Norbert Wiener and humanaugmentationDr Greg AdamsonBoard of Governors, IEEE Society on Social Implications of TechnologyChair, Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) Victorian Sectiong.email@example.comHumanity+ @MelbourneConference5-6 May 2012
The challenge “We have modified our environment so radically that we must now modify ourselves in order to exist in this new environment.” [HU.46] However, “in the field of science, it is perilous to run counter to the accepted tables of precedence. On no account is it permissible to mention living beings and machines in the same breath. Living beings are living beings in all their parts; while machines are made of metals and other unorganized substances… If we adhere to all these tabus, we may acquire a great reputation as conservative and sound thinkers, but we shall contribute very little to the further advance of knowledge.” [GG.5] Eight decades ago Norbert Wiener, founder of cybernetics (the "cyber" in cyberspace), began building a bridge between the medical and engineering sciences. Over the following 30 years his life sciences work included neural, ethical, social, prosthetic and other dimensions. His ground-breaking 1948 book Cybernetics was sub-titled "Control and communication in the animal and the machine", and in this he looked at both the prospects and threats faced by humanity in its increasingly complex relationship with machines. Dr Greg Adamson is a member of the organising committee of "Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century", a conference commemorating the life of Dr Wiener on the 50th anniversary of his death, March 2014, Boston USA (www.21stcenturywiener.org). *References use the following abbreviations followed by page number: CY—Cybernetics, N Wiener, 1948, Cambridge: MIT Press. DH—Dark Hero of the Information Age, F. Conway & J. Siegelman, 2005, NY: Basic Books. GG—God and Golem, Inc., N Wiener, 1964, Cambridge: MIT Press. HU—The Human Use of Human Beings, N. Wiener, 1954, Boston: Houghton Mifflin.
A little about Norbert Wiener,1894-1964 At 19 he undertook post-doctoral study under Bertrand Russell (having written his dissertation on the first volumes of Russell‟s Principia) He made his reputation as a mathematics and his name remains known to engineers in the Wiener filter and Wiener measure He became a prominent scientist in the systems and control field, and alongside Claude Shannon a major contributor to the foundation of modern information theory He helped transform MIT from a school for engineers to a world leader in the science and engineering fields In 1948 he invented cybernetics, the “cyber” in “cyberspace” He became noted for his opposition to weapons development after his 1948 statement “A Scientist Rebels” His automated world became subject of Kurt Vonnegut‟s first SF writing, Player Piano … and today his work is little known to the present generation, even among those familiar with Vannevar Bush, Alan Turing, Claude Shannon and John von Neumann
Tools: A multi-disciplinaryapproachWiener tackled many scientific and engineering problems, and foundhimself most comfortable with a multi-disciplinary approach: “the mostfruitful areas for the growth of the sciences were those which had beenneglected as a no-man‟s land between the various established fields…”[CY.2] This contrasted to his observation of modern science: ◦ “each member travels a preassigned path, and in which the sentinels of science, when they come to the ends of their beats, present arms, do an about face, and march back in the direction from which they have come.” [HU.12] ◦ [a scientist] will regard the next subject as something belonging to his colleague three doors down the corridor, and will consider any interest in it on his part as an unwarrantable breach of privacy.” [CY.2] Wiener‟s definition of multi-disciplinarianism is a lot stronger than modern current usage: “The mathematician need not have the skill to conduct a physiological experiment, but he must have the skill to understand one, to criticize one, and to suggest one. The physiologist need not be able to prove a certain mathematical theorem, but he must be able to grasp its physiological significance and to tell the mathematician for what he should look.” [CY.3]
Multi-disciplinary teamsThroughout his working life Wiener worked closely with manyrenowned specialists in other fields: He collaborated closely with Arturo Rosenblueth, Mexican neurophysiologist, from 1933 Julian Bigelow, the key collaborator of Wiener on feedback, later worked with John von Neumann on Wiener‟s recommendation Cybernetics emerged out of a multi-disciplinary discussion beginning in 1942 sponsored by the Macy Foundation in New York, introducing psychologists, physiologists and social scientists to mathematicians, engineers and physicists Claude Shannon wrote, “Communication theory is heavily indebted to Wiener for much of its basic philosophy and theory.” [DH.187] He made multiple visits to India in the 1950s at the invitation of Nehru and Prasanta Chandra Mahalanobis, founder of the Indian Statistical Institute, Kolkata Four key collaborators, Jerome Lettvin, Humberto Maturana, Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts co-authored a ground-breaking work on perception and cognition, “What the Frog‟s Eye Tells the Frog‟s Brain”, 1959
Results: In the life sciencesTo begin with some practical examples: “If all the auditory cortex were used for vision, we might expect to get a quantity of reception of information about 1 per cent of that coming in through the eye…This is very poor vision; it is, however, definitely not blindness, nor do people with this amount of vision necessarily consider themselves as blind. In the other direction, the picture is even more favorable. The eye can detect all of the nuances of the ear with the use of only 1 per cent of its facilities, and still leave a vision of about 95/100, which is substantially perfect. Thus the problem of sensory prosthesis is an extremely hopeful field of work.” [CY.143] “The loss of a segment of limb implies not only the loss of the purely passive support of the missing segment or its value as mechanical extension of the stump, and the loss of the contractile power of its muscles, but implies as well the loss of all cutaneous and kinesthetic sensations originating in it. The first two losses are what the artificial-limbmaker now tries to replace. The third has so far been beyond his scope.” [CY.26]
