The thinking computer that was supposed to colonize space


It was supposed to read and write, walk and talk, and understand the world. It was supposed to think deep thoughts and learn from its mistakes. Hell, it was even supposed to reproduce.

But it wasn’t human. It wasn’t even living. Instead, it was one of the first modern attempts at building a thinking, conscious machine. It was called the Perceptron, and it was the brainchild of Frank Rosenblatt, a cognitive-systems scientist at the Cornell Aeronautical Laboratory.

The project was more than an academic curiosity. It was bankrolled by the U.S. Navy. At an event in July 1958, Rosenblatt unveiled the first Perceptron prototype, which ran on a five-ton, room-sized IBM mainframe, and gave the world a glimpse of the future. He showed the audience that his Perceptron could differentiate between left and right after “reading” through about 50 punched cards.

RMC2008_0011 The Perceptron. Photo courtesy of the Cornell University Library.

But this was only…

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