The Beatnik Poet Machine

Screenshot 2018-12-28 11.02.57Found in an old LIFE magazine from March 3 1961 this computer story:

In  Glendale California a certain computer even thinks it is a beatnik poet. Having been taught a few rules of grammar and given a vocabulary of 500 words of the type that  beatnik poets frequently employ, this robot has clanked out works such as the following:

Auto beatnik poem number 41: Insects

“All children are small and crusty,

An iron can saw all dragons,

All pale, blind, humble waters are cleaning,

A insect, dumb and torrid (torpid) comes off the Daddy-o,

How is a insect into this fur?”

Some auto beatnik poems were read by a bearded scientist to unsuspecting denizens of a Los Angeles coffeehouse who ‘became quite stirred up with admiration.’ One especially appealing line , which the computer likes, is “AH, I AM NOT A MACHINE.”  The beatnik computer is not a stunt. Its masters are using it to study how to build better computers that can communicate in the English language.

This story is repeated with the variant word “torpid’ for ‘torrid’, possibly an improvement, in the 1962 book Science Shapes Tomorrow (Phoenix, London). They quote the poem in a chapter asking whether computers can think. They say that if a computer is going to think they must be able to do four main things:

  1. They must be able to learn by experience.
  2. They will have to become more flexible. The machine will have to come far closer to our almost miraculous five senses which feed our brains with information – great steps are being made in this direction ..the Perceptron is being taught to recognize letters of the alphabet even if they are sloppily written…
  3.  A the moment most machines work on strictly logical lines -they will have to break free to produce for themselves new and original ways of working with the data inside them.
  4.  The machine must be able to recognize when it is  being brilliant. Any machine fed with enough words and grammatical rules, for example can write poetry. It could even write very good poetry – another Shakespeare sonnet, perhaps, but the machine is not a great poet until it can distinguish the perfect sonnet from the drivel. And the same goes for  logical thinking- it must be able to recognise which of its logical statements are valuable and which are not, even though all of them are true. It would be sad if a machine, for example, hit on the successor to Einstein’s theory of relativity and then did not recognise  that this was a more valuable statement to make than printing out that the earth is round.. the complete answer to mankind problems might find itself crumbled up in the wastepaper basket…


Mullard sees into the Future

Lilliput looks into future pic 001Discovered in an April 1946 copy of Lilliput magazine is this full page advert for Mullard, the big name in ‘Radio Valves and other Electron Tubes’. In a peep into its future Mullard envisages a time when Mr Futura and his son Johnny will be able to see the news via an  ELECTRONIC TELEPRINTER NEWS RECEIVER attached like a watch to Mr Futura’s wrist.

This is a prescient advert. Six months after the end of WW2 Mullard, as Britain’s chief manufacturer of electronic valves, was doubtless looking forward to cashing in on the forthcoming restoration of TV broadcasting following a hiatus of over 7 years. By suggesting that such a ‘far-fetched’ idea as a watch-sized teleprinter might be feasible in the future Mullard put itself forward as the electronics company most likely to develop high quality valves for TV receivers when the broadcasting service was resumed.

The truth is, of course, that the only possible way in which Johnny Futura and his Dad might receive news through a watch-sized device would be if the unwieldy Mullard valves were replaced by transistors and some sort of miniature ariel was incorporated into the device. However, until Dr William Shockley and two colleagues at Bell Labs invented the transistor in 1947, and then went on to perfect it for general use, there was no chance of this happening for a decade or so.

However, the advert is equally interesting inasmuch as it anticipates the IT technology that produced the smart phone and the Apple Smart Watch. Is it possible that as early as 1946 the boffins at Mullard were somehow aware of what Dr Turing and other pioneers of IT were helping to develop and that a future dominated by miniaturised computers might not be too ‘far fetched ‘ ? [R.M.Healey]


Colossus – the first true electronic computer

Found - in a paperback novel from the 1980s this press cutting. It is from a glossy magazine (possibly Electronics World) and is a letter from one G.O. Hayward. This is the war hero Gil Hayward who had worked at Bletchley Park and was given a medal by the Prime Minister in 2010 and died a year later aged 93. He had worked on the "Tunny" decryption machines at  at the Post Office Research Station at Dollis Hill, North London, and later at Bletchley Park. These were used to break the code of even higher grade secret messages than the Enigma machine. Towards the end of the war, up to 15 of the Tunny machines were in use at Bletchley Park, providing Allied leaders with around 300 messages from the German High Command a week. Among other things, Tunny provided key intelligence for D-Day. The Colossus computer was developed from it...

His Telegraph obituary notes that he was interested in electronics from an early age - "On his own motorcycle.. he built an indicator which integrated a clock with his speedometer and indicated his average speed.

Continue reading