[Humanist] 27.983 the computational idea

Humanist Discussion Group willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk
Sat Apr 19 10:49:27 CEST 2014

                 Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 27, No. 983.
            Department of Digital Humanities, King's College London
                Submit to: humanist at lists.digitalhumanities.org

        Date: Sat, 19 Apr 2014 09:32:16 +0100
        From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty at mccarty.org.uk>
        Subject: envisioning the brain through a computational lens

It is instructive, I think, to consider what the natural object behind 
all our efforts (i.e. the human brain) looks like in sharpest focus when 
viewed not just from the perspective of computing but as or in 
comparison to digital hardware. One way to get to this is via John von 
Neumann's The Computer and the Brain (1958). But an even more vivid 
picture is painted by the philosophical neurophysiologist Warren 
McCulloch in his description of the brain at the opening of the 
"Symposium: The Design of Machines to Simulate the Behavior of the Human 
Brain" (IRE Transactions on Electronic Computers (December 1956):

> Since nature has given us the working model, we need not ask,
> theoretically, whether machines can be built to do what brains can do
> with information. But it will be a long time before we can match this
> three-pint, three-pound, twenty-five watt computer, with its memory
> storing 10**13 or 10**15 bits with a mean half-life of half a day and
> successful regeneration of 5 per cent of its traces for sixty years,
> operating continuously with its 10**10 dynamically stable and
> unreplaceable relays to preserve itself by governing its own activity
> and stabilizing the state of the whole body and its relation to its
> world by reflexive and appetitive negative feedback.

I'd think it fair to say that although few use such vivid language in 
discussing the subject, McCulloch's conception of the great project in 
which so many are now involved -- and into which some, perhaps many, are 
likely to fit what we do -- is essentially the standard account.

McCulloch says "it will be a long time before...". I don't think he 
means, as some do when using such a phrase, "never"; thus framed, by 
implication, it becomes "only a matter of time before..." That is, it 
seems to me that by adopting those terms one closes down and cuts off the 
limitless fields in which the humanities play. If I'm right, that this *is* the 
standard account, then not only can we not ignore it, we also need it 
crucially to illumine what we're about.


The whole Symposium, by the way, is extensively discussed by Roberto 
Cordeschi in his valuable book The Discovery of the Artificial: 
Behavior, Mind and Machines Before and Beyond Cybernetics (Springer 
2002). The Symposium itself may be found at http://ieeexplore.ieee.org/.


Willard McCarty (www.mccarty.org.uk/), Professor, Department of Digital
Humanities, King's College London, and Research Group in Digital
Humanities, University of Western Sydney

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