Oppenheimer, John Donne, and the atomic origins of AI

You will probably have seen the news that #Oppenheimer, the film directed by Christopher Nolan, has won a bunch of Oscars. What you might not know is that the story it tells – of the birth of the atomic bomb – has two lesser-known dimensions.

The first concerns the name given to the first test of this secret weapon that Robert Oppenheimer and his ‘Manhattan Project’ team were building. In the film there’s reference to it as the ‘Trinity’ test, but what is not told is that Oppenheimer chose the name as a tribute to the poem about the Trinity by John Donne:

Batter my heart, three-person’d God, for you 

As yet but knock, breathe, shine, and seek to mend; 

That I may rise and stand, o’erthrow me, and bend 

Your force to break, blow, burn, and make me new. 

John Donne, from the Holy Sonnets

This ‘battering’ as a means of personal renewal was at the heart of what Oppenheimer believed that he was doing. Better known is his quote from the Bhagavad Gita, ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds,’ which is, in the Hindu tradition, a sign of the cycle of creation/destruction/creation that was a part of that same act of renewing.

The bomb, then, was meant to serve as a humbling, empathising, tenderising warning: look what we could do to one another… as a means of powerfully shocking one another into peace. A divine-level battering… in order that we might be made new.

It soon became clear that this was not how the bomb was going to function. And one of the people who sensed that was Vannevar Bush, portrayed by Matthew Modine in the film.

Bush was there at the Trinity test in his role of Director of Scientific Research for the whole of the US war effort. The very next week, an article was published by him in Atlantic Magazine calling on scientists to turn from working for greater weapons, and instead to work to invent the means of a lasting peace.

The article was called As We May Think, and is still available now.

Bush theorised a machine called a Memex, at which a man (of course) might sit and be able to call up reels of information about things he was interested in, and curate them into new reels of his own. All of this would be done mechanically at a special desk:

The idea was that, by increasing his knowledge about other people, empathy would also increase, and understanding. And with that, war would become less likely. Less ‘batter my heart,’ than ‘fill my head.’

Reading that article in Atlantic was a young soldier in the Philippines wondering what to do with the rest of his life. And he made his decision there and then: he would go back to the US and build that machine.

It took him until 1969, but by then Doug Engelbart was leading Stanford’s Research Centre for Augmenting Human Intellect… and rather than using a desk, microfilm and pulleys, he’d used microchips and screens. His presentation of this machine – still in direct hope of improving understanding and peace – fairly battered both the hearts and minds of those watching. It has become known as the Mother of All Demos, and is one of the significant moments in the development of human-computer interaction.

Doug Engelbart presents the Mother of All Demos

There’s a lot more to say about the interlinking between Oppenheimer – ‘the American Prometheus’ as the biography dubbed him – and the birth of AI. For that, you’ll have to read the book.

It’s out on Friday, and the book launch is on Thursday in SE London at the brilliant Bookseller Crow, where you can grab an exclusive early signed copy from their website already.


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