Thursday, June 6, 2013

Norbert Wiener's typecast


Norbert Wiener (1894-1964) was a great American mathematician and pioneering computer scientist who coined the word "cybernetics," meaning the science of communication and control in animals and machines. In his book Cybernetics (1948) and the more popular, nonmathematical The Human Use of Human Beings (1950), he introduced the public to concepts such as information, input and output, programming, feedback, and artificial intelligence, as well as speculating on the future of information technology.

The typescript of an unpublished essay by Wiener dating from 1949 was recently rediscovered (New York Times story):

Wiener makes the very interesting point that computing can be a Pandora's box: the more arrogant and power-hungry we get in our invention of information-processing machines, the more problems we create for ourselves—possibly insoluble and fatal problems.

What do you think? Have we developed computing using humility or arrogance? I know my answer.


(Image contributed by a gentle reader.)

26 comments:

  1. Hubris is the one talent humans have in spades. :P

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  2. I doubt we are anywhere near the point where artificial intelligence is developed enough to actually start learning by itself and thus become more and more independent from the humans who programmed it. To this day, the mainstream computational systems are mere tools for the storage and processing of information, which in turn is used (and abused) by the human minds behind those systems, not by the systems per se. That said, and recognizing the famous Moore's Law of the development of processing power in electronic circuits, perhaps in a few years (or even decades) we *might* see some rebellious computers acting on themselves... though most likely it will only take one unpredictable (human) variable to make them crash and bump against each other.

    So, have we developed computing using humility or arrogance? I am afraid we've used more of the latter. And our human selfishness and self-glorification has a lot to do with it. "Information is power", is the motto; and he who controls the information, has the power to control the world. Hence the (arrogant) battles of the giant corporations and government agencies for the control of that new super-valuable, intangible asset: the Internet. As a growing repository of the world's knowledge and information (both true and false, positive and negative), the Internet is poised to become not only the biggest source of knowledge, wealth and competition, but also the new battlefield for ideas, the first target for censorship and even destruction in case of a global armed conflict, and the way for resistance units to spread and communicate.

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    1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Miguel.

      I think our computers are utterly nonconscious, so "learning" and similar terms are used metaphorically when we apply them to computers. But in a sense independent of consciousness, Wiener and his friends already built and observed machines that can "learn" in the '40s and '50s. Whenever feedback alters the way new information gets processed, there is a sort of learning going on. Today you can see this everywhere, such as when Google "learns" to predict what we're going to type in the search box.

      Even though human intentions intersect with computing at countless points, there are also huge, unpredictable, unintended, and uncontrollable effects that we've let loose: all sorts of robots and viruses cruise the Internet, supercomputers trade stocks millions of times per second, and our communications are automatically harvested and analyzed all the time. The system now exceeds human will.

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    2. And don't forget the soccer-playing robots and other such developments being experimented on in several universities around the world, most notably in the US and Japan. These machines have a very advanced algorythm that allows them to "learn" from their mistakes, and have attained a semi-autonomous ability to do some tasks - in this case, play soccer - almost without human intervention. But again, you just need to add some unknown variable - like, for example, pushing one of the robots on its back and make it trip - to render them completely helpless.

      I agree with the effects of our computing systems on our information; but let's not forget that, in the end, all that data farming and analysing is performed in behalf of our own human interests, for good or bad.

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  3. Great insight and foresight by Norbert Wiener.
    I don't think it's been an either/or but a both/and.

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  4. Rob and Ton, where is the humility and awe? Certainly, individuals (such as us!) have shown such virtues, but the forces behind the global development of IT see every limit only as a hurdle to be jumped. Our machines must become more powerful and faster because ... they can.

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  5. I'd like to believe that there are minds in global IT development who are also thinking that faster and more powerful can mean faster and more meaningful communications. The saffron revolution in Burma would not have generated global support without the advances in IT in recent years. Personally, my entire family lives halfway around the globe; IT brings us together regularly and helps sustain our relationships.

    That said, I agree that the arrogance is real and alarming; but perhaps I'm too much of an optimist to say that not everything is a product of a nefarious plot.

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    1. IT certainly makes many good things possible, such as our communications right now -- I don't deny that. Nor do I think that the negatives are the product of a nefarious plot. Actually, the point is that, by pursuing our generally good or neutral intentions, we've created a gigagolem that is now stumbling around the planet independently of human will. We do not control the potentials, as Wiener puts it, except on the microlevel. The macrolevel belongs to the mindless systems.

      What can we do about it? No idea. Most likely this speedy proliferation of IT will continue indefinitely unless global civilization collapses.

      Am I too fatalistic? Maybe!

