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It was a vision that never saw the light of day.
The year was 1949, and computers and robots were still largely the stuff of science fiction. Only a few farsighted thinkers imagined that they would one day become central to civilization, with consequences both liberating and potentially dire.
One of those visionaries was Norbert Wiener (1894-1964), an American mathematician at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In 1948 he had published “Cybernetics,” a landmark theoretical work that both foreshadowed and influenced the arrival of computing, robotics and automation. Two years later, he wrote “The Human Use of Human Beings,” a popularization of those ideas and an exploration of the potential of automation and the risks of dehumanization by machines.
In 1949, The New York Times invited Wiener to summarize his views about “what the ultimate machine age is likely to be,” in the words of its longtime Sunday editor, Lester Markel.
Wiener accepted the invitation and wrote a draft of the article; the legendarily autocratic Markel was dissatisfied and asked him to rewrite it. He did. But through a distinctly pre-Internet series of fumbles and missed opportunities, neither version ever appeared.
In August, according to Wiener’s papers, which are on file at the M.I.T. Libraries, The Times asked ...