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Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, part I

April 3, 2013

I recently gave a lecture at Rice University as part of a seminar series devoted to the work of Norbert Wiener. I signed up to talk about cybernetics. When I signed up, I had limited knowledge of cybernetics and Wiener’s contributions to the field. Therefore I spent the last couple of months reading about it. In particular, I read Wiener’s original book on the subject fairly carefully, so I wanted to comment on a few aspects.

Every 10 years or so a mathematical theory breaks out of the confines of academia and runs rampant in popular culture. Perhaps it resonates with the current thinking. Or, if you are more cynical, you can say that occasionally, but rarely, mathematicians can be clever salesmen. In my memory we had catastrophe theory, followed by chaos theory and more recently network theory. Each of these has a perfectly respectable mathematical foundation – singularity theory, dynamical systems, and graph theory, respectively. However, after they become popular the theories took on a life of their own, and often became unrecognizable (Remember the chaos theorist in Jurassic Park?).

When I started reading about cybernetics, I thought I would find something similar. Surprisingly, this wasn’t the case at all. Cybernetics is far more encompassing than any of the theories mentioned above. It also has much less of a definite mathematical foundation. The ideas that Wiener describes in his book are far reaching. And most are more relevant today, than they were when the book was written.

Wiener’s interest in cybernetics stemmed in part from his work on the development of computers, and automated anti-aircraft artillery during WWII. This work lead him to the question of automated prediction. How can new data be continuously incorporating to predict the future of a system that includes the observer? Wiener notes that it is necessary to model the system as a feedback loop. Biological systems and humans can be part of such loops, as can machines.

Wiener builds on this idea, noting that feedback is essential in all biological systems. For instance if you want to pick up a pencil you need feedback to perform this task well. This feedback is only partly visual. Our sense of proprioception, or the feedback information that allows you to know what part of your body is where (Oliver Sacks has a good example of what happens if you loose this in his essay “The Disembodied Lady“). Wiener was very interested in this question – and properly incorporating proprioception is still a major obstacle to brain-machine interfaces.

In his book Wiener takes these ideas much further speculating about neuroscience, the role of machines in society and linguistics. The book is a treasure trove of provocative ideas, many likely coming from friends who were as brilliant as Wiener himself. But one idea that does belong to himself, is the early realization of the dangers of automating our thinking process. He notes that when we develop thinking machines, humans will become dispensable. He writes:

The modern industrial revolution is similarly bound to devalue the human brain at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. Of course, just as the skilled carpenter, the skilled mechanic, the skilled dressmaker have in some degree survived the first industrial revolution, so the skilled scientist and the skilled administrator may survive the second. However, taking the second revolution as accomplished, the average human being of mediocre attainments or less has nothing to sell that is worth anyone’s money to buy. 
  The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling.

He was also very concerned about the impact of the mechanization of the military. He refused to take government funding after the war, and actively opposed sharing his ideas to further military research. This position was certainly not popular during the Cold War. He wrote about it anonymously in a column “The Rebel Scientists” in the Atlantic, but his position is clear in a letter published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1946:

The practical use of guided missiles can only be to kill foreign civilization indiscriminately, and it furnishes no protection whatsoever to civilians in this country…. If therefore I do not desire to participate in the bombing or poisoning of defenseless peoples–and I most certainly do not–I must take a serious responsibility as to those to whom I disclose my scientific ideas. Since it is obvious that with sufficient effort you can obtain my material, even though it is out of print, I can only protest pro forma in refusing to give you any information concerning my past work. However, I rejoice at the fact that my material is not readily available, inasmuch as it gives me the opportunity to raise this serious moral issue. I do not expect to publish any future work of mine which may do damage in the hands of irresponsible militarists.

I will write a bit more about cybernetics in modern society.

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One Comment
  1. It’s always stimulating to learn about the human side of figures like this. It’s easy to forget that they were all only human, just like me. I only recently became aware of Stephen Smale’s activism against the Vietnam War and his leadership in organizing protests. According to Gleick’s book “Chaos”, the NSF cancelled it’s funding for Smale as a result of this. Looks like there are significant details in the recent book titled “Stephen Smale: The Mathematician Who Broke the Dimension Barrier”. (Don’t think I’ll get around to reading all of that though.)

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