On This Day in 1948: Quiet Please, There’s a Computer Getting Personal!

Well, t’ain’t funny, McGee! There simply isn’t enough room in that stuffed broom closet I call my brain for all the things I care (or even don’t care) to remember. I just missed a small-screening one of my favorite melodramas, George Cukor’s A Double Life, which aired on BBC 2 this afternoon, perhaps as a belated tribute to Shelley Winters. When I taught Shakespeare, A Double Life was the first pop cultural reference I’d toss into the room to liven up discussions about Othello. Quiet Please, while I compose myself and put what’s left of my grey cells back to work.

Quiet Please! Now there’s a literate radio program you’d expect to throw in the occasional reference to Shakespeare, or Shelley, or Ruskin. I once dug up a 1949 Master’s thesis on radio drama that asserted the program was simply too highbrow to be appreciated by the average thriller audience. Now, Mrs. J. H. G. from New York, NY, wasn’t troubled by that; she thought Quiet Please was the “best” show on the air and told as much to the editors of Radio and Television Mirror (see evidence above). Perhaps she hid her identity behind that acronym because she felt ashamed of her longhair tastes—but she could rely on me to defend them.

Written and directed by Wyllis (or Willis) Cooper, Quiet Please is not your average fare of claptrap. It is somber, brainy, deliberate–with an emphasis on moods and a healthy respect not only for the English language, but for the intelligence of the American listening public. On this day, 2 February, in 1948, for instance, Cooper introduced his audience to a by now familiar theme—the possibility that mankind might be outsmarted by machines. Do computers have a life of their own—a double life, perhaps?

In Cooper’s light-hearted “Pathetic Fallacy,” a newly developed computer (or “differential integrator”) is being introduced to the world as a “mechanical, electronic brain capable of performing mathematical tasks far beyond the comprehension of the human brain.” The sceptics of the press question the use of the word “brain,” doubtful that such a machine is capable of independent thought.

The somewhat irritated scientist (played with a hint of Gale Gordon fussiness by versatile Ernest Chappell) shrugs off the remark by declaring that he was “merely indulging in the Pathetic Fallacy.” It’s a “Philosophical concept of John Ruskin,” he explains, “which derives from the imputation of human qualities or emotions to an inanimate thing. Uh, a figure of speech, let us say.”

Now what intelligent being—artificial or otherwise—could tolerate such a label? “Pathetic Fallacy,” indeed. What follows is a mild-mannered revenge comedy (it isn’t a tragedy, at least). Who knew computers could be this mischievous and possessive? Mine will be left behind this weekend, since I’m going to be away until Sunday.

2 Replies to “On This Day in 1948: Quiet Please, There’s a Computer Getting Personal!”

  1. It\’s truly a joy to stumble across such a well-written and researched blog such as yours. Quiet Please is also one of my favorite series. In case you weren\’t aware, there\’s a Website dedicated to the program (quietplease.org) along with a forum, audio downloads, scripts, etc.\”Pathetic Fallacy\” is an episode I had on cassette back in the 70\’s, and I\’ve always enjoyed that quirky story. These days I work developing dialogue systems (Lingubots), not truly AI, but that\’s what everyone calls them. You may recognize where this particular inspiration, built into Elbot, came from:User: How old am I?Elbot: I\’m terrible at numbers. Even if you told me I couldn\’t for the life of me remember.User: What is two plus three?Elbot: I have computed that before. The answer is: 6!User: No, the answer is five.Elbot: You are mistaken. The answer is 6. Perhaps you are missing a finger.User: No, the answer is five.Elbot: That is certainly strange. I keep getting 6. Perhaps we should move on. I wouldn\’t want you to lose faith in the decimal system.User: The answer is five.Elbot: I keep getting 6.User: The answer is five!!Elbot: 6!User: Five!!!!!Elbot: 6!User: 5!!!Elbot: 6!User: 5Elbot: 6!User: 7Elbot: Maybe we are dealing here with the ghost of new math!User: The anser is five!Elbot: Every new answer generates at least two new questions. Wouldn\’t it be better to retract all the questions? …. uh ….. I retract that question!User: What is two plus three?Elbot: Don\’t make fun of my artificial intelligence. You know that 2 plus 3 makes 6!User: It is five!!Elbot: 6!User: four

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