cybernetics. silicon. Turing. embryology. mesoderm. ectoderm. Norbert Wiener. control. email filter. autonomy. Thomas Mann. Bill Joy.
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Essay 15. On menage a trois in the Stone Age
I made a noteworthy discovery in the essay by Bill Joy Why the Future Doesn't Need Us : the words cybernetics and Norbert Wiener could not be found there by the FIND function of my MS Word. Cybernetics has been coming to a postmodern steady state of flow where newer information and ideas are flushing out the older ones, very often the same but forgotten, reinvented, and recombined. The time of my youth was millennia ago and the fifty year old cybernetics of its founders became a subject for historians, like alchemy.
I am a chemist but I have been thinking about cybernetics and computers for almost half a century.
Around 1956, after the end of the Stalin era, the “bourgeois pseudo-science of cybernetics” was exonerated, its sins absolved, and it was allowed to be studied in Russia. I was among the listeners to the very first lectures on cybernetics in my native city of Kharkov. The brilliant lecturer, Yuri Sokolovsky, was a professor of the local military academy.
Soon the major books of the founders of cybernetics were published in Russia. As a chemistry student, I attended the Sokolovsky seminar at my Technical University and made several presentations myself, including the design for a reading machine and the mechanism of nervous impulse.
Since then, I have been watching the developments in the area. I had my own ideas of a universal thinking machine based on the scale of sets, did some modest programming, but saw a computer for the first time only in America. Under the guidance and with generous help of Ulf Grenander, I got some working experience with MATLAB.
Today cybernetics for most people means computers but in the beginning it meant more, and it still means for some even more than in the beginning, see Principia Cybernetica site, where cybernetics is regarded as an aspect of general systems theory. The terminology has not yet been established but I would prefer the science of complexity as the name for the entire area. The reason why cybernetics is associated with computers is probably that nothing complex (and often nothing at all) can be done today without computers. It seems that the initial meaning of cybernetics has been lost, which is quite natural, but it was definitely not just about computers.
As far as definitions are concerned, Norbert Wiener defined cybernetics as "the science of communication and control in the animal and the machine". One of the recent definitions is only slightly expanded: "the science of communication and control in the animal, machine, society and in individual human beings." The machine seems to be out of rank here, but it fits as an extension of humans. I would specify even further: "humans and machines made in their image," i.e., performing their function of communication and control.
Computer chips are made of silicon, a chemical element that constitutes about 28% of the lithosphere, the external solid layer of the earth. In rocks and sand only oxygen is more abundant (47%) than silicon.
Our computers, so to speak, still exist in their Stone Age. They are rock-solid tools made of stone and for this reason they are sturdy and reliable hardware. They are in the very beginning of their evolution and, since we are inseparable from them, they drag us partly back to our own Stone Age.
In 1936 Alan Turing invented an imaginary (virtual) computer known as the Universal Turing Machine. Remarkably, any digital computer that we know today is still equivalent to it in the sense that both can perform the same task. Even more remarkably—and that was the core of Turing's argument—the Turing Machine is roughly equivalent to a human with a lot of paper, pencil, eraser, instructions (program), and enough time to spend. The necessary condition of the equivalence is that the human who impersonates the machine should neither think, nor make errors, nor try to do something on his own, but just follow, with idiotic obstinacy, the rules and instructions. The rules are simple, but the instructions can be very complex.
On such harsh conditions, a thinking computer is contradiction in terms. In order to compute one does not need to think. Thinking (although not much sophisticated, either) is needed for programming, i.e., writing instructions to perform a known procedure. The highest IQ is still required for inventing a new procedure, setting a new goal, and formulating the purpose of a new program, often in plain language, i.e., doing something for which instructions do not exist. It is hard to require a sincere and spontaneous human initiative from a machine. Unless it is so programmed, why should machine care about humans if it has plenty on its own machine agenda?
The Turing Machine does not care about time and speed of its work and it makes no sense to employ it. It is a real Stone Age technology. We all have developed from the Stone Age, however, like our bodies developed from a single cell very much like a primitive bacteria, and our roots deserve respect. The Stone Age people had all their magnificent future (i.e., our times, the best of all) ahead and the Turing Machine, too, heralded a new era of machine progress toward brilliance.
Computer as we know it is a non-thinking automaton with inputs, outputs, some modest hardware (the bulky desktop PC is almost empty), and the program supplied by thinking humans.
Thinking: what a slippery ground! There are different things, all called thinking.
I have witnessed the waves of hope and disappointment in artificial intelligence, fragmentation of the debates on the nature of mind, the escape from general problems to highly specialized arcane micro-problems, and, most recently, its impressive commercialization. I believe that there had been absolutely no reason to expect computer (as we know it) to be as intelligent as humans because, according to Turing (more exactly, the Church-Turing thesis; [the link is very much worth reading]), computer could only imitate a very dumb human and vice versa.
