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How Norbert Wiener Invents Cybernetics + his book " God and Golem, Inc.........."

x05Norbert Wiener invented the field of cybernetics, inspiring a generation of scientists to think of computer technology as a means to extend human capabilities. Norbert Wiener was born on November 26, 1894, and received his Ph.D. in Mathematics from Harvard University at the age of 18 for a thesis on mathematical logic ( see below "The Logic of Boolean Algebra").  After working as a journalist, university teacher, engineer, and writer, Wiener he was hired by MIT in 1919, coincidentally the same year as Vannevar Bush. In 1933, Wiener won the Bôcher Prize for his brilliant work on Tauberian theorems and generalized harmonic analysis.

During World War II, Wiener worked on guided missile technology, and studied how sophisticated electronics used the feedback principle -- as when a missile changes its flight in response to its current position and direction. He noticed that the feedback principle is also a key feature of life forms from the simplest plants to the most complex animals, which change their actions in response to their environment. Wiener developed this concept into the field of cybernetics, concerning the combination of man and electronics, which he first published in 1948 in the book Cybernetics.


A man may be a topologist or an acoustician or a coleopterist. He will be filled with the jargon of his field, and will know all its literature and all its ramifications, but, more frequently than not, he 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 own part as an unwarrantable breach of privacy.

- Wiener, Norbert; Cybernetics; 1948.

Wiener's vision of cybernetics had a powerful influence on later generations of scientists, and inspired research into the potential to extend human capabilities with interfaces to sophisticated electronics, such as the user interface studies conducted by the SAGE program. Wiener changed the way everyone thought about computer technology, influencing several later developers of the Internet, most notably J.C.R. Licklider.

In 1964, Norbert Wiener won the US National Medal of Science. In the same year, he published one of his last books called "God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion".

First step: The Logic of Boolean Algebra

The logical simplicity of boolean algebra enables the construction of powerful, efficient search queries. The concept of boolean algebra is embedded in human psychology, in our very biological understanding of how the world works. It is the foundation for all of mathematics, most of science, and much of philosophy.

But more importantly, it is useful for the construction of advanced Internet search queries, and is used throughout the examples in the following pages. The subsections below provide information on boolean expressions, the boolean operators AND, OR, and NOT, some boolean tricks, and and a list of boolean capable search sites.

Expressions. It is easier to understand boolean algebra when we compare it to the familiar arithmetic algebra we learned in school, with the operators +, --, x, / combined with operands in expressions like the following:

( a + b ) x c

When we know the values of the operands of an algebraic expression, then we can figure out the overall value. For example, if a=2, b =3, and c=4, then the overall value of the above expression is 20.

Boolean algebra is very similar, with the logical operators AND, OR, and NOT, combined with operands that can have either a value of True or False in expressions like the following:

( a AND b ) OR c

AND. The most useful boolean operator is AND because it combines truth values. An expression "a AND b" is True only if both of the operands are True. For example, if a="You are wearing glasses" and b="You are wearing a watch", then the overall expression is true only if you are wearing both items of clothing at the same time, and false if you are wearing only one item or neither.

Or. The expression "A or B" is true if either of the operands is true. For example, the expression "you are wearing a watch or you are wearing glasses" is true if you are wearing either item or both, and false only if you aren't wearing either.

NOT. The NOT operator simply reverses the truth of whatever it operates on. For example, the expression "I am not  wearing a watch" is True if you aren't wearing a watch, and False if you are.

Tricks. Some of the most useful boolean algebra tricks are listed below. Both sides of each listed expression are logically equivalent, but the right-hand side is in a shorter form. You can sometimes use these tricks to reorder a long search query into a more manageable form.

Boolean sites. Boolean algebra queries are supported by most search engines, but sometimes only through the "advanced" version. Remember that the most common setting is to require boolean operators in all CAPS or they won't be recognized, and that the NOT operator must often be written as a minus sign, as in the following Google search query:

garden AND (lettuce OR tomatoes) AND -carrots

The following site search pages provide boolean search capability:
* Alta Vista
* Google *
* Hotbot
* Lycos Pro
* Yahoo.

Ex-Prodigies and Antiaircraft Guns or how all this start

Today, when molecular biologists talk about the "coding" of the DNA molecule, cognitive scientists discuss the "software of the brain," and behavioral psychologists write about "reprogramming old habits," they are all making use of a scientific metaphor that emerged from the technology of computation, but which has come to encompass much more than the mechanics of calculating devices. Cybernetics, the study of communication and control in physical and biological systems, was born when yet another unusual mind was drawn into the software quest through the circumstances of war.

Because of the discoveries of Norbert Wiener and his colleagues, discoveries that were precipitated by the wartime need for a specific kind of calculating engine, software has come to mean much more than the instructions that enable a digital computer to accomplish different tasks. From the secrets of life to the ultimate fate of the universe, the principles of communication and control have successfully been applied to the most important scientific puzzles of our age. These principles were discovered through a strange concatenation of events, and the people who were involved in those events were no less unusual than the software patriarchs who preceded them.

