Monday, January 01, 2018

A Mind at Play

A Mind at Play deifies Claude Shannon as a renaissance-type genius who is able to make contributions to any field he desires, yet is likely to leave his greatest ideas unfinished. You would have a tough time finding any criticism in this work. He grew up a tinkerer in small-town Michigan. He was super smart, and was great at understanding and applying math. He was also able to pick up domain knowledge of other fields and made great contributions to genetics research (that were only recently "rediscovered"). However, his primary contribution was the theory of information transmission. Alas, only briefly discusses what this theory is, leaving us wondering why he is so important. (Though this may be in part because it seems so obvious today.) He made some of the earliest "thinking machines", such as a "maze running mouse" and chess computers. He lived to see the dawn of the information age, but was suffering from Alzheimer's at the time and was thus barely able to comprehend it.
While I found the book to be a excessively laudatory, I did enjoy the descriptions of the time at Bell Labs. Having a bunch of people turned lose at doing whatever they wanted seems to be one of the advantages of monopolies. Any research that could be tangentially related to phone company business was fair game. The huge number of innovations that arose from Bell Labs validates its value. Imagine if we allowed more researchers the freedom to investigate ideas rather than spend endless hours writing grant proposals or helping the companies short-term bottom line? We see some of that with the big tech companies like Google and Facebook these days. Alas, a lot of the innovation today is in the small startups, and that funding is driven by the ability to appease the venture capitalists.

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