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I have been going through my Asia Times archives selecting reports and columns for a new e-book on the Forever Wars – Afghanistan and Iraq. But then, out of the blue, I found this palimpsest, originally published by Asia Times in February 2014. It happened to be a Back to the Future exercise – traveling in time to survey the scene in the mid-1980s across Silicon Valley, MIT’s AI lab, DARPA and the NSA, weaving an intersection of themes, and a fabulous cast of characters, which prefigure the Brave New Techno World we’re now immersed in, especially concerning the role of artificial intelligence. So this might be read today as a sort of preamble, or a background companion piece, to No Escape from our Techno-Feudal World, published early this month. Incidentally, everything that takes place in this account was happening 18 years before the end of the Pentagon’s LifeLog project, run by DARPA, and the simultaneous launch of Facebook. Enjoy the time travel.

In the spring of 1986, Back to the Future, the Michael J Fox blockbuster featuring a time-traveling DeLorean car, was less than a year old. The Apple Macintosh, launched via a single, iconic ad directed by Ridley (Blade Runner) Scott, was less than two years old. Ronald Reagan, immortalized by Gore Vidal as “the acting president,” was hailing the mujahideen in Afghanistan as “freedom fighters.”

The world was mired in Cyber Cold War mode; the talk was all about electronic counter-measures, with American C3s (command, control, communications) programmed to destroy Soviet C3s, and both the US and the USSR under MAD (mutually assured destruction) nuclear policies being able to destroy the earth 100 times over. Edward Snowden was not yet a three-year-old.

It was in this context that I set out to do a special report for a now-defunct magazine about artificial intelligence (AI), roving from the Computer Museum in Boston to Apple in Cupertino and Pixar in San Rafael, and then to the campuses of Stanford, Berkeley and MIT.

AI had been “inaugurated” in 1956 by Stanford’s John McCarthy and Marvin Minsky, a future MIT professor who at the time had been a student at Harvard. The basic idea, according to Minsky, was that any intelligence trait could be described so precisely that a machine could be created to simulate it.

Joseph Weizenbaum. Source: Chatbots
Joseph Weizenbaum. Source: Chatbots

My trip inevitably involved meeting a fabulous cast of characters. At MIT’s AI lab, there was Minsky and also an inveterate iconoclast, Joseph Weizenbaum, who had coined the term “artificial intelligentsia” and believed computers could never “think” just like a human being.

At Stanford, there was Edward Feigenbaum, absolutely paranoid about Japanese scientific progress; he believed that if the Japanese developed a fifth-generation computer, based on artificial intelligence, that could think, reason and speak even such a difficult language as Japanese “the US will be able to bill itself as the first great post-industrial agrarian society.”

And at Berkeley, still under the flame of hippie utopian populism, I found Robert Wilensky – Brooklyn accent, Yale gloss, California overtones; and philosopher Hubert Dreyfus, a tireless enemy of AI who got his kicks delivering lectures such as “Conventional AI as a Paradigm of Degenerated Research.”

Meet Kim No-VAX

Soon I was deep into Minsky’s “frames” – a basic concept to organize every subsequent AI program – and the Chomsky paradigm: the notion that language is at the root of knowledge, and that formal syntax is at the root of language. That was the Bible of cognitive science at MIT.

Minsky was a serious AI enthusiast. One of his favorite themes was that people were afflicted with “carbon chauvinism”: “This is central to the AI phenomenon. Because it’s possible that more sophisticated forms of intelligence are not incorporated in cellular form. If there are other forms of intelligent life, then we may speculate over other types of computer structure.”

Marvin Minsky at MIT Lab. Photo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Marvin Minsky at MIT Lab. Photo: Massachusetts Institute of Technology

At the MIT cafeteria, Minsky delivered a futurist rap without in the least resembling Dr Emmett Brown in Back to the Future:

I believe that in less than five centuries we will be producing machines very similar to us, representing our thoughts and point of view. If we can build a miniaturized human brain weighing, let’s say, one gram, we can lodge it in a spaceship and make it travel at the speed of light. It would be very hard to build a spaceship to carry an astronaut and all his food for 10,000 years of travel …

With Professor Feigenbaum, in Stanford’s philosophical garden, the only space available was for the coming yellow apocalypse. But then one day I crossed Berkeley’s post-hippie Rubicon and opened the door of the fourth floor of Evans Hall, where I met none other than Kim No-VAX.

No, that was not the Hitchcock blonde and Vertigo icon; it was an altered hardware computer (No-VAX because it had moved beyond Digital Equpment Corporation’s VAX line of supercomputers), financed by the mellifluously acronymed Pentagon military agency DARPA, decorated with a photo of Kim Novak and humming with the sexy vibration of – at the time immense – 2,900 megabytes of electronic data spread over its body.

