Thinking Machines in the Physical World

By on August 4th, 2017 in Commentary, Human Impacts, Magazine Articles, Societal Impact

Arthur Winston addressed to attendees of the 2016 IEEE Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century, Melbourne, Australia, held July 13-15, 2016.

Hi, I’m Arthur Winston. I was the Technical Program Committee Chair for the predecessor conference, Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century, that took place in Boston in 2014. I am also a past President of IEEE.

I’m sorry I can’t be with you in person, but I am pleased and honored to welcome you to the 2016 IEEE Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century – Thinking Machines in the Physical World. I would like to share with you personal reflections on Norbert Wiener and his contributions.

I hope you don’t mind but I brought someone along who might be able to help this presentation. Let me introduce you to Norbert Wiener (see Figure 1).

Norbert was a Professor at M.I.T. when I was a Research Assistant and working on my Doctorate. I saw Norbert and was keenly aware of his presence though I was not in his department. He was in Mathematics and I was in Physics.

You will notice that Norbert has a goatee, a little beard and is some-what portly. his stomach sticks out. When he walked, it was more pronounced since he kept his head back. I had heard that he wore bifocals but that the near and far portions of the lens were interchanged so that the distant part was lower leading to this posture.

To get an appreciation for the human side of Wiener, I would like to refer to what I call the Wiener anecdotes. These are events that students and colleagues at M.I.T. noticed and collected about Wiener. There were many anecdotes. I have about 30, though several are just different versions of the same happening. I will relate just a few to give you some idea of them and Wiener.

Quoting Marshall Reber, as Prof. Wiener’s last graduate student and Teaching Assistant, I can relate that not only did he avidly collect the latest “absent minded” Wiener anecdote to report to his students in class but also which one was his favorite just before his unfortunate passing:

The Wiener family, consisting of Norbert, his wife and two young daughters, moved from their house in Belmont to a new house a few blocks away. Naturally Norbert, upon going home from M.I.T. the first day after the move, forgetfully returned to the old homestead to find it empty. While trying to remember where the new house was located he spied a small girl playing nearby on the sidewalk and decided to inquire if she possibly knew to where the Wieners had moved. Patiently the little girl took his hand and replied “Sure Daddy, just follow me!”

Edward C. Barile told me that a professor of his at Northeastern University was a student of Professor Wiener and related this anecdote to his class in 1971:

Professor Wiener had just written down a complicated expression that no one in the class really could follow. So one student raised his hand and said, “Professor, I don’t understand how you got that expression. Could you do it again?”

Wiener thought for a moment and proceeded to write the same expression again on the black board.

The student said “I am sorry but I still don’t understand”.

So Professor Wiener thought some more and after a little while wrote the same expression again.

The student said “My apologies sir, but I still don’t see it.”

Wiener turned to him and said: “Well I don’t know how I can help you. I just derived it 3 different ways for you”.

And Eduando Elizondo told me the following anecdote which occurred in the years 1951–1955 while he was an undergraduate at M.I.T.:

Professor Wiener used to have lunch at Walker Memorial, the main dining hall in East Campus. Frequently he used to join the table where a number of Latin American students were gathered, probably to practice his Spanish language skills. His conversations usually dealt with the music, dance, and culture of South America. Among the facts that he related (which I was not aware of) was that in Paraguay the dominant language is Quechuan (derived from the ancestral Inca language) and not Spanish.

Prof. Wiener used to walk to and from Walker memorial along the “endless corridors” of the M.I.T. buildings, always holding a finger lightly touching the wall shoulder high as he walked.

On one such walk he ran across one of the Latin American students and he stopped to ask some details about the Pachanga dance. When he was finished he hesitated and then asked the student to show him in which direction he had been going, because, as he explained, if he had been walking East he had not eaten lunch and if he had been walking West he had already eaten.

He was aware of these stories or at least of some. I even believed that he deliberately created or fed some of them but my wife differed with me. She was the effective operational head of the M.I.T. Press under Dean Facett, and worked with (Wiener) on some of his books. He would come into her office and ask her to pick a page in a book. He would say, “pick a page, pick any page.” He would then recite what was on the page, word by word, correctly. He had a photographic memory. In any case, my wife believed he acted naturally for Norbert Wiener, not putting it on. She thought that he was actually childlike. In any case, these anecdotes were and are used today to describe Norbert but lovingly.

