“I think the history of science has shown that valuable consequences often proliferate from simple curiosity.” - Claude Shannon
Recently, the term hacking has taken on many meanings — growth-hacking for instance. When I was at MIT, a hack was a term used for a prank or practical joke that required great engineering skill — like the firetruck that appeared on top of the great Dome at MIT — no one knew how they did it!
While the more popular meaning of hacker is one who gains illicit entry into a computer system through their mad skills, I think the spirit of hacking is more about tinkering, following your curiosity using your engineering skills, rather than doing “serious work”.
In this respect, one of the original tinkerers, and perhaps one of the most famous, was Professor Claude Shannon, who was at Bell Labs and later at MIT. Of course, Shannon is best known as the “father of information theory” from his famous 77 page paper, “A Mathematical Theory of Information”, which Scientific American later called “The Magna Carta of the Information Age”, which laid the foundations of most digital communications we use today.
But beyond this famous paper, Shannon was known by his colleagues at Bell Labs and MIT for his curious mind, his spirit of playfulness, and his ability to “hack together” answers to questions that others weren’t even asking. He took the idea of “following your curiosity” to an extreme — using mathematics and engineering skills to actually build things. In their biography on Shannon, A Mind at Play, by Jimmi Soni and Rob Goodman, gives lots of examples.
When Shannon became an MIT professor, he and his wife Betty bought a house in Winchester, 8 miles north of MIT, and the basement became his personal workshop for all kinds of curiosities. When fellow MIT professor Ed Thorp visited, he called it “ a gadgeteers paradise” and that he had seen him as the “master gadgeteer”!
Here are some of his top playful hacks:
Taking Play Seriously: A Chess Playing Machine
Some of you will know that I run an accelerator at MIT called Play labs, and my contention is that a lot of what we consider “computer software” today has its origins in “playful technologies” that were used for games and entertainment. I often use the example of one of the first AI’s ever created: A computer which played Chess built by Shannon and shown below.
You can see that it was a big device, and it would light up the move that should be made. According to A Mind at Play, the computer could only play the final 6 moves of a match, but it proved a point. For Shannon, this was play, but he could foresee a whole future of AI. He wrote a paper, “Programming a Computer for Playing Chess”. Many credit him with showing how a computer could be artificially intelligent, and he was one of the first to predict that at some point in the future, a computer would be able to beat a chess champion (which happened 50 years later).
Shannon introduced the paper with his characteristic modesty: “Although perhaps of no practical importance, the question is of theoretical interest, and it is hoped that t a satisfactory solution of this problem will act as a wedge in attacking other problems of a similar nature and of greater significance.
According to his biography, Shannon “reminded readers that there were many future applications of a chess playing artificial intelligence: routing phone calls, translating text, composing melodies.”
How right he was!
Theseus the Mouse and the Maze
Many people wondered about Shannon’s genius, and his ability to not just explore an idea but to lay foundations for whole areas of exploration, like information theory, Boolean circuits, and AI.
For Shannon, many of his pursuits came from asking a question, and not being satisfied until he found an answer to this question. He says that he and others like him have a quality of “motivation … some kind of desire to find out what makes things tick.”
Perhaps even more famous than his chess playing computer was Shannon’s motorized mouse, Theseus, which he built while still at Bell Labs, before coming back to MIT as a professor. The story goes that Shannon took 20 minutes to escape from a garden hedge maze in London, and wondered if it could be done quicker.
He built a mechanical maze with a mechanical cheese, and a “mechanical mouse” that would navigate around the maze until he found the cheese. This astonished many who saw it, and Bell Labs ended up producing a short video which gained nationwide attention.
The actual mouse, according to his biographers, didn’t really do the work of solving the maze — it was propelled by a set of magnets and switches where under the maze. The mouse itself moved based on the logic of the switches and the magnets. When it couldn’t’ move, the switches changed and the magnets moved the mouse in another direction.
While he didn’t write a paper on the mechanical mouse looking for cheese, it did earn Shannon and Bell Labs a patent.
Other playful pursuits: Juggling and Gambling
The hallmark of many of Shannon’s gadgets (and accompanying papers) s were what his biographers called Vintage Shannon: “whimsical, indifferent to practicalities, and originating in an activity that typical professors might have dubbed unserious, but which Shannon, a tenured professor of the MIT faculty, found amusing enough to merit scholarly time and attention!”
At one point, he wrote a serious paper on the mathematics of Juggling, an activity that he spent quite a bit of time on his later years. He even created, shown below, a robot which could jugle 3 balls (it looks a bit like W.C. Fields, who it was modeled on!). Anyone who has been at MIT on the weekends will have seen the MIT Juggling Club, consisting mostly of students who like to Juggle on Sundays. It was quite a surprise when they learned that Shannon was a famous tenured professor hanging out with them.
As the final gadget in this list, many of you may have seen the movie 21, about a group of MIT students who went to Vegas to make lots of money using their mathematical skills. Not only was this not the first time something like this was tried, I was surprised to learn that Shannon participated in something similar many years earlier.
Ed Thorp, who had called Shannon’s basement, a “gadgeteer’s paradise”, had written a paper about the mathematics of blackjack, which Shannon enthusiastically reviewed and encouraged.
As they began brainstorming about the mathematics of roulette, they ordered a full, vegas-style roulette wheel and in shannon’s basement, tried to work out the mathematics of predicgting
Rather than card counting, they created a device, perhaps one of the first “wearable computers”, it would emit tones into an earpiece to tell them where to bet. They tried to use it once at an actual casino, but someone noticed the earpiece and they decided to abandon the pursuit. At a time when much casinos were run by the mob, the biography concludes, perhaps this wasn’t such a bad y
The conclusion: Follow your Curiosity
Shannon, who was a serious scientist, often engaged in pursuits that other “serious” professors and scientists didn’t. He naturally followed his curiosity, asking questions and looking for answers in multiple fields. While his most famous example of this was his paper on information theory, he did this in many fields and didn’t let conventional boundaries define what he could or could not be interested in!
Shannon saw the potential of digital communications (at a time when telegraph, telephone, radio, and television were all considered separate fields), brought together disparate ideas (boolean logic was taught in his philosophy class; it took someone of Shannon’s insight to combine it with logical circuits to come up with a mathematical way to model circuits), no one really thougth computers could think (AI), or be wearable, or one of the many other areas Shannon pioneered which have become fruitful places of exploration for other minds.
For those with playful, curious minds, I encourage you to read A Mind At Play.
More importantly,be like Claude Shannon: Whatever you mind is drawn to, follow your curiosity!