The US government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency – or DARPA – was all about computer science. In the mid-1980s, DARPA was immersed in a very ambitious program linking microelectronics, computer architecture and AI way beyond a mere military program. That was comparable to the Japanese fifth generation computer program. At MIT, the overwhelming majority of scientists were huge DARPA cheerleaders, stressing how the agency was leading research. Yet Terry Winograd, a computer science professor at Stanford, warned that had DARPA been a civilian agency, “I believe we would have made much more progress”.

It was up to Professor Dreyfus to provide the voice of reason amidst so much cyber-euphoria: “Computers cannot think like human beings because there’s no way to represent all retrospective knowledge of an average human life – that is, ‘common sense’ – in a form that a computer may apprehend.” Dreyfus’s drift was that with the boom of computer science, philosophy was dead – and he was a philosopher: “Heidegger said that philosophy ended because it reached its apex in technology. Philosophy in fact reached its limit with AI. They, the scientists, inherited our questions. What is the mind? Now they have to answer for it. Philosophy is over.”

Hubert Dreyfus. Source: Berkeley Campus News
Hubert Dreyfus. Source: Berkeley Campus News

Yet Dreyfus was still teaching. Likewise at MIT, Weizenbaum was condemning AI as a racket for “lunatics and psychopaths” – but still continued to work at the AI lab.

NSA’s wet web dream


In no time, helped by these brilliant minds, I figured out that the AI “secret” would be a military affair, and that meant the National Security Agency – already in the mid-1980s vaguely known as “no such agency,” with double the CIA’s annual budget to pay for snooping on the whole planet. The mission back then was to penetrate and monitor the global electronic net – that was years before all the hype over the “information highway” – and at the same time reassure the Pentagon over the inviolability of its lines of communication. For those comrades – remember, the Cold War, even with Gorbachev in power in the USSR, was still on – AI was a gift from God (beating Pope Francis by almost three decades).

So what was the Pentagon/NSA up to, at the height of the star wars hype, and over a decade and a half before the revolution in military affairs and the full spectrum dominance doctrine?

They already wanted to control their ships and planes and heavy weapons with their voices, not their hands; voice command a la Hal, the star computer in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. Still, that was a faraway dream. Minsky believed that “only in the next century” would we be able to talk to a computer. Others believed that would never happen. Anyway, IBM was already working on a system accepting dictation; and MIT on another system that identified words spoken by different people; while Intel was developing a special chip for all this.

Although, predictably, prevented from visiting the NSA, I soon learned that the Pentagon was expecting to possess “intelligent” computing systems by the 1990s; Hollywood, after all, already had unleashed the Terminator series. It was up to Professor Wilensky, in Berkeley, to sound the alarm bells:

Human beings don’t have the appropriate engineering for the society they developed. Over a million years of evolution, the instinct of getting together in small communities, belligerent and compact, turned out to be correct. But then, in the 20th century, man ceased to adapt. Technology overtook evolution. The brain of an ancestral creature, like a rat, which sees provocation in the face of every stranger, is the brain that now controls the earth’s destiny.

It was as if Wilensky was describing the NSA as it would be 28 years later. Some questions still remain unanswered; for instance, if our race does not fit anymore the society it built, who’d guarantee that its machines are properly engineered? Who’d guarantee that intelligent machines act in our interest?

What was already clear by then was that “intelligent” computers would not end a global arms race. And it would be a long time, up to the Snowden revelations in 2013, for most of the planet to have a clearer idea of how the NSA orchestrates the Orwellian-Panopticon complex. As for my back to the future trip, in the end I did not manage to uncover the “secret” of AI. But I’ll always remain very fond of Kim No-VAX.

(Republished from Asia Times by permission of author or representative)
• Category: History • Tags: AI, Darpa, NSA 
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  1. Notsofast says:

