Fall 2017–Winter 2018

Hegel 2.0

The imaginary history of ternary computing

Leif Weatherby

Warren McCulloch didn’t want to go to Moscow. The invitation appeared in the early 1960s, during the first wave of scientific exchange between Russia and the United States during the Cold War. McCulloch had founded cybernetics, along with Norbert Wiener and Gregory Bateson. A mixture of information theory, computer design, and physiological work in equal part experiment and speculation, cybernetics briefly held global science and American pop culture in its thrall.1

McCulloch himself had contributed to the “theory of automata,” which invented gadgets and formulas, some—like Ross Ashby’s “homeostat” or Claude Shannon’s labyrinth-traversing “mouse”—passed around at conferences for show-and-tell, some given only in mathematics at once esoteric and brazenly applied to animals, machines, and cognition. McCulloch had invented a formal automaton called a “nervous net.” The nets were composed of theoretical synapses—on/off switches, binary neurons—that could encode Boolean logic. They directly influenced John von Neumann—who also participated in the early cybernetics movement—in his design of modern computer architecture. They are also the basis for the current explosion of so-called “machine learning,” in which the nets are exposed to vast amounts of data and “learn” to recognize patterns—often patterns humans can’t see on their own.2 With the major platform corporations investing heavily in this field and paying professional-athlete level salaries, the computer and the algorithm are set to take new steps into a digital unknown. The hardware and the learning—global infrastructure’s new core—is increasingly dependent on McCulloch’s legacy. 

A nervous net. The synapses shown here are configured with impulses that correspond to Boolean functions. (c), for example, shows that both (1) and (2) are necessary to trip (3), coding an AND function.

If McCulloch had gone to Moscow, it’s possible he would have seen, among other computers, Nikolai Brusentsov’s SETUN, named for a river near his institute. Brusentsov had designed the machine in 1958, using a magnetic drum for memory storage, and reducing its commands to as few as twenty-four. He claimed, in bombastic terms, that the machine was vastly more energy-efficient, more “natural” to use, and much cheaper than its competitors. This was because it traded not in binary digits—bits—but in “trits.” 
It was the first, and in many ways the only, computer based on ternary logic. The notion was that the 1s and 0s would be joined by a third term, -1, to balance the system numerically. The on/off switches were to have two different “on” settings. McCulloch was slowly pushing automata theory in a similar direction, one that unmoored not only computing but logic from binary, or Aristotelian, codes, and pushed it into stranger—and as we will see, Hegelian—waters. Until his death in 1969, McCulloch remained a committed Cold Warrior, so he remained at home, where there was plenty to do.

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