Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman
For thirty years, co-authors Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman have been tracking the human impact of the communication revolution Norbert Wiener’s science of Cybernetics ignited at the midpoint of the twentieth century. Their award-winning book Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics (Basic Books) uncovers the hidden dimensions of Wiener’s personal saga and his science, as they trace the arc of Wiener’s life and his activism that began the ethical debate on the human implications of the new technologies. Conway received her B.A. from the University of New Mexico and earned her master’s degree and was advanced to doctoral candidacy at the University of Oregon, where she pioneered the first interdisciplinary program in communication. Siegelman graduated with honors in philosophy from Harvard and studied philosophy and semiotics as recipient of the Fiske Fellowship to Trinity College, Cambridge. The two have lectured at more than 40 colleges and universities, and they spent a year as visiting scholars and researchers in the University of Oregon Communication Research Center’s Project on Information and Social Change. More about Dark Hero: The Story Behind the Story.
More about Conway & Siegelman: http://conwayandsiegelman.stillpointpress.net
“Reintroducing Wiener: Channeling Norbert in the 21st Century” – Flo Conway & Jim Siegelman
Now, I don’t think I need to say anything about Flo and Jim to this audience. I think everybody’s already been able to understand the contribution they’ve made to help us all understand Norbert Wiener in his role in … The people he worked with and his role within the achievements that we’ve been discussing at this conference. What I might do have a very … Just very briefly describe how I first came across Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman. That is after I did my PhD, during my PhD I was very strict with my time. All the interesting things that I discovered during my PhD, I put to one side to attend to after the PhD. The PhD was the boring bit, I left all the exciting stuff for afterwards. That included a number of books on the philosophy on technology from the 20th century.
After I finished my PhD, I read Mumford, I read a couple of books by Norbert Wiener. I read Langdon Winner, I read a bunch of other books. Of those, the one’s that really stood out to me as being practical, useful, and wonderful were “The Human Use of Human Beings” and “Cybernetics” by Norbert Wiener. Having done that I then thought I needed to know a lot more about this person. I picked up “Dark Hero” and I read that. Having read that … I think that took me about 3 days. I was pretty eager to make my way through it. I then emailed Flo and Jim, and said, “This is a wonderful book. We’re just about … ” This is 2011. “We’re just about 50 years since he died. He doesn’t seem to be … I just went to the bookshop and I couldn’t find any books with him on the index. We’ve got a bit of a problem here. I’d like to raise his profile and his memory a bit higher.” They said, “No, we’re not aware of anybody doing a particular thing of that sort in 2014. Yes, we’d love to support you.”
Since that time, they’ve provided immense generous support. It’s due to Flo and Jim that I’m a buzz, became a conference supporter before he died. Mary Catherine Bateson was invited to come here. Many other context were provided. They’ve been extremely generous with their context and with their time. Having finally met them for the first time a few days ago. It was in New York last week. It was just absolutely wonderful and exciting. On that note, I’ll pass over to Flo and Jim to provide the key note speeches for the evening.
Thank you Greg for that lovely introduction. Good evening everybody. Welcome. Jim and I are delighted to be here to celebrate Norbert Wiener, our dark hero of the information age. First, a few acknowledgements. We want to thank the Melbourne I triple E SSIT and above all Greg for his vision and exceptional talents in bringing us all here tonight. Arthur Winston, I triple E Boston [XCOM 00:03:33] and all of the members of the Technical Program Committee. [Jana Paripovich 00:03:38] also of the Melbourne contingent who made all of our interactions a joy and much more meaningful. We also want to thank Nora [Murphy 00:03:58] and the MIT Institute Archives, W. [Douglass 00:04:02], and the MIT Museum for their invaluable help with materials and photos for “Dark Hero”. Also, we wish to thank Debbie Douglas, Barbara Wiener Raisbeck, Michael Norbert Raisbeck, and also Jana Paripovich for many of the slides you’ll see her tonight.
Jim and I have traveled with Norbert Wiener throughout the years of our work together. For those many years, we had already thinking about writing his biography for a new time. We knew such an undertaking would be a task of a different order and require a long personal and professional commitment, and indeed it was nearly a decade. For me the many sided puzzle of this story came clear one day in the MIT archives and one box of the Wiener collection. Inside I found a yellow 1906 New York Broadsheet. My first of many encounters with an adorable little boy standing on the stack of immortal books, filling the entire cage. There is the little boy, young Norbert Wiener, the New York world called the most remarkable boy in the world.
