Treating a Paranoid Computer

The ARPANET was an early computer network that played a critical role in the development of the Internet. In 1972, Robert Kahn organized the first public demonstration of the ARPANET’s capabilities at the International Conference on Computer Communications in Washington, DC. This included “conversations” across the United States between a computer at MIT that was programmed to behave like a psychiatrist, and a computer at Stanford that mimicked the behaviour of a paranoid psychotic. One of their conversations went as follows:

Doctor:    “Good evening. Tell me your problems.”
Patient:   “People get on my nerves sometimes.”
Doctor:    “I am not sure I understand you.”
Patient:   “You should pay more attention.”
Doctor:    “Suppose you should pay more attention.”
Patient:   “You’re entitled to your own opinion.”
Doctor:    “What makes you think I am entitled to my own opinion?”
Patient:   “It bothers me just to be around people in general.”

These demonstrations of long-distance networking may not have done much to advance the treatment of paranoid psychosis, but they brought the ARPANET’s capabilities to a much wider audience. They also helped to silence the doubters who had claimed that the newfangled packet switching technology would never work.

(Conversation quoted from “Where Wizards Stay Up Late – the Origins of the Internet”, Katie Hafner & Matthew Lyon, Touchstone, 1998)

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