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.

Continue reading The Brain Is Merely a Meat Machine

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)