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"I do think there is a link in that in both cases, writing fiction or writing a computer program, at any given moment you're focusing on a very specific and particular thing—one word, one line of code, whatever."
- Neal Stephenson

Machine Surveillance  
  The use of artificially intelligent computer systems to learn by monitoring all human interaction within a city.  

The City Fathers were able to answer most natural language questions directed at them because they were allowed to monitor all conversations within the city.

"...The fact that they're in this part of space at all... shows something went wrong with their first job, too."

Anderson snapped a switch on his chair. "Probability?" he said to the surrounding air.

"SEVENTY-TWO PER CENT," the air said back, making Chris start. He still had not gotten used to the idea that the City Fathers overheard everything one said, everywhere and all the time; among many other things, the city was their laboratory in human psychology, which in turn enabled them to answer such questions as Anderson had just asked.

From Cities in Flight, by James Blish.
Published by Avon in 1957
Additional resources -

The City Fathers could also censor conversations, depending on the situation:

"...That'll give us a day to get out of this system before the cops come running... Incidentally, it also gives us a day to collect our pay-"

"OVERRIDE," the City Fathers said suddenly, without being asked anything at all.

"Woof! Sorry. Either I've already said one word too many, or I was going to. Can't say anything else, Chris."

"But I thought they never volunteered information."

"They don't," Anderson said. "That wasn't volunteered. They are under orders from Amalfi to monitor talk about this situation and shut it up when it begins to get too loose..."

I think that if you participate in services like Google Mail, you might be participating in a similar machine surveillance system.

Memory was cheap:

Chris could have told the City Fathers what he knew, easily enough—but everything that was told the City Fathers went into the memory cells, which was the equivalent of putting it in dead storage. The City Fathers never took action on what they knew, or even volunteered information, unless directed; otherwise they only held it until it was asked for, which might take centuries.

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Additional resources:
  More Ideas and Technology from Cities in Flight
  More Ideas and Technology by James Blish
  Tech news articles related to Cities in Flight
  Tech news articles related to works by James Blish

Machine Surveillance-related news articles:
  - Meet Samsung's SmartTV Telescreen

Articles related to Artificial Intelligence
Dadbot Digital Immortality
Should We Permit Computers To Create Their Own Language?
DeepMind AI Baffled By Homer Simpson, Needs Human Help
Deep Learning Creates New Faces

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