Reply to The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic | Nautilus

Replied to The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic by Amanda GefterAmanda Gefter (Nautilus)
McCulloch and Pitts were destined to live, work, and die together. Along the way, they would create the first mechanistic theory of the mind, the first computational approach to neuroscience, the logical design of modern computers, and the pillars of artificial intelligence.
Quick note of a factual and temporal error: the article indicates:

After all, it had been Wiener who discovered a precise mathematical definition of information: The higher the probability, the higher the entropy and the lower the information content.

In fact, it was Claude E. Shannon, one of Wiener’s colleagues, who wrote the influential A Mathematical Theory of Communication published in Bell System Technical Journal in 1948, almost 5 years after the 1943 part of the timeline the article is indicating. Not only did Wiener not write the paper, but it wouldn’t have existed yet to have been a factor in Pitts deciding to choose a school or adviser at the time. While Wiener may have been a tremendous polymath, I suspect that his mathematical area of expertise during those years would have been closer to analysis and not probability theory.

To put Pitts & McCulloch’s work into additional context, Claude Shannon’s stunning MIT master’s thesis A symbolic analysis of relay and switching circuits in 1940 applied Boolean algebra to electronic circuits for the first time and as a result largely allowed the digital age to blossom. It would be nice to know if Pitts & McCulloch were aware of it when they published their work three years later.

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Chris Aldrich

I'm a biomedical and electrical engineer with interests in information theory, complexity, evolution, genetics, signal processing, IndieWeb, theoretical mathematics, and big history. I'm also a talent manager-producer-publisher in the entertainment industry with expertise in representation, distribution, finance, production, content delivery, and new media.

4 thoughts on “Reply to The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic | Nautilus”

  1. Actually Wiener was first to define information as “negentropy” which is the context relevant here. Several sources also suggest Shannon got many ideas from Wiener (whom he consulted with very frequently before writing the paper you mention), tho Shannon himself hated that claim!

    But yes, in most treatments of the history, Shannon tends to get full credit.

    1. I’m curious if you’ve either read Wiener’s papers or seen other correspondence that would directly indicate your claim? Nothing I’ve read would be indicative of this other than that loose association that the two were both at MIT and obviously knew each other. I haven’t seen any historical treatments or had conversations in the community that don’t give Shannon complete credit. Somewhat tellingly Shannon’s original paper references few prior researchers primarily including only Nyquist, Hartley, Frechet, and Tolman, but it makes no mention of or reference to Wiener at all. The closest thing to vague credit occurs in a footnote by Warren Weaver in the subsequent book version of the paper (1949):

      … Dr. Shannon has himself emphasized that communication theory owes a great debt to Professor Norbert Wiener for much of its basic philosophy. Professor Wiener, on the other hand, points out that Shannon’s early work on switching and mathematical logic antedated his own interest in this field; and generously adds that Shannon certainly deserves credit for independent development of such fundamental aspects of the theory as the introduction of entropic ideas.

      Other than essentially saying “we agree to disagree” about primacy, I haven’t seen any direct evidence or publications to back up any of these claims (by Wiener). Are you aware of any? I’d love to read them.

      The first reference I’ve seen of “negative entropy” was in February 1943 by Erwin Schrödinger in his Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies lecture that was later published as the influential book “What is Life?” the following year. The first appearance I’ve seen of the word negentropy doesn’t appear in the literature until Leon Brillouin’s paper “Negentropy Principle of Information”, J. of Applied Physics, v. 24(9), pp. 1152–1163 in September 1953, nearly a decade later.

      Incidentally, Claude Shannon was already working towards some of what Schrödinger would highlight in 1943 as his lesser known Ph.D. thesis at MIT in 1940 was entitled An algebra for theoretical genetics in which he applied some of his prior master’s thesis work and Boolean algebra to Mendelian genetics.

      Syndicated copies:

  2. If I remember it comes up in some oral histories but it’s been a few years since I wrote the article! I do remember there’s a great discussion of it in the book Dark Hero of the Information Age.

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