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Philosophy of Mind: Part 13, A History of Smart Machines

By Frank Simons

One of our greatest assets is our ability to think. Logical thinking and mathematical calculation in particular are essential and powerful human abilities. However, as problems became complex, logical thinking and calculation can require a great deal of tedious effort. Throughout history, humans have tried to make it easier.

This lecture traces fascinating stories of computing machines, from the Antikythera machine of 100BC; to legends of mechanical calculating heads in the Middle Ages; to Charles Babbage’s designs for steam-driven computers in the 1840s. Philosophers have played a major role in the development of smart machines. The foundations on which all contemporary computers operate can be traced to developments in logic in the 1800s, and Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s Principia Mathematica.

What do logic and computers have in common? Everything. The subject of this course is not logic, but the fundamental concepts of this discipline will prove useful. The fundamental goal of logic is to capture, to systematize, and to formalize validity. The validity of an argument is its logical strength: whether the conclusion follows from the premises. Validity does not guarantee truth, but it does guarantee truth preservation. If the premises are true, the conclusion must be true.

A major step in the development of logic and the birth of computers as we know them was Principia Mathematica. The purpose of the book was to prove all mathematics is essentially logic. Russell and Whitehead showed that a few simple logical symbols—AND, OR, and NOT, for example—were enough to give all the numbers, functions, operations, and transformations of mathematics. A computing machine could be built out of those simple components. The logical connectives can, in fact, be reduced to just one: NAND, meaning “not both…”  NAND can be compounded to produce all the rest. All digital computers work with the single logical connective NAND, operating on the 1s and 0s of binary code. Principia was intended merely to settle an arcane philosophical dispute. It turned out to be the founding document for all contemporary computing.

Professor Patrick Grim, as Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the State University of New York at Stony Brook, has provided his students with invaluable insights into issues of philosophy, artificial intelligence, theoretical biology, and other fields. Professor Grim was awarded the university’s Presidential and Chancellor’s awards for teaching excellence and was elected to the Academy of Teachers and Scholars.

There will be an opportunity for discussion following the video.

Presentations of the Center are offered without charge. Donations are gratefully accepted.


Video Presentation

“Philosophy of Mind: Part 13, A History of Smart Machines”

Thu, Aug 31, 5:30pm

Meditation Center

Callejon Blanco 4

Free, donations accepted


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