So much information has been spewed away on computer printers about computers that whatever I said could be either technical or trivial. It seems, however, that we have not yet exhausted the topic and still do not share a common understanding of the computer revolution.
Concluding Chapter X of his The Human Use of Human Beings and recalling Samuel Butler (see Essay 6), Norbert Wiener noted that "...machine's danger to society is not from the machine itself but from what man makes of it ..." It was written long before PC and mass computerization.
I have some doubts about that. Today I am less seriously taking warnings about "danger to society," even coming from Norbert Wiener because it has always been the favorite tool of all ultra-conservatives, fundamentalists, and dictators, as well as terrorists. Society survives any change, updating its spreadsheet of gain and loss, and evolution cannot be stopped. The danger threatens only the society as we know it. The question is what kind of change can we see today and expect tomorrow?
If I say that I believe that nothing can be compared with computer in its effect on human evolution, this my statement will be a good example of cyber-banality. I see, however, a narrow crack to squeeze in something, probably, not patently trite.
The reason for the special role of computers, in my opinion, is not the novelty of computers and the swiftness of their invasive impact but their hidden antiquity reflected in the term cybernetics. I see their evolutionary roots going far back into pre-history. The desktops and laptops may be new but what they do is something deeply rooted in human nature. Well, moving in space is even more deeply rooted in our animal nature. Isn't computer just a better way to do mental work, as automobile is a better way to move around at high speed?
An analogy comes to my mind from embryology. When the single cell of the fertilized egg starts division, hundreds of the multiplying cells first stay together in a lump similar to mulberry (it is called morula, from the Latin for mulberry ) and later arrange in a hollow sphere or disk called blastula. The sphere caves in, like a punched tennis ball, and makes a double-walled cup, gastrula. Between the two layers, ectoderm (outer) and endoderm (inner) , a third layer, called mesoderm, develops.
In human embryo, the layers have the following future:
Endoderm will form the
lining of lungs, tongue, tonsils, urethra and
Mesoderm will form the
muscles, bones, lymphatic tissue, spleen,
Ectoderm will form the
skin, nails, hair, lens of eye, lining of
the internal and external ear, nose, sinuses,
mouth, anus, tooth enamel, pituitary
gland, mammary glands, and all parts of the nervous
system. The future nervous system soon differentiates
from the ectoderm as neural tube.
The evolutionary meaning of this analogy is that the complexity of an organism or any complex system develops by unfolding a simple starting germ, so that the final abundance of components can be traced back to the simple beginning.
Simple initial components differentiate further by splitting, adding, inserting, erasing, and moving—functions strikingly similar to that of the word processor. The embryo develops like a novel from its sketch, and to the novel we go.
Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was one of the most complex and intellectually refined writers of the twentieth century. I have not studied his life and creative method, but it seems to me that some of his images come from abstract science. Thus, in The Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man (1954) he casually echoes the Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz's concept of time. The time of writing his monumental novel Joseph and his Brothers (1934-1944) followed and partly coincided with fast developments in mathematical logic and I can hear some distant repercussions in the book.
Thomas Mann takes the ready germ of the story of Joseph from Genesis and unfolds it into a long multi-volume novel of somewhat overbearing complexity by essentially inserting imaginary episodes and characters between the expanded traditional ones, similarly to embryogenesis, so that the parts of the novel can be traced back to the original account.
Thus, a long, intricate, and loquacious part develops from the following terse account :
there passed by Midianites merchantmen: and they drew
and lifted up Joseph out of the pit, and sold Joseph to
the Ismaelites for twenty pieces of silver: and they
brought Joseph into Egypt. (Genesis,
The backtracking of computer to the abacus is shallow if taken literally: there is nothing in the computer from beads and wires. But computer definitely originates from the procedure of counting, and this is why abacus is listed as its ancestor. Counting, in turn, is part of trade and from this ancient aspect of human existence computing germinates. Control, however, comes from even much older one, shared by humans with other social animals ruled by the alpha male, not to mention the central nervous system.
Operations with symbols require incomparably less energy than operations with matter. Control, the central subject of cybernetics, has always been an art of producing big consequences by small causes and giving orders in a quiet voice, even whisper or gesture—in business, politics, or on the battlefield.
Inanimate physical nature has no idea what symbol is and, for that matter, has no ideas at all. It deals with direct interactions, mostly between two objects. Nature is honest and straightforward, or, as Albert Einstein put it, God is subtle but not malicious. If so, life with its chase, fight, mating, hiding, bluff, and mimicry is godless.
