Monday, March 28, 2005

A Better September 11

September 11. For most of us, the phrase can only evoke September 11, 2001, and its attendant horrors. Perhaps for Chileans it still means September 11, 1973, and the violent end of Chilean democracy. There is another September 11, however, and I hope to plant its seed within you, lest we think the day was always and only a sad one. On that day in 1956, the field of cognitive science was born. The Institute of Radio Engineers, a gaggle of nerds of the finest caliber, held a "Symposium on Information Theory" at MIT. On our fateful day, the second day of the conference, three seminal papers were presented: First thing in the morning, Alan Newell and Herbert Simon (later a Nobel Laureate in Economics) presented "The Logic Theory Machine", an automated theory-proving computer program. A little later, Noam Chomsky, age 29, presented "Three Models for the Description of Language", which wrenched the study of language from mere sociology to a formal mathematical endeavor. And shortly after that, Princeton psychologist George Miller presented the instant classic, "The Magical Number Seven plus or minus Two", demonstrating from multiple lines of evidence that our working memory can only handle that many items (a measly 3 bits) at a time. These disparate papers had a common thread. As Miller wrote in a 2003 reminiscence:
I left the symposium with a conviction, more intuitive than rational, that experimental psychology, theoretical linguistics, and the computer simulation of cognitive processes were all pieces from a larger whole and that the future would see a progressive elaboration and coordination of their shared concerns.
In this new synthesis, psychology, linguistics, mathematics, and the still-infant computer science could be seen not simply as distinct fields sharing a few common elements, but rather as different approaches to a common goal: understanding the information processing in the human brain. Today cognitive science is recognized as an endeavor unto itself. For some wandering souls like mine, it is the ultimate goal of life, heeding Socrates' injunction that the unexamined life is not worth living; for what could be more worth examining than precisely this core of our humanity?


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