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"The Design of Machines to Simulate the Behavior of the Human Brain" (March 1955 – December 1956)

At the 1955 Institute of Radio Engineers (IRE) Convention held in New York in March the Professional Group on Electronic Computers (PGEC) sponsored a symposium on "The Design of Machines to Simulate the Behavior of the Human Brain." The four panel members were Warren McCulloch of MIT, Anthony G. Oettinger of Harvard, Otto H. Schmitt of the University of Minnesota, and Nathaniel Rochester of IBM. The moderator was Howard E. Tompkins, then of Burroughs Corporation.

After the panel members read prepared statements, and a brief discussion, a group of invited questioners cross-examined the panel members. The invited questioners were Marvin Minsky, then of Harvard, Morris Rubinoff of the University of Pennsylvania, Elliot L. Gruenberg of the W. L. Maxson Corporation, John Mauchly, of what was then Remington Rand, M. E. Maron of IBM, and Walter Pitts of MIT. The transcript of the symposium was edited by the speakers with the help of Howard Tompkins, and published in the IRE Transactions on Electronic Computers, December 1956, 240-255.

From the transcript of the symposium, which was available online when I wrote this entry in April 2014, we see that many of the issues of current interest in 2014 were being discussed in 1955-56. McCulloch began the symposium with the following very quotable statement:

"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 10¹³ or 10 [to the 15th power] 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 wih its 10 [to the 10th power] 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."

As I read through this discussion, I concluded that it was perhaps the best summary of ideas on the computer and the human brain in 1955-1956. As quoting it in its entirety would have been totally impractical, I instead listed the section headings and refer those interested to the original text:

McCulloch: "Brain," A Computer With Negative Feedback

Oettinger: Contrasts and Similarities

Rochester: Simulation of Brain Action on Computers

Schmitt: The Brain as a Different Computer


Chemical Action, Too

Cell Assemblies

Why Build a Machine "Brain"?

Is Systematicness Undesirable?

Growth as a Type of Learning

What Does Simultation Prove?

The Semantics of Reproduction

Where is the Memory?

"Distributed Memories"

"Memory Half-Life"

Analog vs. Digital

Speed vs. Equipment

The Neurophysiologists' Contribution

Pattern Recognition

Creative Thinking by Machines?

What Model Do We Want?