Friday, November 25, 2016

Von Neumann: "If only people could keep pace with what they create"

I recently came across this anecdote in Von Neumann, Morgenstern, and the Creation of Game Theory: From Chess to Social Science, 1900-1960.

One night in early 1945, just back from Los Alamos, vN woke in a state of alarm in the middle of the night and told his wife Klari:
"... we are creating ... a monster whose influence is going to change history ... this is only the beginning! The energy source which is now being made available will make scientists the most hated and most wanted citizens in any country.

The world could be conquered, but this nation of puritans will not grab its chance; we will be able to go into space way beyond the moon if only people could keep pace with what they create ..."
He then predicted the future indispensable role of automation, becoming so agitated that he had to be put to sleep by a strong drink and sleeping pills.

In his obituary for John von Neumann, Ulam recalled a conversation with von Neumann about the "ever accelerating progress of technology and changes in the mode of human life, which gives the appearance of approaching some essential singularity in the history of the race beyond which human affairs, as we know them, could not continue." This is the famous origin of the concept of technological singularity. Perhaps we can even trace it to that night in 1945 :-)

How will humans keep pace? See Super-Intelligent Humans are Coming and Don't Worry, Smart Machines Will Take Us With Them.

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