A Machine to Do a Computer's Job – Tech Stage 10
To ensure that the next Guardians would have the requisite powers of the mind, Mentor had to interdict the invention of any machine that would significantly mimic intelligence. His Visualization of the Cosmic All revealed with sobering clarity what would happen if humanity, in particular, were to develop electronic computers or even small calculators. Humans would have come to rely on them to provide the accuracy and clarity that they should maintain in themselves. Instead of learning to mentally compute highly perturbed asteroidal orbits, they would have become unable to do the simplest arithmetic without a "hand calculator." Rather than learning to clearly and rapidly think, they would have become unable to spell their own language without a computer "spell checker." (The name would have been an example of loose and muddy thinking, not of superstition. It would not have checked spells – it would have actually been a spelling checker.)
After the conception of the Children of the Lens, however, there was nothing further to be gained from the interdiction, and Drs. Joan Janowick and Neal Cloud began work on electronic automatic computers. They were able to build one able to predict atomic vortices with sufficient speed and accuracy to select one of several pre-made bombs and fire it at the proper moment to extinguish a given atomic vortex. They speculate that they might build one fast enough to actually pilot a space ship! They are making great progress, and at the time of the obliteration of Ploor, their electronic "brains" ranged in size from small units taking up no more than 25 cubic yards to the GOMEAC (General Operations' Mathematical Electronic Automatic Computer) at Ultra Prime that uses over 23 million vacuum tubes, consumes nearly a thousand megawatts, fills some 17,000 cubic yards and requires the entire volume of the Pkug river for cooling. Still, it can perform almost five thousand arithmetic operations, to a precision of five decimal places, every second!
Even though all currently existing electronic computers operate on analogue principles (as do the cams of an integrating calculator, but using voltage instead of mechanical position), the researches of G'nirut of Manarka suggest that it may soon be practical to construct digital calculators that could perform series of operations just like the present analogue machines.
Egabbab of Dyaddub has suggested that such machines could even be instructed (or "programmed," to use his term) to perform series of calculations, with the series actually changing based on previous results! Thus, the machine's operation would change, not because an operator tuned variable capacitors and resistors (or installed new cams) as on an analogue machine, but by simply changing the data entered into the machine, possibly via punched cards similar to those used in sorting machines.
The wildest flight of fancy of all has been taken by Of The New Man, a Medonian mathematician, who points out that if Egabbab's "analytical engine" were able to read and store both its instructions and its data in the same way, not only would it be trivial to insert new "programs" but the machine would also be able to alter its own instructions while executing them.
The writers of lurid fiction, with Sybly White in the forefront, have seized on these ideas and are filling the pulp magazines with stories of "thinking machines."