At the time of his death in February 1957, John von Neumann, renowned for his theory of games and his work at the Electronic Computer Project at the Institute for Advanced Study, was serving as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission. Ray Kurzweil is an inventor, author, and futurist who has written six books including The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
The Computer and the Brainby John von Neumann
In this classic work, one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century explores the analogies between computing machines and the living human brain. John von Neumann, whose many contributions to science, mathematics, and engineering include the basic organizational framework at the heart of today's computers, concludes that the brain operates both
In this classic work, one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century explores the analogies between computing machines and the living human brain. John von Neumann, whose many contributions to science, mathematics, and engineering include the basic organizational framework at the heart of today's computers, concludes that the brain operates both digitally and analogically, but also has its own peculiar statistical language.
In his foreword to this new edition, Ray Kurzweil, a futurist famous in part for his own reflections on the relationship between technology and intelligence, places von Neumann’s work in a historical context and shows how it remains relevant today.
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Perhaps the most famous and often quoted line in this remarkable book appears at the beginning of Part II, where von Neumann declares that 'The most immediate observation regarding the nervous system is that its functioning is prima facie digital.' The 'prima facie' modifier is commonly taken to mean von Neumann saw the brain as 'obviously digital,' or 'patently digital,' and that it therefore must resemble a digital computer. But as you read the rest of the book, you quickly discover that this is not what John von Neumann intended. Von Neumann uses words cautiously and precisely, and to him, 'Prima facie' means exactly what it says: 'on its face.' In 1956, the brain appeared digital. But von Neumann thought this impression might be superficial. He thought that deeper biological investigation might well demonstrate that the nervous system is not, in fact, digital, or not completely digital. He believed it might work in some more sophisticated way, and suggests that perhaps some intermediate signaling mechanism, a hybrid between analog and digital, might be at work in the brain. For this and other reasons he actively resisted labeling the brain as a digital computer. In the mid 90s, evidence began to appear that von Neumann was probably right to reserve his judgment. These curious new results show that a single nerve impulse is somehow able to convey information to the brain. This is distinctly un-digital. A number of theories have popped up, some attempting to explain this whopping new mystery, others attempting to explain it away. But its impact on neurophysiology, and on conventional computer models of the brain, is pretty shocking. Not to say, devastating. (See Spikes, by Rieke et al, for a readable account of this story.) When the smoke clears, it would not be surprising if people go all the way back to John von Neumann, looking for traction, fresh starting points, and for von Neumann's wonderfully broad sense of what is possible in neurobiology - a sense we have evidently lost to 'progress' in the years since he wrote this splendid essay. Von Neumann did not include in this book his interesting views on the nervous system of the eye. He was an early adopter of visual memory systems in digital computers, and he was evidently intrigued by the way the retinal cells of the eye are arranged to look backward, that is, toward the screen of the back wall of the eye. Possibly he thought the retinal cells saw back there a thin film diffraction pattern. You can find his interest in the nervous system of the eye remarked in his brother Nicholas Vonneumann's book, John von Neumann as seen by his Brother, and this reminiscence is also paraphrased in Poundstone's Prisoner's Dilemma. Finally, some of the worldly story of von Neumann, his digital computers, and their role in the creation of the hydrogen bomb can be found in MaCrae's biography.