Norbert Wiener

While I was looking up some controls stuff, I came across the wikipedia page for Norbert Wiener. In Wikipedia's words: "Norbert Wiener was a U.S. mathematician and applied mathematician... a pioneer in the study of stochastic processes and noise processes, especially in the field of electronic communication systems and control systems." An important guy in control systems, robotics, and automation in general. He was also the archtypical "absent-minded professor" (there are some funny anecdotes on the wiki page.)

I think the most interesting thing about Norbert, though, is his attempt to reconcile the "automatic age" that he had done so much to bring about with his own morality. He realized that the computers and feedback systems that he had been working on had huge social and ethical implications.

During world war II, he worked on gunnery control and other control problems with a military bent. However, after the war, he became concerned about the militarization of science, and eventually refused to work on any more military projects, and, indeed, to accept any funding from the government at all.

I was a little bit surprised to read about this part of his personality. In this age of Department of Defense grants, Homeland Security, and big government in general, many people seem to take it almost for granted that the government funds military research. It's the military-industrial complex.

But if you really think about it, the military-industrial complex is a disturbing phenomenon. Even if we can trust that the present government will wield this power morally, can the same be said about all future governments? The concentration of power itself tends to produce abuses. And even selling sugar water to kids begins to look like a noble calling when compared with selling to those merchants of death, the militaries of the world.

Anyway, Norbert published a book called "The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society." There's some discussion of it at: http://web.comlab.ox.ac.uk/oucl/research/areas/ieg/e-library/bynum.pdf

There's a lot of stuff in the summary, almost too much for me to summarize further.
It's clear that Wiener envisioned, at least in part, the highly networked society that we live in today-- to paraphrase him, the extension of man's "word" from "one end of the earth to another." He envisioned the social displacements of robotics: machinery replacing "man's arm," computers replacing "man's judgement."
He anticipates bioengineering, including bioengineering that improves on nature: "engineering need not be confined to the replacement of parts which we have lost... there is a prothesis of parts which we never had." He discusses artificial intelligence, although he's skeptical that it will ever be fully realized.

I could almost write a full blog entry on any one of these topics-- possibly I even will some day. For now, suffice it to say that Norbert was an interesting guy.


Aubrey de Grey, anti-aging crusader

I just read an interesting article about Aubrey de Grey, a biologist bent on stopping the process of aging. Although his ideas may seem radical, he's published in some mainstream journals, like Science.

This article
is mostly about the man himself. It portrays him as a charismatic visionary, "[impatient] with stragglers in the march toward extreme longevity." He has a "thorax-long" beard, and wears a knitted cap. He's childless, and married a biologist 19 years older than himself. Naturally, someone so eccentric could only be a computer scientist by formal training.

The article also goes into a surprising amount of detail about what specific problems de Grey sees as contributing to aging, including mutations, "accumulation of intracellular junk," etc. Reading that list makes me want to spend the rest of my life in a bubble.

The author, Sherwin Nuland, is pretty down on de Grey's philosophy of life extension. He seems to view it as unnatural and socially disruptive. However, Sherwin himself is a medical doctor, in fact a surgeon who has "cared for around 10,000 patients" according to the article. He never explains why his own contributions to "life extension" are so much more virtuous than de Grey's.

All of Nuland's arguments against de Grey can be used as arguments against modern medicine. If extending the maximum life of one man from 100 years to 1000 is a crime against nature, surely handing out penicilin makes you the equivalent of an eco-hitler. Or vaccinating people's kids against smallpox. The list goes on and on.

In fact, there's good reasons to believe that modern medicine, and modern society in general, has turned natural selection on its head. Perhaps the damage to the gene pool can only be fixed by the "gene tweakers" and other researchers Nuland claims to be so horrified by.

Of course, the advantage of being a technologist is that you don't usually have to win the hearts and minds of the populace. Once a new technology is invented, it will almost always be adopted without any public debate or discussion. So Nuland's arguments may turn out to be quite irrelevant, similar to the arguments of people who thought trains would ruin the countryside, or sewing machines would destroy the sewing industry.

As for myself, I would be happy to live to be 1000, given a certain minimum quality of life. I'm not sure if I'm up for eternity, but I certainly want more than just a century.