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Activating a dead crayfish claw


The cleverest rat
Marvin Minsky Scientist
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Well, I was talking about being a young student, hanging around these wonderful psychologists in the basement of the Memorial Hall building at Harvard. That’s where the psychology department was in those years. And there was Skinner at this end and in the middle there was George Miller and Joe Licklider. And over here, there was Walter Rosenblith, who was doing pioneering experiments on the nervous system of cats. So, Rosenblith, who became provost at MIT eventually... an interesting move from Harvard. He was doing some of the early biology of the mammalian brain. But now, at some point... this is just a funny story.  I can’t remember if it was Skinner himself or Licklider, but one of them was... decided they wanted to study whether a rat would learn by... to extinguish a response by being given a little electrical shock when it pressed the wrong button. And the problem was how to give the rat this little shock. And so, I think it was Licklider, but the idea was... of course, the rat is in the metal screening cage of wire... wire mesh. So, Licklider went to a lot of trouble to build a cage where every other wire was insulated from... all the wires are insulated. And you would put a positive electric current on... electric voltage on the odd wires and a negative one on the even wires. So, wherever the rat was with its four feet, it would probably get a shock if you put this pulse of electricity into the cage. And in fact, it sort of worked and when the rat pressed the wrong button, you could give it a shock. And they set up some system for... to make it learn something. But the next day, now the rat was going through and eating all the food and never getting a shock. And when we looked closely, we discovered that this rat had managed to learn to walk only on the even... this rat was going all over the cage, but it was managing to only step on the even numbered wires and... I concluded that in order for this to happen, we really should try to understand this phenomenon where the rat had learnt something incredibly more complicated and difficult than whatever the experiment was designed to do. But... nothing ever came of that and they just gave up and didn’t do that experiment anymore.

Marvin Minsky (1927-2016) was one of the pioneers of the field of Artificial Intelligence, founding the MIT AI lab in 1970. He also made many contributions to the fields of mathematics, cognitive psychology, robotics, optics and computational linguistics. Since the 1950s, he had been attempting to define and explain human cognition, the ideas of which can be found in his two books, The Emotion Machine and The Society of Mind. His many inventions include the first confocal scanning microscope, the first neural network simulator (SNARC) and the first LOGO 'turtle'.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: Memorial Hall, Harvard University, MIT, BF Skinner, George Miller, Joe Licklider, Walter Rosenblith

Duration: 3 minutes, 11 seconds

Date story recorded: 29-31 Jan 2011

Date story went live: 13 May 2011