Mathematics in everyday life

Norbert Wiener and cybernetics, part II


I just came from a very interesting lecture about Wiener, cybernetics and the counterculture by Cyrus Mody. So let me continue with some further thoughts on Wiener and cybernetics. One thing that Wiener warned about in Cybernetics  is the takeover of machines. Despite what this may bring to mind – after all cybernetics gave as the word cyborg – I do not think that Wiener thought that one day Skynet will become self-aware and exterminate the human race. 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.

Thus, Wiener says, our brains now give us the only advantage we still have over machines. But this advantage will not last – and what then?

We are a part of many feedback loops involving machines. But how of how much value is the human component in these loops? How much longer will it be necessary? Let me give a couple examples (I am indebted to Evgeny Morozov for a some of these).

For instance, if your goal is to maximize profits, you need to minimize the difference between what your audience wants and what you are delivering. In the movie industry that would allow you to avoid another “Waterworld” or “The Adventures of Pluto Nash“. You can avoid such disasters by improving your predictions about what people like. And if you are Netflix, you have the data that allows you to do so. You know not only what movies people streamed, liked and disliked, but also when they paused them and when they skipped ahead. You analyze your data and you find, perhaps, that people want to see Kevin Spacey directed by David Fincher in a remake of the British TV series “House of Cards”. You are guaranteed a success.

Or perhaps you are a punk band, that wants to get the biggest possible response from the crowd, i.e. moshpit intensity. You install some sensors in the floor, and correlate the dance intensity with the features of the songs played at that moment. You can then design your songs according to what drives the crowd wild. This is what a band in China called Bear Warrior did. Quoting the singer of the band:

…the data helps us understand how we can improve our performance to make the audience respond to our music like we intend.

The potential problem here is that for centuries we had a feedback loop between the artist and the public. These were and are imperfect. We are now changing them to be more efficient, and give the public more of what they want. But in doing so, are we marginalizing, or even removing the artist? Could the machines that we put in their place really be creative? This new system could result in sterile solutions, which may be satisfactory, or even delight us. But by minimizing the possibility of failure, we may also minimize the possibility of generating something truly new and surprising.

And what happens when humans are taken completely out of the feedback loop. A self-driving car is in the near future. But as Gary Marcus at NYU asks, do you want to leave the entire decision making process to a machine? What if you are driving down a narrow bridge with a school bus full of children coming your way. Should your car be allow to kill you in order to save the children? This may be the moral decision, but should a machine be able to make it. Isaac Asimov thought about this, and came up with some interesting answers.

Wiener himself tried to suggest the changes that are necessary so that all humans remain valued in the future:

The answer, of course, is to have a society based on human values other than buying or selling.

What other values? Wiener does not say.

I do not believe that the singularity is near. But I do believe that, as they did in chess, machines will surpass us in many other ways. As a society we should follow Wiener’s advice, and agree on what we really need to value.