Apple, IBM And Selling Artificial Intelligence To The Public

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Apple Macintosh computer, model M001, with keyboard and mouse, 1984 (Photo by SSPL/Getty Images)

A number of this week’s milestones in the history of technology showcase two prominent computer industry showmen, Steve Jobs and Thomas Watson Sr., their respective companies, Apple and IBM, and how they sold smart machines to the general public.

On January 22, 1984, the Apple Macintosh was introduced in the “1984” television commercial aired during Super Bowl XVIII. The commercial was later called by Advertising Age “the greatest commercial ever made.” A few months earlier, Steve Jobs said this before showing a preview of the commercial:

It is now 1984. It appears IBM wants it all. Apple is perceived to be the only hope to offer IBM a run for its money. Dealers initially welcoming IBM with open arms now fear an IBM dominated and controlled future. They are increasingly turning back to Apple as the only force that can ensure their future freedom. IBM wants it all and is aiming its guns on its last obstacle to industry control: Apple. Will Big Blue dominate the entire computer industry? The entire information age? Was George Orwell right about 1984?

Thirty-six years earlier, another master promoter, the one who laid the foundation for big blue domination, intuitively understood the importance of making machines endowed with artificial intelligence (or “giant brains” as they were called at the time) palatable to the general public.

On January 27, 1948, IBM announced the Selective Sequence Electronic Calculator (SSEC) and demonstrated it to the public. “The most important aspect of the SSEC,” according to Brian Randell in the Origins of Digital Computers, “was that it could perform arithmetic on, and then execute, stored instructions – it was almost certainly the first operational machine with these capabilities.”

As Kevin Maney explains in The Maverick and his Machine, IBM’s CEO, Thomas Watson Sr., “didn’t know much about how to build an electronic computer,” but in 1947, he “was the only person on earth who knew how to sell” one. Maney:

The engineers finished testing the SSEC in late 1947 when Watson made a decision that forever altered the public perception of computers and linked IBM to the new generation of information machines. He told the engineers to disassemble the SSEC and set it up in the ground floor lobby of IBM’s 590 Madison Avenue headquarters. The lobby was open to the public and its large windows allowed a view of the SSEC for the multitudes cramming the sidewalks on Madison and 57th street. … The spectacle of the SSEC defined the public’s image of a computer for decades. Kept dust-free behind glass panels, reels of electronic tape ticked like clocks, punches stamped out cards and whizzed them into hoppers, and thousands of tiny lights flashed on and off in no discernable pattern… Pedestrians stopped to gawk and gave the SSEC the nickname “Poppy.” … Watson took the computer out of the lab and sold it to the public.

The SSEC ran at 590 Madison Ave. until July 1952 when it was replaced by a new IBM computer, the first to be mass-produced. According to Columbia University’s website for the SSEC, it “inspired a generation of cartoonists to portray the computer as a series of wall-sized panels covered with lights, meters, dials, switches, and spinning rolls of tape.”

As IBM was one of a handful of computer pioneers establishing a new industry, Watson’s key selling point to the general public was not challenging the alleged thought control of a dominant competitor as Steve Jobs will do more than three decades later, but extolling computer-aided thought expansion: “…to explore the consequences of man’s thought to the outermost reaches of time, space, and physical conditions.” Watson was the first to see that “AI” stood not only for “artificial intelligence” but also for human “augmented intelligence.”

Like his better-known successor more than three decades later, Thomas Watson Sr. was a perfectionist. When he reviewed the SSEC “exhibition” prior to the public unveiling, he remarked that “The sweep of this room is hindered by those large black columns down the center. Have them removed before the ceremony.” But since they supported the building, the columns stayed. Instead, the photo in the brochure handed out at the ceremony was carefully retouched to remove all traces of the offending columns.

IBM became the dominant computer company and, because it “wanted it all,” entered the new PC market in August 1981. Apple failed in its initial response, the Apple Lisa, but following the airing of the “1984” TV commercial, the Apple Macintosh was launched on January 24, 1984. It was the first mass-market personal computer featuring a graphical user interface and a mouse, offering two applications, MacWrite and MacPaint, designed to show off its innovative interface. By April 1984, 50,000 Macintoshes were sold.


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