Matthew L. Jones’s Reckoning with Matter: Calculating Machines, Innovation, and Thinking about Thinking from Pascal to Babbage may interest AHP readers. As Lorraine Daston notes in her recent Critical Inquiry review of Jones’ book:
Woven like a scarlet thread through Jones’ account of the ingenuity, stamina, skill, and sheer will to believe required to keep at the improvement of calculating machines until they were reliable enough to be used widely (not until the 1870s) is the puzzle of what, if anything, mechanical calculation has to do with thinking. Pace almost all histories of computers that trace a lineage from Babbage to John von Neumann via Alan Turing, Jones answers: not much. Although some of the inspired tinkerers, such as Charles Stanhope, did toy with the idea that mechanical calculation was a materialization of thought, Jones concludes that the fact that machines could (eventually) be made to calculate did not immediately suggest the idea of artificial intelligence. On the contrary: calculation ceased thereby to count as intelligence.
The book itself is described on the publisher’s website as follows:
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From Blaise Pascal in the 1600s to Charles Babbage in the first half of the nineteenth century, inventors struggled to create the first calculating machines. All failed—but that does not mean we cannot learn from the trail of ideas, correspondence, machines, and arguments they left behind.
In Reckoning with Matter, Matthew L. Jones draws on the remarkably extensive and well-preserved records of the quest to explore the concrete processes involved in imagining, elaborating, testing, and building calculating machines. He explores the writings of philosophers, engineers, and craftspeople, showing how they thought about technical novelty, their distinctive areas of expertise, and ways they could coordinate their efforts. In doing so, Jones argues that the conceptions of creativity and making they exhibited are often more incisive—and more honest—than those that dominate our current legal, political, and aesthetic culture.
Tara Abraham‘s Rebel Genius: Warren S. McCulloch’s Transdisciplinary Life in Science is now available from MIT Press. Rebel Genius recounts the life and work of neurophysiologist and cybernetician Warren McCulloch. As described by the publisher,
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Warren S. McCulloch (1898–1969) adopted many identities in his scientific life—among them philosopher, poet, neurologist, neurophysiologist, neuropsychiatrist, collaborator, theorist, cybernetician, mentor, engineer. He was, writes Tara Abraham in this account of McCulloch’s life and work, “an intellectual showman,” and performed this part throughout his career. While McCulloch claimed a common thread in his work was the problem of mind and its relationship to the brain, there was much more to him than that. In Rebel Genius, Abraham uses McCulloch’s life as a window on a past scientific age, showing the complex transformations that took place in American brain and mind science in the twentieth century—particularly those surrounding the cybernetics movement.
Abraham describes McCulloch’s early work in neuropsychiatry, and his emerging identity as a neurophysiologist. She explores his transformative years at the Illinois Neuropsychiatric Institute and his work with Walter Pitts—often seen as the first iteration of “artificial intelligence” but here described as stemming from the new tradition of mathematical treatments of biological problems. Abraham argues that McCulloch’s dual identities as neuropsychiatrist and cybernetician are inseparable. He used the authority he gained in traditional disciplinary roles as a basis for posing big questions about the brain and mind as a cybernetician. When McCulloch moved to the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, new practices for studying the brain, grounded in mathematics, philosophy, and theoretical modeling, expanded the relevance and ramifications of his work. McCulloch’s transdisciplinary legacies anticipated today’s multidisciplinary field of cognitive science.
Go Ask A.L.I.C.E. Panel Discussion @ Harvard from Harvard University, History/CHSI on Vimeo.
On November 29th, 2012 the Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments (CHSI) at Harvard University held panel discussion to coincide with its museum exhibit, GO ASK A.L.I.C.E: Turing Tests, Parlor Games, & Chatterbots. The exhibit, which closed at the end of December and was one of a number of events organized to mark the centenary of Alan Turing’s birth, explored
… the strange afterlife of the Turing Test as it has circulated in popular, scientific, and commercial cultures. It reexamines elements of Turing’s own interactions with humans and machines, later imaginations of thinking machines, as well as a famous attempt to translate Turing’s parlor game into a real test of artificial intelligence: the Loebner Competition.
These issues were further explored in the GO ASK A.L.I.C.E. panel discussion, video of which is posted above. Among those who participated in this event Daniel C. Dennett (Tufts University), Fox Harrell (MIT), John Searle (UC Berkeley), Peter Galison (Harvard), Jonathan Zittrain (Harvard) and Sophia Roosth (Harvard). Video of the event can also be found here.
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