👓 The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic | Issue 21: Information – Nautilus

Read The Man Who Tried to Redeem the World with Logic (Nautilus)
Walter Pitts was used to being bullied. He’d been born into a tough family in Prohibition-era Detroit, where his father, a boiler-maker,…

Highlights, Quotes, Annotations, & Marginalia

McCulloch was a confident, gray-eyed, wild-bearded, chain-smoking philosopher-poet who lived on whiskey and ice cream and never went to bed before 4 a.m.  

Now that is a business card title!

March 03, 2019 at 06:01PM

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.  


March 03, 2019 at 06:06PM

Gottfried Leibniz. The 17th-century philosopher had attempted to create an alphabet of human thought, each letter of which represented a concept and could be combined and manipulated according to a set of logical rules to compute all knowledge—a vision that promised to transform the imperfect outside world into the rational sanctuary of a library.  

I don’t think I’ve ever heard this quirky story…

March 03, 2019 at 06:08PM

Which got McCulloch thinking about neurons. He knew that each of the brain’s nerve cells only fires after a minimum threshold has been reached: Enough of its neighboring nerve cells must send signals across the neuron’s synapses before it will fire off its own electrical spike. It occurred to McCulloch that this set-up was binary—either the neuron fires or it doesn’t. A neuron’s signal, he realized, is a proposition, and neurons seemed to work like logic gates, taking in multiple inputs and producing a single output. By varying a neuron’s firing threshold, it could be made to perform “and,” “or,” and “not” functions.  

I’m curious what year this was, particularly in relation to Claude Shannon’s master’s thesis in which he applied Boolean algebra to electronics.
Based on their meeting date, it would have to be after 1940.And they published in 1943: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2FBF02478259

March 03, 2019 at 06:14PM

McCulloch and Pitts alone would pour the whiskey, hunker down, and attempt to build a computational brain from the neuron up.  

A nice way to pass the time to be sure. Naturally mathematicians would have been turning “coffee into theorems” instead of whiskey.

March 03, 2019 at 06:15PM

“an idea wrenched out of time.” In other words, a memory.  

March 03, 2019 at 06:17PM

McCulloch and Pitts wrote up their findings in a now-seminal paper, “A Logical Calculus of Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity,” published in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics.  

March 03, 2019 at 06:21PM

I really like this picture here. Perhaps for a business card?
colorful painting of man sitting with abstract structure around him
March 03, 2019 at 06:23PM

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.  

Oops, I think this article is confusing Wiener with Claude Shannon?

March 03, 2019 at 06:34PM

By the fall of 1943, Pitts had moved into a Cambridge apartment, was enrolled as a special student at MIT, and was studying under one of the most influential scientists in the world.  

March 03, 2019 at 06:32PM

Thus formed the beginnings of the group who would become known as the cyberneticians, with Wiener, Pitts, McCulloch, Lettvin, and von Neumann its core.  

Wiener always did like cyberneticians for it’s parallelism with mathematicians….

March 03, 2019 at 06:38PM

In the entire report, he cited only a single paper: “A Logical Calculus” by McCulloch and Pitts.  

First Draft of a Report on EDVAC by jon von Neumann

March 03, 2019 at 06:43PM

Oliver Selfridge, an MIT student who would become “the father of machine perception”; Hyman Minsky, the future economist; and Lettvin.  

March 03, 2019 at 06:44PM

at the Second Cybernetic Conference, Pitts announced that he was writing his doctoral dissertation on probabilistic three-dimensional neural networks.  

March 03, 2019 at 06:44PM

In June 1954, Fortune magazine ran an article featuring the 20 most talented scientists under 40; Pitts was featured, next to Claude Shannon and James Watson.  

March 03, 2019 at 06:46PM

Lettvin, along with the young neuroscientist Patrick Wall, joined McCulloch and Pitts at their new headquarters in Building 20 on Vassar Street. They posted a sign on the door: Experimental Epistemology.  

