The fact is that June, my great-grandmother, was a computer. The fear is that my son is not. Ours is not a cyborg-mutation story, although that fate may await my great-grandchildren.

Executive Summary

World War II codebreakers at Bletchey Park in the UK and astrophotography catalogers at the Harvard Observatory did the work of computers decades ago. But now that technological advances are expanding economic productivity at a pace well beyond wage growth around the world, fears about machines replacing humans are accelerating as well. Innovation and strategy consultant Karen Morris reviews the history of automation and job creation, along with insights from economists and researchers about the current machine age, concluding that the way in which we shape our tools shapes us and that undiscovered ideas and unasked questions will also map our destiny.

In 1924, “computer” was a human job description. Computers, mostly women, tallied and tabulated numbers in neatly inked rows—a repetitive, robotic task—for nine hours a day. These organic automata brainpowered number-crunching in banking and commerce in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In academia, some contributed remarkably to the physical sciences as advances in photographic technology spawned troves of new data, notably in astrology, that offered up their secrets to scrupulous womanly scrutiny. Stars were born, as pioneering women computers unveiled cosmic secrets economically, or “cheaper per kilo-girl hour” as Harvard Observatory’s director put it. Later, in World War II, lives were lost and saved as human mathematicians shivered over awful calculations in Bletchley.

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