He began as a child prodigy on the doorstep of the 20th century. Prodigies then were viewed with suspicion. They were called fabulous monsters. His father Leo Wiener founded the department of Slovak Languages and Literature, and was himself a prodigy. He sports over 40 languages. Leo and Bertha’s little boy was far more than a mere prodigy. He was, in the taxonomy of monsters, an omnibus prodigy who showed evidence of extreme precocity in languages, biology, mathematics, natural science, literature, and all symbol systems. He was curious beyond belief. Young Norbert was a robust normal boy who loved his dog Rex, had snowball fights, blew things up, and found electricity so compelling, he nearly electrocuted himself experimenting with chums. He loved the wonders of nature. Every toad, every earthworm, but he lived in another world too, one he loved much more, the world of books. To him they held even more excitement than a live toad.
He learned the alphabet in 2 days at 18 months old. His mother, Bertha, read to him everyday. By age 3, Norbert was reading to her. At age 4, Leo began training Norbert in the Greek and Latin classics, the German poets and philosophers, and later Darwin, Huxley, and other scientists. Leo and Bertha did not know themselves the mistakes they were making. What may have been good for Leo, a strict vegetarian, was not good for Norbert. It soon turned back on him, stealing his agility and leaving with a pudginess that soon turned into a much wider girth. Already at age 4, Leo made Norbert recite his lessons every evening. Each time he made a mistake, Leo would berate him with shouts of brute ass fool and donkey in every language he knew. Leo’s words cut deep.
Leo’s next mistake was inexcusable. While Leo kept Norbert out of the spotlight of the press coverage around him. He used his son to advance his own ad hoc theories of childhood education. He lied about Norbert’s ability, telling the press there was nothing special about him, that he was lazy and he didn’t study as much as the average boy. Norbert tried harder, studied longer, and by age 8 he had developed severe Myopia. The doctors told Leo that Norbert was not to use his eyes or read anything for 6 months or he would go blind. For those 6 months, Leo made Norbert recite all his lessons, do all his reasoning, reckoning, and arithmetic in his head. Then, something extraordinary happened. Norbert learned to do algebra, geometry, trigonometry in his head. He developed a near photographic memory and an astute ear for languages. He could see interconnections and patterns within his increasing storehouse of knowledge, almost instantaneously. That transformed him and opened to him an kaleidoscopic flow of new ideas.
As Wiener told his student, Amar Bose years later, my mind completely opened up. I could see things I never could see before. From that time on, his mind was capable of things that even astonished him. 2 years later, in the spring of 1905, the seeds of that transformation began to sprout. At the age of 10 on wide lined paper, he wrote his first philosophical treatise on the incompleteness of knowledge. He titled it “The Theory of Ignorance”. Already at this young age, Wiener spoke with conviction about what he termed the impossibility of man being certain of anything. He vigorously disputed, quote, “Man’s presumption in declaring that his knowledge has no limits.” Mind you, we’re talking about a 10 year old here. He asserted that philosophy is worthless without do consideration of the problem of uncertainty, which he said has been far too often disregarded. His confident premise kicked out a scientific straw in the wind. Months before he turned 11, still in short pants, young Wiener entered Tufts University and was acclaimed by Joseph Pulitzer, New York World, as the most remarkable boy and the youngest college man in history.
That remarkable boy was being drawn to mathematics. As Wiener himself said, he could correct his blunders with a stroke of a pencil. He conquered Tufts most difficult math courses. Mastered calculus and differential equations. After only 3 years, he graduated with honors within a state of physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion. Just 3 months later, he entered Harvard graduate school. Norbert was determined he was going to be a biologist. He was inspired by Leo’s friend, the great Harvard biologist, Walter Cannon, but his clumsiness proved disastrous to lab animals and equipment. Leo pulled Norbert back to philosophy. There he learned about Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead’s daunting “Principia Mathematica”. Cannon’s influence never left Wiener, nor did the concept of homeostasis, which would become a central concept of cybernetics. He completed his doctorate at age 18 with a dissertation critiquing Russell’s and Whitehead’s Principia. In the autumn of 1913, Leo hand delivered his son into the care of tutelage of the titan of Trinity College Cambridge in England, Bertrand Russell himself. They detested one another. “Russell is an iceberg.” Norbert wrote home to Leo. “His mind is a keen, cold, narrow logical machine that cuts the universe into little packets that measure just 3 inches each way.”
Russell too, gave Norbert significant gifts. He pointed him beyond logic to the development shaking the foundations of physical science on the continent. He directed him to Einstein’s 3 celebrated 1905 papers, including the one on Brownian motion, which had made a profound impression on him. In exchange for these favors, Wiener still a teen, rejected as fundamentally flawed Russel’s audacious claim in the Principia to have devised a formula for deducing the whole of mathematics from logic alone. A year later, Wiener published his critique based on his maturing belief that the claim of completeness for any self contained system of logic was bound to fail. His critique anticipated Gödel’s incompleteness theorem, which 2 decades later, rendered Russell and Whitehead obsolete. Young Wiener went on from Trinity to the continent, to the home of the new physics and the giant of modern mathematics, [inaudible 00:14:28]. There he flourished, gaining a confidence he had never had before.
