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Machines in Residence

Published onApr 23, 2021
Machines in Residence

Modern decision theory, economics, psychology, and game theory recognize, as a basic case, clearly motivated individual choice under conditions of complete information. It is also recognized that two unfortunate facts of life remove us from the relative simplicity of this basic case. The first concerns man as an information processor and the second the conflict of individual with group preferences.

Martin Shubik, “Information, Rationality and Free Choice in a Future Democratic Society”


Lower-class people need big kitchens; middle-class people need big bedrooms; corridors are for the poor, and so forth. Design universals enable federal housing authorities to set minimum standards, they enable architects to disregard specifics, they delight lovers of empirical generalizations. In short, empirical generalizations of life styles are for the comfort and convenience of the decision makers’ tools, not necessarily for the well-being of the people.

Today we have “advocacy planning,” a design procedure that tries to overcome the lumping of life styles, that tries to satisfy particular requirements. Attempts to procure individual needs and desires have embodied several formats: the questionnaire (fill in the missing spaces), the neighborhood meeting (we are here to listen to your problems), the personal interview (tell me what you want). Note that in each of these communications media it is assumed that the asker knows what to ask, the answerer knows what to answer, and that minds will not change rapidly. Furthermore, advocacy planning is conducted in such unreal time that the fancies of the individual householder change in the lapse of time.

Before suggesting procedures that are more appropriate to the articulation and satisfaction of local desires, let us first assume two future technological advances: versatile building systems capable of responding to changing (per month, season, year) human needs and the direct concern of this book, home computer terminals capable of talking in a graphic and auditory fashion—“but I don’t see any computers getting into my house” (A. Milne, 1963).

You need not look too far, maybe ten years: “… computer consoles installed in every home … everybody will have access to the Library of Congress … the system will shut the windows when it rains” (McCarthy, 1966). Such omnipresent machines, through cable television (potentially a two-way device), or through picture phones, could act as twenty-four-hour social workers that would be available to ask when asked, receive when given. Imminent changes in family size could be overlaid upon a local habitat in an effort to pursue growth that would not curtail the amenities children need.

Granting machines in the home, each urbanite could intimately involve himself with the design of his own physical environment by (in effect) conversing with his own needs. Or, another way of thinking of the interaction is that everybody would be talking to the architect, not explicitly but implicitly, via a machine-to-machine interchange. Architects would respond to particular patterns of a neighborhood and submit alternatives to be played with and in such a manner possibly penetrate the designer-dweller dissonance that exists in today’s housing problem.

Even today, the touch-tone telephone gives rise to a home computer terminal whose ten-button dialect humors a potentially ubiquitous man-machine conversation. Coupled with audio response units, such telephones can converse with button-pushing as an input and spoken English as an output. Frank Westervelt (and Smith, 1968) has incorporated such a system at the University of Michigan’s Computation Center.

Richard Hessdorfer is expanding Westervelt’s system by constructing a machine conversationalist. Hessdorfer’s work is aimed at initiating conversation with an English-speaking user. His problem is primarily linguistic. The machine tries to build a model of the user’s English and through this model build another model, one of his needs and desires. It is a consumer item (as opposed to an industrial or professional tool) that might someday be able to talk to citizens via touch-tone picture phone, or interactive cable television.

As a part of the Hessdorfer experiment, a teletypewriting device was brought into the South End, Boston’s ghetto area. Three inhabitants of the neighborhood were asked to converse with this machine about their local environment. Though the conversation was hampered by the necessity of typing English sentences, the chat was smooth enough to reveal two important results. First, the three residents had no qualms or suspicions about talking with a machine in English, about personal desires; they did not type uncalled-for remarks; instead, they immediately entered a discourse about slum landlords, highways, schools, and the like. Second, the three user-inhabitants said things to this machine they would probably not have said to another human, particularly a white planner or politician: to them the machine was not black, was not white, and surely had no prejudices. (The reader should know, as the three users did not, that this experiment was conducted over telephone lines with teletypes, with a human at the other end, not a machine. The same experiment will be rerun shortly, this time with a machine at the other end of the telephone line.)

The three protagonists of the Hessdorfer experiment, Maurice Jones (top right), Barry Adams (top left), and Robert Quarles (bottom left). It is interesting to note the button Robert Quarles happened to be wearing that day: “Tenant Power.”


Picturephone. Copyright 1969 Bell Telephone, Inc., Murray Hill, New Jersey. Reprinted by permission of the Editor, Bell Laboratory RECORD. Reused with permission of Nokia Corporation.


With these domestic (domesticated) machines, the design task becomes one of blending the preferences of the individual with those of the group. Machines would monitor the propensity for change of the body politic. Large central processors, parent machines of some sort, could interpolate and extrapolate the local commonalities by overviewing a large population of “consumer machines.”

What will remove these machines from a “Brave New World” is that they will be able to (and must) search for the exception (in desire or need), the one in a million. In other words, when the generalization matches the local desire, our omnipresent machines will not be excited. It is when the particular varies from the group preferences that our machine will react, not to thwart it but to service it.

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