    in this year we have witnessed an amazing series of coincides strung together in rapid succession. these almost unprecedented events have led us step by step into uncharted territory. the hastily constructed impeachment of trump, charging him with crimes (that joe biden admitted to commiting himself), event 201 (as well as the earlier operation crimson contagion), the wuhan military games of a week later all took place in 2019 and led up to this annus horribilis. after the charade of an impeachment was finally knocked off the 24/7 mockingbird media echo chamber, we immediately went into operation fear, with worldwide lockdowns, quarantining the healthy in an unprecedented and unconstitutional manner, leading to the destruction of half of the independent small businesses. we were first told by fauci not to wear masks, then that he lied to prevent a run on masks, then that that was the advice he received from the w.h.o. at the time. our attention was then directed to the george floyd incident which led to immediate spontaneous protests and rioting world wide for some reason (google search of floyd lists him as a hiphop artist, i guess explains his world wide appeal). we were then told that these protests are more important than the deadly virus and stopping its murderous rampage. blm, antifa, nfac, all explode onto the scene and we are told that social protests of the deadly white priveledge means that a few small businesses might burn but thats the cost of freedom (they probably have insurance). add to this a stolen election that courts refuse to even look at. last but certainly not least we have the roll out the vaccines with big pharma being given blanket immunity from all legal liability, as well as suggestions that travel might be restricted without proof of vaccination. the 77th brigade has been recently been activated to attack any anti-vaxx point of view on line (as well as counter any hostile states “disinformation”). i strongly suspect their presence here on unz (i’m currently going round with” that would be telling” on another thread, i’m probably arguing with a bot but what the hell.)

    we have been told by our overlords that things will never go back to normal again and that is exactly what they intend. the mockingbird media owned by six multinational corporations with their social media gatekeepers and fact checkers to memory hole all inconvenient truths and smear all other points of view as conspiracy theory or russian disinformation, is in overdrive now. this is the installation of the murderhornet hivemind, this combined with the a.i. platforms currently spying on us though amazon, ebay, google, alexa, pandora, etc. is constantly listening to us, trying to sell us products, selling our data to the highest bidder and sending our data and all communications to our overlords in the deep dark state to be cataloged for future use should we step out of line. the borg are here among us, assimilate resistance is futile.

  2. … with American C3s (command, control, communications) ….

    Back then we called it C3I, or “See-Cubed-Eye,” and while DARPA might have been figuring out how to make it possible to talk to machines and get them to anticipate what humans might think or do, we had them working on how to improve getting machines and systems to talk to one another (not just interoperability, but also getting things to work as designed), which was difficult enough in the ‘80s during peacetime not to mention what EMP and the wipeout of most terrestrial comms would mean when the balloon went up. DARPA’s bigger contribution to this day was figuring out how to make the PSTN “gracefully degrade” in the face of nuclear onslaught, keeping it functional long enough to get out the orders for the counterstrike, which morphed into the internet. Baby steps.

  3. @Notsofast

    Well-Spake, Notsofast. I worked at DEC during its take-over by Intel while 9/11 was thrown-in for shits and giggles.
    I nominate the elusive Kosher Nostra as primary advocates for Chaos.
    Also, Pepe’s one cool dude.

  4. Biff says:

    The brain of an ancestral creature, like a rat, which sees provocation in the face of every stranger, is the brain that now controls the earth’s destiny.

    This much is obvious. It’s a numbers game and the rats will have their moment at the top, but in the end nature itself will win again – just like the time before, and the time before that. Nature will heal thyself, it will cleanse itself, it will rid itself of flawed intelligence(humans), it will rid itself of flawed anything, and begin again. That’s what nature does.

    Nature is not biased – nature does not favor you.

  5. @Notsofast

    St. George of Minneapolis was a hippity hop “artist” in the same way that Bubba down the street is going to make it to Nashville “any day now”. His worldwide mourning processions were simply constructions of the global homosexual finance surveillance state.

    Just a minor correction…

    • Replies: @Notsofast
  6. mirpaz says:

    Hi Pepe, I miss you at The DE. As a expressonauta, I admire your clarity and enormous desterity with words. Always glad to read and fill up my gaps in the history.
    Brazil is going through hell. So many n search of celebrity status, hollowed by ineptitude…O povo e que sofre.
    Be well, Happy holiday…See you next year with Romu;us, Vior and many others,

  7. Instead of inventing ways to increase longevity, or improve public transit, or use less energy, or to not have to work so hard, they invent better ways to spy on us.

    That’s free-market capitalism for ya. Congratulations.

    • Replies: @SteveK9
  8. donut says:

    ” i strongly suspect their presence here on unz (i’m currently going round with” that would be telling” on another thread, i’m probably arguing with a bot but what the hell.)”

    To me Steve has come across as more of a pitchman than just a blogger with “Jack d” and “that would be telling” doing the heavy lifting . I am curious what his stand will be on mandatory vaccinations if resistance to the vaccine becomes wide spread .

  9. Big Daddy says:

    Small and cohesive. Who have the Amish and hippie farmers invaded recently?

    I have read alot of history and i have learned one depressing thing: humans in mass states ALWAYS become belligerent hoodlums. Vide how easily Satan destroyed the Garden of Evil. And you want big nation states? We humans have a very bad evil side to our nature.