His time in Europe was cut short by World War 1. He soon found himself back in Boston, under his parents oppressive controls and cast into a wilderness. That wilderness brought back his emotional traumas from childhood and stacked new prejudices against him. He was shaken to his bones to discover by accident something his mother and father had never told him, he was Jewish. At the time there was a severe anti-semitism at Harvard and elsewhere that worked against him. He was the butt of many jokes and cruel pranks for his chubbiness and his ornate old world speaking style. Which was viewed by many as an affectation. His defensive boastfulness and his garrulousness that would keep up the rest of his life. The new confidence he had gained in Europe was obliterated, demolishing him socially, and professionally. In the spring of 1917, eager to serve his country in the great war, he took basic training. As he said, he could not hit a barn out of the flock of barns with his army rifle. He tried for the new officer training corps at Harvard. He fell off of his horse during his riding exam.
Undaunted he found a position as an apprentice engineer at the General Electric Factory, north of Boston. He loved the work but Leo did not want his grand experiment as a lowly factory worker. Let alone, God forbid, an engineer. He served briefly with a war time team of mathematicians at the army proving ground at Aberdeen, Maryland. When the war was over, he found himself once again living at home under Leo’s and Bertha’s controls. Norbert Wiener is right here on the right, on the very right. The way that he described himself in that, “My uniform is strained by my corpulence.” Through the summer of 1919, he continued to search for an academic job without success. Finally, acting on a tip, tossed his way by another friend of Leo’s, a Harvard mathematics professor, who as Wiener said, “Did not have a particularly high opinion of me or the job.” He interviewed for an open instructor’s position, he got the job, not at Harvard but at a little technical school down the road, called the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Now, Jim will tell you a little bit about what Wiener accomplished at MIT.
I want to reintroduce you or for some, introduce you to Wiener’s most important contributions to today’s science and technology. For the sake of time, I’ll assume you know all about the technical details in these fields. They’re great stories about every point here, but we’re only going to scratch the surface of Wiener’s work tonight. The man was just so damn prolific. First up, Brownian motion, Wiener’s first major papers at MIT. In 1905, Einstein explained Brownian motion, the irregular paths traced by particles and fluids seemly at rest. As the product of the kinetic energy innate in all matter, Wiener took the next step, using statistical methods that Einstein was unaware of in 1905, he described mathematically the probably paths followed by a single particle in Brownian motion. Then, the probabilities of the entire family of such paths, a cornerstone of probability theory that’s known to this day as the Wiener measure. Those first papers put substance under his childhood theory of ignorance. They proved that probability laws governed seemingly random physical phenomena and they laid the groundwork for all his later work in communication.
Wiener’s next challenge, Heaviside. By the early 20’s, signal transmissions by telephone, radio, and other means were expanding exponentially. Engineers had no systematic knowledge to help them design reliable circuits and networks. Their main body of working rules was the cumbersome operational calculus devised in the 1880’s by Oliver Heaviside, the self taught English, mathematician, and engineer whose eccentricity made Wiener look well adjusted by comparison. Head of MIT’s engineering department asked Wiener to put a rigorous foundation under Heaviside’s calculus as he had done for Brownian motion. Those papers culminating in Wiener’s generalized harmonic analysis were a huge contribution to communication theory. They showed how electronic signals could be measured in time and analyzed mathematically. Wiener wrote the appendix of Vannevar Bush’s classic 1929 text, operational circuit analysis, describing his new methods but his insights were still years ahead of their time. Meanwhile at AT&T’s new bell telephone laboratories, a new problem was arising that was difficult to even articulate. To maximize signal transmission speeds, AT&T’s engineers needed to determine the size of the messages passing through their networks.
The best coating methods for transmission of intelligence, as they called it, and better ways to measure the commodity as they put it, transported by the network. No one knew what that nebulous commodity was. They were the most fundamental questions of the new electronic age. Wiener brought his new tools to the task. In more than a dozen papers published during those years, he took a radical new approach to communication engineering, a statistical approach in which he preconceived the communication process as a set of mathematical probabilities. His new methods provided precision tools to separate signals from noise. They were the first to describe electronic signals as data and series of data as he called him in 1930. His first stab at quantifying the new commodity, Wiener proposed a novel binary system as he called it then to represent the data as a series of 2 probable choices designated by a 0 and a 1. Wiener did all that 2 decades before cybernetics.
