The Computer and the Brain
John von Neumann; With a foreword by Ray Kurzweil
August 28, 2012
136 pages, 5 x 7 3/4
In this classic work, one of the greatest mathematicians of the twentieth century explores the analogies between computing machines and the living human brain. John von Neumann, whose many contributions to science, mathematics, and engineering include the basic organizational framework at the heart of today's computers, concludes that the brain operates both digitally and analogically, but also has its own peculiar statistical language.
In his foreword to this new edition, Ray Kurzweil, a futurist famous in part for his own reflections on the relationship between technology and intelligence, places von Neumann’s work in a historical context and shows how it remains relevant today.
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.
“This book is the earliest serious examination of the human brain from the perspective of a mathematician and computer pioneer. Prior to von Neumann, the fields of computer science and neuroscience were two islands with no bridge between them.”—Ray Kurzweil, from the foreword
“Highly original and intensely stimulating. His ideas will have great value to further investigation.”—S. Ulam, Scientific American (from an earlier edition)
“This innocent-looking little book lies at the eye of a hurricane. It represents a locus of clarity and calm at the center of a vast vortex of powerful arguments and competing research programs.”—Paul and Patricia Churchland, on the earlier editon
“On opening The Computer and the Brain, I expected to find it ‘of historical interest only’ (as one of my own professors used to say rather loftily of Principia Mathematica). To the contrary, the book abounds with insights so deep they have not yet been internalized by any but a very small number of specialists.”—John Derbyshire, New Criterion
“Perhaps the most powerful, lucid and penetrating mind in the history of computer science, von Neumann's observations about the language of the brain resonate with remarkable insight. Decades ahead of his time, he launches a thread of reasoning based on his unmatched understanding of computing that suggests the human nervous system is best understood, not as a digital machine but has a statistical one.'...The nervous system is a computing machine which manages to do its exceedingly complicated work on a rather low level of precision....what matters are not the precise positions of definite markers, digits, but the statistical characteristics of their occurrences, i.e., frequencies...’ It is exactly this line of reasoning that inspired the essential architecture underlying Watson, the machine that beat the best human champions at Jeopardy!. There is no precise mathematics to human language and yet it is the foundation for expressing human thought. Von Neumann reasons his way from analog machines to digital machines to delivering unparalleled insight into the computational paradigm underlying the human brain. A must read for any new computer scientist and reread for all of us who enjoy the stunning power of thoughtful observation and objective reason.” —David Ferrucci, IBM T.J. Watson Research Center
“Von Neumann was one of the top experts in all aspects of computing . . . and one of the most rigorous minds ever to discuss the computational organization of brains. His last book presents one of the most sophisticated comparisons ever made between computers and brains. . . . It’s a landmark in the history of computing, psychology, and neuroscience, and it’s required reading for anyone interested in the foundations of those disciplines.”—Gualtiero Piccinini, Minds and Machines
“An outstanding example of J. von Neumann’s insight, brilliance and clarity.”—Mathematical Reviews
“This work from the earliest days of computing reminds us of von Neumann’s deep thinking and clarity of expression.”—Dag Spicer, Senior Curator, Computer History Museum