The Natural Stupidity of Artificial Intelligence by A. Michael Noll


The Natural Stupidity of Artificial Intelligence

A. Michael Noll

June 17, 2018

© Copyright 2018 AMN

Clearly, the future is coming, but at times we seem mostly to be chasing the past. Artificial intelligence is today’s “new” rage. But I think it is mostly hype and faith, coupled with a blind, and perhaps deliberate, ignorance of what was done decades ago.

In the 1960’s, digital computers were programmed and used at Bell Telephone Laboratories (Bell Labs) to “compose” music. Today the same algorithmic approach is called artificial intelligence. Digital computers were also programmed in the early 1960s at Bell Labs to create art. And today this too is called artificial intelligence. Back then decades ago, the intelligence was the human who wrote the program and also the human who chose which computer-generated music and art was most liked.

A modern jetliner can fly itself. But is this artificial intelligence, or simply computer control following algorithms? The human pilots are just there to take over in case of an emergency.

What is “artificial intelligence?” “Artificial” means false, fake, not natural. “Intelligence” is the ability to process information and then to perform appropriate actions. It seems to imply some sort of innate human ability. Clearly, a machine is not human and thus cannot possess human qualities, such as intelligence. The “intelligence” of a machine consists of programmed algorithms that the machine carries out. It is not a human quality – it is fake.

I am reminded of decades ago when we were told that the human brain was like a digital computer, and that neurons rather than bits were involved. Well, this theory went nowhere and the human brain is still much of a mystery. There was decades ago the computer program ELIZA created by Joseph Weizenbaum that could act as a psychotherapist.* Weizenbaum explored in his book the human fascination with autonomous machines. – and this was over four decades ago. I expressed concern in 1961 about computers that could learn and act.**

Today there clearly is considerable hype and publicity being given to artificial intelligence. It promises much, but seems mostly to attract investors and big companies that hope to cash in on it all (or the next “new” thing). The ignorance of what went on in the past, coupled with the lust of greed, is the natural stupidity of artificial intelligence.


* Joseph Weizenbaum, Computer Power and Human Reason, W. H. Freeman and Company (New York), 1976.

** A. Michael Noll, “Electronic Computer – Friend or Foe?” the Orbit, Vol. 5, No.3 (March 1961), Newark College of Engineering, pp. 8 & 16.

A. Michael Noll

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The Innovation Garden by A. Michael Noll


May 21st, 2018

The Innovation Garden

A. Michael Noll

May 20, 2018

© Copyright 2018 AMN

Long before Silicon Valley invaded California, there was an “Innovation Garden” flourishing in New Jersey. Which easily qualified as the Invention State.

Thomas A. Edison and his laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey cemented New Jersey’s role in innovation. Many smaller manufactures of electrical equipment became located in New Jersey, all wit their on innovations. RCA Laboratories in Princeton, New Jersey was formed in 1942 and a host of inventions resulted, including color television.

One of the more famous R&D facilities in New Jersey was Bell Telephone Laboratories, Inc. (Bell Labs). The freedom to take risk, coupled with a proximity to practical problems, characterized Bell Labs. These factors are today associated with Silicon Valley, but were present decades before at Bell Labs and the other R&D facilities located in New Jersey. The very “silicon” in Silicon Valley came from William Shockley, one of the inventors of the transistor at Bell Labs who later went to California.

New Jersey is known as the Garden State, but it also should be credited as being an early “Innovation Garden.”

The story of Bell Labs, from my personal perspectives, can be downloaded at:

Book Cover featuring Bell Labs

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A Challenge to Virtual Reality by A. Michael Noll


A Challenge to Virtual Reality

A. Michael Noll

September 26, 2016

© 2016 AMN

Is today’s virtual reality little more than real fantasy?

