Norbert Wiener, the Father of Cybernetics
An American mathematician and philosopher, as well as an esteemed professor at MIT, Norbert Weiner is widely recognized as being one of the greatest scholars in United States history. Not only did Weiner make important contributions to fields such as electronic engineering and control systems, but he is also considered by most as the founder of cybernetics.
Born in Columbia, Missouri on November 26,1894 to Leo Wiener and Bertha Kahn, two Polish-German Jews, Norbert was home schooled until he was nine years old. His father Leo taught him various subjects through teaching methods he had developed himself.
Leo Wiener had always been a curious learner who worked as a German and Slavic-language instructor. He also spent a lot of his time reading, which helped when it came to the creation of teaching methods for his son. Leo was always an avid student of mathematics, which can go some way towards explaining Norbert’s aptitude and interest in the subject as well. When asked about his father later in life, Norbert always mentioned Leo as being a very kind, calm and composed man. He said the only time his father showed anger was in moments when Norbert gave him a wrong answer to a question!
As one of the most famous child prodigy’s in history, learning always happened very quickly for Norbert Wiener. Despite having some physical problems, including poor eyesight and bad coordination, Wiener never stopped learning. During a six months stretch at the age of eight, Wiener had to stop reading altogether, because his doctors noticed that his poor eyesight was getting worse. Even though he could not read, Wiener continued his education. His father helped him compute various mathematical problems in his head.
At the age of nine, Wiener was sent back to school. But he did not go to elementary or middle school. Instead, Wiener attended Ayer High School, from where he graduated at the age of 11. He attended Tufts College shortly after. Within three years at Tufts, he had completed his Bachelor of Arts in mathematics, and he was only 14 years old at the time! Wiener continued his education at Harvard University, where he studied zoology at the graduate level. He eventually transferred to Cornell University in pursuit of a philosophy degree.
After spending a year learning philosophy at Cornell, Wiener was ready to come back to Harvard. He did continue to take some subjects in philosophy, but his focus began to shift towards mathematics. He began studying under the guidance of Edward Huntington, the famous mathematician who came up with Huntington’s axiom. When Wiener was only 17 years of age, he received his Ph.D. from Harvard University based on his dissertation on mathematical logic.
Even though he was still a young student, Wiener was already breaking established expectations about the level of work completed by students at Harvard. His dissertation was a huge success, due to the fact that he was the first person to publicly state that you could define ordered pairs based on the terms set out by elementary set theory. While Wiener’s method was slightly complicated, it was eventually simplified by Kazimierz Kuratowski.
After Harvard, Norbert Wiener decided to travel to Europe in search of further educational and research opportunities. He learned from Bertrand Russelland G.H. Hardy at England’s Cambridge University. He also pursed additional study at the University of Gottingen. He also worked a number of different jobs in the subsequent years, spending a brief period teaching philosophy at Harvard in 1915, working for General Electric and writing a few articles for the Encyclopedia Americana. He also worked as a journalist at the Boston Herald, but he did not keep that job for long because of the suggestion that his articles contained bias towards a politician with whom the paper’s owners had a cozy relationship.
World War I
Despite his objections towards the First World War, Norbert Wiener had no problem putting aside his moral views to assist his country with the war effort. However, his two attempts at getting into the military were a failure. He failed the first time in 1916 when he attended a training camp, because he did not meet the physical requirements to serve. He tried again in 1917, but he government rejected him based on his poor eyesight.
But Wiener did find a position to help with the war effort in 1918 when he was invited to work on weapons’ ballistics in Maryland. Not only did he get the opportunity to help his country, but he also got to work with various top mathematicians, which helped solidify his understanding and interest in the subject. Despite his helpfulness as a ballistics expert, Wiener did not think he was doing enough. He believed it would have been a slight on his character if he were willing to serve the military as an officer but not as a soldier. So he made a final attempt to enlist in the army, which was a success. Wiener found himself posted with a unit in Aberdeen, Maryland, but the war ended a few days after he had arrived on site, which meant a discharge from the military before Wiener ever really saw any action.
Post-war life did not go smoothly for Norbert Wiener, as he found himself rejected when applying for permanent teaching positions at both Harvard and the University of Melbourne. Wiener blamed his rejection at Harvard on the college’s anti-Semitism, in addition to his poor relationship with G.D. Birkhoff, a prominent Harvard mathematician at the time. Despite those two setbacks, Wiener did not give up in his pursuit of a permanent teaching position, and eventually got accepted to teach mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). He spent the remainder of his academic career at MIT, where he eventually became a Professor.
Wiener spent more time in Europe in 1926 through the Guggenheim Scholars program. He spent a majority of his time in Europe at the Gottingen and Cambridge colleges again, where he worked on several mathematical principles, such as the Brownian motion, Dirichlet’s problem and the harmonic analysis. Wiener also got married in 1926 to Margaret Engemann, a German immigrant, with whom he had two daughters. Wiener’s parents introduced the couple to each other.
