1936 debate “Will the machines control us?”


Recent developments in computer science have made us all dread the day the machines take over. We have seen it time and again in films such as The Terminator (1984). Our creations will eventually become so powerful that they will destroy us. People like Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking have warned of the coming of “the singularity”.  Artificial intelligence, they claim, is one of the worst threats man has ever faced.

However, this fear of technology is far from new. In the 1930s, the National Broadcasting Company started a series of town meetings on radio, open debates in which current affairs were discussed. One of the debates from 1936 (audio below) deals with the threat of automation to the lives of ordinary individuals. This was before the computer revolution, before even the TV. In the lives of ordinary Americans the new thing was the radio, the fridge, hot water and other kitchen appliances.

Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds broadcast occured only two years later. Space travel and scifi lived in the works of H.G. Wells and Jules Verne, and in the numerous comic books that flooded the contemporary convenience stores. Just three years earlier, the new mythology of the modern world was born in the form of comic book hero Superman. Even so, movies like the French À nous la liberté (1931) and Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936) already rediculed man as a slave to automation. In popular cartoons like the ever popular Betty Boop, robots appeared:


It is at this time that Americans worry about the inevitable rise of the machines. Listen to a fascinating 1936 debate below.