Now, some historians dispute this part of Wiener’s legacy and it’s true, engineers built labs, MIT, and elsewhere introduced him important new technical terms, formulas and working methods early on. But the fact remains there simply was no rigorous science of communication before Wiener applied his groundbreaking work on probability, wave motion, and harmonic analysis to practical problems of communication engineering. Wiener’s son-in-law, Gordon Toby Raisbeck, Mike’s dad, himself a veteran Bell Labs engineer and an I triple E fellow, told us before Wiener, communication engineers had little bits of fragments of methodology which lacked a foundation. Their methods right through Heaviside, worked by black magic, Raisbeck said. They gave their right answers but nobody knew why. Wiener’s work said unified and generalized communication engineering to a tremendous extent. That’s not a son-in-law talking, believe me, and Mike knows, Toby did not go easy on Norbert. Norbert kept going. His work with [YW Lee 00:22:27] in 1931 was a landmark. As Amar Bose told us, it was the first time in the history of the world that they used the word synthesis was used for networks.
His work with Raymond Paley and with Everhart Hoff set down methods that engineers used for the next 20 years and all this still before the publication of cybernetics. The Second World War, Rob Wieners worked to the floor. His work time assignment, as everyone knows, was to develop a new type of automated radar guided fire control system for anti-aircraft artillery. In late 1940, Wiener and Julian Bigelow, a young MIT engineer went to work in a classroom in building too, the math department. Wiener worked out the math on the black boards and Bigelow assembled their prototype from a tangle of resistors, condensers, magnetic coils, and 2 light sources. Bigelow hooked up to an old phonograph turntable he found in a Cambridge junk shop. There’s was not a big budget operation but Wiener’s work went well beyond aircraft fire.
Early in 1942, Wiener report to his overseers in Washington. His monograph with the tongue twisting title, you all know. We’ll say it together, the extrapolation and turbulation and smoothing of a stationary time series was promptly classified, bound with bright yellow covers, and distributed to a small group of wartime engineers with the required security clearances. They called it, Wiener’s Yellow Peril. In it, Wiener severed the entire practice of control from it’s origins and power engineering. Brought it bodily into the camp of communication. This point too had been disputed but we have seen no credible evidence to the contrary. In the same stroke, he joined the fledgling enterprise of electronic computation to the greater science of communication. Then, after establishing the fundamental unity of all fields of communication, as he called it, he made another crucial distinction. He described that elusive commodity of information and the measure of information contained in any message as the mathematical likelihood of that particular message, emerging from a larger measure or probability of possible messages. His approach took a step beyond Nyquist and Hartley’s work in the 20’s at Bell Labs, beyond his own papers in 1930’s, as he laid down the principle that would guide communication engineers from that moment on. That such information will generally be of a statistical nature.
In the long view of Wiener’s work, he means a measure of our ignorance and our uncertainty about the nature of movement of information itself and of our human ability to accept that ignorance and compensate for it, both in theory and in practice. Wiener’s other war time revelation was feedback. A concept he didn’t learn about until 1941 directly from Julian Bigelow. Bigelow told us, Wiener instantly grasped the importance of feedback for circuit theory, circo design, and computing. Wiener saw something beyond the technical specs, he saw the crucial human factors entwined in such systems when man and machines joined forces and at levels no one other researchers had reached. Those basic problems of perception and sensory motor function drew Wiener back to his first love of biology and to his old friend, Arturo Rosenblueth at Harvard Medical School who Wiener brought into his war time project.
Together, Wiener and Rosenblueth applied Cannon’s concept of homeostasis to control engineering and made the first explicit literal connections between feedback in the technical sense, the physiological sense, and the feedback loops wired into the living electrical networks of the human brain and nervous system. Then, with feedback in neurophysiology lined up in their sights, Wiener and Bigelow finished their fire director. Bigelow dimmed the lights in room 2244, grabbed the mechanism control stick leg like in a video game, and proceeded to chase their mock war plane around the walls of the room. Their prototype accurately predicted the warplanes future path by half a second. Wiener was thrilled. “He began puffing on his cigar on a violent way,” Bigelow told us. The room filled up with smoke, he jumped up and down. In the end, Wiener’s fire director never saw combat. Wiener who could not hit a barn among a flock of barns with his army rifle in World War 1, made a major contribution to the science of anti-aircraft fire and to the new world of technology that would follow from it.
When the war ended in late 46, he and his growing circle of colleagues and collaborators commenced a series of meetings known as the Macy Conferences that fleshed out their expanding as yet unnamed science of communication and control. The group included Bigelow, Rosenblueth, neurophysiologist Warren McCulloch from the University of Chicago, his disciple Walter Pitts, Princeton’s John von Neumann our conference keynoter, Mary Catherine Bateson parent’s, Margaret Mead, Gregory Bateson, and more than a dozen others. It all came together for Wiener and his crew in 48 with the publication of cybernetics, which American scientist magazine still ranked at the turn of the millennium as one of the most memorable and influential works of 20th century science. Cybernetics showed systematically how the new communication and control processes engineers were now using to design, build, and regulate fast networks, and automated machines were the same universal processes that nature long ago selected, had it’s basic operating system for human-beings.
