Tag Archives: Bruce Sterling

If We’re Lucky, Robots Might Decide To Keep Us as Pets

Isaac Asimov? Marvin Minsky? Paul Saffo? Edward Fredkin? Bruce Sterling?

Dear Quote Investigator: Reportedly, a top researcher in artificial intelligence once said something like:

Humans will be lucky if superintelligent robots treat them as pets.

At some point a grim elaboration was appended:

If humans are unlucky, they will be treated as food.

Would you please explore this topic?

Quote Investigator: In 1970 “LIFE” magazine journalist Brad Darrach wrote an article about Shakey the Robot, an early mobile robot built at the Stanford Research Institute. The primitive device was grandly called the “first electronic person” within the article title. Darrach interviewed Marvin Minsky, a leading researcher at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), who was quoted making a startling prediction: 1

In from three to eight years we will have a machine with the general intelligence of an average human being. I mean a machine that will be able to read Shakespeare, grease a car, play office politics, tell a joke, have a fight. At that point the machine will begin to educate itself with fantastic speed. In a few months it will be at genius level and a few months after that its powers will be incalculable.

Minsky and a colleague warned that intelligent computers should not be put in control of indispensable systems; instead, they must be carefully controlled. Emphasis added to excerpts by QI:

The problem of computer control will have to be solved, Minsky and Papert believe, before computers are put in charge of systems essential to society’s survival. If a computer directing the nation’s economy or its nuclear defenses ever rated its own efficiency above its ethical obligation, it could destroy man’s social order—or destroy man. “Once the computers got control,” says Minsky, “we might never get it back. We would survive at their sufferance. If we’re lucky, they might decide to keep us as pets.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order including a 1985 passage asserting that Minsky denied making the statement about pets. Continue reading


  1. 1970 November 20, LIFE, Meet Shaky, the first electronic person: The fascinating and fearsome reality of a machine with a mind of its own by Brad Darrach, Start Page 58B, Quote Page 58D, 66, and 68, Time Inc., New York. (Google Books Full View)

The Secret to Creativity Is Knowing How to Hide Your Sources

Albert Einstein? C. E. M. Joad? Nolan Bushnell? Coco Chanel? Conan O’Brien? Franklin P. Jones? Charles Moore? Bruce Sterling? Joe Sedelmaier? Anonymous?

coco07Dear Quote Investigator: I have a difficult challenge for you. Here are three versions of a popular maxim:

1) The secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
2) Creativity is knowing how to hide your sources.
3) The key to originality is hiding your sources.

These expressions are usually attributed to the famous scientist Albert Einstein. However, no one bothers to supply any supporting references. Somehow the true source has magically disappeared, it seems. Would you please help to uncover the accurate provenance?

Quote Investigator: There is no substantive evidence that Einstein ever made a remark of this type. It is not listed in the comprehensive collection “The Ultimate Quotable Einstein” from Princeton University Press. 1

QI hypothesizes that this maxim evolved from a statement made in 1926 by a prominent English commentator and broadcaster named C. E. M. Joad. The initials abbreviated the full appellation Cyril Edwin Mitchinson Joad. Below is a dated series of phrases outlining the transformational process:

1926: the height of originality is skill in concealing origins
1933: originality is little more than skill in concealing origins
1938: originality was merely skill in concealing origins
1953: originality has been described as the art of concealing origins
1970: originality is the art of concealing your source
1985: creativity is the art of concealing your sources
1989: the secret to creativity is knowing how to hide your sources

In 1926 Joad published “The Babbitt Warren” in England, and the following year “The New Republic” magazine printed a review. Joad evaluated the United States harshly in his volume, and the reviewer reprinted a sampling of his critical remarks including a precursor of the adage under investigation. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 2

Whereas in Europe the height of originality is genius, in America the height of originality is skill in concealing origins.

In no country is personality valued as it is in America, and in no country is it so rare.

Joad was pleased with this expression, and he developed multiple variants which he placed in his later writings. As the saying continued to evolve it was attributed to Franklin P. Jones, Albert Einstein, Coco Chanel and others. Detailed citations are given further below.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Continue reading


  1. 2010, The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, Edited by Alice Calaprice, Princeton University Press, Princeton, New Jersey. (Examined on paper)
  2. 1927 March 9, The New Republic, Raspberries from England by Robert Littell, (Book Review of “The Babbitt Warren” by C. E. M. Joad), Start Page 74, Quote Page 74, Column 1, The Republic Publishing Company, New York. (Verified on microfilm)