‘Man from the Future’ review: John von Neumann thought he had the answers


After the war, a strange feat of transmutation took place. The cold and logical precepts behind the computers that spawned the bomb served as the basis for a kind of amoral reflection on the use of the bomb itself – a calculation that could reduce the lives of civilians seeking supremacy nuclear. Other scientists, such as Robert Oppenheimer and Leo Szilard, had doubts about this. Von Neumann, however, was enthusiastic about the arms race – for bigger and bolder bombs, to be sure, but also for deterrence and first-strike strategies. “It will not be enough to know that the enemy has only fifty possible turns and that you can counter each of them,” he wrote in an article titled “Defense in Atomic War”. in 1955, “but you also have to invent a system to be able to counter them practically the instant they occur”. Leaping first might even be pragmatic, because after all, as von Neumann believed: “With the Russians, it’s not a question of if but when.”

Bhattacharya devotes perhaps a few too many pages to the circuit of Rand analysts, military officials and government committees all studying nuclear war; the bureaucracy of plotting massacres is unsurprisingly boring. But that was von Neumann’s post-war life, and he enjoyed it, not only because he felt it important to be wanted by generals and to hear, as one friend, the “sound of helicopters on his lawn”, but also because he was sure of the virtues of continuing the war against the Soviet Union. In Dr Strangelove, Stanley Kubrick blended several German and Mittel-European scientists to create his titular, almost mad scientist, and while von Neumann wasn’t a primary inspiration, he’s there somewhere – in Strangelove’s computer exhibits. and tape memory banks, in his quick-silver apocalyptic calculations, in his fanciful scenarios of nuclear attack. “Deterrence”, says Strangelove, “is the art of producing in the mind of the enemy fear to attack” – a brilliant line of dialogue with the von Neumannian certainty that logic can regulate instincts and weaknesses. humans.

This certainty was also at the heart of Game theory and economic behavior, a text that von Neumann co-authored with economist Oskar Morgenstern. (Incredibly, the book originated in the mid-1940s, even as von Neumann shuttled between bomb labs and computer facilities.) Game theory, true to its name, treats every human context as a gambling – a self-contained situation in which your sneaky rival must lose for you to win, and in which the nature of those losses and gains can always be summed up in precise numbers. Morgenstern and von Neumann offered mathematical blueprints for victory, or at least for the slightest bruise of defeats. These weren’t just to be viewed by two prisoners in separate cells, wondering if they should tell each other off – the Prisoner’s Dilemma, the classic thought experiment, framed in 1950 by Princeton mathematician Albert W. Tucker, who introduced game theory to students even today. For von Neumann, game theory was an affirmation of humans as rational actors who weigh utility and risk in a world that is perpetually zero-sum, and who can make optimal decisions – optimal is ie for themselves – concerning bombing other countries or buying new cars.

When von Neumann called (if only theoretically) the consumer rational, he was helping to endorse the free market itself as a rational, self-correcting, and self-optimizing place. But the real world and its various markets are of course larger and more complex than game-theoretic models: no one has perfect information or consistent beliefs, no one acts within the realm of unadulterated reason. . A game theorist, Ariel Rubinstein, called his field a “collection of fables” – very useful for detached analysis, but useless for drawing conclusions about “what to do tomorrow or how to reach an agreement between West and Iran”. However, Von Neumann implicitly wanted to apply game theory to the full-scale war with the Soviet Union that he thought was imminent – ​​and game theory recommended a surprise, preemptive attack by the United States. “If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today?” he said in 1950. “If you say today at 5 o’clock, I say why not one o’clock?

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