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.”