Home' Technology Review : June 2005 Contents 82
The founder of cybernetics is
largely forgotten. That s a pity.
BY MARK WILLIAMS
T was one of those 20th-century
illuminati who ushered humankind into the age of intelli-
gent machines, few people today know much about him.
So whatever prompted Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman to write
Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of Norbert Wiener,
the Father of Cybernetics, it wasn t any expectation of a bestseller.
Wiener is past all likelihood of rescue by fashion. The authors
must simply have been drawn to their subject by one of those vir-
tuous impulses that are their own reward.
Dark Hero, Conway and Siegelman claim, was "eight years
in the making and a dozen more in the planning." Alas, while
their hearts may be in the right places, these authors turn out to
be unable to think deeply or write well. Here, for instance, is the
book s fourth paragraph: "This is the story of a dark hero who
has fallen through the cracks in the information age and of his
ght for human beings that is the stu of legend." Things don t
improve after that. For some months, however, Dark Hero may
provide fodder for columns like this one. So while this inade-
quate book provides the occasion, let us seize it.
Let us recall the thought and life of a man who, though not
conventionally heroic---since he was short, stout, myopic, physi-
cally clumsy, and so socially maladroit that he could pick his nose
while delivering a lecture---nevertheless combined brilliance
with such determination to behave ethically that those who know
his work or writing still feel fond admiration for him.
Both Norbert Wiener s greatness and his aws were tied to
his lifelong sense of himself as an outsider. In particular, he bore
the burden of having been a child prodigy. Born in 1894, Wiener
entered Tufts University to study mathematics at 11, graduated at
14, and proceeded to Har vard University, completing a disserta-
tion in mathematical logic at 18. Thence, he embarked for Eu-
rope for postdoctoral study under Bertrand Russell and the
mathematicians G. H. Hardy and David Hilbert.
In 1919, at 24, Wiener joined the MIT mathematics faculty. In
the 1920s, he provided a mathematical description of Brownian
motion---the arbitrary movement of microscopic particles sus-
pended in a liquid or gas. Albert Einstein, in one of his seminal
1905 physics papers, had attributed Brownian motion to random
collisions between the suspended particles and molecules in
their environment. By marrying Einstein s work with that of
French mathematician Henri Lebesgue, Wiener was able to de-
scribe the probability with which any of the particles would fol-
low a particular trajectory. His work yielded the so-called Wiener
measure, which has since found practical applications in many
branches of physics, engineering, and biology.
During World War II, Wiener made a brilliant contribution to
the science of re control for antiaircraft guns---essentially, the
computation of a fast-moving aerial target s future position.
Building on his prior work on the statistical description of trajec-
tory, Wiener produced probabilistic equations that, embodied in
crude World War II--era analog electronics, could translate radar
infor mation about a target s motion and distance into a predic-
tion of its ight path and automatically swing a gun in the right
direction. To improve the gun s aim, engineers relied on a "feed-
back loop": a reading of the gun s position was converted into an
electrical signal, which was compared with the original com-
mand signal. The gun was then moved to close the di erence.
The implications of this technique weren t lost on Wiener.
Today, self-correcting mechanical systems surround us. So
it s hard for us to appreciate the impact of Wiener s ideas in the
mid-20th century, when he pointed out the similarity between
machines with sensory systems that collected information to
ne-tune their behavior and biological systems---like human be-
ings---that did the same thing. Cyber netics---Wiener s theory of
"control and communication in the animal and the machine"---
made him a cultural gure prominent enough to be featured in
Time magazine cover stories.
After 1945, Wiener opposed the military-industrial complex s
increasing in uence on scienti c a airs. As a result, he became
estranged from many of his colleagues and from developments
in automation and computer technology. "So long as we retain
one trace of ethical discrimination, the use of great powers for
base purposes will constitute the full moral equivalent of sorcery
and simony," he wrote in 1963, the year before his death. Norbert
Wiener believed that scientists and technologists had an ethical
responsibility both to the tr uth and to humanity; through all his
life, he attempted to meet the ter ms of that contract. ■
Mark Williams is a writer who lives in Oakland, CA.
No Mean Mathematician
Dark Hero of the Information Age: In Search of
Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics
By Flo Conway and Jim Siegelman
Basic Books, 2004, $27.50
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