March 03, 2019 at 06:47PM

“The eye speaks to the brain in a language already highly organized and interpreted,” they reported in the now-seminal paper “What the Frog’s Eye Tells the Frog’s Brain,” published in 1959.  

March 03, 2019 at 06:50PM

There was a catch, though: This symbolic abstraction made the world transparent but the brain opaque. Once everything had been reduced to information governed by logic, the actual mechanics ceased to matter—the tradeoff for universal computation was ontology. Von Neumann was the first to see the problem. He expressed his concern to Wiener in a letter that anticipated the coming split between artificial intelligence on one side and neuroscience on the other. “After the great positive contribution of Turing-cum-Pitts-and-McCulloch is assimilated,” he wrote, “the situation is rather worse than better than before. Indeed these authors have demonstrated in absolute and hopeless generality that anything and everything … can be done by an appropriate mechanism, and specifically by a neural mechanism—and that even one, definite mechanism can be ‘universal.’ Inverting the argument: Nothing that we may know or learn about the functioning of the organism can give, without ‘microscopic,’ cytological work any clues regarding the further details of the neural mechanism.”  

March 03, 2019 at 06:54PM

Nature had chosen the messiness of life over the austerity of logic, a choice Pitts likely could not comprehend. He had no way of knowing that while his ideas about the biological brain were not panning out, they were setting in motion the age of digital computing, the neural network approach to machine learning, and the so-called connectionist philosophy of mind.  

March 03, 2019 at 06:55PM

by stringing them together exactly as Pitts and McCulloch had discovered, you could carry out any computation.  

I feel like this is something more akin to what may have been already known from Boolean algebra and Whitehead/Russell by this time. Certainly Shannon would have known of it?

March 03, 2019 at 06:58PM

📑 A logical calculus of the ideas immanent in nervous activity by Warren S. McCulloch, Walter Pitts

Bookmarked A logical calculus of the ideas immanent in nervous activity by Warren S. McCulloch, Walter Pitts (The bulletin of mathematical biophysics December 1943, Volume 5, Issue 4, pp 115–133)
Because of the “all-or-none” character of nervous activity, neural events and the relations among them can be treated by means of propositional logic. It is found that the behavior of every net can be described in these terms, with the addition of more complicated logical means for nets containing circles; and that for any logical expression satisfying certain conditions, one can find a net behaving in the fashion it describes. It is shown that many particular choices among possible neurophysiological assumptions are equivalent, in the sense that for every net behaving under one assumption, there exists another net which behaves under the other and gives the same results, although perhaps not in the same time. Various applications of the calculus are discussed.

Found reference to this journal article in a review of Henry Quastler’s book Information Theory in Biology. It said:

A more serious thing, in the reviewer’s opinion, is the complete absence of contributions dealing with information theory and the central nervous system, which may be the field par excellence for the use of such a theory. Although no explicit reference to information theory is made in the well-known paper of W. McCulloch and W. Pitts (1943), the connection is quite obvious. This is made explicit in the systematic elaboration of the McCulloch-Pitts’ approach by J. von Neumann (1952). In his interesting book J. T. Culbertson (1950) discussed possible neural mechanisms for recognition of visual patterns, and particularly investigated the problems of how greatly a pattern may be deformed without ceasing to be recognizable. The connection between this problem and the problem of distortion in the theory of information is obvious. The work of Anatol Rapoport and his associates on random nets, and especially on their applications to rumor spread (see the series of papers which appeared in this Journal during the past four years), is also closely connected with problems of information theory.

Electronic copy available at: http://www.cse.chalmers.se/~coquand/AUTOMATA/mcp.pdf

🔖 Theory Of Self Reproducing Automata by John Von Neumann, Arthur W. Burks (Editor) | 9780252727337

Bookmarked Theory Of Self Reproducing Automata by John von Neumann (University of Illinois Press)

Waiting for the price of some of these to drop.

Digital copy available on Archive.org.