Sometimes such remarks about someone are meant to be critical and malicious. But not in this case. (Norbert Wiener) was loved as well as respected at M.I.T. These anecdotes gave further credence to the fact that he was a genius, had a photographic memory, liked to talk with people socially, and was absentminded or so focused that he wasn’t always aware of his surroundings.

Norbert was opposed to nuclear weapons by anyone.

One day, a sense of gloom spread over the M.I.T. campus. It was just learned that Russia had successfully tested an HBomb. Norbert was opposed to nuclear weapons by anyone. He had been extremely disturbed by the deaths and destruction meted out in the 2 Japanese cities ending World War II, and these events helped to shape his social conscience.

During the war, many universities engaged in projects of a military nature, funded by the Government. In addition, after World War II, a government-university relationship continued. M.I.T. in particular was a major recipient of funding of projects with potential military value. Some of you may remember or have heard of the famous Building 20 with its radar and electronic device contributions. Most universities and colleges rely heavily on enrollment and tuition. But, if I remember correctly, 50% of the cost for running M.I.T. came from contracts. Norbert was opposed and refused to work on government-funded projects from that time.

Norbert had an ego, liked to talk about his ideas as for example at the famous Macy Conferences. But he was also a learner. He incorporated probability and statistical mechanics such as practiced by Gibbs into his thinking and work. From people such as neuroscientist Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts, he learned about how the brain appears to function and thought of machines that could mimic the brain. He was good at giving credit to his students or to colleagues with whom he worked. However, there was a period in his life in which he unfortunately turned away from his colleagues. It was rumored that this split was due to a fake personal affair manufactured by his wife.

Norbert refused to work on government-funded projects from that time.

While Wiener’s work was highly theoretical, he preferred working where there was a practical application. For example communications, filters, and even an arm that he developed with the Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston – many topics of the conference. During World I, he worked on generating artillery tables and in World War II, he worked on an anti-aircraft system against high speed aircraft. He originated and coined the term cybernetics – the field of communications and control of humans, animals, and machines and incorporating feedback.

Milton Friedman, the American free market economist had a saying that I believe Norbert would agree with — the power to do good is also the power to do harm.

Wiener knew that smart machines, robots, could make life easier in performing certain tasks, particularly in manufacturing. But what about the downside? If it put people out of work and without any other employment, it would be disastrous.

Then humans could put machines, robots to work engaged in fighting other humans – war. Ultimately, machines could be smart enough to engage war themselves on humans. Machines have to be controlled.

Did Norbert Wiener have a reason to worry?

Manufacturing and warehousing have certainly made use of smart machines, robots. Productivity has increased. Some jobs have been eliminated but to a large extent replaced. In the U.S., jobs in the service industry have largely replaced those lost in manufacturing. But these jobs usually result in lower wages. Also, independent of the effect of smart machines, manufacturing has shifted from the U.S. to Mexico and Southeast Asia to take advantage of the lower cost of labor, human machines not necessarily smart machines.

Thinking has already begun in the use of smart machines in war. The U.S. Army’s chief roboticist at the Army Tank Automotive Research, Development, and Engineering Center has been quoted recently stating, “There’s no reason why the first contact with an enemy force should be with a man-platform, because it means that platform is at the greatest risk.”

Machines are continuing to get smarter. I believe IBM has invested 1 billion dollars in WATSON, to find and develop applications for its powerful machine that beat 2 highly skilled humans in the game Jeopardy.

Autonomous, self-driving cars are under development and not only by car manufacturers. I understand that Domino’s Pizza has teamed up with an Australian startup to turn a military robot into the first autonomous pizza delivery vehicle. Now with machine learning and the rebirth of artificial intelligence, machines are getting even smarter. Even Amazon and Google are now offering machine learning programs for subscribers.

South Korea is putting close to a billion dollars into artificial intelligence after Google’s AlphaGo computer program beat Lee Se-dol, a South Korean professional Go player who is ranked second in international titles. He was beaten 4 games to 1. It is said that the Chinese strategy board game has 10 to the 360 possible moves in a typical game, an incomprehensible amount.

All of which leads us to this conference: the 2016 IEEE Conference on Norbert Wiener in the 21st Century – Thinking Machines in the Physical World.

Thank you Norbert Wiener!

Bust of Wiener.


Arthur W. Winston is Director of the Gordon Institute and Research Professor of electrical engineering at Tufts University. He was 2004 President of the IEEE. Email: