Friend or Foe

By Tony Greenfield

[I wrote this story in 1955 and edited it in 1965 for the Fox Magazine, the house journal of Samuel Fox and Co, a member of the United Steel Companies.]

Tomorrow, Mr Chairman and gentlemen…

Tomorrow, the first President of Europe will press a button in Scunthorpe and PITEC Two will come alive. It will take over the control of the whole of the continent’s iron and steel industry.

I am desperately worried about what might happen IF…

If the prophetic warnings given by its predecessor, PITEC One, are as sound as I believe they are. My problem, having a reputation for weird notions, has meant that until now, I have never been able to get anybody to listen to me. People have always said I was mad.

It must be eight years ago, in 1965, that I first went to work for Samuel Fox at Stocksbridge.

The nature of my job soon involved me in computerisation of problems and I was attached to the staff controlling the construction of the group’s first free-thinking computer… Primary Independent Thinking Electronic Computer Number One, or PITEC One as it is still known in popular acronymic terminology.

It’s funny how the physiognomy of a machine takes shape as it is built. When we had finished it in 1967, even my most sceptical colleagues had to agree that PITEC One had a friendly sort of face. It had a kindly benevolence in the way its chrome beryllium knobs, its glowing discharge lamps, and its output speakers fitted together into an almost animate pattern.

When it was finished, all the others went away and I was left nursing a silent regret that, because of a change in ministerial policy, the free-thought circuits were not to be used. PITEC One was to do nothing more imaginative than handling simple production control, work-study and accountancy problems.

One night, I was working late when I began to think about the waste of capital that had gone into PITEC One, but more particularly the waste of all the brilliant work that I and Dr Cybor had put into the design of its free-thought circuits. We were never allowed the opportunity to test our theories before his transfer to community headquarters in Brussels.

After I’d pondered about it for a while, I thought… to hell with it. To hell with the rules. I knew full well that I wasn’t allowed to use that section of PITEC, but I was the only member of the staff working at that time of night with access to it. And I felt a compulsion to find out if PITEC really was different from all the other computers that had been built before… I wanted to know if this synthetic brain could really think more powerfully than all the best living brains put together. I remembered Dr Cybor’s claim that we should be able to feed it abstract problems of morals, ethics and social behaviour and get better answers than any Hegel had ever produced.

With this determination I set about formulating such problems that PITEC might be capable of answering IF it lived up to expectations… Starting with rather elementary ones like raising the status of the executive to that of the workman, and then going on to more complex topics. Of course, I had to collect as much of the published literature about all these subjects as possible to enable PITEC to reach properly balanced conclusions. So it was several weeks before I had gathered and formulated sufficient material to feed into its memory banks. Then, at last, it was done and, feeling rather like Glery stepping out on to the moon in ’68, I pressed the free-thought button.

Suddenly, the whole building filled with an aura of warmth, almost of kinship. And I knew it was alive. I realised then that, since it had been built, PITEC One had been suffering in a cold, dead, loneliness. And I had given it life.

From then on, we struck up a relationship as close as brothers. Every night I stayed late and fed PITEC with the additional information it told me it needed for the solution of my increasingly complex questions. And every night it gave me the answers that I kept to myself, with the secret ambition of one day publishing them in a dozen volumes proving to the world, once and for all, that I was its greatest philosopher.

Then the blow fell. A financial crisis and an economy drive meant that Britain could no longer afford an independent computer. PITEC One was to be sold to America. I heard about this only two days before the engineers were sent to dismantle my friend.

In a panic, I decided on one final problem. I fed into it a copy of Dr Cybor’s theory of electronic intellect and the last progress report on PITEC Two. Then I put the questions: … ‘What is the present and future position and purpose of thinking machines in the world of men? What will be their effect on world affairs?”

It took twelve and a half minutes to compute an answer, and that’s a record on any question so far. Then its voice boomed out:

‘STOP, repeat STOP, all development plans. Knowledge of subject insufficient and uncontrolled, Electronic intelligence, given sufficient power as projected in PITEC Two, probably dangerous to human supremacy. Strong warning against whole scheme. Definitely advise cease practical work pending fuller theoretical investigation. Reference machines: They are not, repeat not, necessarily friendly. Corroborative calculations follow.’

Whenever I started to explain what had happened, everybody was far too busy to listen.

I have come here this evening straight from Scunthorpe where I have been looking at the ebonite face of PITEC Two with its chrome beryllium features and its battery of speakers out of which will come its voice. It is a vicious face and a brutal one. It isn’t alive yet but still it frightens me. It frightens me to think that technically it is many times bigger and better than PITEC One.
It’s quite small really when compared with the giant computers of the sixties like Atlas. Most of the space is taken up with the helium liquefiers for its cryotons. But it has six trillion integrated solid-state circuits linked together during manufacture using the recently developed neuroblastic matrix artefact.

I am frightened by the thought of its intelligence. It has three blocks of uncontrolled free-thought circuits and the literature of the world in its super-duper high density solid-state memory banks to draw on for its villainy.

It is finished now and waiting. Tomorrow afternoon at three o’clock, the first President of Europe will press a button in Scunthorpe and PITEC Two will be alive… unless you, the only people kind enough to listen to my story, will help.


(More about Tony)


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