Machines Will Be Capable, Within Twenty Years, of Doing Any Work That a Man Can Do

Herbert A. Simon? Hubert L. Dreyfus? Raymond Kurzweil? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: The field of artificial intelligence (AI) has achieved several remarkable triumphs in recent years. For example, in 2017 the number one ranked Go player in the world was beaten by a computer program called AlphaGo.

Yet, the progress of AI has been much slower than its top researchers predicted. The Nobel-prize winning economist Herbert A. Simon was an influential pioneer in the exploration of AI. Apparently, in the 1960s Simon stated that computers would be capable of doing any tasks that humans could perform within twenty years. Would you please help me to find a citation?

Quote Investigator: In 1960 Herbert A. Simon published “The New Science of Management Decision”, and he did assert that computer systems would achieve extraordinarily broad capabilities within two decades, i.e., by 1980. Interestingly, he did not believe that these systems would displace all human labor because computers at that time were very expensive: 1

Technologically, as I have argued earlier, machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work that a man can do. Economically, men will retain their greatest comparative advantage in jobs that require flexible manipulation of those parts of the environment that are relatively rough—some forms of manual work, control of some kinds of machinery (e.g., operating earth-moving equipment), some kinds of nonprogrammed problem solving, and some kinds of service activities where face-to-face human interaction is of the essence.

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Within the 1960 book Simon compared the expense of using machines versus human labor: 2

Similarly, the fact that a computer can do something a man can do does not mean that we will employ the computer instead of the man. As chess players, they are exceedingly expensive (quite apart from the low quality of their play at the present time).

To put the matter crudely, if a computer rents for $10,000 a month, we can not afford to use it for nonprogrammed decision making unless its output of such decisions is equivalent to that of ten men at middle-management levels.

The chapter containing the quotation under examination was reprinted in Simon’s 1965 book “The Shape of Automation for Men and Management”. 3 Some later works presented the quotation and cited the 1965 book instead of the 1960 book.

In 1967 philosopher and persistent AI critic Hubert L. Dreyfus published the article “Why Computers Must Have Bodies in Order to Be Intelligent”, and he included the quotation. The accompanying footnote pointed to Simon’s 1965 book: 4

Simon, who has been only slightly daunted by the failures of the last ten years, now feels that “machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work that a man can do,” although he admits: “Automation of a flexible central nervous system will be feasible long before automation of a comparatively flexible sensory, manipulative, or locomotive system.”

In 1985 researcher and futurist Raymond Kurzweil included the quotation within the article “What Is Artificial Intelligence Anyway?” in “American Scientist” magazine: 5

. . . in 1965, Simon wrote in another article that “machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work that a man can do”.

Now I do not mean to pick on Simon. He has contributed as much as anyone to the substantial progress that has in fact been made, and he is far from alone in making such unfulfilled promises. My point is only that the AI field started with a romantic energy that enabled it to achieve some impressive intellectual accomplishments but at the same time caused a credibility problem, from which, to some extent, it still suffers.

In 2014 the quotation appeared in “The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies” by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee: 6

Cheered by their early successes and those of other artificial intelligence pioneers like Marvin Minsky, John McCarthy and Claude Shannon, and Simon and Newell were quite optimistic about how rapidly machines would master human skills, predicting in 1958 that a digital computer would be the world chess champion by 1968. In 1965, Simon went so far as to predict, “machines will be capable, within twenty years, of doing any work a man can do.”

In conclusion, Hebert A. Simon deserves credit for the statement he wrote in his 1960 book “The New Science of Management Decision”. The statement was reprinted in his 1965 book “The Shape of Automation for Men and Management”. Often the latter work is cited when the quotation is presented.

Image Notes: Robot with pet dog robot from kellepics at Pixabay.

(Great thanks to the anonymous AI researcher whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration.)

Notes:

  1. 1960, The New Science of Management Decision by Herbert A. Simon (Professor of Administration, Graduate School of Industrial Administration, Carnegie Institute of Technology), Chapter: Organizational Design: Man-Machine Systems for Decision Making, Lecture III, Date: April 7, 1960, Quote Page 38, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  2. 1960, The New Science of Management Decision by Herbert A. Simon (Professor of Administration, Graduate School of Industrial Administration, Carnegie Institute of Technology), Chapter: Heuristic Problem Solving, Lecture II, Date: March 31, 1960, Quote Page 33, Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  3. 1966 (1965 Copyright), The Shape of Automation for Men and Management by Herbert A. Simon (Carnegie Institute of Technology), Chapter 3: The New Science of Management Decision, Part E: Organizational Design: Man-Machine Systems for Decision-Making, Quote Page 95 and 96, Harper Torchbooks: Harper & Row, New York. (Verified with scans)
  4. 1967 September, The Review of Metaphysics, Volume 21, Number 1, Why Computers Must Have Bodies in Order to Be Intelligent by Hubert L. Dreyfus, Start Page 13, Quote Page 15, AMS Press Inc. New York, Philosophy Education Society Inc. (JSTOR) link
  5. 1985 May-June, American Scientist, Volume 73, Number 3, What Is Artificial Intelligence Anyway? by Raymond Kurzweil, Start Page 258, Quote Page 261, Published By Sigma Xi, The Scientific Research Honor Society. (JSTOR) link
  6. 2016 (Copyright 2014), The Second Machine Age: Work, Progress, and Prosperity in a Time of Brilliant Technologies by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, Chapter 9: The Spread, Quote Page 141, W. W. Norton & Company, New York. (Verified with scans)