September 1966

Artificial Intelligence

“In order for a program to improve itself substantially it would have to have at least a rudimentary understanding of its own problem-solving process and some ability to recognize an improvement when it found one. There is no inherent reason why this should be impossible for a machine. Given a model of its own workings, it could use its problem-solving power to work on the problem of self-improvement. The present programs are not quite smart enough for this purpose; they can only deal with the improvement of programs much simpler than themselves. Once we have devised programs with a genuine capacity for self-improvement a rapid evolutionary process will begin.... Whether or not we could retain some sort of control of the machines, assuming that we would want to, the nature of our activities and aspirations would be changed utterly by the presence on earth of intellectually superior beings. —Marvin L. Minsky”

September 1916

Motion Pictures

“The audience is tense with excitement as the hero in the film play struggles frantically with the control apparatus of a submarine that is fast sinking to the ocean bottom. Several months ago the scene in question was acted, not, as might be supposed, in the interior of a submarine, but in a quiet corner of a motion picture studio [see illustration]. For weeks the artisans of the studio workshops had worked on building this pseudo submarine; and before the camera crank was turned the technical director had gone over every detail of its construction to make sure that it emulated successfully the interior of a modern submarine. To-day the director strives to reinforce good story and fair acting with utmost realism of scenery.”

Scourge of Polio

“The epidemic of infantile paralysis, or poliomyelitis, now ravaging the State and City of New York and extending over a great part of the United States is the most serious in medical history. On September 1st the number of victims in New York State alone had reached 10,000, while the largest reported in any previous epidemic was 3,840. This was in Sweden in the year 1911. This cruel disease has only lately attracted the attention of medical science. It must, of course, have existed from the earliest times; but it was not described until 1841 when eleven cases occurred in Louisiana. During the last thirty years it has rapidly gained ground, claiming ever larger and larger numbers of helpless children and not a few adults as well, until now it is one of the most dreaded of all diseases. In the United States we have had fourteen carefully described epidemics, beginning with that of Vermont in 1894.”

First Report of Tanks

“Strange tales are coming to us from the battlefields of northern France. We would almost believe that our old friend Baron Münchausen had come to life had not the extraordinary developments of the present war prepared us to accept the wildest yarns as possible. War correspondents have been telling us of a huge British machine that hurdles trenches and shell-holes, that prefers to smash through a tree rather than pass around it, that delights to crush into the brick walls of a house and wallow about inside, tramping on the enemy.”

Tanks were used for the first time in the battle of Flers-Courcelette in France on September 15, 1916.

September 1866

The Far Future

“The moon must be drawing very slowly nearer to the earth, and the two bodies, in the far distant future, will come together. The solid crust of the earth will be broken up by the shock, and an immense quantity of heat will be generated by the destruction. At the same time, the earth is winding its way inward toward the sun, and must ultimately fall, an inconsiderable pebble, into that vast glowing mass. The same fate awaits all the planets, and our solar system must one day be but a single globe. When this globe is cooled, it may be covered with a multitude of inhabitants, and astronomers may arise who will watch its revolutions among the associated suns of our stellar system. If their knowledge and intellect are equal to the science of our astronomers, they will foresee the ultimate coming together of all these suns into one common globe. And all of the visible universe into one mass of matter.”

To explore how Scientific American looked at the future in past years, go to www.ScientificAmerican.com/sep2016/past-future