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AI’s 80-year history offers tantalizing glimpses of its future course
By Gil Press  |  Feb 12, 2024
AI’s 80-year history offers tantalizing glimpses of its future course
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AI has come a long way since its humble beginnings in the 1940s, and a look back at this history is both fascinating and informative as an indicator of how the tech might continue to evolve, notes Gil Press, managing partner at the consultancy gPress and a noted AI commentator.

BELMONT, MASSACHUSETTS - When ChatGPT became the fastest-growing consumer internet application in history at the end of 2022, it marked a new stage in the worldwide reach of computer programs driven by sophisticated algorithms, large volumes of data, and tremendous processing power. This was also a new high point in the history of artificial intelligence (AI), punctuated by funding peaks and valleys, marked by rival approaches to research and development, and expressed in public fascination, anxiety, and excitement.

Everything started over 80 years ago. 

In April 1943, John Mauchly and J. Presper Eckert of the Moore School, University of Pennsylvania, submitted a proposal to the United States Army’s Ballistics Research Laboratory to build an ‘electronic calculator.’ The result was ENIAC [Electronic Numerical Integrator and Computer], the first-ever electronic general-purpose computer, unveiled to the public in February 1946. 

In December 1943, neurophysiologist Warren S. McCulloch and logician Walter Pitts published ‘A logical calculus of the ideas immanent in nervous activity,’ in which they discussed networks of idealized and simplified neurons and how these could perform simple logical functions. The paper and its description of the functioning of nerve cells in mathematical terms became the inspiration for the development of computer-based ‘artificial neural networks’ and their popular description today as ‘mimicking the brain.’ 

The idea that computer hardware and software are similar to humans’ brains and minds became widespread early on. The general public referred to the very first modern computers as “thinking machines,” following their description by some of their developers. 

In one the of the first popular introductions to modern computing - the 1949 book Giant Brains or Machines That Think - computer software developer Edmund Berkeley anticipated future AI develop

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