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The initial period of artificial intelligence in the 1950s and early 1960s was characterized by expectations that were highly exaggerated.
That goes not only for specific applications, such as machine translation of languages. Many believed then – as also today – that computers’ achievement of human-like or even superhuman intelligence was just a matter of time, or even “just around the corner.”
I would argue that expectations of human-like AI have little to do with the actual possibilities and limitations of artificial intelligence per se. Rather, they reflect the impact of a radical philosophical movement originating in the 1920s known as logical positivism.
Professional logical positivists are hard to find today. Nevertheless, one can easily detect the influence of logical positivism in practically every area of intellectual endeavor. It helps explain why so many people today find nothing bizarre about the idea that digital computers could replicate the human mind.
The story goes back to the so-called Western Enlightenment and the struggle to develop modern science in opposition to mysticism, religion, superstition and metaphysics. Galileo, Newton and Darwin are among its heroes.
With the triumphs of theoretical physics, radical currents of thought emerged that sought to extend the formal-mathematical methods of the so-called exact sciences to every area of human endeavor.
There is no better way to give a sense of the radical philosophical ambiance in which AI was born than to quote from the 1929 Manifesto of the Vienna Circle – the famous group of philosophers and scientists who met together regularly at the University of Vietnna between 1928 and 1934.
“The goal ahead is unified science,” proclaims the 1929 Manifesto under the title “The Scientific Conception of the World: The Vienna Circle.”
“From this springs a search for a neutral system of formulae, for a symbolism freed from the slag of historical languages; and also the search for a total system of concepts. Neatness and clarity are striven for, and dark distances and unfathomable depths rejected. In science there are no ‘depths’; there is surface everywhere: all experience forms a complex network.”
The Manifesto continues: “The scientific world-conception knows no unsolvable riddle. Clarification of the traditional philosophical problems leads us partly to unmask them as pseudo-problems, and partly to transform them into empirical problems and thereby subject them to the judgment of experimental science….
“The aim of scientific effort is to reach the goal, unified science, by applying logical analysis to the empirical material. Since the meaning of every statement of science must be statable by reduction to a statement about the given, likewise the meaning of any concept, whatever branch of science it may belong to, must be expressible by step-wise reduction to other concepts, down to the concepts of the lowest level which refer directly to the given…
“Only modern symbolic logic (‘logistic’) succeeds in gaining the required precision of concept definitions and of statements, and in formalizing the intuitive process of inference of ordinary thought – that is, to bring it into a rigorous automatically controlled form by means of a symbolic mechanism…
“A scientific description can contain only the structure (form of order) of objects: not their ‘essence.’”
For reasons I only partly understand, the so-called logical positivism or logical empiricism expressed in the Vienna Circle’s Manifesto virtually dominated academic philosophy up into the 1960s, not least of all in the United States.
Its initial influence has much to do with the cultural and political crises of the period between the First and Second World Wars. The time was ripe for a radical break with the past, which took a variety of directions.
The emigration of leading members of the Vienna Circle before and after World War II helped transplant logical positivism to the United States. At the same time, at least one of those emigres took a very different position. I have in mind Kurt Gödel, who figures prominently in later installments of this series.
The Manifesto’s characterization of the scientific method is extremely stiff and narrow. To me, it is something like limiting medical research to the dissection room.
It represents a radical break from the spirit of Renaissance humanism, which animated the progress of science up to the turn of the 20th century. But many people experienced the ideas of the Vienna Circle as an intellectual liberation, a kind of cultural revolution.
As the term “Manifesto” already suggests, logical positivism was a movement, not just a philosophical theory. Although the Vienna Circle espoused no political ideology, some Circle participants like Otto Neurath were active socialists.
They saw in logical positivism a vehicle for social progress, a way to combat irrationality and the negative influence of religion, to establish a common language among cultures and intellectual disciplines – and also as a guide to establishing a new, rational economic system.
For some, the famous slogan of the Vienna Circle, “Scientific World-Conception,” was practically synonymous with the aim of creating a “scientific society” – a society based on scientific principles.
The latter idea is commonly associated with Marxism and the ideology of the Soviet Union, but it had a profound impact also on the thinking of elite circles of the United States regardless of political orientation.
There, the “scientific society” concept found precursors in Frederick Winslow Taylor’s methods of “scientific management” in the manufacturing industry, as well as the Technocracy Movement, which attained great popularity in the US in the 1930s.
