bourne



PUBLISHED earlier this year for the first time in Britain Computer Power and Human Reason, From Judgement to Calculation was originally published in 1976, but contains much that is relevant today.

The author, Joseph Weizenbaum, must be considered a heavyweight by anybody's standards; currently Professor of Computer Science at MIT - Massachusetts institute of Technology - he has had a career in computers since 1950.

Weizenbaum's book has received a fair amount of media attention, due mainly to the inclusion of a new preface to the 1984 edition. That contained a blistering attack on the computer games fever which has spread across America and Europe in recent years. The main basis for his attack centres on the process of psychic numbing of the individual who plays those games, similar to that which takes place for man to wage modern warfare. It was he also who described the computer junkie way back in 1976.

Although important, those are, however, only peripheral to the central concern of the book, which is a systematic description of how computers work and a similarly systematic attack on the work done by Artificial Intelligence researchers. With books such as The Fifth Generation published and Sir Clive Sinclair talking about the wonders of the new technology, it is still worth reading Weizenbaum to place those thoughts within the context of human values.

Weizenbaum doubts that Artificial Intelligence can be anything close to human intelligence, and portrays with scorn such statements made by eminent scholars such as Professor John Macarthy, then head of Stanford University's AI laboratory, who said, "The only reason we have not yet succeeded in formalizing every aspect of the real world is that we have been lacking a sufficiently powerful logical calculus. I am currently working on that problem."

For Weizenbaum the idea that all human activity and thought can be reduced to formal equations capable of being computerised is beyond belief. Having worked on a natural language program, ELIZA, which allowed conversation between the user and the computer as to the user's mental state, Weizenbaum was horrified to find that serious attention was being given to it. Specialists in the psychiatric world were considering the use of such programs in place of human therapists.

Weizenbaum's book is a bellow of anguish from the heart of the computer establishment and, as such, requires some serious attention. However, it is an academic's book in that the main chapters concerned with AI are high-level intellectual infighting. For a more general purpose examination of the social implications of computerisation, Michael Shallis's book The Silicon idol is more suitable.

Depending on which viewpoint it is judged from, the book can either be seen as the work of a Don Quixote tilting at windmills, or of a man trying to communicate the deepest reservations about the introduction of micro-technology into the world of work and human relations. Shallis owes a lot to Weizenbaum for covering the same ground but from a slightly different standpoint. The descriptions of how a computer works are not so comprehensive but, on the other hand, are much more accessible by the reader who may have no previous knowledge of the subject.

For Shallis the suggestion that computers can come anywhere near having what are essentially human characteristics is debasing the human condition. He is particularly strong on the history of computers and intertwined with this the history of man's attitude to service and technology and the power of technology to transform society.

In a world climate of increasing speed of technological change The Silicon idol is ideal for the general reader to take stock of where that change will have maximum impact, as well as its social consequences. Shallis is sceptical of the shining brave new world of high technology, where most of the population do little or no work as we know it in its present form. He reaches the crux of the dilemma when he states that new technology is usually used for economic reasons, replacing humans in both the manufacturing and the service sector, leaving fewer and fewer people to work in factories and offices. Neither does that move to automation provide an alternative to work which is considered dull and repetitive.

Michael Shallis is an unashamed Luddite and is appropriately pessimistic about the future of work and the social disruption that might cause. He offers no solutions to the problem, merely setting it before the reader in what might be considered a sensationalist and extreme form. In so doing he provides enough fuel for discussion between here and Armageddon.

There seems to be a general consensus that we are in an age of transition, and the two books discussed are important in that they raise issues central to that. Are there activities which computers ought not to be part of? Are computers going to be 'more intelligent' than humans? How are masses of people going to react to enforced leisure/redundancy?

The answers to the first two involve philosophical enquiry, depending on the definition of human intelligence - are we as humans simple input/output devices whose though processes can be reduced to a logical calculus? The third question depends on the way we as a society organise ourselves in the next twenty years. The debate has already begun - it is too important to be ignored.

Theo Wood

Computer Power and Human Reason: From Judgement to Calculation.
Joesph Weizenbaum, Pelican Books, £2.95

The Silicon Idol: THe Micro Revolution and Its Social Implications.
Michael Shallis, Oxford University Press, £8.95

Not Rated