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    2. This could be the plot of a very interesting non-science-fiction novel.

      I do believe that all the data and information processing and the proliferation of IT systems will bring more benefits than hurdles; like Ton says, one of the benefits we are enjoying right now is the ability to communicate with people all over the world. The Typosphere would not be possible without that ability, and the same goes for many other cultural, technological, even religious and political communities whose members are geographically disperse. That's a plus.

      On the negative side, we, as individuals, are disclosing a lot of information about us every time we access the Internet, and the worst part is that we do it mostly inadvertently. I give you an example. I use an e-marketplace system as part of my job. Every time I log in there, the browser connects automatically with several sites before even letting me see my home page: it sends a beacon to the stats server, that keeps track of the number of times I logged in; it sends information to the browsing history server, so that they can show me ads tailored to my browsing historial; when I sell something, they send information to another server in finances so that they can bill me the sales fees; when I buy something, they kindly offer me their own payment processing service - which in turn gets even more information about my bank accounts. And don't get me started on social networking sites, from LinkedIn to Facebook!

      But all this data farming, even though it is performed in a mostly automatic way, is not exploited by the computer systems that collect and analyse it; it is grouped, analysed, compared, and served to some human being somewhere who then can use that information for his / her own purposes, monetary or otherwise.

      What can we do about it? The same that can be done about STDs: don't use the systems. But since most organizations, and even governments, are pushing the common citizen to use IT systems (the Mexican IRS system comes to mind), every passing day it becomes more and more difficult to stay away from the mainstream.

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    3. You're right, it's nearly impossible to get out of the infosystem anymore. (This was the starting point for my 2010 NaNoWriMo novel.) I myself can't leave the system, or can't afford to—and of course, I would miss the benefits. At least time with my typewriters (among other things) is a break from the digital data exchange.

      I would not say that most of the data collected by computers is "served to some human being somewhere." The humans created the software and hardware, to be sure, but they did so in order to delegate a lot of work to the computers. So the systems themselves are "deciding" which stocks to sell, which ads to show, which messages to flag as subversive, etc. Only once in a while is something very unusual brought to the attention of a human who has to use his or her slow, meat-powered information-processing skills to evaluate it.

      I also disagree that communication in general is obviously a plus. Communication includes terrorist plots, idle gossip, plans to burn more fossil fuels, slander, rumors, hate speech, etc.

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    4. The phrase "To Serve Man" has two meanings, if I recall my classic B&W Scifi films correctly. :D

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    5. Aha, so that's what they mean when they talk about "servers"!

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    6. You might not be able to "get out of the system" but there are of course some other options. Encrypted e-mail for instance. Or even better, fighting the ones deliberately using all of that "found" information for what they in the USA like to call "safety". Because, what is save to fully tap an entire country and every person in it? There are things you can do about that. To prevent it. To call it off. But no, people are to used to this infrastructure and don't care about what others do with their data as long as nobody stands on their porch telling them about what they know about you...

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  6. I think you're just being a philosopher and I'm just being a theologian.

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    1. p.s. That last comment was tongue-in-cheek. ( :

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    2. But what is the essence of tongue-in-cheekness?

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    1. I mean we should have humility. Computers? Lots of hubris.

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  8. I could get rather long with this one as some previous commenters have done, but I will save my anti-expensive software rant...

    Many things with computers have been done with humility. Many of these programmers learned on their own and volunteer their time and skills. Many programs and even operating systems have been done to make things better. To help others and make computing reliable and worthwhile. This is the spirit of the Linux community.

    Others like that of the big greedy $ corporation with arrogance.

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  9. What occurs to me is that he either took the long view or was influential enough that the restraint he sought outlasted his lifetime. I heard an interesting piece on what it says about society that Armageddon stories are all the rage, that a lot of people are looking for a reset. This also relates directly to a post I've been planning.

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  10. Algorithming often starts out benignly but it does propagate and with a little human nudging begins to impose itself in unsuspected and seemingly nefarious ways. It shows up in places like facebook where all of a sudden the public is told you "like" some product or service you may have no personal connection with whatsoever. It borders on commercial slander. A nasty combination of corporate and political greed and arrogance on the one hand, and public fetishization of devices and portals on the other hand, makes this and much worse possible. Who knows where it'll end up? But it does put the onus on individuals to exercise good judgment, taste, and temperance to keep it in check.

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  11. While reading this, something quite pertinent occurred to me about the things that we lack as humans in this modern era.

    I think my thoughts will take a littl bit of time to explain, so I'll attempt to blog in reply sometime soon.

    In the meantime, sit back, and have a good watch of blade-runner, with this blog in mind.

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    1. That would be an appropriate film!

      I look forward to your entry.

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