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To understand artificial intelligence in 2019, watch this 1960 TV show

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16.09.2019

This article is part of Fast Company’s editorial series “The New Rules of AI.” More than 60 years into the era of artificial intelligence, the world’s largest technology companies are just beginning to crack open what’s possible with AI—and grapple with how it might change our future. Click here to read all the stories in the series.

“If the computer is this important, why haven’t I heard more about it?”

“Well, the computer is a relatively new thing, and we’re just really getting an appreciation for the full range of its usefulness. Many people think that it’s going to spark a revolution that will change the face of the earth almost as much as the first industrial revolution did.”

The year is 1960. The skeptic posing the question is David Wayne, a crusty actor familiar to audiences of the time from movies such as Adam’s Rib and TV shows like The Twilight Zone. He’s talking to Jerome B. Wiesner, director of MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics and later the university’s president. The two men are cohosts of “The Thinking Machine,” a documentary about artificial intelligence aired as part of a CBS series called Tomorrow, which the network produced in conjunction with MIT. It debuted on the night of October 26, less than two weeks before John F. Kennedy defeated Richard Nixon in the U.S. presidential election.

Just in case you weren’t watching TV in 1960, you can catch up with “The Thinking Machine” on YouTube. It’s available there in its 53-minute entirety, in a crisp print that was digitized and uploaded by MIT. It’s racked up only 762 views as I write this, but deserves far more eyeballs than that.

So here it is:

Taking in this black-and-white program in 2019, your first impulse may be to dismiss it as a hokey period piece. As the hosts sit on a mid-century set that looks like office space at Mad Men’s Sterling Cooper, Wayne smokes cigarettes throughout while Wiesner puffs thoughtfully on a pipe. Wayne keeps dramatically pulling up film clips using a box that appears to be a prop, not an actual piece of technology. The whole thing feels stilted, and its leisurely pacing will likely try your patience.

But you know what? Back in 1960, this was an excellent introduction to a subject that mattered a lot—and which, as Wiesner explained, people were just beginning to understand. It includes still-fascinating demos and interviews with significant figures in the history of AI. Fifty-nine years later after its first airing, its perspective on AI’s progress and possibilities remains unexpectedly relevant.

When “The Thinking Machine” first aired, the field of artificial intelligence was busy being born. The science had gotten its name only four years earlier, at a workshop at Dartmouth College where computer science’s brightest minds met to discuss “the........

© Fast Company