The Brain Is Merely a Meat Machine

Marvin Minsky? Joseph Weizenbaum? Pamela McCorduck? Edward Fredkin? Apocryphal?

Dear Quote Investigator: Within computer science the discipline of artificial intelligence (AI) is focused on analyzing and constructing entities that display advanced cognitive behaviors. These entities are designed to learn, solve problems, and achieve goals. Critics of the field contend that machines cannot embody genuine intelligence and understanding. An advocate of machine intelligence apparently formulated the following provocative retort:

The brain is merely a meat machine.

Would you please explore the provenance of this remark?

Quote Investigator: In May 1972 M.I.T. computer scientist Joseph Weizenbaum published a piece in the journal “Science” titled “On the Impact of the Computer on Society”. Weizenbaum believed that retaining the autonomy, freedom, and dignity of humans was essential to civilization. He also thought that the advent of advanced computer systems need not undermine the perceived worth of human life. Yet, he feared that the elevation of crude and over-simplified computer models of human behavior such as those developed by the 1970s might damage societal values. Boldface added to excerpts by QI: 1

The possibility that the computer will, one way or another, demonstrate that, in the inimitable phrase of one of my esteemed colleagues, “the brain is merely a meat machine” is one that engages academicians, industrialists, and journalists in the here and now. How has the computer contributed to bringing about this very sad state of affairs? It must be said right away that the computer alone is not the chief causative agent.

In the passage above from 1972, Weizenbaum did not name the author of the quotation; however, many years later when he was near the end of his life he wrote an article for the journal “IEEE Annals of the History of Computing” in which he ascribed the remark to colleague Marvin Minsky: 2

Perhaps the most (in)famous and illustrious American computer scientist and acknowledged principal pioneer of the discipline now known as artificial intelligence (AI), Professor Marvin Minsky of MIT, once pronounced—a belief he still holds—that “the brain is merely a meat machine.”

Below are additional selected citations in chronological order.

Weizenbaum published an op-ed in “The New York Times” in May 1972 that included the quotation. Once again a precise attribution was not supplied: 3

The root of the widespread anxiety associated with the computer may be found in a famous computer scientist’s assertion that “the brain is merely a meat machine.”

The statement achieved further distribution when Weizenbaum’s op-ed was reprinted in other newspapers such as “The Xenia Daily Gazette” of Xenia, Ohio. 4

In 1973 C. C. Gotlieb and A. Borodin published “Social Issues in Computing”, and they attributed the saying to Marvin Minsky within a footnote which cited the ‘Science” article: 5

Minsky’s more provocative statement that “the brain is merely a meat machine” has attracted considerable attention. J. Weizenbaum [see On the impact of computer on society, Science 176, 609-614 (1972)] believes that the fact such a statement has caused so much excitement is evidence that we are now at the beginning of “a crisis in the mental life of our civilization”; man’s image of himself is in serious danger.

In 1975 the saying appeared in the “ACM SIGSOC Bulletin”. The initialism ACM referred to the Association for Computing Machinery, and the acronym SIGSOC referred to the Special Interest Group for Social and Behavioral Science Computing. Joel W. Goldstein wrote the piece containing the quotation, and he cited the “Science” article: 6

Weizenbaum (1972) has eloquently argued that computer technology once again changes in a highly significant way our view of our place in the universe. He ponders the effects on us and the meaning to us of the blurring of the distinction between man and machine made by some computer scientists. In one of its more notable and arrogant forms this blurring has been rendered as: “the brain is merely a meat machine” (c.f. Weizenbaum, 1972).

In 1976 “The Compleat Computer” edited by Dennie L. Van Tassel included a lengthy excerpt from Weizenbaum’s “Science” article. Thus, the statement additional distribution. 7

In 1979 a different phrasing of the sentiment appeared in “Machines Who Think: A Personal Inquiry into the History and Prospects of Artificial Intelligence” by Pamela McCorduck: 8

“The brain,” MIT’s Marvin Minsky declared a few years ago, “happens to be a meat machine.” The phrase seems to have shocked a lot of people—and given Minsky’s delight in provoking anyone within earshot, it was probably so intended.

In 1982 physicist and science writer Jeremy Bernstein published a collection of essays titled “Science Observed”. His profile of Minsky included an instance of the saying: 9

A few years ago, Marvin Minsky made a remark that many people, especially those who believe that thought—intelligence—can never be mechanized, found deeply troubling. Minsky said, “The brain happens to be a meat machine.” Minsky has a fairly low tolerance for what he considers to be nonsense. The idea that it is somehow impossible to understand the mind he regards as nonsense.

Also, in 1982 “The Washington Post” published an article in its magazine section titled “In Our Own Image: Why Computers Will Never Be as Smart as We Are” which emphasized the limitations of AI research: 10

The scientists who are trying to discover all the effective procedures that will enable a computer to function like a man believe that such things as love, flattery or piety can be defined mechanistically. Marvin Minsky of MIT describes the brain as a “meat machine.” His colleagues like to say that machines are things that clank, while the brain just clanks more softly.