The books [Barts 00:28:03], sweeping changes in the research and development in technology. In the methods of cost of mass producing it. In the task performed by workers in every field and more important, in the profound connection physical scientists, biologists, neuroscientists, social scientists, and people everywhere were beginning to make between intelligent machines, human beings, and all living things. Warren McCulloch marked the watershed, ushered in by cybernetics. It has been a challenge to logic and mathematics he said. An inspiration to neurophysiology and the theory of [inaudible 00:28:36], above all it’s ready to officiate at the expiration of dualism and reductionism, our world is again one and so are we.
Certainly there are contrary views on that and we’ll talk about some of at our session tomorrow. Wherever you stand, whatever your interest, there’s not substantive reason to deny that cybernetics marks a watershed and a milestone of the information age. Now, a few words about Wiener’s other historical contribution. His lavish bequest to the trope, the discourse, the folklore, whatever you want to call it of the mythic figure of the absent minded professor. You think you studied with an absent minded professor, well Norbert eats their lunch, literally. In fact that one Wiener anecdote, most of you have heard, the one that ends with the punchline, “Oh, good that means I’ve already had my lunch.” It bounds on the internet. If you Google Norbert Wiener and lunch, you’ll get 81,000 hits.
So many tales of Norbert lightened our workers on “Dark Hero”. They were Norbert’s [vee-ner vags 00:29:39]. He would waddle endlessly along techs beaten paths, waving his big cigar, expounding in his booming voice on the most far fetched topics with colleagues, students, janitors. Popping peanuts in the air and catching them in his mouth. A talent he apparently perfected. Some engineers at the [Rad Lab 00:29:57] were so upset by Wiener’s impositions at his time, they set up a Wiener early warning system that let them know when Wiener was coming. It gave them time to hide in the bathroom and some engineers hid under their desks. [Derk 00:30:10] Stuart remembered, sometimes he would spout the most complete non-sense. Other times he would be almost prophetic. Many times Wiener was so immersed in his internal musings, he asked to be re-introduced to people he had already met. Often his students had to hunt him down when he would strike-up a conversation on his way to class and lose all track of time. At least one occasion he went into the wrong classroom and delivered a rousing lecture to an audience of baffled students.
Then another, he walked into a packed math class, the right one this time, wrote a big 4 on the blackboard and walked out. Only later did his students figure it out, that he was leaving town for 4 weeks. His rotten eyesight made just finding his way a problem. He devised a novel work around, he ordered a pair of inverted bifocals with the reading lens on the top and distant lenses on the bottom, so he can see more clearly where he was going. That dubious fix, is what forced him to tilt his head back, almost perpendicular to the ground when he walked and caused many people to think with very good reason that he was looking down his nose at them but it wasn’t from arrogance as many had charged. It had also caused him to fall down a flight a stairs at tech, that landed him across the river in mass general with a broken hip. It led his roundabout way to the development of the first myoelectric prosthesis, the Boston Arm. Wiener’s mastery at math was matched with his encyclopedic knowledge of history and literature. His working knowledge of a dozen languages, Michael corrected us, 13 languages. He could say, “How much is your cheapest cigar in 80, according to …
Something like that.
Something like 80. His daughter Barbara remembered that he would recite to her by heart, Homer’s Catalog of 1,000 Ships from Book 2 of the Iliad in Ancient Greek. I determined that there were actual 1,182 ships but he got them all. Their walks to local markets, Wiener would converse with local grocers in Italian. He would declaim in Latin in the top of his lungs as they walked past St. Joseph church. Barbara said the priest would come out and complain that the parishioners had stopped following the mass and they were following Norbert. She couldn’t get him to pipe down. During lunch at [Joyce Chan’s 00:32:18] up the road from tech, he would order in his best dinner table Mandarin. Most days Wiener held to his humble routine. He had his lunch in Walker Memorial with students. They made it a habit to regale him with the latest stories about him which he always enjoyed immensely. As Arthur pointed out last night, Wiener did not take himself nearly as seriously as his students and his critics did. Stuart said his tongue was never far from his cheek. Mildred Siegel the wife of Wiener’s colleague Armaan Siegle saw a method in Wiener’s fine madness. Was he absent minded? “Sure, he was absent minded,” Milly said. “He was absent minded like a fox.” Now, Flo will take you deeper into Wiener’s emotional states and social concerns.