Eccentrics and prodigies of both the blissful and agonized varieties dominated the early history of computation. Ada Lovelace, George Boole, John von Neumann, Alan Turing, and Presper Eckert were all in their early twenties or younger when they did their most important work. All except Eckert were also more than a little bizarre. But for raw prodigy combined with sheer imaginative eccentricity, Norbert Wiener, helmsman of the cybernetic movement, stands out even in this not-so-ordinary crowd.

Norbert's father, a Harvard professor who was a colorful character in his own right, had definite opinions about education, and publicly declared his intention to mold his young son's mind. Norbert was to become a lovingly but systematically engineered genius. In 1911, an article in a national magazine reported these plans:

Professor Leo Wiener of Harvard University . . . believes that the secret of precocious mental development lies in early training . . . He is the father of four children, ranging in age from four to sixteen; and he has the courage of his convictions in making them the subject of an educational experiment. The results have . . . been astounding, more especially in the case of his oldest son, Norbert.

This lad, at eleven, entered Tufts College, form which he graduated in 1909, when he was only fourteen years old. He then entered Harvard Graduate School.

Wiener was famous for the feuds he carried on. While a student at Göttingen, he impressed the administrative head of the university, Richard Courant, but Wiener accused him of misappropriating several of the younger man's mathematical ideas and appending Courant's own name to them. When he returned to Cambridge, the outraged young genius turned his energies to a novel that was never published, about someone who bore a remarkable resemblance to Courant, and who was depicted as a man who stole the ideas of young geniuses.

Before World War I, Wiener wrote pieces for Encyclopedia Americana, taught philosophy at Harvard and mathematics at the University of Maine. During World War I, Private Wiener was assigned to the U.S. Army's Aberdeen proving Grounds in Maryland, where he was one of the mathematicians responsible for the computation of firing tables. His service in 1918 was one of the reasons it was natural for Wiener's friend Vannevar Bush to think of Norbert thirty years later, when the allies needed a way to put firing tables directly into the radar-guided mechanism of antiaircraft guns.

After the end of World War I, Norbert Wiener joined the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as an instructor of mathematics. It turned out to be the beginning of his lifelong association with that institution. By the early 1920s, like his fellow polymath across the Atlantic, Wiener was turning out world-class papers in mathematics, logic, and theoretical physics. At MIT Wiener began his long friendship with Vannevar Bush, a man who in the early 1930s was deeply involved in the problems of building mechanical calculators, and in the 1940s took charge of the largest-scale administration of applied science in history.

Decades later, Wiener quarreled with his lifelong friend because Bush didn't side strongly enough with Wiener in his feud with two other colleagues. Such feuds were one of the more well-known characteristics of Wiener's style -- he tended to take disagreements over scientific issues as personal attacks, even if the disputes involved his closest personal friends. Like Babbage, his judgement did not always seem equal to his imagination.

It must be said that Wiener did have many warm lifelong friendships that didn't go sour. For all his moodiness and paranoia, Wiener truly cared about "the human use of human beings" (as he was to title one of his later books on the implications of cybernetics), and passionately reminded the scientific community of their special responsibilities regarding the apocalyptic weaponry they had created. Despite his failure to get along with some of his colleagues, Wiener never wavered in his belief that the future of scientific enterprise lay in interdisciplinary cooperation. His friendship with the physiologist Arturo Rosenbluth, and their shared dream of stimulating such interdisciplinary pursuits, catalyzed the origins of cybernetics. But Wiener might never have worked with Rosenblueth if it wasn't for the Battle of Britain.

Like von Neumann, Wiener's most important need was for interesting problems. Like von Neumann, he knew that the quantum revolution was the most interesting problem of the 1920s. And one of the effects of quantum physics on the young mathematician's thinking was to convince him that some of the most interesting problems of purely theoretical mathematics could end up having the most concrete applications in the real world.

Another effect of quantum physics was the importance of probability and statistical measures for dealing with phemomena based on uncertain information. Wiener's familiarity with these concepts was to mature under unexpected circumstances. Like von Neumann and Goldstine and Eckert, in the late 1930s Wiener wasn't yet aware that ballistics would be the avenue for bringing his knowledge of probability and statistics to bear on the most pragmatic problems, eventually to yield most astonishing results. But, like them, he would soon come to understand that his war-related task was leading to profound scientific consequences far beyond the bounds of ballistics.

The scene was set for the emergence of Wiener's astounding results, not by any series of scientific events, but by the political circumstances of the early 1940s. When war broke out in Europe, Bush assigned Wiener to the antiaircraft control project at MIT, under the direction of Warren Weaver, himself a distinguished mathematician. It seemed like a natural step for Wiener, considering his prior experience in the early ballistic calculation efforts at Aberdeen during World War I.

