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.


At 12:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

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.

No civilization can keep itself going with a morality system in which all military activity is bad. If you think otherwise, you're living in some pie in the sky fantasy.

At 1:10 AM, Blogger RareCactus said...

That's an obvious strawman argument. I never said all military activity was bad.

I just don't think the military needs more toys to play with-- we've already got enough to wipe out the whole world, and then some.
And "it would have been invented anyway" is not a defense-- just because something is inevitable, doesn't mean it has to be done by my hand.


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