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Companions of Progress

During the emergence of electronic communication, the two scientists/engineers Carl Friedrich Gauss and Wilhelm Eduard Weber built the first electrical communications line in Goettingen, Germany. They set up a two kilometer two wire copper line between Gauss’ workplace – the Astronomical Observatory – and Weber’s laboratory in the physics department of the Goettingen University.

It is unknown what the content of the first telegram sent was but one story goes like this: Gauss sent the message: “Michelmann kömmt” or “Michelmann is on his way” to Weber. While the message was transmitted, Michelmann, an assistant of both Gauss and Weber traveled the distance between the two sites, allowing the scientists to confirm the accuracy of the message 0.

Michelmann is a messenger or courier in this story. He helps Gauss and Weber demonstrate that their system works and that messengers can be replaced by electronic communication. I find it amusing and somewhat ironic that Michelmann played the role of verifying a technology that would take over some of his own responsibilities – relaying messages between Gauss and Weber.

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Computer Controls – Steel Factory, image by Jonathan Haeber

Today technology is again taking over responsibilities previously held by humans: it trades stocks, drives cars and diagnoses and treats diseases. Sometimes I like to put myself in the shoes of those modern-day Michelmanns: humans that participate in handing over parts of their responsibilities to machines. Stock-brokers and data scientists that feeds their knowledge into automated trading systems, ride sharing drivers that seed the offline maps for autonomous cars, medical doctors that train expert systems and image recognition algorithms to automate diagnosis and treatment.

Are these people aware of what they are doing? And how long until my job (software architect) can be replaced by a machine? Am I already doing what Michelmann did in 1832 by writing and fixing code and committing it to public repositories? I want to say: I hope so. But then again I’m only 97% convinced it is a good thing.

1. Another version of the story has Gauss send the message “Wissen vor meinen, Sein vor scheinen” which roughly translates to “Knowing is more important than believing, being is more important than appearance”. It is possible that they sent both messages, one test message and one message for posterity.



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