The Maniac

I enjoyed Benjamin’s Labatut’s The Maniac. Conventionally regarded as a “biography” of John von Neumann but more accurately a series of short, quick vignettes, recollections, and reconstructions told by people around von Neumann and centered on the many ideas he touched, including the metaphysics of logic, quantum physics, the nuclear bomb, the meaning of rationality, the fundamental structure of life and especially artificial intelligence. The recollections are what might be called creative non-fiction; based on real life interviews but written as if the speaker were a novelist. For example, Feynman uniquely watching the first atomic test without goggles, but told even more vividly than Feynman told the story.

As Tyler noted, many of the stories will be familiar to MR readers, but a few were new to me. Sydney Brenner, for example, the Nobel prize winning molecular biologist who hypothesized and then proved the existence of messenger RNA reports with wonder and astonishment that von Neumann had earlier understood from theory alone how any such system must work.

Fear and awe in the presence of great intelligence is a running theme of the book. Polya famously described fearing von Neumann after seeing him solve a problem in minutes that he had worked on for decades (again the story is jeujed up in The Maniac to great effect.) Eugene Wigner who knew him from childhood and who himself won a Nobel prize in physics is “quoted” (recall this is fictionalized but based on the record):

It was a burden growing up so close to him. I often wonder if my horrific inferiority complex, which not even the Nobel prize has diminished in the slightest, is a product of having known von Neumann for the better part of my life.

…I knew Planck, von Laue, and Heisenberg, Paul Dirac was my brother-in-law, Leo Szilard and Edward Teller have been among my closest friends, and Albert Einstein was a good friend too. But none of them had a mind as quick and acute as Janos von Neumann. I remarked on this in the presence of those men, several times, and no one ever disputed me.

Only he was fully awake.

Another theme is the seemingly close relationship between rationality and insanity–Labatut develops this both in theory around Godel’s theorem but also in practice with the many rationalists who went crazy. What does this mean for artificial intelligence?

The MANIAC refers not to von Neumann but to von Neumann’s creation the Mathematical Analyzer Numerical Integrator and Automatic Computer Model, the first computer built using von Neumann’s architecture, which all computers use today. From the MANIAC we get to artificial intelligence and again the awe and fear. After Gary Kasparov loses to Deep Blue he become despondent and fearful, thinking that there must have been a human in the machine. Lee Sedol losing to AlphaGo and soon retiring thereafter. Ke Jie being annihilated by Master, the successor to AlphaGo and reporting “he is a god of Go. A god that can crush all who defy him.” And then the creators of AlphaGo take off the training wheels, they remove all the human games that constrained the earlier models to a foundation built on thousands of years of human knowledge and the result crushes the human-limited model.

We are reminded of what von Neumann said on his death bed when asked what would it take for a computer to begin to think and behave like a human being.

He took a very long time before answering, in a voice that was no louder than a whisper.

He said that it would have to understand language, to read, to write, to speak.

And he said that it would have to play, like a child.

The Maniac is a good read.


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