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The Computer and the Brain: Second Edition (Mrs. Hepsa Ely Silliman Memorial Lectures) Paperback – July 11, 2000

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Editorial Reviews Review

Whether they think that artificial intelligence is impossible or inevitable, most people have highly polarized views on it. John von Neumann, genius, mathematician, and inventor of the nearly ubiquitous computer architecture that bears his name, blazed trails for both camps in The Computer and the Brain. This short book, which was written originally for Yale's Silliman lectures, but published posthumously, summarizes his views on machine and biological intelligence with unprecedented clarity and precision. His understanding of neuroscience was that of a brilliant and strongly motivated amateur at the end of the 1950s--good enough to take on the problem, but by no means matching his comprehension of the machines to which he had devoted much of his professional life. Still, his take on intracranial computation is stunningly prescient--he looks beyond the then-fashionable digital metaphors to suggest a semi-analog strategy that uses parallel processing to make up for its deficiency in speed. Prominent neuroscientific thinkers Paul M. Churchland and Patricia S. Churchland provide a brief, enlightening foreword to this second edition, placing the author's thinking in context and grounding the reader in the scientific milieu that gave rise to The Computer and the Brain. Although his computer architecture slowly is growing obsolete, von Neumann has given us a more lasting legacy in his thinking about thinking. --Rob Lightner

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. Paul M. and Patricia S. Churchland are professors of philosophy at the University of California, San Diego.


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Product Details

  • Series: Mrs. Hepsa Ely Silliman Memorial Lectures
  • Paperback: 112 pages
  • Publisher: Yale University Press; 2 Sub edition (July 11, 2000)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0300084730
  • ISBN-13: 978-0300084733
  • Product Dimensions: 7.7 x 5 x 0.3 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 4 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #500,672 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

34 of 34 people found the following review helpful By Harvey B. Vedder on March 30, 1999
Format: Paperback
A book for a limited audience. You have got to be interested in some really seminal, currently unresolved issues of how the great invention of the ALU (arithmetic logic unit) still employed in every computer built to the present day, was a compromise effort by this genius. His thought was to model the human brain, and the ALU succeeded in modeling just a small part, but he was totally frustrated and unsatisfied by the result--for good reason. He points out that the very language of the human brain has not yet been discovered--the orders of magnitude by which its process and results exceed the merely digital high speed comparator we call a computer (my apologies to Bill Gates!) clearly demonstrate the existence of a logic and a mathematics, the simplest rules of which as yet defy all our efforts to understand its workings, while we experience its results every time we think. Depth of logical levels, and depth of arithmetic levels necessary to achieve the requisite results we obtain from our Crays and our PCs are scorned by the human brain in a radical simplicity as yet undiscovered (not in that it does it, but in how it does it: therefore he postulates the existence of a radically, essentially different math and logic inherent in its workings). He lays out the discoveries of Turing, McCullough and Weiner in a brilliant tour de force of known (1955)neurological and cybernetic discoveries, and how they charted his course in creating the ALU. He compares analog and digital and mixed models of computing but (in my opinion) oversimplifies the digital aspect of thinking and memory, deeming them to be the route used by the human brain in performing its unruffled magic.Read more ›
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30 of 30 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on September 12, 2000
Format: Paperback
Perhaps the most famous and often quoted line in this remarkable book appears on page 39, where von Neumann declares that "The most immediate observation regarding the nervous system is that its functioning is prima facie digital."
The "prima facie" modifier is commonly taken to mean von Neumann saw the brain as "obviously digital," or "patently digital," and that it therefore must resemble a digital computer. But as you read the rest of the book, you quickly discover that this is not what John von Neumann intended. Von Neumann uses words cautiously and precisely, and to him, "Prima facie" means exactly what it says: "on its face."
In 1956, the brain appeared digital. But von Neumann thought this impression might be superficial. He thought that deeper biological investigation might well demonstrate that the nervous system is not, in fact, digital, or not completely digital. He believed it might work in some more sophisticated way, and suggests that perhaps some intermediate signaling mechanism, a hybrid between analog and digital, might be at work in the brain. For this and other reasons he actively resisted labeling the brain as a digital computer.
In the mid 90s, evidence began to appear that von Neumann was probably right to reserve his judgment. These curious new results show that a single nerve impulse is somehow able to convey information to the brain. This signal seems distinctly un-digital. A number of theories have popped up, some attempting to explain this whopping new mystery, others attempting to explain it away. But its impact on neurophysiology, and on conventional computer models of the brain, is pretty shocking. Not to say, devastating.
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24 of 24 people found the following review helpful By James Arvo on July 8, 2003
Format: Paperback
Von Neumann was one of the most celebrated and prolific mathematicians of the 20'th century; his contributions were legion, and always bore unmistakable creativity and elegance. "The Computer and the Brain" is a record of a lecture series that von Neumann delivered at Yale University in 1957. In these lectures, von Neumann set out to explore connections between computing hardware and their biological counterparts; brains. Von Neumann compared neurons with physical computing elements in terms of size, speed, heat dissipation, capacity, etc., in an attempt to discover what, if anything, could be said to unite them or to set them apart. He drew from what had been learned in designing computer instructions and memories in an attempt to glean some insight into what the brain might be doing. Ever the consummate mathematician, von Neumann was guarded in his statements, never over-reaching or confusing speculation with fact.
The ideas contained in these lectures will come as no great surprise to most scientists today; indeed, I would expect most to simply nod in agreement at most of von Neumann's observations. For example, von Neumann notes that neurons are essentially digital in that they have an all-or-nothing activation energy. However, it is interesting to see how seriously he pursues the idea that the brain may rely upon a mixture of analog and digital encodings; he took absolutely nothing for granted, and may well have been vastly ahead of his time.
Although von Neumann's many references to vacuum tubes and differential analyzers may seem archaic today, his central points remain essentially intact.
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