The key ideas that led to computers were in the air in the late 1930s, albeit in the rather rarefied air of metamathematics and other esoteric intellectual disciplines. The necessities of war and the coordinated scientific effort that they entailed served to bring those key ideas together with the few people who were equipped to understand them more quickly and urgently than might have happened in more normal times.

The allies' two most pressing problems in the early years of World War II were the devastating U-boat war in the North Atlantic and the equally devastating Luftwaffe attacks on Britain. Turing's secret solution to the naval Enigma machine was responsible, in large part, for solving the U-boat problem. But where Turing's problem was one of cryptanalysis, of mathematically retrieving the meaning from a garbled message, the Luftwaffe problem was one of predicting the future: How can you shoot at a plane that is going as fast as your bullets?

Radar made it possible to track the positions of enemy aircraft, but there was no way to translate the radar-provided information into a ballistic equation quickly enough to do any good. And attacking airplanes had a disconcerting habit of taking evasive action. Vannevar Bush was well acquainted with the calculation problem when Bell Laboratories came to him with an interesting idea for an electrically operated aiming device. That is where the young engineer's dream came in.

During this wartime mathematical work related to radar-directed antiaircraft fire, Wiener recognized the fundamental relationship between two basic problems -- communication and control. The communication problem in the earliest days of radar was that the radar apparatus was like a badly tuned radio receiver. The true signal of attacking planes was often drowned out by false signals -- noise -- from other sources. Wiener recognized that this too was a kind of cryptography problem, if the location of the enemy aircraft is seen as a message that must somehow be decoded from the surrounding noise.

The noisy radar was more than an ordinary "interesting problem," because once you understand messages and noise in terms of order and information measured against disorder and uncertainty, and apply statistics to predict future messages, it becomes clear (to a mathematician of Wiener's stature) that the issue is related to the basic processes of order and disorder in the universe. Once it is seen in statistical and mathematical terms, the communication problem leads to the heart of something more important, called information theory. But that branch of the story belongs to Claude Shannon as much as, or more than, it does to Wiener.

Wiener and Bigelow looked more closely at other servomechanisms, including self-steering mechanisms as simple as thermostats, and concluded that feedback is the concept that connects the way brains, automatic artillery, steam engines, autopilots, and thermostats perform their functions. In each of those systems, some small part of the past output is fed back to the central processor as present input, in order to steer future output. Information about the distance from the hand to the pencil, as seen by the eye, is fed back to the muscles controlling the hand. Similarly, the position of the gun and the position of the target as sensed by radar are fed back to the automatic aiming device.

Even von Neumann was due to get into the act, as Wiener wanted him to do -- Wiener persuaded MIT to try to outbid Princeton for von Neumann's attentions after the war. Politically, militarily, and scientifically, Wiener's corner of the plot was getting thick. The antiaircraft problem, the possible explanations for how brain cells work, the construction of digital computers, the decoding of messages from noise -- all these seemingly unrelated problems were woven together when the leading characters were brought together by the war.

The founding of the interdisciplinary study that was later named cybernetics came about when Wiener and Bigelow wondered whether any processes in the human body corresponded to the problem of excessive feedback in servomechanisms. They appealed to an authority on physiology, from the Instituto Nacional de Cardología in Mexico City. Dr. Arturo Rosenblueth replied that there was exactly such a pathological condition named (meaningfully) the purpose tremor, associated with injuries to the cerebellum (a part of the brain involved with balance and muscular coordination).

When Wiener, Bigelow, and Rosenblueth got together with McCulloch and Pitts, in 1943 and 1944, a critical mass of ideas was reached. Pitts joined Wiener at MIT, then worked with von Neumann at the Institute for Advanced Study after the war. By the time this interdisciplinary cross-fertilization was beginning, the ENIAC project had progressed far enough for digital computers to join the grand conjunction of ideas.

A series of meetings occurred in 1944, involving an interdisciplinary blend of topics that seemed to be coming from subject areas as far afield as logic, statistics, communication engineering, and neurophysiology. The participants were an equally eclectic assortment of thinkers. It was at one of these meetings that von Neumann made the acquaintance of Goldstine, whom he was to encounter again not long afterward, at the Aberdeen railroad station. Rosenblueth had to depart for Mexico City in 1944, but by December, Wiener, Bigelow, von Neumann, Howard Aiken of the Harvard-Navy-IBM Mark I calculator project, Goldstine, McCulloch and Pitts formed an association they called "The Teleological Society," for the purpose of discussing "communication engineering, the engineering of control devices, the mathematics of time series in statistics, and the communication and control aspects of the nervous system." In a word -- cybernetics.

......................... from book "Tools for Thought" by Howard Rheingold


Read the Book  .................. "God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points Where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion"

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