Friday, March 27, 2020

@sethcgc and @moshi.dokyo

What happens when you blur the lines between humans, machinery and the world around us? Thank you for 1.5k, and we just got 50 posts!!

Like most grander technology and theory we have today, the pursuit to connect nature, animals and machinery started with military efforts. The National Defense Research Committee (NDRC) in 1940, organized into separate divisions, one of which was "fire control," the problem of tracking targets, predicting their future positions, calculating ballistics, etc

Norbert Wiener attacked the problem of predicting the flight paths of aircraft taking evasive action, which he reformulated as predicting the future value of a pseudo-random function based on its statistical history. Wiener’s work proved to have little application to wartime problems.

Wiener, who was forced to look outside military matters, had a long time interest in physiology and began exploring biological and neurological feedback. In Spring 1942 Wiener’s papers first mention the idea of the human operator as a feedback element, as an integral part of a system. Placing his understanding of the servomechanical nature of the mechanisms of control and communication in both humans and machines at the core of cybernetics, and his program sought to extend that understanding to biological, physiological, and social systems.

Wiener elevated his thinking on control and communication from the specific level of muscles and nerves to a universal level, creating nothing less than a moral philosophy of technology, and one that enjoyed enthusiastic response from scientists everywhere. Under his direction, an informal group called the "Teleological Society," began meeting in the 1940s, and was later formalized. More in comments below.

Today, neither MIT nor hardly any American universities have cybernetics departments, nor is “cybernetician” seen as a professional occupation.
Still, cybernetics certainly influenced generations of engineers, who embraced its ideas and spent the 50s and 60s embodying cybernetic ideas in computing, the space program, and medicine (one observer called the moon landings “the ultimate cybernetic experience”). We can also see its effects in fields like general systems theory, systems engineering. In the 1960s and 70s, cybernetics-inspired systems approaches invaded social sciences from economics to archaeology (not to mention molecular biology). Cybernetic thinking is often accompanied by a quasi-religious fervor, and both were present in the holistic rhetoric that surrounded ecology in the 1960s and 70s, as well as the Gaia hypothesis that the entire earth is a living organism with interdependent systems. Cybernetics also survives in subtle ways throughout the computer age. Among its most traceable and significant legacies came through the person of J.C.R. Licklider, an MIT psychologist who attended the Macy Conferences. In 1960, he wrote a seminal paper, “Man-Computer Symbiosis” that employed cybernetic ideas to lay a roadmap for the future development of interactive computing. Licklider went on to become the founding director of DARPA’s Information Processing Techniques Office. Licklider’s research program, his cybernetic vision, and his disciples played direct, critical roles in forming the fields of AI, computer graphics, among others, and then built the Arpanet, progenitor of the Internet. As we hear about cybersex, cybercash, and cyberwar, the legacies of Norbert Wiener (who died in 1964) and cybernetics are with us still.

Wiener articulated his new approach in his 1948 book Cybernetics. He created the term from the Greek word for “steersman,” to describe the principle governing or directing a technology or system. In Cybernetics he argued for what we now see as classic “systems approach” – everything can be described as a system, broken down into “black box” components with inputs and outputs, and then understood using the ideas of information flow, noise, feedback, stability, and so on. Wiener brought together this engineering-oriented stance, with what physiologists like Walter Canon had developed in the prior decades under the headings of “homeostasis” and their studies of neuro-muscular behavior. He also made an analogy between the behavior of the new digital computers and that of the human nervous system, and it was such technological/biological analogies that cybernetics would depend. Much of Wiener’s own work in cybernetics focused on identifying servomechanism-like behaviors in the nervous systems of animals (suggesting, for example, that nervous systems have a “scanning time” similar to that found in televisions).

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