What an entertaining guy to do a biography on, let me tell you. Serious as hell, very entertaining too. There have been myths and mysteries, light and dark shadows swirling around Norbert Wiener throughout his life and long after his death. He remained robust and playful, but a major factor in the shadows was the pattern of emotional oscillation that began during Wiener’s childhood and emerged as a young adult in the 1920’s as the soaring plummeting high low patterns of manic depression. These disruptive, sometimes self-destructive emotional cycling came too ahead in the early 1950’s affecting all of his family members and his relationships with his important colleagues and collaborators. The many gifts he had developed under Leo’s constant verbal lashes and self aggrandizing claims, only made Norbert feel he was no good. As his oldest daughter Barbara told us, when she was a young girl her father used to stand in the front hallway of their home and literally wale, “I’m no good, I’m not good, I’m no good.” She tried to reassure him and pull him back from the edge.
As a prodigy he was given many resources for the development of his intellect but as a child and young adult, he was stripped of the fundamental confidence in himself and in his omnibus mind. He spent most of his adult life reaching for that confidence and his search intensified after the wrenching split in the early 50’s with his closest colleagues in the cybernetic group, which we chronicle in “Dark Hero”. After that tragic break, Wiener was a lonely man. Eternally seeking reflection and praise from new collaborators beseeching his friends and colleagues, “Was that something good I did? What do you think of my work? What do they think of my work?” By some counts, we heard Wiener resign from MIT and other professional societies, more than 50 times. His daughters and surviving colleagues told us he threatened suicide many times, but he never once seriously attempted it. These holes in the tapestries of Wiener’s life deepened the shadows and began to explain why he was and remains such a mystery to so many.
In an assessment that was heart felt, his youngest daughter Peggy Wiener Kennedy told us I think it’s amazing he survived and was at all functional. He must’ve been incredibly strong. Yet, throughout his adult life, even with his personal demons, wiener remained brilliant, productive and a consummate communicator. With the end of World War 2 and the dropping of the atomic bomb, he was deeply worried about the direction of all the new knowledge and technical developments from the war and where they would lead. In 1947, he rebelled. In his famous article, in the Atlantic Monthly, “A Scientist Rebels”, he declared he would no longer allow any of his work to be used by militarist and industrialists as he called them to create bigger and more lethal weapons. He urged other scientists to join him. His concerns for the impact of new technologies on society and human-beings who were growing. The philosopher and him was awakening and rising up. To address those concerns he began using age old parables to communicate the great challenges he saw coming and to deliver his own prophetic warnings.
From curtest story of “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” the Arab tale of the genie in the bottle, and the Indian parable of the monkey’s paw, he drew his points to be careful what you wish for. Specifically quote, “Any machine constructed for the purpose of making decisions will be completely literal minded and will in no way be obliged to make such decisions as we should have made or will be acceptable to us.” Wiener took his deepening concerns about pull source science and technology to the wider public and his popular writings. In the human use of human-beings he explains cybernetics in layman’s terms, and it’s far reaching social implications. He expressed his dire concern about the coming impact of automation on labor and human workers. In the series of newspaper articles, as early as 1953, he took aim at emerging class of technophiles he called a “cult of gadget worshipers”, who in his view were falling into the childish era of worshiping new gadgets which are our own creations as if they were our masters.
In his final popular work, “God and Golem, Inc.” a comment on certain points where cybernetics impinges on religion. Wiener gathered together all of the sensitive questions of ethics and technology that had begun to churn at the center of the cybernetics revolution to discuss what he called, some of the most important moral traps into which the present generation of human-beings is likely to fall. He pulled out his last parable, the medieval tale of the golem, the inanimate creature of clay into which the rabbi breathed life by supernatural incantations. The giant golem saved the Jews from their oppressors. Then it ran a muck and began to slaughter them, until the rabbi said the secret words and turned the monster back into mud.
For Wiener the golem was a timely relevant metaphor for the new age of self-acting intelligent technology. Without perfect programming and tireless human oversight he warned that technology would become a two-edged sword and sooner or later, it will cut you deep. Wiener was always working on what Julian Bigelow called, the problem after next. Now, that problem after next wasn’t just the uses of automation and the unemployment it would bring or the development or more sophisticated weapons which Wiener knew were already going to be developed. His concern was for all the technical devices to come and their inexorable impact on people and especially on their human capacity to choose.
In that new world, Wiener saw coming the problem after next was not only technological, he knew the new technical discoveries of cybernetics and its sister scientists had profound biological, organic links to the human brain and nervous systems. To neurophysiology, neurochemistry, and to new kinds of communication based human problems and systemic pathologies of communication that were already beginning to crop up in the wider society. Those diverse problems would cross all disciplines and fields of knowledge and every aspect of social and cultural life. Now, Wiener’s problem after next is our world and the problems all of us are facing in the 21st century. I will gladly let Jim deal with that.
