William Grey Walter

American-born British neuroscientist and roboticist
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William Grey Walter (February 19, 1910May 6, 1977) was an American-born British neurophysiologist and robotician, known as one of the founders of cybernetics.


An imitation of life (1950)Edit

Source: W. Grey Walter (1950) "An Imitation of Life" in: Scientific American. (May, 1950).
  • In the dark ages before the invention of the electronic vacuum tube there were many legends of living statues and magic pictures. One of the commonest devices of sorcerers and witches was the model of an enemy which somehow embodied his soul, so that injury to the model would be reflected by suffering or death of the original... Idolatry, witchcraft and other superstitions are so deeply rooted and widespread that it is possible that even the most detached scientific activity may be psychologically equivalent to them; such activity may help to satisfy the desire for power, to assuage the fear of the unknown or to compensate for the flatness of everyday existence.
    • p. 42.
  • In any case there is an intense modern interest in machines that imitate life. The great difference between magic and the scientific imitation of life is that where the former is content to copy external appearance, the latter is concerned more with performance and behavior.
    • p. 42.
  • [Walter even gave the tortoises a mock-biological name, Machina speculatrix] because they illustrate particularly the exploratory, speculative behaviour that is so characteristic of most animals.

A machine that learns (1951)Edit

Source: W.G. Walter (1951) "A machine that learns". In: Scientific American, 1951.
  • [E]xperiments with a simple little machine, designed to mimic certain elementary features of animal behavior... Consisting only of two vacuum tubes, two motors, a photoelectric cell and a touch contact, all enclosed in a tortoise-shaped 'shell, the model was a species of artificial creature which could explore its surroundings and seek out favorable conditions. It was named Machine speculatrix.
    • p. 60.
  • The mechanism of learning is of course one of the most enthralling and baffling mysteries in the field of biology.
    • p. 60.
  • These models are of course so simple that any more detailed comparison between them and living creatures would be purely conjectural.
    • p. 63.

The Living Brain (1953)Edit

Source: Walter (1953) The Living Brain, New York.
  • [A]n electro-mechanical creature which behaves so much like an animal that it has been known to drive a not usually timid lady upstairs to lock herself in her bedroom, an interesting blend of magic and science.
    • p. 82 : Description of the behavior of his first autonomous turtle robots, called Tortoise or Machina speculatrix.
  • The first notion of constructing a free goal-seeking mechanism goes back a wartime talk with the psychologist, Kenneth Craik, whose untimely death was one of the greatest losses Cambridge has suffered in years. When he was engaged on a warjob for the Government, he came to get the help of an automatic analyzer with some very complicated curves he had obtained, curves relating to the aiming errors of air gunners. Goal-seeking missiles were literally much in the air in those days; so, in our minds, were scanning mechanisms. Long before the home study was turned into a workshop, the two ideas, goal-seeking and scanning, had combined as the essential mechanical conception of a working model that would behave like a very simple animal.
    • p. 82.
  • Not in looks, but in action, the model must resemble an animal. Therefore it must have these or some measure of these attributes: exploration, curiosity, free-will in the sense of unpredictability, goalseeking, self-regulation, avoidance of dilemmas, foresight, memory, learning, forgetting, association of ideas, form recognition, and the elements of social accommodation. Such is life.
    • p. 120–121.
  • Some of these patterns of performance were calculable, though only as types of behaviour, in advance; some were quite unforeseen.
    • p. 130 : Note about the recording of the behavior of a complex system

The Curve of the Snowflake (1956)Edit

Source: Grey Walter (1956) The Curve of the Snowflake, Norton, 1956. (Brief review).
  • Simon, always a fool for simplicity, accepted. Punch took an envelope out of his pocket and scribbled on the back of it. He said, 'This has a simple arithmetical proof but no rational explanation of the paradox.' He gave it to Simon. Simon read it, looked at Punch with raised eyebrows, hunched his shoulders, shook his head sadly, and got up and left the room without a word.
    • p. 72.
  • Rapidly going over what I could recall of Jim Bursley's information about pathological curves confirmed the conjecture. The snowball curve, derived from an equilateral triangle, is a perimeter of infinite length enclosing a finite area. The angles or points of the perimeter are uncountable. An equilateral triangle projected integrally in the third dimension is a triangular pyramid of equal surfaces. The three-dimensional snowflake derived from this pyramid--hence its diamantine appearance--is a finite volume enclosed in a surface of infinite area. The convolutions of such a surface, to be gathered around its defined content extrude a number of discrete angles or points beyond all possibility of computation. The pressure on each point is infinitesimal, unmeasurably small; the total external pressure exerted on any part of the surface is an aggregate of infinitesimal values, itself infinitesimal.
    • p. 126.

Quotes about Grey WalterEdit

  • In a modest villa on the outskirts of Bristol lives Dr Grey Walter, a neurologist, who makes robots as a hobby. They are small, and he doesn’t dress them up to look like men – he calls them tortoises. And so cunningly have their insides been designed that they respond to the stimuli of light and touch in a completely life-like manner. This model is named Elsie, and she sees out of a photo-electric cell which rotates about her body. When light strikes the cell, driving and steering mechanisms send her hurrying towards it. If she brushes against any objects in her path, contacts are operated which turn the steering away, and so automatically she takes avoiding action. Mrs Walter’s pet is Elmer, Elsie’s brother, in the darker vest. He works in exactly the same way. Dr Walter says that his electronic toys work exactly as though they have a simple two-cell nervous system, and that, with more cells, they would be able to do many more tricks. Already Elsie has one up on Elmer: when her batteries begin to fail, she automatically runs home to her kennel for charging up, and in consequence can lead a much gayer life.
  • His popular and academic reputation encompassed a heterogeneous series of roles ranging from robotics pioneer, home guard explosive experts, wife swapper, t.v.-pundit, experimental drugs user, and skindiver to anarcho-syndicalist champion of leucotomy and electro-convulsive therapy.
    • Haward (2001, p. 616), cited in: Michael R. W. Dawson & Brian Dupuis (2010) From Bricks to Brains: The Embodied Cognitive Science of Lego Robots. p. 165.
  • [A] famous photograph... showing McCulloch (1898–1969) and Norbert Wiener (1894–1964) with British Cyberneticians Ross Ashby (1903–1972) and Grey Walter (1910–1977), first appeared in de Latil (1953) with the caption "The four pioneers of Cybernetics get together in Paris", and encapsulates a view of the development of cybernetics that has slowly become more accepted: that there were important British contributions from the outset.

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