The Marginalian
The Marginalian

The Mind in the Machine: John von Neumann, the Inception of AI, and the Limits of Logic

The Mind in the Machine: John von Neumann, the Inception of AI, and the Limits of Logic

“From Boole, with his Laws of Thought in the 1850s, to the pioneers of Artificial Intelligence at the present day,” Oliver Sacks wrote as he reckoned with consciousness, AI, and our search for meaning thirty years before chatGPT, “there has been a persistent notion that one may have an intelligence or a language based on pure logic, without anything so messy as ‘meaning’ being involved.”

That this can never be the case, he observed, is “a neurological learning as well as a spiritual learning.”

I regard this learning as the haunting recognition that our technology — like our literature, like love, like life itself — is just a story we tell ourselves about who we are and how the world works.

Benjamín Labatut takes up the immense and enduring questions of the limits of logic and the tension between meaning-making and reality in his novel The MANIAC (public library), routed in the real life and legacy of the visionary mathematician and artificial intelligence pioneer John von Neumann (December 28, 1903–February 8, 1957), who originated the field of game theory, paved the way for the mathematical framework of quantum mechanics, anticipated the discovery of the molecular structure of DNA, and became a founding father of digital computing, his mind the hungry ghost in the machine of our everyday lives.

Operators at the MANIAC I (Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer Model I), developed by John von Neumann. 1952.

Reminding us that the history of our species is the history of mistaking our labels and models of things for the things themselves, Labatut paints the backdrop against which Von Neumann and his peers try to infer reality from their logical models of reality, forever haunted by the limits of logic itself:

The mathematical universe is built much like the pyramids of the ancient pharaohs. Each theorem rests on a deeper and more elementary substrate. But what supports the bottom of the pyramid? Is there anything solid to be found there, or does it all float on the void, like an abandoned spiderweb blowing in the morning wind, already unraveling at the edges, held together merely by frail and thinning strands of thought, custom, and belief?… Mathematicians… keep working on faith or delve down to the very heart of mathematics to try to find the cornerstones that upheld the entire structure. But uncovering foundations is always dangerous, for who can tell what lies in wait among the fault lines in the logic of our universe, what creatures sleep and dream amid the tangle of roots from which human knowledge grows?

With an eye to the often imperceptible catalysts of revelation — those trap doors that suddenly open beneath us to reveal whole other regions of being, a function partly of the blind spots of our self-knowledge and partly of our hopelessly selective lens on reality, amid a universe that is “nothing but a vast, self-organizing, complex system, the emergent properties of which are… everything” — Labatut adds:

Something very small, so tiny and insignificant as to be almost invisible in its origin, can nonetheless open up a new and radiant perspective, because through it a higher order of being is trying to express itself. These unlikely happenings could be hidden all around us, lying in wait on the border of our awareness, or floating quietly amid the sea of information that we drown in, each one bearing the potential to bloom and irradiate violently, prying apart the floorboards of this world to show us what lies beneath.

The earliest seeds of artificial intelligence, Labatut intimates throughout the novel, were precisely such a small, potent lever of prying open a hidden world — a world both wondrous and menacing, mirroring back to us our highest potential and our greatest follies. A century and a half after the Victorian visionary Samuel Butler presaged the rise of a new kingdom of life in our machines, Labatut ventriloquizes Von Neumann as a character in a novel animated by the realities of the past century of technology. The words he gives this prophet-pioneer are the words of our history and of our future:

At its lower levels, complexity is probably degenerative, so every automaton would only be able to produce less complicated ones; but there is a certain level beyond which the phenomenon could become explosive, with unimaginable consequences; in other words, where each machine could produce offspring of higher and higher potentialities.


If my automata were allowed to evolve freely in the unbounded matrix of an ever-expanding digital cosmos… they could take on unimaginable forms, recapitulating the stages of biological evolution at an inconceivably faster pace than things of flesh and blood. By crossbreeding and pollinating, they would eventually surpass us in number, and perhaps, one day, reach a point where they could become rivals to our own intelligence. Their progress, at first, would be slow and silent. But then they would spawn and burst into our lives like so many hungry locusts, fighting for their rightful place in the world, carving their own path toward the future.

Von Neumann died in an era when the entirety of computer memory in the world amounted to a handful of kilobytes, yet his life had already seeded the digital universe and all its anxious silicon tendrils reaching for the substrate of consciousness. Nearly a century after Alan Turing envisioned machine sentience as he wondered whether a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream, Labatut channels Von Neumann’s parting vision for what it would take for AI to cusp on consciousness:

Before he became unresponsive and refused to speak even to his family or friends, von Neumann was asked what it would take for a computer, or some other mechanical entity, to begin to think and behave like a human being.

He took a very long time before answering, in a voice that was no louder than a whisper.

He said that it would have to grow, not be built.

He said that it would have to understand language, to read, to write, to speak.

And he said that it would have to play, like a child.

Couple with the poetic science of how a cold cosmos kindled the wonder of consciousness, then revisit Alan Turing on the binary code of body and spirit.

Published December 2, 2023




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