The Computer and the Brain (The Silliman Memorial Lectures Series)
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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.
trillions, of synaptic connections that embodies whatever knowledge and skills the brain may have acquired. And it is those same synaptic connections that so swiftly perform the computational transformations upon any axonal inputs—from the senses, for example—that arrive at their collective doorstep. This yields both the speed and the freedom from recursively amplified errors that von Neumann deemed essential. It must quickly be said, however, that this decisive insight does nothing to dim the
more prescient given that it was written more than half a century ago when neuroscience had only the most primitive tools available. Finally, von Neumann anticipates the essential acceleration of technology and its inevitable consequences in a coming singular transformation of human existence. Let’s consider these five basic ideas in slightly more detail. Around 1940, if you used the word “computer,” people assumed you were talking about an analog computer. Numbers were represented by different
displacing the first one, can be described (again with some simplifications) as follows. This scheme has, formally, some similarity with the plugged control scheme described above. However, the control sequence points are now replaced by “orders.” An order is, in most embodiments of this scheme, physically the same thing as a number (of the kind with which the machine deals, cf. above). Thus in a decimal machine it is a sequence of decimal digits. (12 decimal digits in the example given
first-mentioned machine to behave in a purposive way toward the solution of a visualized, organized task, i.e. the solution of a specific and desired problem. The Function of a Short Code A code, which according to Turing’s schema is supposed to make one machine behave as if it were another specific machine (which is supposed to make the former imitate the latter) must do the following things. It must contain, in terms that the machine will understand (and purposively obey), instructions
briskly and lucidly outlined in von Neumann’s own words, although he speaks of “code” where we now speak of “programs,” and he speaks of “complete codes” versus “short codes” where we now speak of “machine-language programs” versus “high-level programming languages.” But only the words, and the clock-speeds of the machines, have changed. John von Neumann would recognize every machine currently in sight—from PalmPilot organizers to supercomputers, whether running poker games or galactic-genesis