When Ben-Gurion Pondered AI and the Role of ‘Thinking Machines’

David Ben-Gurion’s 1957 dinner with a group of leading Israeli scientists - including the man behind Israel's first computer - led to a lengthy debate which reveals the Israeli leader's philosophy

Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
David Ben-Gurion in his office in Jerusalem. Israel's first prime minister debated the idea of a 'thinking machine' with Prof. Amos de-Shalit after meeting him over dinner in 1957
David Ben-Gurion in his office in Jerusalem. Israel's first prime minister debated the idea of a 'thinking machine' with Prof. Amos de-Shalit after meeting him over dinner in 1957 Credit: Fritz Cohen / GPO

This article is the first in a series on David Ben-Gurion’s exchanges with Prof. Amos de-Shalit. 

The 1950s were stormy any way you look at them. The Cold War was intensifying, the Korean War was ending and the Vietnam War just starting. It was the dawn of the space race, with the UN recognizing many newly independent countries and the European Union taking its own first steps. Globalization was just beginning and many scientific and technological developments were taking place. These signaled the beginning of the age of nuclear energy, modern computers and artificial intelligence.

The leader of the nascent state of Israel, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, found himself having to build a new nation while operating in this complex and chaotic environment. However, he did find the time to hold deep scientific and philosophical discussions, covering many fields. His worldview was that science was man’s way of overcoming nature’s challenges, and that man was superior to machines.

Prof. Aharon Katzir, the head of the polymer research department at the Weizmann Institute (and the brother of Israel’s future fourth president, Efraim Katzir)Credit: GPO

In January 1957, with Israel not quite nine years old, exactly two months after the end of the Sinai campaign, Ben-Gurion came to dinner at his daughter Renana’s house in Tel Aviv. Also invited were Prof. Aharon Katzir, the head of the polymer research department at the Weizmann Institute (and the brother of Israel’s future fourth president, Efraim Katzir), whose research involved the function of muscles and membranes, and Prof. Amos de-Shalit, who just three years earlier had been asked to establish and head the department of nuclear physics at the Weizmann Institute

During the meal, a deep discussion and argument developed around the subject of quantum mechanics, the spirit of man and thinking machines. Apparently, none of those present thought that this discussion between Ben-Gurion and de-Shalit would continue for three years and lead to an exchange of no less than ten letters dealing with physics, computing and philosophy, rife with quotes from academic scientific articles, as well as to meetings with senior scientists around the world. 

I came across this correspondence while browsing and sleuthing in the online Ben-Gurion archive, which gives one access to a national treasure trove which includes a retrospective view into Ben-Gurion’s daily activities. He kept a meticulous daily diary for most of the 20th century, between 1915 and 1972. Through his diary one gets a peek at activities that were related to national interests, and to topics that were of personal interest to him.

‘Thinking machine’

It’s not known whether Ben-Gurion or de-Shalit started their conversation by talking about the study of the atom and the human spirit, but on January 4, 1957, Ben-Gurion made a short comment in his diary. “As usual, we had dinner with Renana; Amos de-Shalit and Aharon Katzir came too.” Next, he notes that de-Shalit argued that there was no difference between man and machine, and that one could build a machine that “would resemble man in everything, with no difference between a living human and a sophisticated machine.” 

One senses that the discussion was lively and interesting. The first comment in Ben-Gurion’s diary was followed by a self-query: “Will two machines ever exchange letters dealing with philosophical, ethical or scientific questions?” 

'I think, therefore I am': Rene Descartes' 'cogito' served as the basis for Ben-Gurion's conception of human thought Credit: Louvre Museum

His writings and correspondence reveal that philosophical questions and philosophy in general interested him and frequently occupied his mind. Although he often points to Plato as a source, it appears that René Descartes is the philosopher who most influenced him and his arguments; and specifically his conception of man as opposed to machines. Descartes, who lived and wrote in the 17th century, coined what is perhaps philosophy’s most famous sayings: “I think therefore I am”, or “cogito ergo sum.”

During Descrates’ lifetime there was technology of sorts which emulated the functions of the human body: the “automata.” However, Descartes’ philosophy was driven by doubts and skepticism. From here he reached his concept of “cogito.” He believed that when a person thinks of something, he’s aware that he’s thinking about it, proving the existence of human thought. He said that everything else that is knowable can come down to geometry and physics, except human thought and consciousness. This is the argument used by Ben-Gurion in his first letter to de-Shalit, written two weeks after that dinner, on January 13, 1957.

In his letter, Ben-Gurion notes that “I can’t get the conversation we had at Renana’s apartment out of my mind.” He goes on to say that he was troubled by de-Shalit’s lack of acknowledgement of the uniqueness of human consciousness and rational thought. So troubled was he that he added that if this was the way de-Shalit saw things, he was worried that “professional and scientific education were under an eclipse.” In his letter, Ben-Gurion raises philosophical queries as to whether a machine, sophisticated as it may be, could at most do the bidding of its creator. It would never be able to compose the Book of Job or Plato’s Symposium, or travel around the world collecting information and writing a book on evolution like Darwin did based on his own experiences and observations. 

One question he addressed to de-Shalit had to do with distinguishing between purely mechanical processes (as in geometry and physics) and mental processes (thought and consciousness). Ben-Gurion ends his letter by saying that “there is almost no limit to man’s brain-power and intellectual capabilities, and only because of this do I believe in the usefulness and possibility of atomic research.”