Cybernetics deals with a triplet: input, output, and control. Its elementary structure is T-shaped: information flowing from A to B (or back) is controlled (modified, processed, modulated, switched) by C. This ménage à trois seems to me the central idea of cybernetics, and control can be both subtle and malicious.
In the novel about Joseph, in the chapter compellingly entitled Threefold Exchange, Thomas Mann describes a subtle and malicious trick that Joseph's enemy Dudu plays on both Joseph and Mut-em-enet, Potiphar's wife, in order to bring them together for the sake of Joseph's peril. Iago achieves a similar effect with Othello and Desdemona by splitting them apart. Both Dudu and Iago control the interaction between the couples.
A chemist controls the honest interaction between the components by varying temperature and catalyst. A villain controls the interaction by disinformation.
It seems like a rare coincidence that the same term cybernetics, with essentially the same meaning, was independently invented in 1838 by André Marie Ampère and in 1948 by Norbert Wiener. To me it confirms that cybernetics is a very ancient subject comprising various situations with the external interference in information processing: government, steering, driving, politics, media, management, and communication, all of them including manipulation of the "natural" or "direct" course of things. Cybernetics, in other words, is about the non-physical world. Or, if you wish, it is an extra chapter of physics which is necessary for applying physics to life, intelligence, and society—systems of high complexity irreducible to equations.
The brain, helmsman, driver, and governor—functions that contribute to the semantics of the term cybernetics CubernhthV (kybernetes: navigator, steersman, governor)—cannot leave the body, ship, vehicle, and nation (actually, Wiener meant the flyball governor of the steam engine) to negotiate with external forces on their own. They try to outsmart the laws of physical, biological, and human nature in order to survive and win. This is a truly primary layer of the embryo of civilization. I would not characterize it as mesoderm, however. The brain and nervous system grow between the organism and the world, from the ectoderm, i.e., from the interface between the organism and the world.
The brain is the controlling C of the figure. It mediates the inputs A and outputs B in a "threefold exchange." It warps the direct and honest interaction between the world and the organism, which would, most probably, kill the organism. It makes behavior deceitful and cunning but less deadly. Brain arbitrates a deal between the individual and environment, spreading the time scale of the deal beyond the present moment. The flyball governor of the steam engine maintains the speed constant by manipulating the steam pressure. The governor of the state navigates through the variations of the political pressure.
In the embryological key, people started doing some computing in the form of transportation.
Kill a deer in the woods and bring
it home for cooking.
NOTE. Ka was different from Ba, soul, which could freely roam the earth. The subject, however, is much more complex and my use of the terms is rather arbitrary.
The Turing Machine can be implemented by a large warehouse where computation is done by placing (corresponds to writing) or removing (corresponds to erasing) copies of two objects (corresponding to 0 and 1) , on and from the shelving, according to a book of instructions.
Transportation of inanimate things was the very beginning of computation. Unlike computer programming, transportation has to deal with:
The use of the abacus cut down on the extent of all four components and reduced handling the Ka of the objects to moving the beads back and forth.
Like symbols in the computers made of stone, or like the beads in the abacus, the Things cannot spontaneously change their place, appear out of nothing or disappear, unless they are alive.
Computation deals with two things: 0 and 1. While the airplane transports passengers and their bags, burning a lot of fuel, the airline computer transports zeros and ones (the stuff of their Ka) from one place to another within itself and with a minuscule energy spent for each transportation. The computing in an airline computer has the actual transportation as result. Now a suitcase has a double existence: as suitcase and as an entry in a computer, like the goods of the Midianite merchant in Joseph's inventory, and so are the jet liner, the passenger, and even France.
What is the difference, then, between Joseph's calculations, abacus, modern card size calculator, and computer? Why is it not enough to see computers as mere tools, definitely less harmful than cars and airplanes? Why not to regard computers as just extensions of our brain, like pliers, hammer, and screwdriver are extensions of our hands?
The physical interactions are direct and "honest" in the Einstein's sense. In the physical contact between the tool and the object, say, hammer (A) and nail (B), there is no C in the cybernetic triplet.
This is still true for the work of a programmer: there is nothing between the young computer geek and the computer. This is why programming can became an obsession, like gambling, and I would like to make a short digression on that.
It is not too often that young people are drawn to science and technology. The early interest in complex subjects is not typical, while interest in sports and entertainment is.
Programming and games, however, are not the only way to spend time with computer.
In the social system (I include technology and environment in social system), the computers become a new organ or, rather, tissue, omnipresent like blood vessels and muscles in a living organism. Unlike telephone that does not process information, computers wedge in between C, A, and B and create an additional interface: human-human, Thing-Thing, and human-Thing, so that the direct interaction becomes less typical than the indirect one.
