Who Knew? by Steven Vaughn MD, PhD


“I have spoken of machines, but not only of machines having brains of brass and thews of iron. When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is fact an element in the machine. Whether we entrust our decisions to machines of metal, or to those machines of flesh and blood which are bureaus and vast laboratories and armies and corporations, we shall never receive the right answers to our questions unless we ask the right question. (A machine) of skin and bone is quite as deadly as anything cast out of steel and iron. The (genie) which is a unifying figure of speech for a whole corporation is just as fearsome as if it were a glorified conjuring trick.

The hour is very late, and the choice of good and evil knocks at our door.”

Who today wouldn’t laugh at this addled old hippie! He writes like one of those left-wing technophobes at some flake-filled university, belching out intellectual marmalade about the terrors of technology. Those types that are petrified of the computer, the Internet, the cell phone – and usually, the bar of soap and razor.

Except he’s not. He wrote this long ago, at the dawn of the thinking machines. A famous mathematician who taught at MIT,he was brilliant among the brilliant. For those who are entertained by the actors playing scientists on “The Big Bang Theory,” he received his PhD in mathematics from Harvard at the age of 19, and went on to an illustrious teaching career in the mathematics – well, the mathematics of everything – including algorithms and decision theory. He was known for, as the title of another book mentioned, “Nonlinear Problems in Random Theory.” He is considered one of the minds behind fire-control radar and cybernetics.

Something scared the piss out of him about the future, and sixty years later, we have ignored the choice and not answered the knock at the door. Machine medicine has come our way – nobody can ever ask the question “but who knew?” The pooch has been screwed, both now and a few dozen years ago. Poor pooch.

Quote: Norbert Weiner PhD, “The Human Use of Human Beings – Cybernetics and Society” Boston: Houghton Mifflin 1954 p185 ff.