AI & Israel’s first computer

WEIZAC in 1964. The “Weizmann Automated Computer,” also known as the "1604 Electronic Computer", was built at Weizmann Institute of Science in 1955Credit: GPO via WikiCommons

In those years, Ben-Gurion and Israel’s government were busy constructing nuclear reactors with the goal of increasing Israel’s nuclear research capabilities. Ben-Gurion realized that this was a technology that Israel must have, technology he greatly feared would fall into the hands of neighboring countries. He worried about the implications this could have for Israel. This discussion took place 12 years after the first use ever of atomic bombs, in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, with the recent development of the hydrogen bomb in 1952 and a nuclear program in the works in Egypt. The first computers were also coming into use, bringing with them significant philosophical debates. One of the first 20 computers in the world was built in Israel (the WEIZAC), commencing operations in 1955 at the Weizmann Institute, under the guidance of de-Shalit. 

On February 3, 1957, de-Shalit responded to Ben-Gurion in a letter spanning two and a half pages, in which he explained his position and conception, mainly by replying directly to Ben-Gurion’s questions. The first point he raises is that in fact, a machine can replace a single human intellectual function, and by linking together several coordinated machines through another machine, it may be possible to replace humans by creating an artificial form of intelligence. This framing, laid down in 1957, is fascinating since it accurately describes the state of artificial intelligence today, 60 years after their discussion. This is termed “artificial narrow intelligence,” and describes a state in which one algorithm (the machine) can carry out one human task at a very high level. This is opposed to what technology is  currently striving for - “artificial general intelligence,” in which a machine can carry out multiple human tasks and mimics a more generalized form of human intelligence.

De-Shalit raises an argument which divides the human thought process into three phases: receiving information, processing it and transmitting it. He adds that he believes their discussion revolves around the ability or inability of a machine to replace humans only at the stage of information processing. The other two stages are technical, he states. There is no reason a machine cannot travel around the world, using punch cards to collect information about animals, for example, just like Darwin did. De-Shalit adds that Darwin’s initiative to embark on this world voyage was the result of an earlier observation, and this too can be initiated by one machine for the benefit of another.

De-Shalit’s response is very interesting, and he chooses to end it by referring to the spirit of man, expressed as consciousness and thought. The comparison he chooses to make comes from the world of science. He says that temperature does not exist for a single atom and is only relevant when a group of atoms operate. He says that the coordinated activation of a large number of machines could evoke a new type of phenomena, one which could not arise from or be attributed to one machine or another. “Perhaps what we call spirit or mind is such a characteristic,” the professor suggests, “but its source still lies in physical processes in the body, just as temperature results from the mechanical motion of atoms.”

In 1950, Alan Turing, the so-called father of artificial intelligence, claimed that humans use existing information and logic in order to solve problems and make decisions, and that therefore there was no fundamental reason computers could not do the same, at least in theory. Less than six months before Ben-Gurion’s dinner with de-Shalit, a summer conference was held at Dartmouth University in England, at which the term “artificial intelligence”, or AI, was first coined, by George McCarthy. That year, the first AI software was written, and a software that performed automatic reasoning was demonstrated to be possible.

Ben-Gurion and the human spirit

Prof. Amos de-Shalit at the Weizmann Institute of Science. May 20, 1958Credit: Moshe Friedman / GPO

Three months later, on May 12, 1957, Ben-Gurion and de-Shalit met for a Friday lunch at the residence of President Yitzhak Ben-Zvi. We know about this meeting from Ben-Gurion’s diary, where he noted the meeting and its participants, as well as the topics discussed. 

Ben-Gurion notes that in their talk, he relied on an argument put forward by Max Planck. Planck is considered the father of quantum mechanics, who had died a decade earlier, in 1947. Along with his research into the deepest mechanisms operating in the world, Planck was a devout Christian who claimed there was no contradiction between science and religion, since they complemented each other. In his 1932 book “Where is Science Going?”, Planck argued that it was no coincidence that all the greatest scientists were religious, even though their beliefs were not presented to the public. The power of human will is what brought about philosophy’s most important product – ethics. Planck wrote that the love for truth is an ongoing force that attempts to create a more and more precise knowledge of the world of mind and physical matter around us. Every advance in knowledge leads humans to face the mystery of our existence, he wrote.

Ben-Gurion wrote a short sentence in his diary, noting that “the scant knowledge we have from a few experiments does not satisfy the human spirit, which seeks a more integrated view of the cosmos.” 

This statement is directly connected to the fascinating process taking place in the field of quantum mechanics in the 1950s. During this decade, no physics conferences were held on the topic, but rather the number of conferences that were held were led by philosophers. Prof. Albert Messiah from France wrote in his book on quantum mechanics that in the 1950s, the dispute over the field finally reached a point in which no further experimental observations could help in settling it. From this point on, he said, the topic belonged to the philosophy of science, not to physics. This was similar to Ben-Gurion’s reflection on the topic. The next meeting between the two took place only two years later, in June 1959. Ben-Gurion sent a letter to de-Shalit in which he quoted Niels Bohr, continuing their debate over the differences between man and machine, as if it had never stopped.

This article is the first out of two dealing with Ben-Gurion’s exchanges with Prof. de-Shalit. Tomer Simon is the National Technology Officer for Microsoft in Israel