Similarly, when a machine constructed by us is capable of operating on its incoming data at a pace which we cannot keep, we may not know, until too late, when to turn it off. We all know the fable of the sorcerer’s apprentice, in which the boy makes the broom carry water in his master’s absence, so that it is on the point of drowning him when his master reappears. If the boy had had to seek a charm to stop the mischief in the grimoires of his master’s library, he might have been drowned before he had discovered the relevant incantation. Similarly, if a bottle factory is programmed on the basis of maximum productivity, the owner may be made bankrupt by the enormous inventory of unsalable bottles manufactured before he learns he should have stopped production six months earlier.
The “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” is only one of many tales based on the assumption that the agencies of magic are literal-minded. There is the story of the genie and the fisherman in the Arabian Nights, in which the fisher- man breaks the seal of Solomon which has imprisoned the genie and finds the genie vowed to his own destruction; there is the tale of the “Monkey’s Paw,” by W. W. Jacobs, in which the sergeant major brings back from India a talisman which has the power to grant each of three people three wishes. Of the first recipient of this talisman we are told only that his third wish is for death. The sergeant major, the second person whose wishes are granted, finds his experiences too terrible to relate. His friend, who receives the talisman, wishes first for £200. Shortly thereafter, an official of the factory in which his son works comes to tell him that his son has been killed in the machinery and that, without any admission of responsibility, the company is sending him as consolation the sum of £200. His next wish is that his son should come back, and the ghost knocks at the door. His third wish is that the ghost should go away.
Disastrous results are to be expected not merely in the world of fairy tales but in the real world wherever two agencies essentially foreign to each other are coupled in the attempt to achieve a common purpose. If the communication between these two agencies as to the nature of this purpose is incomplete, it must only be expected that the results of this cooperation will be unsatisfactory. If we use, to achieve our purposes, a mechanical agency with whose operation we cannot efficiently interfere once we have started it, because the action is so fast and irrevocable that we have not the data to intervene before the action is complete, then we had better be quite sure that the purpose put into the machine is the purpose which we really desire and not merely a colorful imitation of it.
Arthur Samuel replied in the same issue with “a refutation”:
A machine is not a genie, it does not work by magic, it does not possess a will… The “intentions” which the machine seems to manifest are the intentions of the human programmer, as specified in advance, or they are subsidiary intentions derived from these, following rules specified by the programmer… There is (and logically there must always remain) a complete hiatus between (i) any ultimate extension and elaboration in this process of carrying out man’s wishes and (ii) the development within the machine of a will of its own. To believe otherwise is either to believe in magic or to believe that the existence of man’s will is an illusion and that man’s actions are as mechanical as the machine’s. Perhaps Wiener’s article and my rebuttal have both been mechanistically determined, but this I refuse to believe.
An apparent exception to these conclusions might be claimed for projected machines of the so-called “neural net” type… Since the internal connections would be unknown, the precise behavior of the nets would be unpredictable and, therefore, potentially dangerous… If practical machines of this type become a reality we will have to take a much closer look at their implications than either Wiener or I have been able to do.