When NASA Got Artificial Intelligence

Hidden Figures

I recently watched the movie “Hidden Figures”.  From all reports it was reasonably accurate (given some poetic license on the directors part). Apart from the obvious equal rights messages the scenes describing the implementation of the IBM machine portrayed much human drama that is relevant to today’s debates on AI.

The character Dorothy Vaughn was a supervisor (in practice, not in role … see the movie) of the “Colored Computers”. They were a couple of dozen African American women who performed calculations for the scientists and engineers in the NASA programme. Dorothy became aware that the recently installed IBM 7090 with is ability to perform up to 24,000 multiplications per second was about to make their jobs redundant. At this stage in history a “Computer” was a job description not a product! As the NASA personnel struggled to get the “IBM” working, Dorothy taught herself Fortran out of  a book from the library. Actually she needed to sneak it from the “whites only” part of the library.   She managed to secretly get the device working before the IBM engineers could. This resulted in the perfect Hollywood scene of her and her “Colored Computers” becoming the “programming” team for the 7090.

AI Takes One Job but Another is Created

If ever there was an example of a white collar role being usurped by AI this is it.  However, in this case the workers knew that they were going to be treated like second class citizens (being African Americans in the 1960’s US state of Virginia) .  So they took it on themselves to look after themselves and take the AI revolution head on.

The IBM 7090


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