Source:New York Times, Sunday, december 19 1948
SCIENCE IN REVIEW
Cybernetics, a New Science, Seeks the Common
The recent publication of Prof. Norbert Wiener's book, "Cybernetics,"
with the subtitle "Control and Communication in the Animal and the Machine"
(John Wiley & sons, Inc., New York), has brought to public attention the new science of cybernetics.
Until now cybernetics has been known only to a small circle of the elite, among whom it had been regarded
as something akin to a new revelation. Some of its more enthusiastic devotees in Dr Wiener's inner circle beleive
that its further development will lead to a revolution in our understanding of the human mind and
human behaviour, both normal and abnormal, comparable to the revolutions in our understanding of
the physical world brought about by the relativity and quantum theories.
Dr. Wiener, Professor of mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has long been considered one of the world's ranking mathematicians. He is also an exceptional linguist, philosopher and literary scholar. While he is rightly the father of cybernetics, the new science is the outgrowth of extensive theoretical study and experimentation carried out by Professor wiener in collaboration with outstanding scientists in other fields, including physiologists, psychologists, mathematicians and electrical engineers.
Cybernetics offers a new approach to the study of the human mind and behaviour, based on a comparative study of the electrical circuits of the nervous system and those in the highly complex mechanical brains in the gigantic electronic calculating machines. It promises in view of this relationship, to become of vital interest to psychologists, psychiatrists, physiologists, electrical and radio engineers, psychiatrists, mathematicians, anthropologists, sociologists and philosophers. Indeed it has already been used as the basis of a new philosophical approach to the relation of "Ideological man to the scientifically known natural man" by the well-known Yale philosopher, Professor F. S. C. Northrop. Professor Northrop uses cybernetics to correlate ideological and biological factors in social institutions.
From the greekThe word cybernetics is coined from the greek word kybernetes, meaning steersman. Through its Latin corruption, gubernator, came the term governor, used for a long time to designate a certain type of control mechanism.
Cybernetics, Dr. Wiener states in The Scientific American, "combines under one heading, the study of what in a human context is sometimes loossely described as thinking and in engineering is known as control and communication. In other words, cybernetics attempts to find the common elements in the functioning of automatic machines and of the human nervous system, and to develop a theory which will cover the entire field of control and communication in machines and living organisms.
"It is well known," Dr. Wiener explains, "that between the most complex activities of the human brain and the operations of a simple adding machine there is awide area where brain and machine overlap. In their more elaborate forms, modern computing machines are capable of memory, association, choice and nmany other brain functions. Indeed, the experts have gone so far in the elaboration of such machines that we can say the human brain behaves very much like the machines. The construction of more and more complex mechanisms actually is bringing us closer to an understanding of how the brain itself operates."
Feed-Back SystemThe basic concept implied in the term cybernetics is that of a feed-back mechanism, represented by the steering mechanism of a ship, or the governor of a steam engine, or the common thermostat that maintains a house at a constant temperature. All these operate in response to information fed back to them; and since they tend to oppose what the system is already doing, they are known as negative feedback systems.
Dr. wiener's studies of feedback systems began during the war, when he and Julian H. Bigelow were assigned the problem of working out a fire-control apparatus for anti-aircraft artillery which would be capable of tracking the curving course of a plane and predicting its future position. This job, which required collaboration between physiologist and mathematician, electronic engineer and physicist, led to startling observations. The outstanding one was that the voluntary activity of the nervous system operates on the negative feed-back principle in the same manner as the thermostat or other mechanical feed-back systems.
We do not will the motion of certain muscles, Dr. Wiener states. Indeed, we generally do not know which muscles are to be moved to accomplish a given task. We will acertain act, say, to pick up a cigarette. When we perform the act of picking it up, reports to the nervous system, conscious or unconscious, provide the information to the muscles so that they move just the right distance without overshooting or undershooting the mark.
This can be done only by a negative feed-back mechanism in our nervous system. AS Professor Wiener puts it: "Once we have determined on picking up the cigarette, the motion of the arm and hand proceeds in such a way that we may say that teh amountb by which the cigarette is not yet picked up is decreased at each stage." The amount of the decrease at each stage is signaled to the muscles by a negative feedback system in the nerve circuits so that we neither overshoot or undershoot the mark.
"Mechanism for Purpose"This discovery that the voluntary nervous system, which includes our conscious activities and the operation of the brain, functions through a negative feed-back mechanism has already led Professor Northrop to the startling conclusions that neurophysiology, as interpreted by cybernetics, has found a "mechanism for purpose." Teleological (purposive) activity, he holds, is the correlate of negative feed-back systems by which signals from the goal can alter the behaviour of a system after it has been initiated, the alterations making it possible for the system to reach the goal. This is the requirement, he tells us, for any mechanism to be goal-directed. A teleological system can be - and in the human nervous system it is - a mechanical system, in which the behaviour of the system is controlled by a negative feed-back over the goal.
If this be so, then the ancient quarrel between the teleologists, who insisted on the freedom of the will, guided by purpose, and the determinsists, who regard man as having neither freedom of choice nor purpose, may turn out to be a mere matter of semantics. Our actions are both mechanical and purposive. We have a goal but we reach it by mechanical means through the action of our negative feed-back mechanism.
The study of cybernetics, Dr Wiener tells us, is likely to have fruitful applications in many fields, from the design of control mechanisms for artificial limbs to the almost complete mechanization of industry. But, he adds, "It encompasses much wider horizons. We are beginning to see that such important elements as the neurons - the units of the nervous complex of our bodies - do their work under much the same conditions as vacuum tubes."
Intellectual turning pointThe discovery that the human nervous system operates as a negative feed-back mechanism may well turn out to be one of the revolutionary discoveries of the age, making an intellectual turning point in man's understanding of himself and of his universe.
Professor Wiener assures us that a mechanical chess player could be constructed that "might very well be as good a player as the vast majority of the human race."
Since each mechanical brain provides the knowledge with which to build a better mechanical brain, it is conceivable that eventually we may build a better mechanical brain, it is conceivable that eventually we may build machines that will surpass the best human brains in thinking capacity, that may not only do all man's work for him but also solve such problems as the control of the atomic bomb and how to reconcile east and west. All that would be left for man to do would be to devise ways to stop the machine from destroying him.