Before I get into Wiener’s legacy, I want to say a few words about Wiener’s critics and God knows he had his share. In our research time after time we encountered mathematicians, engineers, and even social scientists who disparaged and has sailed Wiener and his work. We were stunned to find this enmity that had persisted for half a century. Not among surviving members of Wiener’s circle who all loved him even though he drove them nuts, but among people who had little or no contact with Wiener. We found it was often passed down from Wiener’s contemporaries to their students and disciples. Some claimed he didn’t give credit to engineers who worked predated his own. In a few instances that was the case. We’ll talk about that in our session tomorrow. Others point to errors in his papers and his serpentine equations. Many of had piled onto cybernetics and they still are, 66 years later.
One critic, the former MIT science journalism fellow who reviewed “Dark Hero” for the New York Times, praised our book but dismissed Wiener as a scientist because in his words, “He never had a catchy hit single like Einstein’s E equals MC squared. An absurd literary conceit.” Yet, he readily acknowledged in the same review that quote, the notion of information as a discreet concept and not widely exist before Wiener. Now, there’s a catchy hit single for you. [Saumya 00:43:42] Chopra of [Tautic 00:43:44] Consultancy wrote a piece a few months ago, in which he says, “Wiener had so many hits, he deserves a Grammy for lifetime achievement.”
Wiener was not a irresponsible scholar. He could be sloppy but not irresponsible and he was generous with credit. Yes, the first edition of cybernetics had quite a few errors, going to Wiener’s worsening cataracts which prevented him from reading the manuscript in it’s final stages. As we learned, Wiener’s assistants who were charged with proofing and preparing it for publication, messed up big time. Someone, we don’t know who exactly, sent the uncorrected text back to Wiener’s publisher in Paris, who sent it straight away to the typesetter. That became cybernetics.” To those who are still fuming over Wiener’s errors, omissions, typos, and lifetime achievements, please cut Norbert some slack here, seriously. It’s time to get over those decade old animosities and petty squabbles and turn your talents to the greater problems of technology and humanity that confront us all in the 21st century.
Amar Bose met with Wiener almost daily through the last decade of his life. He told us this about the man who shaped his professional values, more than any other. There were stories going all around the campus about Wiener. People said, “That’s trivial what Wiener’s doing. I could’ve done that. It’s nonsense, garbage.” His view of the universe, of nature, of human-beings was the best philosophy I have ever seen anywhere. Benoit Mandelbrot, the father of fractal geometry spent time with Wiener in the 40’s and 50’s. He testified to Wiener’s place in 20th century science. His legacy is gigantic Mandelbrot told us. It’s quite clear that he was pooh-poohed by some people who felt he wasn’t qualified to work in the specific field he was working in. Sure there was jealousy. Mandelbrot was personally offended by the fact that no building at MIT had been named for Wiener. Building 2 should’ve been named Wiener Hall he told us. To not have a Wiener building is a total disaster. Now we see MIT building 2 is being renovated. Let’s get some renovators to work on that.
Now, let’s talk about Wiener’s legacy. The long range accuracy of his warning shots fired 50, 60, and in some cases 90 years ago has been pretty darn good. Half a century after his death, Wiener’s vision is still clear for all to see, in the work engineers everywhere do everyday. In the explosion of new technology, descended from prototypes he pioneered in conflicts rising worldwide in the work performed by human-beings and machines and in the outbreak of social, economic, and spiritual turmoil. He foretold, as people struggled to survive and adapt in a global technological society. Now without going all mystical here, I’d like to spend a few minutes channeling Norbert into the 21st century with humility and all necessary caveat.
No doubt he would view today’s innovations with a mix of fascination and dread. On the upside, he would love today’s technology. That’s brilliant, helpful, and playful like he was. Without a doubt, he would jump for joy and weep too I think to see the new artificial limbs, sprung from his Boston arm that have restored wounded warriors to mobility and enable Paralympic athletes to go for the gold. His most dire prediction in 1950, that the advent of intelligent machines would quote, produce an unemployment situation that would make the depression of the 30’s seem a pleasant joke was considered overblown at the time and many say it is. The trend and the bearing as Wiener put it is turning in his direction.
MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee report that after decades of robust technological job creation, advances and computing, robotics, and automation software are only now beginning to destroy jobs faster than they’re creating them. Manufacturing jobs are vanishing at a greater rate as the percentage of the US economy, than in the Great Depression. We’ll see, maybe Wiener wasn’t so far off after all. It’s looking ahead though when things start looking really grim, as the next wave of robotics and AI are hatching robots with exactly the kinds of autonomous learning and self-programming capacities that Wiener was most worried about. Carl Frey and Michael Osborne Carl Fray at the Oxford project predict that within the next 20 years, advanced technologies will replace humans in more than 700 occupations that employed 47 percent, almost half of American workers in manufacturing, construction, transportation, and services. That rate may go asymptotic as autonomous robots with human features and super computing powers support and ultimately replace mission critical professionals, hospital workers, airline pilots, soldiers, and eventually many computer engineers, designers, and programmers too. As Wiener put it then, even the industries which have taken advantage of the potentialities.
Wiener will surely dislike intensely most of today’s spin-offs of his famous prefix, cyber crime, hacking, identity theft, internet scams, spam, viruses. Wiener would hate them. He would be really apoplectic about cyber warfare, he would be at surge point with the American military and with every military today, over their increasing reliance on computerized and controlled systems that have a pension for tragic errors. It’s in the new global theater of online cyberspace based operations that Wiener would probably dread most and the announce deafeningly as he said in an earlier time, and would well reform now, this compulsion of scientific warfare is driving pale male, head over heels into the oceans of our destruction.
Who would that it would be.
Shall we dance?
There’s a lot more. There’s drones and iPhones. There’s government surveillance and the end of privacy. There’s the Snowden files, there are tyrants mining the internet in order to suppress legitimate social and political movements of people desperately seeking freedom. We’ll get into that tomorrow. On another channel all together, without a doubt, Wiener would be overjoyed to see so many engineers from Asia, and South Asia, especially here tonight and for the support Infosys and Tata Consultancy that provided for this conference. Wiener loved his time in India. We chronicle lengthen “Dark Hero” and Greg’s written a great paper on it. Wiener didn’t discriminate. He loved all engineers and sought to inspire them with a new purpose. As a group, no one made him jump higher with delight or puff harder on his cigar when they put his conceptions in the medal, as he put it in that Jurassic era before silicon. From the outset, Wiener called for greater moral and social responsibility by scientists and engineers. He drove home his point that the new technologies and the knowledge that under gorged them should be used not for profit, power, or personal gain but for the benefit of all humankind.
Flo and I are so pleased to see that position mirrored in the motto of the I triple E that sits atop the website of this conference. In the I triple E mission’s statement that sets as its core purpose to foster technological innovation and excellence for the benefit of humanity. In the I triple E’s statement, supporting contributions of technology and technical professionals in improving global conditions. Wiener would really love that and all of you, and all the more to the extent that each of you make those goals as part of your personal mission and vision too. Now, Flow will have one final comment.
50 years ago, in January 1964, Wiener received the National Medal of Science from Lyndon Johnson at the White House. 2 months later on March 18th 1964, he died on a trip to Stockholm. The cause of death was a pulmonary embolism. Wiener’s oldest grandson, Michael Norbert Raisbeck. Who we are so pleased to have with us tonight, asked the crucial question raised by Leo Wiener’s experiment and Norbert’s triumphant and tormented life. “Part of me says you should never do that to a kid,” Michael told us. Now, step back and look at the development of civilization and where we’re going. Does humanity need some real points of brilliance in the order to advance? If everybody is raised to just be a happy medium, what happens when humanity is confronted by some really serious challenge? A global environmental disaster, a plague, the next Hitler. Whatever it is. Will you have the tools necessary to confront that kind of challenge? Something to think about. In Norbert Wiener’s case, an extreme omnibus prodigy, whose genius birthed forth in adulthood, transformed the domain of the natural sciences and the practices of control and communication engineering.
Fundamentally and irreversibly, he laid a new foundation of universal principles that have connected the world of physics, the forces of the heavens to the world of living things and human-beings and all the domains we create and inhabit. He opened the frontiers of science and technology to new dimensions of human experience, in which the living systems of the human body, brain, and mind are becoming intermittently connected to the technologies we’ve created in our image. Let me reintroduce you to Norbert Wiener in the 21st century. The most remarkable boy in the world. In Jim’s and my view, the most remarkable man of the 21st century and of the information age who gave us the tools and guidance we need that may yet help tip the balance toward our continued existence on this earth. Thank you very much.
Thank you very much. That was a very moving presentation. Very informative and very moving. Now if you would like, Flo and Jim have a small number of copies of the book available at the conference. I guess it’s pretty late now, maybe they’ll be able to sign some this evening or else you may be able to approach them and possibly get some this morning. They only have one small box of them but it’s a great opportunity if you have a chance and if you don’t already have the book. Thank you very much. Very wonderful combination for a conference dinner. Thanks everybody for participation in this conference and achieving our second day. With that all, I’ll call this evening finished.