Teaching Historical Technological Debates
Can a computer think? A January 1950 Time magazine cover story declared that “the answer to the question depends on what you mean by thinking.” While some experts believed that “computers are mere tools that do what they are told,” other applications were increasingly “human” in their capacities, leading to a disturbing prediction: “Men’s brains may grow smaller and smaller as the machines’ brains grow larger.” A striking illustration of the Mark III computer on the issue’s cover explored the same question. The role of the computer as a tool was evident in the cables, buttons, reels, keys, and other mechanical features. Yet the potential for a computer to replicate human activities, including thinking, were illustrated by features such as detailed hands, a military uniform, a recognizable face, and particularly the exaggerated eye with raised eyebrow closely inspecting a section of tape.
More than 70 years later, society continues to struggle with this question, as new applications in artificial intelligence and machine learning develop tools that increasingly mimic the cognitive tasks we call “thinking.” As we as a society consider the implications of new technologies, students can learn from previous debates about whether computers can think and how these debates relate to important issues in the past, present, and future.
Students enrolled in a Virginia Tech history course on Computing in the Cold War in fall 2022 took up this complex question by examining four illustrations of computers by Ukrainian American artist Boris Artzybasheff (1899–1965) that appeared in popular magazines: Time (January 23, 1950, September 19, 1960, and April 2, 1965) and Esquire (April 1952). These illustrations depict computers using recognizable human features such as eyes, ears, and mouths, attached to machine parts associated with computers, such as knobs, dials, lights, tapes, and punch cards. Human features are exaggerated to call attention to the functionality of the machines.
To explore what the Artzybasheff illustrations tell us about the relationship of computers to humans, we engaged students in Computing in the Cold War through the core principles of project-based learning (PBL). PBL is “a teaching method in which students gain knowledge and skills by working for an extended period of time to investigate and respond to an authentic, engaging, and complex question, problem, or challenge,” and is most commonly associated with STEM courses in secondary schools. However, our experience indicates that similar approaches prove equally engaging and challenging for college students enrolled in a history course—as long as the instructor and students are willing to experiment with new modalities, explore different ways of knowing, and accept more flexible instructional outcomes.
New applications in artificial intelligence and machine learning develop tools that increasingly mimic the cognitive tasks we call “thinking.”
The instructor designed Computing in the Cold War around a single long-term assignment that sought to address the pressing question of what students can and should learn in a college history course by integrating critical thinking with collaborative engagement. The assignment was therefore designed to foster collaboration and teamwork among students within the context of a regular class, encourage students to engage with current issues around the use of computing in daily life, and produce a final product viewable in a public space and on a class website. Over six weeks—a full third of the semester—students were asked to engage with the complex question of the relationship among computers, thinking, and society, a question where we could easily connect historical examples to current debates while learning to locate primary sources, define research questions, and design a visual display of their results.
As the final product, each group prepared three posters. The poster format was selected because it combined visual images with written text, fulfilled the general education requirements for the course, and allowed the students’ research to be displayed in the library for public viewing over a period of time. The first poster examined the illustration and accompanying article to identify salient themes. The second presented materials from the 1950s–60s exploring human-computer relations. Finally, the third examined the same issues in the contemporary era. The three posters were thus thematically connected, yet each had distinct content drawn from historical or contemporary news reporting. They were also intended to communicate with a broader audience, as the posters were displayed to the public following their completion.
Developing, researching, and designing the posters combined traditional methods of historical research with dialogue within the groups about current implications of these earlier debates. Students read the other articles in the magazine issues Artzybasheff illustrated and found similar issues in newspapers and periodicals in searchable databases. The students also had access to print copies of Time magazine available from the library stacks. These sources provided students with visual and textual materials that were then integrated into the poster designs. As students reviewed articles, advertisements, letters, and cartoons from this earlier historical period, they discussed how similar issues continue to matter in the present day, conducted research using current sources to explore the same set of concerns, and integrated these materials into posters. From this research experience, students came to appreciate both the substantive changes in how computers function within society and the notable continuities in perceptions, expectations, and concerns.
Was this assignment effective in achieving our pedagogical goals? Students contributing to this essay identified improvements in teamwork as one important outcome. Dedicated time during class to work on the posters, an instructional space that allowed groups to work together, and guidance from the instructor at each stage furthered the goals of building collaboration skills. Groups created their own space for critical thinking, consensus building, and collaborative engagement, while also learning to adapt to challenging circumstances (such as absences due to illness). A series of project deadlines helped groups remain on track to complete the assignment while allowing for feedback from the professor and classmates.
Students came to appreciate the substantive changes in how computers function within society.
Students reported a better understanding of how the history of computing provides insights on contemporary issues such as software for interpreting speech, the use of computers for military purposes, and enhanced potential for surveillance. The visibility of posters in a shared library space brought attention to the subject of computing history as well as the innovative assignment that produced this outcome. On the day the posters went up for display, a student sitting nearby asked about the assignment and commented that it seemed like “a cool project.” Most importantly, students in the class recognized that teamwork is a skill valued by many employers, and the format of this assignment provided an opportunity to acquire, practice, and demonstrate those skills.
The question of whether machines can think emerged in a new form in November 2022 with the introduction of ChatGPT, a chatbot that generated text that increasingly resembled text written by humans. As educators and students address the remarkable potential as well as notable limits of large language models to use supervised learning to generate texts, the lessons learned from this poster project continue to remain relevant to history classrooms. As advances in technology always bring the potential for disruption, uncertainty, and transformation, the challenge for higher education is to provide opportunities for instructors and students to apply critical and creative thinking to understand and take advantage of their potential while identifying and mitigating the potential for harmful effects.
E. Thomas Ewing is a professor of history, Landon Downer is a major in business information technology, Patrick Luppino is a major in history, and Victor Mukora is a major in computational modeling and data analytics, all at Virginia Tech.
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