Retour sur le kick-off meeting #1 : Mark Priestley, Computers and Obedience

Mark Priestley and Alexandre Gefen

After an introduction by our principal investigator Alexandre Gefen, CulturIA’s kick-off meeting started with a presentation given by Professor Mark Priestly on Computers and Obedience. Find below an abstract of the conference and Pr. Mark Priestley’s biography.

Computers and Obedience, a conference by Mark Priestley, 22/04/2022 :

The founding of Artificial Intelligence in the mid-1950s built upon the earlier identification of electronic computers as “giant brains” and “thinking machines”. But the machines as invented were large, high-speed calculators designed to solve specific types of mathematical problems. This raises the question of why these particular scientific instruments were immediately understood to be cognitive agents.

Part of the reason is that computers were identified with the figure of the robot, prominent in scientific and popular culture since the early 1920s. An important part of that identification was the notion of obedience: the boundary between the robot and the human is typically one across orders are transmitted, and computers were often understood precisely as machines that obeyed orders.

Programming is the activity of giving orders to computers. This turned out to be harder than expected: real machinic obedience was different from the obedience of humans, even when behaving “mechanically”. This gave rise to a view of programming as planning, a vision which required humans to envisage entire computations in advance of their execution on the machine. The shortcomings of this approach became apparent when programmers began to explore more complex tasks, such as pattern recognition, theorem proving, and strategic game playing, and led to the heuristic style of programming typical of early AI. 

Mark Priestley

After an undergraduate degree in Mathematics and Philosophy, I worked as a programmer and then university lecturer in Software Engineering before focusing my research activities on the history and philosophy of computing. My primary focus is on the development of the theory and practice of programming, and my first book Routines of Substitution (Springer, 2011) examined the influence of logic on the early development of programming languages. From 2012 to 2016 I was engaged in the ENIAC in Action project (MIT Press, 2016), and later projects have included studies of the operation and use of the Colossus machines used at Bletchley Park in World War 2, and of John von Neumann’s programming work in the 1940s. The results of the latter are described in my latest book, Routines of Substitution (Springer, 2018)

Citer ce billet
Carla Marand (2022, 16 mai). Retour sur le kick-off meeting #1 : Mark Priestley, Computers and Obedience. CulturIA. Consulté le 21 juin 2024, à l’adresse

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