Norbert Wiener and the Science of Cybernetics

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964)

Norbert Wiener (1894-1964)

On November 26, 1894, American mathematician Norbert Wiener was born. Wiener established the science of cybernetics, a term he coined, which is concerned with the common factors of control and communication in living organisms, automatic machines, and organizations. He attained international renown by formulating some of the most important contributions to mathematics in the 20th century.

Wiener was born in Columbia, Missouri, the first child of Leo Wiener and Bertha Kahn, Jews of Polish and German origin, respectively. Norbert Wiener became a famous child prodigy, who was educated by his father Leo at home. After graduating from Ayer High School in 1906 at 11 years of age, Wiener entered Tufts College. He was awarded a BA in mathematics in 1909 at the age of 14, whereupon he began graduate studies of zoology at Harvard. In 1910 he transferred to Cornell to study philosophy and back to Harvard Back, where he was strongly influenced by the fine teaching of Edward Huntington on mathematical philosophy. He received his Ph.D. from Harvard at the age of 18 with a dissertation on mathematical logic supervised by Karl Schmidt.

In 1914, Wiener traveled to Europe, to be taught by Bertrand Russell and G. H. Hardy at Cambridge University, and by David Hilbert and Edmund Landau at the University of Göttingen. During 1915–16, he taught philosophy at Harvard, then was an engineer for General Electric and wrote for the Encyclopedia Americana. After the First World War, Wiener became an instructor of mathematics at MIT, where he spent the remainder of his career, becoming promoted eventually to Professor.

During the 1920s Wiener did highly innovative and fundamental work on what are now called stochastic processes and, in particular, on the theory of Brownian motion and on generalized harmonic analysis, as well as significant work on other problems of mathematical analysis. In 1933 Wiener was elected to the National Academy of Sciences but soon resigned, repelled by some of the aspects of institutionalized science that he encountered there.[2] During World War II Wiener worked on the problem of aiming gunfire at a moving target. The ideas that evolved led to Extrapolation, Interpolation, and Smoothing of Stationary Time Series (1949), which first appeared as a classified report and established Wiener as a codiscoverer, with the Russian mathematician Andrey Kolmogorov, of the theory on the prediction of stationary time series. This work should finally led him to formulate the concept of cybernetics.The term he coined is the root of neologisms such as cyberspace.

In 1948 his book Cybernetics: or, Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine appeared. For a scientific book it was extremely popular, and Wiener became known in a much broader scientific community. Cybernetics is interdisciplinary in nature; based on common relationships between humans and machines, it is used today in control theory, automation theory, and computer programs to reduce many time-consuming computations and decision-making processes formerly done by human beings. Wiener worked at cybernetics, philosophized about it, and propagandized for it the rest of his life, all the while keeping up his research in other areas of mathematics.[3]

Wiener’s fame after the war helped MIT to recruit a research team in cognitive science, composed of researchers in neuropsychology and the mathematics and biophysics of the nervous system, including Warren Sturgis McCulloch and Walter Pitts. These men later made pioneering contributions to computer science and artificial intelligence. Wiener later helped develop the theories of cybernetics, robotics, computer control, and automation. Wiener always shared his theories and findings with other researchers, and credited the contributions of others. These included Soviet researchers and their findings. Wiener’s acquaintance with them caused him to be regarded with suspicion during the Cold War. He was a strong advocate of automation to improve the standard of living, and to end economic underdevelopment.

Wiener’s article “A Scientist Rebels” for the January 1947 issue of The Atlantic Monthly[13] urged scientists to consider the ethical implications of their work. After the war, he refused to accept any government funding or to work on military projects. Wiener’s vision of cybernetics had a powerful influence on later generations of scientists, and inspired research into the potential to extend human capabilities with interfaces to sophisticated electronics. He changed the way everyone thought about computer technology, influencing several later developers of the Internet, most notably J.C.R. Licklider.[5] He died in 1964, aged 69, in Stockholm, Sweden.

At yovisto you can learn more about Cybernetics, esp. about the key issue of cybernetics and evolution as phylogenetic learning in an increasingly automated world, in the lecture of MIT Prof. James Paradis:

References and Further Reading:

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