The Computer and the Brain 3e (Silliman Memorial Lectures) (The Silliman Memorial Lectures Series) Paperback – 3 Jul 2012
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About the Author
At the time of his death in February 1957, John von Neumann, renowned for his theory of games and his work at the Electronic Computer Project at the Institute for Advanced Study, was serving as a member of the Atomic Energy Commission. Ray Kurzweil is an inventor, author, and futurist who has written six books including The Singularity Is Near: When Humans Transcend Biology.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on Amazon.com (beta)
In 80 pages, von Neumann describes the key components and processes of computers and of brains and then analyzes their similarities and differences. Developments in both computer science and neuroscience during the intervening six decades have corroborated his overall analysis. Von Neumann had a better grasp in 1956 than proponents of AI have today of what differentiates artificial intelligence (computers) from biological intelligence (brains). In the last section of "The Computer and the Brain", von Neumann goes to considerable lengths to explain exactly how computers differ from brains:
"It should also be noted that the message-system used in the nervous system, as described in the above, is of an essentially statistical character. In other words, what matters are not the precise positions of definite markers, digits, but the statistical characteristics of their occurrence, i.e., frequencies of periodic or nearly periodic pulse-trains, etc.
"Thus the nervous system appears to be using a radically different system of notation from the ones we are familiar with in ordinary arithmetic and mathematics. Instead of the precise systems of markers where the position--and presence or absence--of every marker counts decisively in determining the meaning of the message, we have here a system of notations in which the meaning is conveyed by the statistical properties of the message. We have seen how this leads to a lower level of arithmetical precision but to a higher level of logical reliability: a deterioration in arithmetics has been traded for an improvement in logics."
Or, to quote von Neumann again farther down the same page, "The Language of the Brain is Not the Language of Mathematics".
Try to imagine transistor logic gates, arithmetic logic units, integrated circuits, multi-core microprocessors, neuromorphic chips, neural networks, massively parallel systems, software algorithms, etc.--all without math. Good luck.
The Computer and the Brain is the last published work by von Neuman and was an attempt to bring together what was known about the machine qualities of the brain and what the machines of 1957 might one day be able to accomplish.
As such almost everything is dated and new discoveries in neuroscience more so than in computers place limits on the absolute value of his comments.
That said, there was a head line in recent science news that there is a prototype computer in testing that combines both digital and large scale parallel computing in the manner von Neuman suggests as the model for how the brain may work.
The Computer and the Brain is the printed from of a lecture. He was too ill (mortally) for the series he was offered to conduct. So great was the respect for the man that he was allowed to present only these papers, sufficient for one lecture and about 3 hours reading. I do not think he read the paper; he had just the strength to write it.
Besides having been a vitally important mathematician, he was active in the cause of scientific ethics and as the man who drafted the letter, signed by Einstein credited with America committing to atomic research he is therefore a originator of the atomic age. He was a man of great thought and influence.
Reading this book is a chance to listen to a great mind. I make no claim to have understood all of it. I suspect that no one should read it in an effort to be at the leading edge of math, computers or neurology. It is a hard, but worth it read, and a glass into our recent history.
I'm currently reading Neumann's biography by Macrea. In addition to his understanding of mathematics, Neumann had the ability to extrapolate evolving seemingly unrelated sciences with astonishing accuracy.
People interested in these topics should also have interest in reading The Mind and the Brain: Neuroplasty and the Power of Mental Force by Jeffrey Schwartz (not a new book).