The Scando Review
The Scando Review
Robo-teachers? Fundamentals of AI for educators

Robo-teachers? Fundamentals of AI for educators

Part 3 – Mathematical Biophysics to Early Neural Networks

A Paper in Mathematical Biophysics

Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts met at the University of Chicago, the United States, in 1943. They became friends fast even though their backgrounds and ages were starkly different.

McCulloch, born into a wealthy family, did his studies from prestigious schools. Pitts was homeless in his teenage and grew up in a low-income neighbourhood. Despite these differences, their partnership turned into one of the most significant in the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI).

McCulloch and Pitts’ theories of the brain went against some of the prevailing ideas in Freudian psychology. They believed that logic could explain how the brain works.

Inspired by the British mathematician, computer scientist and logician Alan Turing, in 1943, they published a paper titled A Logical Calculus of the Ideas Immanent in Nervous Activity, in the Bulletin of Mathematical Biophysics. In this paper, they suggested that some of the core functions of the brain like neurons and synapsis could be explained by logic and mathematics and thereby create a complex network that could process information, learn and think. Despite presenting such radical ideas, their paper did not get much attention among brain scientists, but it did capture the imagination of those working on AI and computers.

Norbert Wiener and cybernetics

Norbert Weiner (1894-1964) was an American mathematician and philosopher working at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). Though he made significant contributions to Mathematics and Philosophy, he is most well-known for his theory on cybernetics. His theories in cybernetics focused on the science of communication within living things and machines and these had profound implications for engineering, computer science, neuroscience, biology, philosophy and even for the organisation of society. He was one of the first to propose that feedback mechanisms could shape intelligent behaviours. The notion that such feedback mechanisms could be simulated by machines was one of the earliest and most important steps towards the development of modern ideas of AI.

Wiener speculated that computers would one day outsmart the best human chess players and that computers would one day be able to replicate themselves.

In 1948, Wiener published the book Cybernetics: Or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine and although it was a scholarly work with a lot of complex mathematical equations dealing with Newtonian mechanics, meteorology, statistics, astronomy, and thermodynamics, it became an instant New York Times bestseller.

Wiener’s book also anticipated the development of chaos theory, digital communications, and computer memory paving the way for the development of modern AI.

Like McCulloch and Pitts, Wiener also compared human brain to computer. Among many predictions, he speculated that computers would one day outsmart the best human chess players and that computers would one day be able to replicate themselves. He was also aware of the potential for dehumanisation with the development of AI.

A Research Project at Dartmouth College

John McCarthy was an American computer scientist and cognitive scientist who spend most of his career at Stanford University. He is widely considered to be one of the founders of AI.

In 1956, he organised a research project at Dartmouth College, called “the study of artificial intelligence.” This was the first time the term “artificial intelligence” was formally used. Many academics and researchers, including Marvin Minsky, Nathaniel Rochester, Allen Newell, O G Selfridge, Raymond Solomonoff, and Claude Shannon attended the project. All of them went on to become key contributors in the development of AI.

At the Dartmouth project, Allen Newell, Cliff Shaw, and Herbert Simon demonstrated a computer program called the Logic Theorist, which they had developed at the Research and Development (RAND) Corporation. The main inspiration for this computer program came from Herbert Simon, who went on to win the Nobel Prize in Economics.

Simon realised that these machines were more than capable of processing numbers when he saw computers printing out words on maps for air defence systems. He understood these machines could also process images, symbols, and characters, and that these may lead to the development of a thinking machine in the future.

The Logic Theorist programme was used to solve mathematical theorems from a book called Principia Mathematicawritten by British mathematicians and philosophers Alfred North Whitehead and Bertrand Russell. As it turned out, one of the solutions created by the programme was more elegant than the ones proposed in the original which excited Russell himself.

The development of the Logic Theorist programme was an important milestone in computer science. Newell, Shaw, and Simon had used an IBM 701 computer, which used machine language. They also developed a new language called Information Processing Language (IPL) that made the programme run faster. For many years, IPL was the preferred language for computer scientists working on AI.

In the late 1950s, John McCarthy developed the Lisp programming language, which was widely used because of its ability to handle non-numerical data sets.

The IBM 701 also lacked sufficient memory to run the Logic Theorist programme, and this led to the development of list processing, which  allowed the dynamic allocation and deallocation of memory as the programs ran.

John McCarthy continued to contribute and develop the field of AI. In the late 1950s, he developed the Lisp programming language, which was widely used because of its ability to handle non-numerical data sets. Lisp is even used today for robotics and business applications.

McCarthy also created programming concepts like recursion, dynamic typing, and garbage collection. Meanwhile, he co-founded the MIT Artificial Intelligence Laboratory. His concept of time-sharing of computers, formulated in 1961, had transformative impact on the industry. This led to the development of the internet and cloud computing. Subsequently he also founded the Stanford university’s Artificial Intelligence Laboratory.

In 1969, John McCarthy published a paper titled Computer-Controlled Cars, in which he described how a person might be able to enter directions with a keyboard and navigate the vehicle with the help of a television camera. He won the Turing Award, considered the Nobel Prize for Computer Science, in 1971.

Now put on your thinking hats and think about the following questions for a couple of minutes. Can you think of how human brain is related to the computer?

In your opinion, do you think that there is potential for dehumanisation with the development of AI?

Can you think of the ways in which AI will impact the education sector?

Write down your thoughts and discuss them with your students, children and your colleagues. Listen to their views and compare them with your own. As you listen to others, note how similar or different your views are to others’.

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Happy Teaching!