In 1984 Professor of Literature Jay David Bolter who pioneered hypertext fiction published in the journal “Daedalus” an article about AI which included the following passage: 11

Twenty years ago, Minsky and his colleagues were misfits in the world of computing. While others applied computing techniques to engineering and business, artificial intelligence specialists spoke of replacing the human mind, a “meat machine,” with their more efficient electronic models, of creating nothing less than a new species for the planet.

In 1985 “American Banker” magazine published “What’s in a Brain? The Marvel and Meat Machine at the Top” by Stanley Gibson which suggested that Minsky credited his colleague Edward Fredkin with the quotation. However, at this time QI has not found any additional support for this possibility: 12

“The brain happens to be a meat machine,” is a statement that artificial intelligence pioneer Marvin Minsky has attributed to his colleague from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Edward Fredkin. Although perhaps intended to shock, this statement has a kernel of truth for those who have worked in the field of artificial intelligence and have looked at the brain in much this manner.

In conclusion, QI believes that this saying should be ascribed to Marvin Minsky based on the citations from the 1970s. However, QI has not yet found a citation pointing to an instance written or spoken directly by Minsky. The instances in Weizenbaum’s 1972 “Science” article and McCorduck’s 1979 book both have support, but QI does not know which is best. Currently, the linkage to Edward Fredkin is weak.

Image Notes: Image from a woodcut of a small portion of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, No.1. Image has been cropped, resized, and retouched.

(Great thanks to William J. Rapaport whose inquiry led QI to formulate this question and perform this exploration. Rapaport mentioned the attributions to Marvin Minsky and Edward Fredkin.)

Notes:

  1. 1972 May 12, Science, Volume 176, Number 4035, On the Impact of the Computer on Society by Joseph Weizenbaum, Start Page 609, Quote Page 610, Column 3, American Association for the Advancement of Science. (JSTOR) link
  2. 2008 July-September, IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, Volume 30, Number 3, Social and Political Impact of the Long-term History of Computing by Joseph Weizenbaum, Start Page 40, Quote Page 41, published by IEEE Computer Society, New York. (IEEE Xplore Digital Library)
  3. 1972 May 28, New York Times, ‘It’s Your Dream’ by Joseph Weizenbaum, Quote Page E13, Column 3, New York. (ProQuest)
  4. 1972 June 7, The Xenia Daily Gazette, Man and Computer by Joseph Weizenbaum, Quote Page 4, Column 4, Xenia, Ohio. (Newspapers_com)
  5. 1973, Social Issues in Computing by C. C. Gotlieb and A. Borodin (Department of Computer Science, University of Toronto, Toronto, Canada), Chapter 13: Values, Technology, and Computers, Footnote 14, Quote Page 256, Academic Press, New York. (Verified with scans)
  6. 1975 December, ACM SIGSOC Bulletin, Computing and our relationship to work by Joel W. Goldstein (National Institute of Mental Health), Start Page 10, Quote Page 12, A Publication of the Special Interest Group for Social and Behavioral Science Computing, Association for Computing Machinery, New York. (ACM Digital Library) link
  7. 1976, The Compleat Computer by Dennie L. Van Tassel (University of California, Santa Cruz), Essay: On the Impact of the Computer on Society by Joseph Weizenbaum, (Excerpt from original article “How Does One Insult a Machine?), Start Page 168, Quote Page 169, Column 1 and 2, SRA Science Research Associates, Palo Alto, California. (Verified with scans)
  8. 1979, Machines Who Think: A Personal Inquiry into the History and Prospects of Artificial Intelligence by Pamela McCorduck, Chapter 4: Meat Machines, Quote Page 70, W. H. Freeman and Company, San Francisco, California. (Verified with scans)
  9. 1982, Science Observed: Essays Out of My Mind by Jeremy Bernstein, Chapter 2: About Intelligent Machines, Quote Page 44, Basic Books Inc., New York. (Verified with scans)
  10. 1982 March 21, The Washington Post, Section: Magazine, In Our Own Image: Why Computers Will Never Be as Smart as We Are by David Hite, Start Page 24, Quote Page 28, Column 4 and 5, Washington, D.C. (ProQuest)
  11. 1984 Summer, Daedalus, Volume 113, Number 3, Artificial Intelligence by J. David Bolter, Start Page 1, Quote Page 1, Published by: The MIT Press on behalf of American Academy of Arts & Sciences. (JSTOR) link
  12. 1985 June 3, American Banker, Volume 150, What’s in a Brain? The Marvel and Meat Machine at the Top by Stanley Gibson, (Quote page not specified in text database), SourceMedia, Inc., New York, New York. (Accessed via questia.com on May 5, 2020)