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In the early 1950s computers were comparatively crude devices with far less computing power than a desktop PC. All the more surprising then that some users were already thinking about ways of making the machines emulate human intelligence. For some, this was simply a misunderstanding. Of course the computer was just a gigantic mechanical brain and it could think. It might even be superior to us. This really was the naive view current at the invention of the machine and you still encounter it today, although thankfully less often.
While you can forgive the uninitiated for believing that the huge machines were capable of intelligent thought, what about the people who were closer to them?
Surely Alan Turing can’t have been serious about a machine passing the Turing test and successfully mimicking a human in only a few years? Remember, at the time Turing was thinking about the problem computers filled a large room and ran slower than a first generation PC. How is it possible that the early computer creators could overrate their machines to this extent? It was a very common mistake then and it is almost as common now.
The effect on the best workers in the AI field seems to be a series of highs, when the goal is in sight, and very deep lows, when they are convinced that no progress has been made. One of the most important of the early AI researchers, Marvin Minsky, created both lows and highs in the history of Artificial Intelligence.
Marvin Lee Minsky, born 1927
Marvin Minsky’s father was an ophthalmologist and the family home was full of lenses and prisms. Marvin took delight in taking the instruments apart and finding out how they worked. His father was often left with the task of putting them back together again. Later (1950) Marvin went to Harvard and took courses in mathematics, neurophysiology and psychology. He graduated with a BA in mathematics but he was clearly no ordinary mathematician.
Then he moved to Princeton to work on a PhD in mathematics, but not the sort of math that was current at the time. Minksy decided to work on connectionist theories of the brain. He studied everything he could on the physiology and anatomy of the nervous system. He wanted to know how the brain learns but there were too many gaps. He thought that if he could work out how the neurons were connected then he could reverse engineer what they actually do.
He was surprised to discover that the connection schemes had never been properly mapped even for small parts of the brain. Many people, computer experts in particular, are under the impression that we somehow have a “wiring” diagram for the brain, or at least some useful portion of it. The truth is that even today the human brain is not something that you can order a circuit diagram of from your local neurobiology shop. We have recently managed to work out the wiring of some simple insects and small subsystems but nothing major.
At the time Minsky was looking at the problem almost nothing about the functioning of neurons in groups was known. It was also difficult to see how it could be discovered using the techniques of the time. Neural circuits are inherently 3D and the optical equipment of the time could only look at 2D slices. This was a problem that was to occupy Minsky for some time.