Religion: Sacred Electronics (Time Magazine)

Monday, Dec. 31, 1956

The five machines stood, rectangular, silver-green, silent. They were obviously not thinking about anything at all as Archbishop Giovanni Battista Montini of Milan raised his hand to bless them.

“It would seem at first sight,” said the archbishop, “that automation, which transfers to machines operations that were previously reserved to man’s genius and labor, so that machines think and remember and correct and control, would create a vaster difference between man and the contemplation of God. But this isn’t so. It mustn’t be so. By blessing these machines, we are causing a contract to be made and a current to run between the one pole, religion, and the other, technology . . . These machines become a modern means of contact between God and man.”

So last week at the Jesuit philosophical institute known as the Aloysianum (for St. Aloysius Gonzaga) in Gallarate, near Milan, man put his electronic brains to work for the glory of God. The experiment began ten years ago, when a young Jesuit named Roberto Busa at Rome’s Gregorian University chose an extraordinary project for his doctor’s thesis in theology: sorting out the different shades of meaning of every word used by St. Thomas Aquinas. But when he found that Aquinas had written 13 million words, Busa sadly settled for an analysis of only one word—the various meanings assigned by St. Thomas to the preposition “in.” Even this took him four years, and it irked him that the original task remained undone.

With permission from Jesuit General John B. Janssens himself, Father Busa took his problem to the U.S. and to International Business Machines. When he heard what Busa wanted, IBM Founder Thomas J. Watson threw up his hands. “Even if you had time to waste for the rest of your life, you couldn’t do a job like that,” he said. “You seem to be more go-ahead and American than we are!”

But in seven years IBM technicians in the U.S. and in Italy, working with Busa, devised a way to do the job. The complete works of Aquinas will be typed onto punch cards; the machines will then work through the words and produce a systematic index of every word St. Thomas used, together with the number of times it appears, where it appears, and the six words immediately preceding and following each appearance (to give the context). This will take the machines 8,125 hours; the same job would be likely to take one man a lifetime.

Next job for the scriptural brain: the Dead Sea Scrolls. In these and other ancient documents, gaps can often be filled in by examining the words immediately preceding and following the gap and determining what other words are most frequently associated with them in the rest of the text. “I am praying to God,” said Father Busa last week, “for ever faster, ever more accurate machines.”

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