21st Century Wiener
July 11, 2014 7:11 AM   Subscribe

Norbert Wiener: The Eccentric Genius Whose Time May Have Finally Come (Again) - "The most direct reason for Wiener's fall to relative obscurity was the breakthrough of a young mathematician and engineer named Claude Shannon."

Norbert Wiener:
In his 1950 book, "The Human Use of Human Beings," [PDF] Wiener envisioned a utopia in which automation would relieve humanity of manual labor to allow more creative pursuits. Sixty years later, we have much automation, but income inequality rather than utopia. Wiener died in Stockholm, Sweden, at age 69.

The crater, Wiener, on the far side of the Moon is named after him. I've always believed in "Wiener's Law of Libraries," "There are no answers, only cross references". The IEEE is sponsoring a conference, Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century, commemorating Norbert Wiener.
also btw...
  • In 1949, He Imagined an Age of Robots: " 'The Machine Age' (pdf) an essay written for The New York Times by Norbert Wiener, a visionary mathematician, languished for six decades in the M.I.T. archives, and now excerpts are being published."
  • Theoreticians as Professional Outsiders: The Modeling Strategies of John von Neumann and Norbert Wiener (pdf)
  • Both von Neumann and Wiener were outsiders to biology. Both were inspired by biology and both proposed models and generalizations that proved inspirational for biologists. Around the same time in the 1940s von Neumann developed the notion of self reproducing automata and Wiener suggested an explication of teleology using the notion of negative feedback. These efforts were similar in spirit. Both von Neumann and Wiener used mathematical ideas to attack foundational issues in biology, and the concepts they articulated had lasting effect. But there were significant differences as well. Von Neumann presented a how-possibly model, which sparked interest by mathematicians and computer scientists, while Wiener collaborated more directly with biologists, and his proposal influenced the philosophy of biology. The two cases illustrate different strategies by which mathematicians, the "professional outsiders" of science, can choose to guide their engagement with biological questions and with the biological community, and illustrate different kinds of generalizations that mathematization can contribute to biology. The different strategies employed by von Neumann and Wiener and the types of models they constructed may have affected the fate of von Neumann's and Wiener's ideas – as well as the reputation, in biology, of von Neumann and Wiener themselves.
  • A Billionaire Mathematician's Life of Ferocious Curiosity: "Dr. Simons received his doctorate at 23; advanced code breaking for the National Security Agency at 26; led a university math department at 30; won geometry's top prize at 37; founded Renaissance Technologies, one of the world's most successful hedge funds, at 44; and began setting up charitable foundations at 56."
  • Physics and the Horizons of Truth: "mathematics without something like the 'axiom of infinity' might be well-defined..." [Horizons of Truth: Kurt Gödel and the Foundations of Mathematics (pdf)]
  • Sentences you never thought you'd hear in Congress: "Madame Speaker, I would like to talk about twin prime numbers..."
posted by kliuless (12 comments total) 55 users marked this as a favorite

This is a phenomenal post. Thank you for filling my instapaper queue for the weekend.
posted by DigDoug at 7:28 AM on July 11, 2014

His autobiography is worth a look.
posted by BWA at 7:44 AM on July 11, 2014

This is excellent. Weiner was a visionary, I can never get enough and this is plenty. He is one of my heroes, for sacrificing his career for a moral principle:

Wiener refused, for ethical reasons, to accept research contracts from the military or from corporations seeking to exploit his ideas.

Previously on MeFi, my favorite Wiener anecdote plus jenh526's favorites.
posted by charlie don't surf at 8:06 AM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

His autobiography is worth a look.

reviewed by freeman dyson! (viz. 'A Scientist Rebels', cf. 'The Scientist as Rebel' ;)
Neither Wiener nor von Neumann nor Shannon, nor anyone else in the 1940s, foresaw the microprocessors that would make digital computers small and cheap and reliable and available to private citizens. Nobody foresaw the Internet or the ubiquitous cell phone. As a result of the proliferation of digital computers in private hands, Wiener's nightmare vision of a few giant computers determining the fate of human societies never came to pass. But other aspects of Wiener's vision of the future are coming true. We see, as he predicted, millions of skilled human workers displaced by machines and sinking into poverty. We see the basis of the wealth of nations moving from the manufacture of goods to the processing of information. We see the beginnings of an understanding of the mysteries of the human brain. We still have much to learn from Wiener's vision
oh and fwiw...
James Gleick: 'Information poses as many challenges as opportunities'
JN: Claude Shannon plays a central role in the book and your portrayal of him is very vivid. One thing I hadn't known was that Shannon's PhD was on genetics viewed in terms of symbolic logic. Was that a surprise to you?

JG: A complete surprise. I knew he had written an astounding master's thesis applying Boolean logic to electrical circuits, but I had no idea about the genetics work. I was thrilled to learn about it, because I knew the connection between information and genetics was going to be a big topic for me. And then it turned out that Shannon's work had not the slightest influence on modern genetics – he was in a world of his own, and the thesis vanished into academic oblivion.

Yet it's a kind of intellectual story I just love. On its idiosyncratic terms Shannon's genetics work was apparently quite brilliant. This was long before anyone had any notion of DNA. "Genes" were as mysterious and hypothetical as atoms were to the ancient Greeks. Shannon said he would "speak as though the genes actually exist", and invented a bunch of arbitrary symbols and proceeded to work out rules for recombination and cross-breeding that we can see, in hindsight, were right on the money. Yet he never published it.
posted by kliuless at 8:32 AM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

The idea of an analog version of information theory is fascinating. Is there anything substantial written about that?
posted by crayz at 8:46 AM on July 11, 2014 [1 favorite]

But then my precious bitcoins will he worthless.
posted by humanfont at 8:48 AM on July 11, 2014

Shannon's discrete information theory has been expanded to work with continuous distributions, not too differently from other domains where having discrete and continuous versions is important. Mostly replacing summations with integrals. The core measure becomes differential entropy denoted with lower case 'h'.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 9:05 AM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

As a result of the proliferation of digital computers in private hands, Wiener's nightmare vision of a few giant computers determining the fate of human societies never came to pass.

Damn shame, if you ask me. This planet could use some centralized optimization. Tell me what to do, Omniac!
posted by Faint of Butt at 9:15 AM on July 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

This planet could use some centralized optimization.
You've obviously never heard of The City of London Corporation, which has been hard at work doing just that since before the Magna Carta. You really should get to know our overlords.
posted by MikeWarot at 12:51 PM on July 11, 2014

the inventor of “cybernetics,”
Well, kind of, but when everyone was using the term cyberspace in the 90's, all I could think of was his 1948 book and the kind of technology available then.
My definition of cyberspace- the place between the anode and the cathode in a vacuum tube.
posted by MtDewd at 1:34 PM on July 11, 2014

How Norbert Wiener invented cybernetics and Brian Eno - "Remembering the late scientific genius who laid the groundwork for the last half-century of art, literature and electronic music... he's responsible for the presence of the word 'cyber' in everyday language. Wiener borrowed the Greek word kubernetes..." :P
posted by kliuless at 8:08 AM on July 12, 2014

^via memail from newmoistness ;) thanks!
posted by kliuless at 8:32 AM on July 12, 2014

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