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Elizabeth Wilson

Artificial minds and the inhibition of affectivity: The case of Walter Pitts

May 21, 2007, 12:00 pm   » 

The early history of AI is more engaged with questions of emotion than many commentators have assumed; the amplification and management of the affects is evident in a number of important early AI texts. This paper is part of a larger project that explores the unorthodox relations between the artificial and the affective in early AI.

This paper examines how affect was managed (inhibited) in the work and the research milieu of Walter Pitts. There has been relatively little written about Walter Pitts’ contribution to AI. There was no widow to tend his legacy, and there is no archive of his papers. Focusing on his canonical paper with Warren McCulloch on the logical calculus of neural nets, this paper searches for the psychological presumptions that inform the 1943 paper: what kind of theory of mind does the paper perform? I argue that affect has been devalued as an object of inquiry in the 1943 paper, and inhibited as an epistemological force in the research environment that generated this work. This paper pursues the powerful effects of such affective configurations. While overt reference to affectivity is absent from most of Pitts’ writing, the forces of affectivity are still to be found in and around this work. No less powerful for having been avoided, the affects gave shape to how Pitts (and then the rest of us) came to imagine computational bodies and minds.

Elizabeth A. Wilson is an Australian Research Council Fellow in the Women’s and Gender Studies Program at UNSW. She has held fellowships in the Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences and the Department of Gender Studies at the University of Sydney, and in the School of Social Science, Institute for Advanced Study, Princeton. She is trained in Psychology and her research interests are in the cognitive and neurological sciences, affect theory, psychoanalysis, and evolutionary theory. She is the author of Psychosomatic: Feminism and the Neurological Body (Duke University Press, 2004), and is working on a project about feminism and depression, and completing a project on affect and artificial intelligence.

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