Agents of History--Abstract and Commentary

Advertisement for magnetic drum memory units. Electronics Magazine, April 1953. Reproduced in Ceruzzi, A History of Modern Computing, p. 39

Abstract: World War II research into cryptography and computing produced methods, instruments and research communities that informed early research into artificial intelligence (AI) and semi-autonomous computing. Alan Turing and Claude Shannon in particular adapted this research into early theories and demonstrations of AI based on computers’ abilities to track, predict and compete with opponents. This formed a loosely bound collection of techniques, paradigms, and practices I call crypto-intelligence. Subsequent researchers such as Joseph Weizenbaum adapted crypto-intelligence but also reproduced aspects of its antagonistic precepts. This was particularly true in the design and testing of chat bots. Here the ability to trick, fool, and deceive human and machine opponents was a premium, and practices of agent abuse were admired and rewarded. Recognizing the historical genesis of this particular variety of abuse can help researchers develop less antagonistic methodologies.

Commentary: This essay was an early attempt to consider how cultural, historical, technical, and linguistic fields intersect within the history of computing, and an early attempt to think through the development of concepts of "code" within computer science. As with the Historiographic essay, it was also an attempt to enter into dialogue with practitioners in computer science. It's based on another paper I presented and published in connection to an international conference on human-computer interaction. In the intervening years I've been intermittently working on a short book monograph entitled "Human-Computer Iteration," and this paper is an early ancestor of that project.

December 31, 2007