    God said ora et labora: pray and work. Life is a struggle not to sin as Jesus said. “Love the Lord with all you mind, soul and heart. This is the greatest and the first commandment. And the second is like it. Thou shalt Love thy neighbor as thyself.” Mathew 22: 37-39.

    • Replies: @A. Hipster
  10. That photograph of Dreyfus is spectacular. He was right about AI and one of his arguments was irrefutable. A computer can never imitate a human because a computer can never feel hungry or tired or horny. Never. And these feelings feed back into the human thought stream with a presence and power ineluctable.

    • Replies: @A. Hipster
  11. @Big Daddy

    Garden of Eden, you meant to say … and was Satan really the bad guy in the story, Adam and Eve were like children or animals, to became really human they needed to leave their innocence behind.

    And according to the Biblical account work was a curse and punishment, in Eden Adam and Eve just consumed fruits without tilling and toiling … the farming came afterwards ….

    “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread, till thou return unto the ground; for out of it wast thou taken: for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return.”

    That was a hard judgement … and Satan got his limbs chopped of and Eve got his childbirth pains to be horrible ….

    Isn’t Satan a bit like Prometheus who brought the fire to Men and was punished for that by the Gods ….

    just thinking because one techno visionary Elon Musk just tweeted “Prometheus Unbound!” ….

    • Replies: @A. Hipster
  12. @Morton's toes

    I was thinking about the 80s Cult Pop Science book “Gödel, Escher, Bach” written by Douglas Hofstaedter, who followed Martin Gardner as the Scientific American “recreational mathematics” columnist … a very popular book, I even remember a Sylvester Stallone interview, he said “I play simple men in my movies but that does not mean I’m a stupid guy, I’ve been reading Gödel, Escher,” Bach … it’s mind blowing!”

    Hofstaedter was firm believer in the AI, I think he was what they called a “computationalists” or was it a “connectionist”, people who thought intelligence and consciousness could be just programmed and coded in to the machines …

    the book Gödel, Escher, Bach had a foot note saying: Dreyfuss’ arguments are very annoying, but it’s interesting to try to refute them …

    Dreyfuss was a Heideggerian who thought the human existence is embodied lived experience, tied to the Flesh, exactly like the Bible says too ….

  13. @A. Hipster

    Apologies for misgendering Eve, my first language does not have gendered pronouns and in actual fact, the colloquial Finnish does not even differentiate between humans, animals or inanimate things, everything is just “it”, “Se”

    probably pisses off a lot our local SJWs who are therefore unable to ape their American idols in that regard….

    couple of exceptions though, the formal pronoun referring to a human being is used in certain kind of sentence construction ….

    and the female dog owners typically refer to their pet using the human pronoun

  14. SteveK9 says:

    Why do you think that has anything to do with Capitalism? The Stasi were not spying on people?

  15. DEC’s VAX architecture was never considered a supercomputer, not even by DEC’s Marketing Dept. VAX was a big leap forward over DEC’s PDP-11 16 bit mincomputer line, but nowhere near then current supercomputers.

    Seymour Cray designed the top supercomputers in the 1980s, starting with the CDC-6600 in the 70’s. The Crays were supercooled, massively parallel machines that cost a small fortune.

    The spooks at DARPA were making a punny joke that referenced Hitchcock’s Vertigo, and one of Hitchcock’s many hot blondes, a spooky film about creating deceptions and delusions.

    I wonder if DARPA received many replies to their RFP, a few years back, for an AI diagnostic tool that could figure out why an AI program did what it did when the result was not obvious to human intelligence. That would be an AI app for back checking the AI. Who watches the watchers.

  16. Notsofast says:

    i meant that to be sarcasm (but i guess i didn’t sell it hard enough). the irony is that google first lists him as a hip hop artist rather than an unemployed bouncer,(or porn star). this goes to prove the integration of these systems of control now being used to shape the narrative world wide.

    • Replies: @Fallingwater
  17. @Notsofast

    Ah, I see. My sarcasm detector is admittedly not calibrated up to spec!

    Either that or the processing power of my entire mainframe is behind the curve…

  18. kemerd says:

    I am amazed by how arrogant these scientists can be.

    I remember watching a video of a British computer scientist in 1950s that he was sure to have a decent Russian-English translator in 5 years using the computers of the time.

    What we have so far, in the name of artificial intelligence is not more than some applied network theory and regression analysis. It is so far from what we consider as intelligence that these machines can currently do that I am inclined to believe that we are so far from creating artificial intelligence.

    Perhaps we are not intelligent enough to capture the gist of intelligence and that we perhaps simply cannot build such a machine just like a smart rat cannot be expected to learn to read.

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