Cybernetics

On the night of October 15, 1940, the German air force sent 236 bombers to London. ‘British defences were dismal’. They ‘managed to destroy only two planes’. London, the heart of the British Empire, was under siege.

In Rise of the Machines Thomas Rid explains this moment’s historical significance. ‘For the first time in history, one state had taken an entire military campaign to the skies to break another state’s will to resist’. Survival for Britain, and the Allies, would depend on their ability to engineer a way of shooting those German bombers out of the sky.

This problem triggered a ‘veritable explosion of scientific and industrial research’ which would result in ‘new thinking machines’ capable of making ‘autonomous decisions of life and death.

Rid puts it this way:

Engineers often used duck shooting to explain the challenge of anticipating the position of a target. The experienced hunter sees the flying duck, his eyes send the visual information through nerves to the brain, the hunter’s brain computes the appropriate position for the rifle, and his arms adjust the rifle’s position, even ‘leading’ the target by predicting the duck’s flight path. The split-second process ends with a trigger pull. The shooter’s movements mimic an engineered system: the hunter is network, computer, and actuator in one. Replace the bird with a faraway and fast enemy aircraft and the hunter with an antiaircraft battery, and doing the work of eyes, brain, and arms becomes a major engineering challenge.

This challenge involved configuring the interplay between human and machine (to allow, for instance, a human operator to move an enormous weapon precisely at speed), engineering radar that could detect a plan before a human eye could see it, creating a network that would relay information from a radar to a computational device, building a computer that could predict the path of an enemy plane through the sky and predict where to fire, constructing the apparatus that could transfer the prediction into the operation of a weapon in real-time.

What was going on here? The creation, by a large network of scientists and engineers within a military-industrial system, of machines that could sense, learn, calculate and predict. Machines that could exert control over the material world via ongoing cycles of feedback and learning. In June 1944, the Germans launched V1 rockets across the English channel toward London. The V-1 was ‘a terrifying new German weapon: an entire unmanned aircraft that would dive into its target, not simply drop a bomb’. The first cruise missile.

At this moment, Rid explains

A shrewd, high-tech system lay in wait on the other side o the English Channel, ready to intercept the robot intruders. As the low-flying buzz bombs cruised over the rough waves of the Atlantic coast, invisible and much faster pulses of microwaves gently touched each drone’s skin, 1707 times per second. These microwaves set in motion a complex feedback loop that would rip many of the approaching unmanned flying vehicles out of the sky.

The Allies had engineered a ‘cybernetic’ system. A combination of technological devices that could sense, calculate, predict and execute decisions. These devices included the primitive digital computers.

Following the war, the mathematician Norbert Wiener was a key figure in popularising the idea of ‘cybernetics’. There are three critical concepts in ‘cybernetics’: feedback, learning and control. Cybernetics comes from a Greek word which means ‘to steer’. It articulates a process of exercising control by learning from feedback. A key feature of humans is that we can learn and adjust by using our senses and decision-making capacities. Cybernetics was the effort to construct ‘intelligent machines’ that could also learn. Wiener would often imply that he was central to solving the ‘prediction’ problem during the war.

It is true that Wiener was one of many scientists funded to undertake experiments, and Wiener did propose a mathematical model for predicting the path of an enemy aircraft. He did not however ‘solve’ the prediction problem, his model didn’t work. The lesson here is that complex technological systems are the result of a network of actors. There is rarely any one individual genius who ‘invents’ them. Jennifer Light makes this point emphatically in her study ‘When Computers Were Women’, explaining that while two male engineers often credited with automated ballistics computations during the war, critical to the effort were ‘nearly 200 young women’ who worked as ‘human ‘computers’, performing ballistics calculations during the war’. The first computers were hundreds of female mathematicians.

In 1948, Wiener coined and popularised the term ‘cybernetics’ as the science of ‘control and communication in the animal and the machine’. In short, cybernetics views the state of any system – biological, informational, economic, and political – in terms of the regulation of information. A cybernetic device can sense or collect information, and be programmed to respond to that information. In the case of wartime anti-aircraft defence, a radar detects movement, it tracks an enemy plane across the sky. Information is relayed to a primitive computer, which calculates aircraft trajectory. This calculation is passed on to an anti-aircraft weapon, which fires at the enemy aircraft.

Wiener is a significant figure in the story of cybernetics because he articulated how these computational technologies would reshape industry, society and culture. In his 1950 book, The Human Use of Human Beings: Cybernetics and Society, Wiener made an important historical move by placing ‘cybernetics’ at the heart of what he called the second industrial revolution.

The first industrial revolution bought about new forms of energy, such as steam and electricity created by machines. Harnessing these energy sources enabled the production of a goods on a scale far beyond what humans on their own could make. Wiener claims that in the first industrial revolution the machine acted as an ‘alternative to human muscle’. For example, one of the first applications of the steam engine was to pump water out of mines, a job that had previously been done by humans and animals. Many changes resulted from replacing human muscle with machines – factories emerged, urban labour forces created mass cities, and the demand for raw materials stimulated the growth of plantations and mines in the colonies, and hence rail and shipping networks for transportation.

For Wiener, machines ‘stimulated’ the development of an entire industrial and social system. In the second industrial revolution a new kind of a new kind of machine emerged - the computer which extended machines to the idea of communication. This is how he put it, ‘for a large range of computation work, [machines] have shown themselves much faster and more accurate than the human computer’. Wiener thought that computers would eventually communicate with and modulate a range of instruments. These instruments would act as ‘sense organs’. They would feed information back to the computer, so that it could make decisions and learn about its environment. Computers in factories would be programmed to generate and collect data to give feedback on production processes.

Thomas Rid makes the point that ‘Wiener didn’t change what the military did, the military changed what Wiener did’. What does mean? He means that Wiener’s peripheral involvement in wartime efforts to create machines that could sense, calculate, predict and execute decisions led him to perceive the development of a new kind of society. A society organised around devices and systems that were cybernetic – able to control their environment through processes of feedback and learning. Able to make collect, store and process information in ways that were once confined to the human.

Wiener and the other mid-century engineers, scientists and thinkers involved in the development of cybernetics imagined how media technologies would usher in complicated relationships between human forms of sense-making and decision-making and the capacity of computational devices to simulate, augment and even exceed those human capacities.