Translated from: Elektronregnemaskinerne og hjernen. Perspektiv 1(7): 42-46, 1954.
Since 1946 a number of complicated electrical devices, known as electronic computers, have seen the light of day. They have attracted considerable attention, not only among people who normally might be expected to be interested in computing machines, but even among logicians and philosophers. This attention is manifest in the way the devices have been described in newspapers and popular scientific books under remarkable designations, such as electronic brains. From here the step has not been long to obstinate philosophical and religious discussions, and the existence of these new devices have been taken as a support of the most varied philosophies. In this situation a sober analysis of the facts seems urgent.
Here the question will be seen from two different sides. First we shall take up the question: What are the properties of the electronic computers that invite comparison with the brain? The discussion here will be primarily one of certain potentialities. These considerations will then be supplemented with an answer to the question: Have we at the present stage of the development gotten so far that the potentialities, that perhaps justify the talk about thinking machines, have also in actual fact been brought into play?
If we wish to get an impression of the positive properties of the electronic computers we need only look at what they are actually used for. We will then find that by far most of their time they spend on extensive calculations. Vast quantities of numbers are fed in through the reading mechanisms of the machines and the results come out in an equally impressive stream through their typewriters. If we ask their users what are the particular advantages of the electronic computers, we will be told that the problems they solve would be entirely out of reach with any other means. An electronic computer can be likened to a staff of human computer assistants, each equipped with an ordinary small calculator. Thus the machine represents an enormous work capacity. But just as no team of skilled people of the average quality, no matter how large, will ever replace a true genius, no electronic computer can replace real research.
We have presented the aspects of the electronic computers that are decisive when we try to answer the question: Can machines think? We have not arrived at any final answer, and perhaps many people will breathe a sigh of relief and declare that then they will continue to maintain that they cannot. Indeed, the idea that machines might be able to think appears to be deeply dismaying to many people. It seems that the merest suggestion of such a possibility conjures up a nightmare of a machine-ridden world in which man literally is the slave of the machine. Such a fright your present author finds groundless. He is worried that the danger lurks, not with the machines that perhaps can think, but with the people who cannot.