What a Sixty-Five-Year-Old Book Teaches Us About A.I.

Rereading an oddly resonant—and prescient—consideration of how computation affects learning.
An illustration of Danny Dunn at a retro computer with a glitch effect scattered throughout the composition.
Illustration by Simon Bailey

Neural networks have become shockingly good at generating natural-sounding text, on almost any subject. If I were a student, I’d be thrilled—let a chatbot write that five-page paper on Hamlet’s indecision!—but if I were a teacher I’d have mixed feelings. On the one hand, the quality of student essays is about to go through the roof. On the other, what’s the point of asking anyone to write anything anymore? Luckily for us, thoughtful people long ago anticipated the rise of artificial intelligence and wrestled with some of the thornier issues. I’m thinking in particular of Jay Williams and Raymond Abrashkin, two farseeing writers, both now deceased, who, in 1958, published an early examination of this topic. Their book—the third in what was eventually a fifteen-part series—is “Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine.” I first read it in third or fourth grade, very possibly as a homework assignment.

Danny Dunn, you may recall, is a “stocky and red-haired” elementary schooler. His father is dead, and he and his mother live with Professor Euclid Bullfinch, “a short, plump man with a round bald head,” who teaches at Midston University. Bullfinch “took the place of the father Danny had never known,” the book explains, and Mrs. Dunn supports herself and her son by working as his cook and housekeeper. We aren’t told how Danny’s father died—heart attack? car accident? murder?—and we know next to nothing about sleeping arrangements in the house. (“Now take your fingers out of my cake, Professor Bullfinch,” Mrs. Dunn says in the first book in the series.) But we do know that Bullfinch encourages Danny’s interest in science and lets him fool around in his private laboratory, which occupies “a long, low structure at the rear of the house.”

Danny’s best friend is Joe Pearson, “a thin, sad-looking boy”; his next-door neighbor is Irene Miller, whose father, an astronomer, also teaches at Midston. We can tell right away that Irene knows at least as much about science as Danny does—and way more than Joe, whose main academic interests are literary. As the story begins, Danny is demonstrating a recent invention of his: a piece of wood, suspended by clothesline from a pair of pulleys attached to the ceiling, into which he has inserted two pens. When he writes with either pen, the other creates a duplicate on a second sheet of paper. (This device is called a polygraph; Thomas Jefferson owned several.) “Now I can do our arithmetic homework while you’re doing our English homework,” he tells Joe. “It’ll save us about half an hour for baseball practice.” Joe runs home to get more clothesline, and Danny dreams of bigger things: “If only I could build some kind of a robot to do all our homework for us. . . .”

The boys don’t perceive a moral dilemma, but Irene does. “It—it doesn’t seem exactly honest to me,” she says. Danny disagrees, and cites his landlord: “Professor Bullfinch says that homework doesn’t have much to do with how a kid learns things at school.”

Williams and Abrashkin were all the way out at the cutting edge, technology-wise. In their first book, “Danny Dunn and the Anti-Gravity Paint,” Danny and Bullfinch accidentally invent a liquid that causes anything coated with it to rise off the ground. That book was published in 1956, a year before the Soviets launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik 1, but in Chapter 3 we learn that a similar satellite is already orbiting Earth, and is viewable through a telescope in Bullfinch’s lab. Long story short: the American government uses the paint on a spaceship, which accidentally lifts off while Danny, Joe, Bullfinch, and another scientist are inside it, having a look around. During their voyage, Danny completes an assignment that his teacher, Miss Arnold, has given him as punishment for daydreaming about rockets when he was supposed to be paying attention to her: writing “Space flight is a hundred years away” five hundred times.

Some of the scientific innovations portrayed in the Danny Dunn books are so advanced that they are still in the future—time travel, invisibility, smallification—but others have come into existence more or less as Williams and Abrashkin described them. In “Danny Dunn and the Automatic House,” published in 1965, Danny persuades the university to build what would nowadays be called a smart home; it’s equipped with “the newest developments in electronic control systems,” including a voice-activated door lock, a Roomba-like self-propelled vacuum cleaner, and a bathtub that fills itself with water, adds soap, and announces, “Your bath is ready.” Danny’s mother is skeptical: “Once you start trying to save work by putting in machines, you may find you’re spending all your time taking care of the machines and not getting any fun out of your work. This kitchen is my studio—my laboratory, just like your laboratory, Professor. Would you want an automatic laboratory?”

Bullfinch says that he most certainly would not—but in “Homework Machine” we learn that he has built a computer with similar capabilities. It’s a scaled-down version of two mainframes that Williams and Abrashkin saw, during a visit to I.B.M., while they were researching their book. Bullfinch calls it Miniac:

A high panel at the back of the desk was filled with tiny light bulbs. There were a number of flat, square buttons, each with a colored panel above it. And beyond the desk was an oblong, gray metal cabinet, about the size of a large sideboard, with heavy electric cables leading to it.

An important difference between Miniac and the real computers of the nineteen-fifties—and another area in which Williams and Abrashkin were ahead of their time—is that its input medium is spoken English, not punched cards or paper tape. Danny asks Irene to demonstrate. She approaches the microphone and, following Bullfinch’s advice to “speak slowly and clearly so that Miniac can understand you and translate your words into electrical impulses,” says, “Um . . . John buys 20 yards of silk for thirty dollars. How much would 918 yards of silk cost him?” The professor presses a button, lights flash, and the typewriter responds: “$1,377.00.” After a pause, it adds, “And worth it.”

