Birth of Charles Bonnet

Charles Bonnet (1720 - 1893 was a naturalist, botanist, lawyer, philosopher, psychologist, and politician. He is among the first thinkers to envisage machine learning – AI – as well as links between nature and technology, almost three centuries ago. In 1769, Bonnet wrote that 'machines could be made to imitate human intelligence'. This insight is built upon his conceptual outline of neural networks, the key AI technology of our era.

Machines could be made to imitate human intelligence.

Bonnet, C. (1789). Betrachtung über die Natur. W. Engelmann.

Charles Bonnet, born in Geneva in 1720, was an exceptional polymath. His many academic interests included being a naturalist, botanist, lawyer, philosopher, psychologist, and politician.

Bonnet was an early boundary spanner, crossing disciplinary delimitations. This approach facilitated his far-reaching insights way ahead of time. 

In 1789, by building on the idea of neural networks, he envisaged artificial intelligence (AI) by arguing that machines could mimic human intelligence (1). 

In his Essai de Psychologie (1755) he describes the concept of neural networks:

‘If all our ideas, even the most abstract, depend ultimately on motions that occur in the brain, it is appropriate to ask whether each idea has a specific fiber dedicated to producing it, or whether different motions of the same fiber produce different ideas.’ (2)

For more on Bonnet and neural networks consult Trends in Cognitive Sciences (3).

The idea of early neural networks was inspired by his theory of associations, which holds that ideas are connected in the mind through associations.

This idea was further developed by the American psychologist William James and John Stuart Mill, a British philosopher.

As a keen observer of nature, Bonnet identified numerous patterns and interesting phenomena. He also found that leaves on a plant stem are arranged to match the Fibonacci sequence. He was interested in how math could be used to describe patterns in nature. 

His work was largely forgotten until it was rediscovered in the early twenty-first century.

Here you can find an excerpt from Jovan Kurbalija's study published in the Geneva Digital AtlasEspriTech de Genève  Why does technology meet humanity in Geneva?

  1. Bonnet, C. (1789). Betrachtung über die Natur. W. Engelmann
  2. Bonnet, C. (1755). Essai de psychologie. Londres.
  3. Mollon, J., Takahashi, C., & Danilova, M. (2022). What kind of network is the brain? Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 26.