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Logic, DNA, and Poetry

Stephen L. Talbott

This article first appeared in the January 25, 2005 issue of NetFuture.

In January, 1956, Herbert Simon, who would later win the Nobel prize in economics, walked into his classroom at Carnegie Institute of Technology and announced, "Over Christmas Allen Newell and I invented a thinking machine". His invention was the "Logic Theorist", a computer program designed to work through and prove logical theorems. Simon's casual announcement -- which, had it been true, would surely have rivaled in importance the Promethean discovery of fire -- galvanized researchers in the discipline that would soon become known as artificial intelligence (AI). The following year Simon spoke of the discipline's promise this way:

It is not my aim to surprise or shock you .... But the simplest way I can summarize is to say that there are now in the world machines that think, that learn and that create. Moreover, their ability to do these things is going to increase rapidly until -- in a visible future -- the range of problems they can handle will be coextensive with the range to which the human mind has been applied. (Simon and Newell 1958)

There was good reason for the mention of surprise. Simon and his colleagues were, in dramatic fashion, surfing the shock waves produced by the realization that computers can be made to do much more than merely crunch numbers; they can also manipulate symbols -- for example, words -- according to rules