Back in the 1960s, Maurice Constant of the National Film board of Canada visited Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, New Jersey. I was in the audience listening to him challenge us to make a system that would allow a designer to actually mold with their hands a virtual clay that existed only in the computer – seeing and feeling simultaneously in 3D. I was challenged by this vision, and subsequently designed and built an interactive 3D stereoscopic system that offered tactile feeling through force feedback, along with a stereoscopic display. This project started in the late 1960s and was the subject of my doctoral dissertation. I now challenge today’s haptic and virtual reality communities to create the technology to implement Maurice’s vision.

My research was completed in 1971 and resulted in a US patent[1] and also a published paper[2]. The system I invented had 3D force feedback, in which virtual objects had actual weight, in addition to feel. There also was simultaneous stereoscopic real-time display. The next step in my research would have been a 3D head-mounted display to superimpose the computer-generated 3D imagery on reality with half-silvered mirrors, and some sort of finger feel. However, my career changed direction, as I accepted an assignment on the staff of the President’s Science Advisor, and I did not continue this research.

One application for my 3D “feelie” that I proposed was to facilitate tactile telecommunication. I suggested that a person could feel cloth, or other objects, over distances – in effect, a “touch” telephone.

It is perplexing that with the advances in technology that have occurred since the early 1970s that what is today called “virtual reality” and “haptic” seem behind our vision back then. I therefore issue my challenge to today’s community to create what was envisioned decades ago. Otherwise, much of today’s virtual reality indeed is little more than real fantasy.

[1] Noll, A. Michael, “Tactile man-machine communication system,” US Patent 3,919,691, filed May 26, 1971.

[2] Noll, A. Michael, “Man-Machine Tactile Communication,” SID Journal (The Official Journal of the Society for Information Display), Vol. 1, No. 2, (July/August 1972), pp. 5-11.

A. Michael Noll

A. Michael Noll

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Being There – a personal perspective on the culture of innovation at Bell Labs


Michael Noll has been teaching and conducting research on communication and technology since the early 1980s, most recently as a Professor of Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism at USC. Prior to joining Annenberg, he was an engineer at Bell Labs in its heyday, from 1961-1971. At Bell Labs, Michael pioneered in such areas as digital art, three-dimensional displays, and tactile communication, and video communication. Michael as drafted in to design the prototype of video conferencing used in Stanley Kubrick classic film, 2001 Space Odyssey. Professor Noll has been supporting the Quello Center, such as through his blogs on technology and policy, and also drafting a book that reflects on his experience at the center of innovation in communication technology before the locus of innovation shifted to Silicon Valley. While so much has been written about the culture of Silicon Valley, relatively little has been written about Bell Labs. Professor Noll’s book helps rectify this imbalance. Written in a clear and accessible style, Michael blends personal anecdotes and engineering insights into an informative and engaging history of this center, illuminating the dynamics of a culture that fostered innovative people and ideas used round the world.

− Bill Dutton, Director of the Quello Center

Memories: A Personal History of Bell Telephone Laboratories

by A. Michael Noll


This manuscript tells the story of Bell Labs, concentrating mostly on the 1960s, from the personal perspective of the author who actually was employed at its Murray Hill laboratory as an engineer and researcher. Bell Labs continued the tradition of Thomas Alva Edison’s invention factory and had an environment that today is associated with Silicon Valley. The buildings, various locations, amenities, and most important—the people—are described to give a sense of what it was like to be at Bell Labs and why so many wanted to work there and contribute to its many inventions and discoveries.

Biographical Sketch: A. MICHAEL NOLL is professor emeritus at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism at the University of Southern California. During most of the 1960s, he was employed as a Member of Technical Staff at Bell Telephone Laboratories in Murray Hill, NJ, and recently worked on the papers of Dr. William O. Baker, who was vice president of research during what many consider the “golden years” of Bell Labs. He brings this personal knowledge and perspective to this manuscript.

This manuscript is a work in progress, distributed as a working paper of the Quello Center at Michigan State University for educational use. The author welcomes comments and questions on this site as he moves this toward publication.

The manuscript can be downloaded here: Memories-Noll.

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