Pursuit of a Vision

The title of this post comes directly from Bertrand Russell’s Autobiography, “I have lived in the pursuit of a vision, both personal and social…,” as I believe that Wiener was pursuing a vision of the future, far before the dawn of true man-machine collaboration.

Written by Norbert Wiener, an American polymath, Cybernetics: or Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine was first published in 1948. It explores topics near and dear to my heart, including: mathematics, bionics, electrical engineering, computer science and more generally, the interface between the man and the machine.

Weiner is a prodigious thinker. A Ph.D by 17, he studied directly under many influential thinkers of the time, including: Bertrand Russell (who loved Leibniz almost as much as Weiner himself, and was a strong supporter of Homosexual Law Reform), David Hilbert (who believes there is more imagination in math than poetry), and G.H. Hardy (alongside Srinivasa Ramanujan, beautiful side note, Hardy once said that his greatest contribution was the discovery of Ramanujan and that it was “the one romantic incident in [his] life”).

A renowned thinker, he conjures Leibniz, Gauss, Faraday, and Darwin for guidance in the unexplored vastness between two or three established areas of specialization.

It is these boundary regions of science which offer the richest opportunities to the qualified investigator (pg. 2).

He argues that proper exploration of these spaces is best executed by a team of scientists, in the “habit of working together”, specialists in their own field and knowledgable of their neighbours, that can recognize the significance of suggestion before it has taken on full expression.

The main theory of Cybernetics, simply stated, is that feedback is fundamental to improvement in system control. From the first pages he introduces the ideas of machine learning and memory to improve performance:

In engineering, devices … can be used not only to play games and perform other purposeful acts but to do so with a continual improvement of performance on the basis of past experience (pg. xii).

At every stage of technique since Daedalus or Hero of Alexandria, the ability of the artificer to produce a working simulacrum of a living organism has always intrigued people. This desire to produce and to study automata has always been expressed in terms of the living technique of the age (pg. 39).

Wiener explores his ideas with a sort of casual-sage-giving-advice and guidance. He provides details on topics across many different fields, which surely interested him as an academic. Near to the end of the book he describes in plain-english how to create a chess computer better than the majority of the population, and then immediately describes how to make it learn from losses and become smarter.

I would say that he was ahead of his time, but that is somewhat of an overused phrase with less substance than desired. Norbert Wiener was and remains a genius. A polymath who dedicated his life to the advancement of many big ideas. His thoughts on cybernetics shine through more than ever in my investigations of the human-machine interfaces of current. Nortbert, thank you.