Incidentally: Vladimir Lenin praised Taylorism, with its robot-like optimization of workers’ individual movements, as a method for increasing the efficiency of Soviet industry. At a session of the Supreme Council of the National Economy in 1918 he declared:
“We must definitely speak of the introduction of the Taylor System, in other words, of using all scientific methods of labor which this system advances.”
In his 1953 Foundations of Leninism, Josef Stalin wrote: “The combination of Russian revolutionary sweep with American efficiency is the essence of Leninism in Party and state work….American efficiency is that indomitable force which neither knows nor recognizes obstacles.”
A turning point in the US came with the new generation of engineer-scientists who rose to powerful managerial positions in government, science and industry in the United States during or immediately following World War II. They included many brilliant, inventive, highly productive individuals with leadership qualities.
These were not philosophers but practical men. Generally speaking, their affinity for the kinds of ideas espoused by the Vienna Circle derived more from their professional backgrounds and wartime activities than from reading books.
This new elite played a decisive role in the buildup of the US defense and national security establishments and the industrial complex attached to them – institutions that nurtured the early development of artificial intelligence and continue to do so today.
The war effort in the United States had called for the management and coordination of industrial production, scientific research and development on a vast scale. It was entirely natural that this process, with its brilliant successes, fostered highly technocratic ways of thinking.
This mentality naturally carried over into the immediate postwar period, especially as the Cold War intensified. It was also natural for the elite of engineer-scientists to think about how the government, economy and even American society as a whole might be better managed.
The Farewell Address of January 17, 1961, US President Dwight Eisenhower is most famous for his warning “against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the “military-industrial complex.”
However, seldom cited is another far-reaching statement in the speech:
“In holding scientific discovery in respect, as we should, we must also be alert to the equal and opposite danger that public policy could itself become the captive of a scientific-technological elite.”
The wildly exaggerated expectations concerning artificial intelligence in the 1950s and early 1960s underline the wisdom of Eisenhower’s statement. They reflect a mindset within the scientific-technological elite, which could become a menace to society if their influence were to grow too large.
The creation of the atomic and hydrogen bombs had transformed the status of science in society, elevating prominent scientists almost to the level of gods. This and other stunning accomplishments of the 1940s, ’50s and ’60s, contributed greatly to a public perception that science was virtually omnipotent.
All of this would have been impossible without sophisticated mathematical methods. Never before had mathematicians played such a decisive role in the outcome of a war.
The pioneers of AI – Alan Turing, John von Neumann, Norbert Wiener, Claude Shannon, Marvin Minsky and others – all deeply involved in military-related work – were geniuses in the application of mathematical methods and models to almost anything.
Their contribution had been essential to the success of the bomb projects and countless other technological accomplishments of the wartime period. Naturally, they tended to see the world from that angle – and to greatly overestimate the power of mathematical methods.
In this context, the tenor of Norbert Wiener’s 1948 book Cybernetics, or Control and Communication in Man and Machine bespeaks an almost megalomaniacal state of mind. He was convinced that the mathematical principles behind the electronic control devices that he and others had built for weapons systems provided the key to understanding living organisms, the human brain and society.
Cybernetics, including Claude Shannon’s information theory, was supposed to become the unique universal science, subsuming everything else. Such expectations subsequently proved to be highly exaggerated.
Great expectations had also been raised by the 1944 publication of Theory of Games and Economic Behavior by John von Neumann and Oskar Morgenstern, the latter a close associate of the Vienna Circle.
This monumental work was seen as a first decisive step toward mathematizing economics and transforming it into a precise science – analogous to what Galileo and Newton did for physics. The statistical-mathematical treatment of systems of interacting “players,” each seeking to maximize their individual interests, offered a model not only for a market economy but also for society as a whole.
Finally, some could see the development of mathematical logic, and of symbolic languages able to express complicated logical relationships, as stepping-stones toward a future mathematical theory of the human mind.
John von Neumann and Alan Turing, who both made important contributions to mathematical logic, appeared to share this expectation. Mathematical logic provides the foundation for symbolic artificial intelligence.
That brings us full circle back to the Vienna Circle. Put very simply, the Circle’s “scientific world-conception” promised that merely “applying logical analysis to the empirical material” would be sufficient to solve all real problems.
We only needed to clear away “the slag of historical languages,” establish neatness and clarity and forget about the “pseudo-problems” that had occupied philosophical minds for thousands of years.
Then mankind could retire and leave the rest to AI.
Jonathan Tennenbaum received his PhD in mathematics from the University of California in 1973 at age 22. Also a physicist, linguist and pianist, he’s a former editor of FUSION magazine. He lives in Berlin and travels frequently to Asia and elsewhere, consulting on economics, science and technology.