BEFORE THE INVENTION of the computer, most experimental psychologists thought the brain was an unknowable black box. You could analyze a subject’s behavior--ring bell, dog salivates—but thoughts, memories, emotions? That stuff was obscure and inscrutable, beyond the reach of science. So these behaviorists, as they called themselves, confined their work to the study of stimulus and response, feedback and reinforcement, bells and saliva. They gave up trying to understand the inner workings of the mind. They ruled their field for four decades.
Then, in the mid-1950s, a group of rebellious psychologists, linguists, information theorists, and early artificial-intelligence researchers came up with a different conception of the mind. People, they argued, were not just collections of conditioned responses. They absorbed information, processed it, and then acted upon it. They had systems for writing, storing, and recalling memories. They operated via a logical, formal syntax. The brain wasn’t a black box at all. It was more like a computer.
The so-called cognitive revolution started small, but as computers became standard equipment in psychology labs across the country, it gained broader acceptance. By the late 1970s, cognitive psychology had overthrown behaviorism, and with the new regime came a whole new language for talking about mental life. Psychologists began describing thoughts as programs, ordinary people talked about storing facts away in their memory banks, and business gurus fretted about the limits of mental bandwidth and processing power in the modern workplace.
This story has repeated itself again and again. As the digital revolution wormed its way into every part of our lives, it also seeped into our language and our deep, basic theories about how things work. Technology always does this. During the Enlightenment, Newton and Descartes inspired people to think of the universe as an elaborate clock. In the industrial age, it was a machine with pistons. (Freud’s idea of psychodynamics borrowed from the thermodynamics of steam engines.) Now it’s a computer. Which is, when you think about it, a fundamentally empowering idea. Because if the world is a computer, then the world can be coded.
Over the past several years, the biggest tech companies in Silicon Valley have aggressively pursued an approach to computing called machine learning. In traditional programming, an engineer writes explicit, step-by-step instructions for the computer to follow. With machine learning, programmers don’t encode computers with instructions. They train them. If you want to teach a neural network to recognize a cat, for instance, you don’t tell it to look for whiskers, ears, fur, and eyes. You simply show it thousands and thousands of photos of cats, and eventually it works things out. If it keeps misclassifying foxes as cats, you don’t rewrite the code. You just keep coaching it.
Read more here: www.wired.com/2016/05/the-end-of-code/