Any qualms that Irene has about getting help with her homework disappear when she discovers how much of it Miss Arnold assigns. One day, Irene asks Danny (at first, by shortwave radio) for help with a grammar exercise, and they meet in Bullfinch’s lab. Minny—as they now refer to the computer—defines “predicate noun” for her, and provides an example: “You are a fool.” Danny is suddenly inspired: “Why can’t we use Minny as a homework machine?”

Bullfinch, conveniently, has asked Danny to keep an eye on Minny while he attends some important meetings in Washington, D.C. During the next few days, Danny, Irene, and Joe read large stacks of books into the microphone. As Danny explains, mainly to Joe, “Programming is telling the machine exactly what questions you want answered and how you want them answered. In order to do that right, you have to know just what sequences of operation you want the machine to go through.” When they’ve finished, Minny does their math problems for them, then starts on social studies.

“Man!” Joe says. “This is the way to do your homework. This is heaven!”

I hesitate to give away too much of the plot, but (spoiler alert!) two mean boys in their class, one of whom is jealous of Irene’s interest in Danny, watch them through a window and tattle to Miss Arnold. She comes to Danny’s house to confer with him and his mother—and you know that Danny is in trouble, because his mother suddenly starts calling him Dan. But he defends what he and his friends have been up to. Grocers and bankers now use adding machines instead of doing arithmetic the old-fashioned way, he says; why should students be different? Surprisingly, this argument works. Miss Arnold tells Danny that she wishes he wouldn’t let Minny do his homework, but that she won’t stop him.

Then the story becomes complicated. Irene tricks the jealous boy, Eddie (Snitcher) Philips, into revealing that he spied on them, then pushes him into a puddle. Eddie and his friend get revenge by sabotaging Minny. Bullfinch returns from Washington and is embarrassed when he tries to demonstrate Minny to two other scientists, one of whom is from the “Federal Research Council.” Danny saves the day by deducing that Eddie must have disconnected Minny’s temperature sensor; he reconnects it, and is treated as a hero. (This turn of events will be familiar to readers of the “Curious George” books, in which George is often praised for solving problems that he himself created.)

Bullfinch and one of the visiting scientists later program the repaired computer to write music, by giving it “full instructions for the composition of a sonata, plus information on note relationships,” and by modifying the typewriter so that it can print musical scores. Still, Bullfinch insists, Minny is limited in ways that humans are not. “It can never be the creator of music or of stories, or paintings, or ideas,” he says. “The machine can only help, as a textbook helps. It can only be a tool, as a typewriter is a tool.” He points out that Danny, in order to program Minny to do his homework, had to do the equivalent of even more homework, much of it quite advanced. (“Gosh, it—it somehow doesn’t seem fair,” Danny says.)

At least until recently, almost everyone has thought of computers in roughly that way. When Bullfinch and his friend play a sonata that Minny has written for them, Mrs. Dunn observes that “it isn’t exactly Beethoven”—and Bullfinch agrees. Yet Minny’s abilities clearly surpass those of a mere “tool.” The children “program” it by loading it with tagged examples, from which Minny somehow produces individualized schoolwork—a method that seems less like mid-twentieth-century programming than like the way that A.I. researchers create algorithms today. (Minny also editorializes, as with its comment about the price of silk and its example of a predicate noun.) Williams and Abrashkin foresaw a less serious practical use for artificial intelligence, too. “You know, we ought to enter her in one of those TV quiz shows,” Joe says in an early chapter, anticipating the “Jeopardy!” triumph, fifty-three years later, of I.B.M.’s Watson.

“Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine” is ostensibly about computers, but it also makes an argument about homework. In a note at the beginning of the book, Williams and Abrashkin write, “In all fairness to both Professor Bullfinch and Danny, we wish to point out that their position on homework is supported by Bulletin 1248-3 of the Educational Service Bureau, University of Pennsylvania.” I haven’t managed to turn up a copy of that bulletin, which was called “What About Homework?,” but I’ve found a number of other publications, from multiple decades, that arrive at what I assume are similar conclusions. For example, in 2007 the education critic Alfie Kohn—whose many books include “The Homework Myth,” published in 2018—wrote that “there is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school,” and that in high school “the correlation is weak and tends to disappear when more sophisticated statistical measures are applied.” One problem with homework is that it inevitably encourages the counterproductive over-involvement of parents. (When my kids were young, I suggested to one of their teachers that he conduct a science fair for fathers only.) There’s also the issue of homework whose sole purpose is to squeeze in material that should have been covered during the school day but wasn’t. Miss Arnold offers precisely that justification for some of her huge assignments: the size of her class has nearly doubled, because of rapid population growth in Midston, and she is no longer able to give individual students as much attention as she once did.

Miss Arnold also assigns homework for a suspect reason that’s described in a paper published under the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Education, in 1988: “Punishing assignments exercise the teacher’s power to use up time at home that would otherwise be under the student’s control. The assignments often center on behavior rather than academic skills, and stress embarrassment rather than mastery.” That’s what she was up to with all those sentences she made Danny write, back in the first book in the series. Luckily for everyone, Danny handled his embarrassment with aplomb, by writing most of the sentences during downtime in outer space, and the mindlessness of the exercise did no permanent harm to his imagination. At the end of “Homework Machine”—as he, Irene, and Joe are heading to the drugstore to celebrate Minny’s resurrection—he suddenly has “a strange, wild look in his eyes, and a faraway smile on his lips.” He says, “This is just a simple idea I had. Listen—what about a teaching machine. . . .”

Irene, as always, knows better. “Grab his other arm, Joe,” she shouts. “He needs a soda—fast.” ♦