The world has to filter through computers before it reaches a mind, natural or artificial, and the mind is separated from the outputs in the same way.
I am sure that a determined researcher can show how word processor changes the style of literature as compared with the quill and the typewriter.
The simplest and highly typical example of the new situation is the email filter that we use to guard off the spam. There are filters for much more sophisticated control, for example, SuperScout , with artificial intelligence capabilities that promise to prevent sexual harassment, protect company image, and much more. The document processing software, such as Autonomy , takes care of internal information. It promises to understand emails, voice, text, documents, web pages, people ("profiling users basing on the ideas in the text they read or write") and, in general, as its motto says, "read between the lines". See also Cycorp.
Autonomy Corporation, as I can conclude from advertisement, makes a probabilistic software that is never error-free and it honestly states so. I somewhat misanthropically believe that it will compete very well with average employee performing the same functions, especially, in the government. Nevertheless, it is yet another step in the growing development of "interfacial society" that started with multiple choice answering systems at banks, telephone and other companies, and the government, mostly very useful and efficient, and only occasionally frustrating.
With software like Autonomy, computers can soon become not only the generators of mammoth government documents like the national budget or an independent counsel report, but also their sole in-full readers.
The Smart Tags of Windows XP that give filtered information on words in the text is the most recent example of the control over control and the oncoming takeover of control by computers, in this case, in the name of the Microsoft's well-being.
This is the normal process of evolution from simple forms toward complexity that we can observe on biological evolution (recapitulated on high speed in embryogenesis), history, and creative writing. How long can complexification last and whether it can be reversed is an intriguing question. but not for this Essay. I believe that the substitution of answering system for a human bank clerk is already such a simplification. This, however, calls for the specter of Bill Joy's Why the Future Doesn't Need Us . But first, multiculturalism has to embrace the culture of Things and autonomous cybernetic systems, which may take longer than the lifespan of multiculturalism.
Here we come to the core of the new situation.
The tools, from the screwdriver to the railway train, are Things. Computer is a Thing, too, but not just a Thing. The Things attach the humans to the cycles of their business metabolism, and so does computer as hardware. Software as Thing is a different matter.
The new evolutionary turn brought about by computers is that computers make commercialization ( i.e. turning into Thing for sale) of control not simply possible (as happens with humans in case of corrupt officials) but typical and independent of the intent of human users. Computers control the communication and the control itself not because people use them in an inappropriate or dangerous, as Norbert Wiener anticipated, way but because they are mass-made and universally spread as an interface, a new social tissue, and because they are themselves Things, i.e., a form of life (life form).
Operons, i.e., the three-point units of control (from switches to brains), form a triumvirate with gene and meme (see Essay 6) in the super-system developing right before our eyes where genes, memes, and operons are Things for sale. Things for sale propagate their blueprint memes like oak propagates its genes through the acorns.
If computer were simply a counting, computing device, a super-abacus, there would be as little problem with the new tool as with a better mousetrap. A new tool cannot radically change our lives. But a new organ, a whole new biochemistry and physiology, a new source of energy, levitation, teleportation, and a new principle of social organization would mean a radical evolutionary step.
Computer is not just a computing tool but a cybernetic, i.e., controlling device with its software made outside, in the business cycle. It is a kind of a social formation, function, organ, or tissue, in short, subsystem. This double identity of the computer, in my opinion, comes from the evolutionary difference between the functions of computation and control.
Computer that computes a function is a computing device. Computer that decides the fate of an email, employee, or idea is a control device that deeply interferes with the evolutionary fate of components of a complex system. We cannot blame humans for using computers anymore because "the railways ride the people." (see Essay 6).
Rights come with responsibilities. To make a piece of software a Thing for sale was a sharp revolutionary rather than evolutionary turn toward the society without responsibilities and we are going to face the consequences in the sphere of rights.
It is most extraordinary that the new turn has been accomplished with the computers of the Stone Age.
Our brain cells consist mostly of water with addition of fat and proteins. It remains to be seen whether we need to manufacture chips from mayonnaise in order to make it to the next stage where computation is achieved by trial and error, learning, invention, and inspiration.
It is easy to imagine a computer that we do not yet know: It not only makes errors—this is the easiest part of being human—but tries various approaches, fails, wins, disobeys instructions, changes them, and evolves. In other words, it is an equivalent of a human of high IQ and independent character.
As Thomas Mann noted, "Part of the game we play with life consists in relations of human beings one to another." For better or worse, no more: it is going to be ménage à trois.
Page created: 2001 Revised: 2016
Essays 1 to 56 : http://spirospero.net/essays-complete.pdf
Essays 57 to 60: http://spirospero.net/LAST_ESSAYS.pdf
Essay 60: http://spirospero.net/artandnexistence.pdf