World War II
He spent most of his time during the Second World War focused on ballistics, with a particular interest in how to aim and fire anti-aircraft guns. The work he completed with anti-aircraft weapons helped Wiener as he looked into information theory, which eventually lead to his invention of the Wiener filter. Wiener is responsible for the current standard method of modeling an information source based on a random process—such as a variety of noise.
It was the same work with anti-aircraft missiles that pushed Wiener towards cybernetics, which is the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things. When the Second World War ended, Wiener gathered a team of the best students at MIT with the purpose of studying cognitive science. His team included famed individuals such as Walter Pitts and Warren McCulloch. Not only did these individuals play a key role in helping Wiener understand cognitive science, but they went on to have huge contributions in the fields of computer science and Artificial Intelligence (AI). But their group did not last long, with Wiener suddenly ceasing all contact with the group after a few months of its formation, on the apparent advice of his wife Margaret.
The nervous system and the automatic machine are fundamentally alike in that they are devices, which make decisions on the basis of decisions they made in the past.— Norbert Wiener
Wiener’s work with guided missile technology and ballistics both played a role in his interest in what we now refer to as cybernetics. His interest lay in the complex electronic systems that allowed the missile to change flight based on the current position and direction it was taking. He identified the feedback principle on the missiles and how it played an important role in every living thing in the world—from plants to animals to humans. The feedback principle is an electronics principle that refers to how a measure of an output signal from a system is fed back into the input of the very same system. This principle allows for various systems to be controlled in a way that deals with undesired states or signals, which helps improve system stability.
Wiener took the concept of the feedback principle as it pertains to electronics and used it to publish his book Cybernetics, which came out in 1948. Cybernetics is the study of many systems, such as mechanical, physical, social and cognitive systems. In simple terms, the idea behind cybernetics is to controlling any system through technology. Cybernetics applies to systems where the system in question has a closed signaling loop. In other words, the specific system’s actions cause a change in the environment where it is present, with the changes reflected back to the system as feedback. As the changes are fed back to the system, it changes according to its programming.
Aside from cybernetics, Wiener also published many of his theories on the topics of robotics, automation and computer control. One of the reasons Wiener had so much success developing and adapting these theories is because of how well he worked with other mathematicians and experts in their respective fields. Wiener had a reputation of working positively with others, while he always gave credit to these individuals when his final papers or findings included information he had obtained through discussions with them.
But Wiener’s close connections with various experts did cause him some grief during the Cold War, where he was suspected of being in alliance with the Soviet Union. In reality, Wiener simply had close connections with some Soviet researchers and mathematicians, because he had an interest in their findings pertaining to cybernetics and other fields.
Even though he enjoyed some very productive years after the Second World War, Wiener felt a little perturbed about what he described as “political interference” within the scientific community. He felt as though science was going through a militarization, with governments and military organizations using scientists for their benefits, instead of the general benefit of the world. He even published a piece in The Atlantic Monthly where he talked about the ethical issues of scientists working with the military. Wiener never worked with the military or accepted a government grant after the Second World War.
Podcast: Norbert Wiener - Father of Cybernetics
Final Years and Legacy
Norbert Wiener passed away in Stockholm, Sweden at the age of 69. He died on the 18th of March, 1964. He won many prestigious awards and received many honors during his life, with the most notable being the Bocher Memorial Price (1933), the National Medal of Science (1963) and the U.S. National Book Award in Science, Philosophy and Religion based on his book “God and Golem, Inc.” The book received plenty of critical acclaim, with Wiener discussing the concepts of religion and cybernetics and how they intertwined. He mentions the role of religion in the world, given the rapid rise of technology, along with the morality of machine reproduction, machine learning and the type of role machines would eventually play in society. In many ways, Wiener foreshadowed how the world would come to revolve around machines and technology.
While it is easy to list the accolades of Norbert Wiener, along with the many theorems and concepts he introduced, it is not a full reflection of his importance. Another reason why Wiener is always going to have an important place in history is due of his influence on scientists in the present and future generations. Many scientists and researchers drew inspiration from Wiener’s work on cybernetics and sophisticated electronics.
For example, the SAGE, or Semi-Automatic Ground Environment, program was inspired by Wiener’s work. The SAGE program used massive computer systems to receive data from multiple data sites in order to create a unified image of the airspace over a particular area. It played a particularly important role in the Cold War, along with future military engagements.
Some of the most prominent developers who played a key role in the creation of the Internet cited Wiener as someone whose work inspired them with their efforts, with J.C.R. Licklider being one of the most famous of those individuals.
The following sites are related to Norbert Wiener and cybernetics:
- Principia Cybernetica has more than a thousand pages, including a list of influential Cybernetics and Systems Thinkers
- The American Society for Cybernetics, whose objective is to "develop a metadisciplinary language with which we may better understand and modify our world."
- The Bacterial Cybernetics Group collected evidence of cybernetic sophistication by bacteria, including advanced computation, learning, and creativity.