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Machine, Learning, 1951


By:  Jef Akst

Originally published in The Scientist, May 1, 2019

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Marvin Minsky engineered the first known artificial neural network, in which “rats” represented as lights learned to solve a maze.

As an undergraduate at Harvard in the late 1940s and in his first year of grad school at Princeton in 1950, Marvin Minsky pondered how to build a machine that could learn. At both universities, Minsky studied mathematics, but he was curious about the human mind—what he saw as the most profound mystery in science. He wanted to better understand intelligence by recreating it.

In the summer of 1951, he got his chance. George Miller, an up-and-coming psychologist at Harvard, secured funding for Minsky to return to Boston for the summer and build his device. Minsky enlisted the help of fellow Princeton graduate student Dean Edmonds, and the duo crafted what would become known as the first artificial neural network. Called SNARC, for stochastic neural-analog reinforcement calculator, the network included 40 interconnected artificial neurons, each of which had short-term and long-term memory of sorts. The short-term memory came in the form of a capacitor, a piece of hardware that stores electrical energy, that could remember for a few seconds if the neuron had recently relayed a signal. Long-term memory was handled by a potentiometer, or volume knob, that would increase a neuron’s probability of relaying a signal if it had just fired when the system was “rewarded,” either manually or through an automated electrical signal.

Minsky and Edmonds tested the model’s ability to learn a maze. The details of how the young researchers tracked the output are unclear, but one theory is that they observed, through an arrangement of lights, how a signal moved through the network from a random starting place in the neural network to a predetermined finish line. The duo referred to the signal as “rats” running through a maze of tunnels. When the rats followed a path that led toward the finish line, the system adjusted to increase the likelihood of that firing pattern happening again. Sure enough, the rats began making fewer wrong turns. Multiple rats could run at once to increase the speed at which the system learned.

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