by: Krešimir Josić

Click here for audio of Episode 2901

Today, let's talk about Norbert Wiener and cybernetics. The University of Houston Mathematics Department presents this program about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Norbert Wiener was one of the best mathematicians of the 20th century. A child prodigy who obtained his PhD at 17, he went on to contribute to many fields of mathematics. However, Wiener is remembered best as the father of cybernetics. Today the word cybernetics brings to mind terminator-like beings, part machine-part human. But Wiener's mind reached much further. In many ways, his ideas are more relevant today than when he wrote in the 1940s.

Wiener became interested in cybernetics while developing computers and automated anti-aircraft artillery during World War II. When tracking a flying aircraft you make a number of observations to predict its future position. But — said Wiener — in war the actions of the gunner need to be part of such a prediction as well! After all, the pilot will change course in response to enemy fire. The gunner will adjust in turn, leading to a cycle of adjustments and re-adjustments.

This is a feedback loop — the actions of gunners eventually influence their own future responses. Wiener noted that feedback loops are everywhere. Our own actions come back to influence us in many ways. Think about how our actions are causing changes in the climate, which in turn affect us profoundly. If we want to control the world around us, we need to understand such feedback.

Norbert Weiner with one of his thinking machines
Norbert Weiner with one of his thinking machines (source)

Wiener explained these ideas in his influential book Cybernetics: Or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine. Here he explored the role of feedback loops all around us. He also noted that machines will be an increasingly important part of such loops and speculated how this will impact society. The book is a treasure trove of provocative ideas.

Wiener foreshadowed the revolution in automation that followed, and that we are still experiencing. However, he also realized that this revolution carries many potential dangers. He was very concerned about the impact of mechanizing the military, and refused to actively participate in such research. Indeed, he openly urged other scientists to do so as well. As you can imagine, this position was not popular during the Cold War.

Wiener also worried about automating our thinking process. Would humans become dispensable once we have thinking machines? He writes:

The modern industrial revolution is ... bound to devalue the human brain at least in its simpler and more routine decisions. ... the average human being ... [will have] nothing to sell that is worth anyone's money to buy.

For this he had a simple solution:

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

Will machines make most of us superfluous and benefit only a few? Or will automation result in more free time and an easier and more fulfilling life for all of us? We face the very choices that seemed like speculative fiction when Wiener wrote about them.

This is Krešo Josić at the University of Houston, where we are interested in the way inventive minds work.

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Many of the ideas that Norbert Wiener discussed in his books on cybernetics were probably developed and discussed at the Macy Conferences. This was perhaps one of the first series of truly multi-disciplinary meetings. It included some of the best scientists from many different fields.

Wiener's thoughts about the military can be found in his anonymously written article "The Rebel Scientists" that appeared in the Atlantic. His position is clear in a letter published in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists in 1946.

This episode first aired on August 21, 2013.