An article from art and culture magazine Cabinet discusses the prodigious and tragic life of neural network pioneer Walter Pitts, who was one of the major forces in the early development of computational models of the mind and brain.
Pitts started attending university lectures, uninvited, during his teenage years, and by the age of 17 was working with neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch. As Pitts was homeless and without an income at the time, McCulloch invited Pitts to live in the family home.
Together, they wrote one of the foundational papers in cognitive science, where they demonstrated that individual neurons, mathematically modelled, could be combined in networks to simulate logical computation. This suggested that such neurons could be the basic units of an information processing model of the mind.
This was a big step forward, as it suggested a potential link between the mind and brain to a science that was trying to break free from previous behaviourist ‘stimulus-response’ theories, by adopting a computational framework.
This broad approach is now the dominant theory in modern psychology, although Pitts’ was convinced of a more strictly logical model than is generally accepted today.
Pitts was completely absorbed in his work and often seemed troubled when not focused on it. It was rumoured he may have suffered from schizophrenia on account of his markedly odd behaviour and difficulties with social interaction.
Pitts moved to work with a research group in Boston, but fell out with another group member who had a disagreement with Pitts’ mentor Warren McCulloch. Pitts became a recluse and it has been rumoured he committed suicide.
Many artificial neural networks are based on his work, which are used as theoretical models of the mind, and to solve practical problems in technology and industry.