Results: The human-machinecontinuum “In the ear, the transposition of music from one fundamental pitch to another is nothing but a translation of the logarithm of the frequency, and may consequently be performed by a group-scanning apparatus” [CY.141] “…our inner economy must contain an assembly of thermostats, automatic hydrogen-ion-concentration controls, governors, and the like, which would be adequate for a great chemical plant. These are what we know collectively as our homeostatic mechanism.” [CY.115] “It is my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the newer communication machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback.”[HU.26] He also turned the machine analogy on hits head: “When human atoms are knit into an organization in which they are used, not in their full right as responsible human beings, but as cogs and levers and rods, it matters little that their raw material is flesh and blood. What is used as an element in a machine, is in fact an element in the machine.” [HU.185]
Results: Entropy andinformation Wiener had a non-deterministic view of external reality. He saw information and entropy as opposite ends of a continuum. In this his focus on philosophical questions is clear: “Information is information, not matter or energy”. [CY.132] He didn‟t avoid straying into the controversy: “Now that certain analogies of behavior are being observed between the machine and the living organism, the problem as to whether the machine is alive or not is, for our purposes, semantic … If we wish to use the word „life‟ to cover all phenomena which locally swim upstream against the current of increasing entropy, we are at liberty to do so.” [HU.32] “There are local and temporary islands of decreasing entropy in a world in which the entropy as a whole tends to increase, and the existence of these islands enables some of us to assert the existence of progress.” [HU.36] Progress was a concept he treated with care, for example identifying our environmental dependence and comparing resource use to the Mad Hatter‟s Tea Party. [HU.46]
Conclusion I: Limited possibilitiesWiener identified several limit to his work: Analogue and digital models of the brain: “machines that measure, as opposed to machines that count, are very greatly limited in their precision. Add to this the prejudices of the physiologist in favor of all- or-none action, and we see why the greater part of the work which has been done on the mechanical simulacra of the brain has been on machines which are more or less on a digital basis. However, if we insist too strongly on the brain as a glorified digital machine, we shall be subject to some very just criticism” from both physiologists and psychologists. [HU.65] On application to the social sciences: “…the human sciences are very poor testing-grounds for a new mathematical technique: as poor as the statistical mechanics of a gas would be to a being of the order of size of a molecule, to whom the fluctuations which we ignore from a larger standpoint would be precisely the matters of greatest interest.” [CY.25] In addition to practical limits, he identified limits we should impose, including in weapons development and automation: ◦ “there is no distinction between arming ourselves and arming our enemies”, [HU.129] ◦ “Long before Nagasaki and the public awareness of the atomic bomb, it had occurred to me that we were here in the presence of another social potentiality of unheard-of importance for good and evil. The automatic factory and the
Conclusion II: UnlimitedpossibilitiesWhile addressing societal concerns, he looked at the capacity ofhumans to manage their affairs and technology: “Thus there is a new engineering of prostheses possible, and it will involve the construction of systems of a mixed nature, involving both human and mechanical parts. However, this type of engineering need not be confined to the replacement of parts that we have lost. There is a prosthesis of parts which we do not have and which we never have had.” [GG.76]And to finish, Wiener placed no theoretical limits on humantransformation whatsoever: “it is conceptually possible for a human being to be sent over a telegraph line… At present, and perhaps for the whole existence of the human race, the idea is impracticable, but it is not on that account inconceivable. Quite apart from the difficulties of bringing this notion into practice in the case of man, it is a thoroughly realizable concept in the case of the man-made machines of a lower degree of complexity.” [GG.36]
Writings about Wiener John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener: From mathematics to the technologies of life and death (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1980), Steve J. Heims. The writer‟s critical perspective regarding military technology leads to a co-biography supportive of Wiener but not of von Neumann. Norbert Wiener 1894-1964 (Boston: Virkhauser Verlag, 1990,Vita Mathematica Vol 5), P.R. Masani. A mathematician‟s biography written by a long-time collaborator, who edited Wiener‟s collected works. Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics (New York: Basic Books, 2005/2006), Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, also available from Amazon as an e- book. The most recent autobiography, addresses the complexity of Wiener‟s life and work. Ex-Prodigy: My childhood and youth (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1953), Norbert Wiener. Wiener‟s „warts and all‟ autobiography, part 1. I am a mathematician: The later life of a prodigy (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 1956), Norbert Wiener. Autobiography from 1919 to 1953.
Conference on Norbert Wiener inthe 21st Century, Boston March2014 Key supporters: Dr Amar Bose, CEO, Bose, former student and colleague of Norbert Wiener Dr Vint Cerf, VP and Chief Internet Evangelist, Google Dr Robert Vallée, chair World Organization of Systems and Cybernetics Dr Mary Catherine Bateson, writer and cultural anthropologist Vernor Vinge, mathematician and multi-award winning science fiction writer Dr Richard Stallman, President, Free Software Foundation Dr Rafael Capurro, chair, International Centre for Information Ethics Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman, authors, Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of CyberneticsDetails at www.21stcenturywiener.org
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