[Humanist] 28.913 more than robot?

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sun Apr 26 09:51:20 CEST 2015

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 28, No. 913.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sun, 26 Apr 2015 07:42:29 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: more than a robot?

In 1941 the American engineer Harold Hazen (student of Vannevar Bush in 
the 1930s) wrote an influential memo to Warren Weaver, "Theory of 
Servomechanisms", in which he sketched the relation between humans and 
automatic control systems. The significance of this memo for the history 
of control engineering and cybernetics, and so for the computing we have 
inherited, is explained by David Mindell in DesignIssues 29.1 (2013): 
30-37, which reprints Hazen's text. But here allow me to focus on a point 
Hazen makes at the end of it.

After describing the human-machine link in these systems he writes,

> This whole point of view of course makes the human being in this
> capacity nothing more nor less than a robot which, as a matter of
> fact, is exactly what he is or should be.

But he then goes on to point out that unlike the automatic systems then 
in existence, the human operator (whom he, in the midst of World War 
II, is considering as a tracker of a fast-moving aircraft in a fire-control 

> can determine from the orientation of a moving object something of
> its expected acceleration which may help him in anticipating its
> future movement. Furthermore, he is endowed with a memory that should
> permit him to extrapolate from the past history into the future, a
> feature that is not possessed by any of the simpler mechanisms we
> have present.

He then concludes that,

> we can expect to do rational design leading to best over-all
> performance only if we know the fundamental dynamic characteristics
> of the human links and incorporate these into our designs as we have
> found we must include all of the dynamic characteristics of component
> parts in the successful design of mechanical automatic control
> systems.

Yes, of course, most of us don't react particularly well when confronted 
with the idea of a human as robot, "which, as a matter of fact, is 
exactly what he is or should be" under the circumstances Hazen 
describes. But note the greater-than-machine and where it fits into the 
process of research design, which is exactly Hazen's point. Are we not 
(changing what needs to be changed) involved in the same process? Should 
not all our energies be focused on that greater-than-machine, attempting 
to implement it so that another greater-than can be illumined?



Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Digital Humanities Research
Group, University of Western Sydney

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